Family Foundations in Vermont Quietly Manage Vast Holdings

Source: Seven Days 

They have addresses near unassuming town squares or off dirt roads in quiet corners of Vermont. Charitable family foundations with millions of dollars in assets are often based where few neighbors even know they exist.

“In a place like Vermont, there are many people who do not want to be known in their communities as wealthy,” said Christine Zachai, who runs a philanthropy consulting business in Montpelier. “They want to be able to go to the store in Carhartts and gardening shoes and be able to pick up milk and a loaf of bread without being asked for money. They want to be generous without having all their neighbors know to what degree they’re being generous.”

A Seven Days review of the latest U.S. Internal Revenue Service records shows there are at least 301 nonprofit foundations registered in Vermont, jointly controlling $780.8 million in assets as of 2016. Some of those are associated with a library or a school, a business or a historical society, and aren’t family-run. But many of the best endowed were started by a wealthy business executive, bear a family name and help multiple generations of well-to-do relatives funnel philanthropic dollars.

The Pomerleau family foundation has $2.4 million in assets. Ben & Jerry’s cofounders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield control foundations with $4 million and $2 million respectively. Former Keurig Green Mountain mogul Bob Stiller is sitting on $22.9 million, according to 2016 IRS documents.

Less well-known families run foundations, too. Some have deep roots in Vermont, while others made their fortunes elsewhere. They support an array of causes, including environmental groups, food banks, contemporary art … and Thomas Jefferson memorabilia.

Foundations are governed by a board of directors, often composed of family members, and are required to detail their assets and donations annually. Other than that, there are few rules. Generally, foundations must spend an average of 5 percent of their assets every year.

Some foundation officials take no pay. Others earn six-figure salaries for doling out chunks of their family’s fortune: Unlike traditional charities, family foundations enjoy more flexibility in accounting for their administrative and overhead costs. A recent example: President Donald Trump has drawn criticism for using money from his foundation to make political donations, pay legal fees and buy large portraits of himself.

“The private foundation arena has had abuses — ‘I’m going to set it up, fund it and have my son be the executive director, and I’m going to pay him a boatload of money in that role,'” said Burlington estate planner Mark Melendy. “But for the vast majority of people, it really is in my mind summed up in one word: control. Control of where the assets are going to go, and control of what the assets are going to be.”

Here is a look at several of the family foundations that control lots of cash in the Green Mountain State.


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