Open to bold ideas

Like many philanthropists, Charles Dyson (1909-97), founder of the Millbrook-based Dyson Foundation, thought he should give something back. “We were making a little more money than we expected, and we were not giving as much as we should,” wrote the pioneer in leveraged buyouts upon launching the foundation in 1957.

Since its founding, the family-operated Dyson Foundation has dispensed hundreds of millions of dollars for education, the arts and culture, medical research, government reorganization and regional studies for improving life in the Hudson Valley and (initially) New York City.

The foundation’s assets currently stand at about $245 million. Believed to be the largest private foundation currently supporting activities almost exclusively within the region, it dispensed $18.6 million last year in the Hudson Valley.

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By comparison, Kingston’s home-grown Klock Foundation, established by the Klock family after its sale of the Daily Freeman in 1966, has assets of just under $5 million. Earlier this year the Dyson Foundation partnered with Hudson River Ventures of Kingston to support Rondout Creek rehab in Kingston after Hurricane Irene and a rail trail study for the county. HRV, founded in 2011 by Sean Eldridge of Shokan, is a small business investment fund that supports development in the mid-Hudson with grants ranging from $50,000 to $500,000. Eldridge, 27, husband of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, has expressed interest in running for Congress in the 19th District.

The Dyson Foundation’s philosophy as demonstrated by its donations seems to be that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.

The foundation’s earliest projects under the direction of Charles Dyson — his late daughter Anne succeeded him — focused primarily on scholarships to college students and support for the arts in New York City. Dyson, born of modest means, was the first member of his family to graduate from college. He believed strongly in the value of education.

One of the foundation’s signature recent achievements was its early and critical involvement with the Walkway Over the Hudson project. Numerous ideas for reuse of the 1889 bridge at Poughkeepsie had been advanced after the 1974 fire that ended rail traffic, but it took a public-private coalition to get things moving. The Dyson Foundation was an essential component.

“There was some risk on our part,” recalled foundation CEO Diana Gurieva. “We funded the engineering studies [to the tune of $2 million] to determine if the bridge was structurally sound. If the answer came back no, well … ”

The engineering studies encouraged a federal contribution for design work and marketing which in turn produced some $40 million in state funding for actual construction of the Walkway. The Dyson Foundation has backed its initial investment in the Walkway with another $15 million to date, including purchase of property to provide for an elevator on the eastern terminus.

“We believed in the vision,” Gurieva said. “It has become a wonderful recreational opportunity and a world-class tourist destination.” With Dyson Foundation support, the Walkway has been connected to the Dutchess County rail-trail, and plans are under way to connect it to an extended Ulster rail-trail.

Gurieva said the foundation takes pride in being responsive, and while it abides by strict guidelines it can be flexible and pro-active when necessary. “When Irene and Lee hit, we came up with an emergency assistance plan within a week, got unanimous board approval and moved $600,000 out the door,” she said.

Absent an emergency, review of the hundreds of requests the foundation receives every year is rigorous. “We have an interactive questionnaire, beginning with the question, ‘Am I eligible?’” Gurieva said.

The foundation CEO said Dyson is clear about its priorities. “We don’t give money to certain organizations,” she said. “We don’t give money to individuals or businesses.”

The priorities have evolved over the years. These days the foundation is more involved in social engineering for those “marginalized by society.” It has done projects to improve schools in six counties. The foundation has a particular concern about migrant workers in the region.

But it would appear a bold new idea will get the attention of staff and the six-member board of directors, headed by family member Rob Dyson. Ulster County’s plan to convert an abandoned grade school in Kingston to an adjunct community college site, for instance, resulted in a $500,000 donation from the foundation. Other big-ticket donations in the region include $347,000 for Family of Woodstock, $300,000 for the Kingston-based Center for Creative Education, $195,000 for Scenic Hudson, $100,000 for Rural Ulster Preservation Company, and $102,500 for Ulster Literacy Association.

The foundation funds management training programs for non-profits and other eligible organizations, works to help organizations drive down debt, and sometimes loans or grants money for general operational support. Rigorous review is the rule.

Gurieva said the foundation usually distributes more than the minimum five percent of assets required by law. Last year, that threshold was exceeded by about 50 percent. The foundation spends about $2 million a year on administration.

Gerald Benjamin, whose regional think tank in New Paltz has been a recipient of Dyson Foundation funding, characterizes Dyson as one of those “smart foundations that use their money in a focused way in accord with a defined substantive policy agenda to encourage the development and consideration of alternatives to the status quo that others in the community won’t or can’t conceive or consider.” The foundation will fund unconventional thinkers and doers with whom it identifies, said Benjamin. It is also “approachable by and open to those who find them.”

Among the areas the foundation intends to explore going forward is closer cooperation and coordination with other regional foundations and entities, Gurieva said.

The Dyson Foundation can be contacted at (845) 677-9611 or by e-mail at info@dyson.org.

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