U fellow will head McKnight Foundation

V. Paul

The road to giving passed through an urban landscape of city politics, neighborhood policy and community building, leading one University researcher to head a $1.9 billion foundation.
Rip Rapson, a senior fellow in the University’s Design Center for American Urban Landscape, was named Wednesday to be the next president of the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation.
Rapson takes the helm of an organization credited for supporting local arts, social and environmental issues. The foundation is expected to dole out $88 million in grants in 1999.
The foundation is also in the midst of redefining its grant-giving priorities and its relationship with the communities it services.
“One of the qualities I bring to this job is having experience in a variety of perspectives,” Rapson said. “Those multiple perspectives come together in The McKnight Foundation in a way they don’t in other environments.”
Foundation officials expect Rapson to take up the 46-year-old foundation’s reworked grant-giving agenda. Board members, most of whom are direct descendants of founders William and Maude McKnight, wanted to bring the foundation closer to the Twin Cities communities and focus its attention on programs related to children and families.
“That’s what he will be doing as one of his urgent priorities,” said Sylvia Paine, McKnight communications officer. “Rip is going to come into it. It still needs more definition.”
Rapson’s experience includes a melange of legal, political and institutional forays into community building, earning the foundation’s confidence in his ability to accomplish its priorities.
He was one of the founders of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, and as deputy mayor of Minneapolis, he worked on children and family issues, Paine said.
“Trying to determine exactly what that means and how it affects giving and where it will take them in the future is a very tricky course to steer,” Rapson said. “This is not a foundation that thinks by simply giving money it can accomplish a social purpose. It’s got to go a step further and think how organizations could work collaboratively to make sure real change occurs.”
At the Design Center, Rapson directed the progress of its Community Connections Project with the center’s director, William Morrish. His work there involved policy-making that incorporated multiple groups working toward similar goals. Translating his experiences with the center to his future in his new position will benefit both Rapson and the foundation, Morrish said.
“I think grant giving will become a process when things are linked together rather than just only giving to individual objects or organizations,” he said. “Money can be used to help connect people.”
Money actually connected Rapson to the foundation before his hiring as president. His University fellowship was funded by a McKnight grant. The foundation provided the money for him to do his work; now it’s taking him as repayment with interest.
Their interest in him stems from his diverse experience — working at the street level closely with neighborhoods, and in a larger context, developing policy that affects entire regions, Paine said.
“It’s a rarity to have someone who not only understands those two scales but how they are connected and how they help each other,” Morrish said. “I think his new role at the foundation is perfect because this is what foundations can do.”
Rapson assumes his new role on Aug. 16. His first steps are to become familiar with the foundation’s staff and board members and to become acclimated to the community’s expectations of him and the foundation.
“I think my first job is to benefit as much as I can from that collective knowledge and experience,” he said.
Foundations officials agree. Although he was hired for his experience, Rapson’s entry into philanthropy will include a firm schooling in the ways of giving.
“He has not been a full-time employee of a foundation before and philanthropy is an odd business,” Paine said. “He’s done his homework … but he still has got a lot to learn.”