The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation

The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation approached RPA for strategic planning services as it prepared for significant growth in assets and grantmaking during the early phase of development. The Foundation, with assets of approximately $1.2 billion, is one of the largest foundations in Michigan and one of the 100 largest U.S. foundations.

Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. was the founder and owner of the Buffalo Bills football team. He maintained active philanthropic interests in Buffalo, New York; Detroit, Michigan (where he lived); and elsewhere. He was an active and generous donor during his lifetime, supporting a wide range of causes. In addition to personal gifts, he gave through the Buffalo Bills Youth Foundation and a medical research foundation that operated from 2001 to 2009. Much of his giving was directed to youth, education, sports and fitness and basic human needs. He also supported the work of caregivers and end-of-life care. Mr. Wilson was known to invest in people and supported the causes and organizations of people he knew. Additionally, his widow Mrs. Mary Wilson is an active philanthropist and civic leader.

The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation was established in 2011, and grew significantly after Mr. Wilson’s passing in March 2014 and the sale of the football team. Mr. Wilson gave the Foundation’s trustees broad latitude to develop and guide its mission and strategies. One trustee described it this way: “Ralph gave us a blank canvas. He did not draw a portrait, but instead selected the artists and gave them brushes.” All trustees have deep, personal knowledge of Mr. Wilson’s prior philanthropic activities and preferences and intend for the Foundation to reflect his priorities and legacy.

In 2015, the Foundation approached Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors for help in developing a strategy that would lay the groundwork to guide the foundation. To ensure we could approach this task with the best understanding of Ralph C. Wilson’s life and philanthropic vision, the RPA team conducted an extensive discovery process. We scoured the presses to read all available information that shed light on Mr. Wilson’s values, work, and personality. The team also spent hours interviewing those who knew Mr. Wilson best – his four hand-selected, lifetime trustees. Based on our findings, we developed a donor legacy statement, identified  the major giving areas, and articulated values to guide the foundation’s work.

Once the trustees had this in place, RPA continued to further refine the giving strategy by conducting a landscape analysis of the geographical areas that the foundation would be serving. We spent weeks in Detroit and Buffalo, meeting with stakeholders from all backgrounds – foundation leaders, Mr. Wilson’s previous business and giving partners, and philanthropy professionals. Through our conversations with approximately 100 stakeholders, we gathered input to shape a foundation strategy that was reflective to the unique needs of the region.  We also conducted an extensive literature review to draw from best practices, trends, and critical data to inform the strategies.

The Foundation will have a limited lifespan of 20 years. It was Mr. Wilson’s intent that the trustees he selected to steward the Foundation now could stay involved for the duration of its activities. The foundation is guided by three key values reflecting Mr. Wilson’s legacy — outcomes, teamwork and innovation. Throughout the Foundation’s limited lifespan, Mr. Wilson’s trustees will continue to honor his legacy through innovative projects and impactful giving. RPA was honored to play a part in shaping the early efforts of a foundation that have a transformative impact on the regions and issues that were most important to Mr. Wilson.