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Editorial: The Byrne Foundation’s Good Works


Saturday, September 16, 2017

There’s doing well, and then there’s doing good. The Byrne family of Etna has combined the two to an exceptional degree, sharing its wealth through The Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation in a myriad of ways that have enriched life in the Upper Valley beyond mere enumeration.

The fortune that fuels the foundation was accumulated by the late Jack Byrne, the turnaround specialist whom the legendary investor Warren Buffett once called “the Babe Ruth of insurance.” By Jack Byrne’s own account, however, the presiding genius of the private foundation has been from the beginning his wife, Dorothy, whose generosity is perhaps matched only by her zeal for privacy.

According to the Byrne Foundation’s annual filings with the Internal Revenue Service, it has supported worthy causes large and small in the Upper Valley to the tune of $72 million since 2003. As staff writer John Lippman reported last Sunday in a profile of the foundation’s impact on the community, Dartmouth College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock health system have benefited in big ways from Byrne philanthropy. But so have nonprofits with different missions and different constituencies, such as Twin Pines Housing Trust and the Haven homeless shelter.

And the Byrne Foundation has thrown a lifeline to countless small nonprofits that struggle to raise money in the shadow of bigger Upper Valley charities. As anyone who has been associated with such a small nonprofit can attest, a timely infusion of a relatively small amount of money — $2,000 or $5,000 — can make all the difference between keeping the doors open or closing up shop.

The Byrne Foundation’s unusual, if not unique, operating style is well-suited to small outfits that cannot afford grant writers and development specialists. Usually, a simple letter is sufficient to make the case for a grant from the Byrne Foundation, which also dispenses with the time-consuming follow-up many foundations require to demonstrate that the money was put to effective use. That honor system has occasionally been abused, as in the recent scandal involving misuse of money by Project VetCare, a Hanover-based charity that received a total of $880,000 from the Byrne Foundation. But we suspect that overall the lack of bureaucracy has made Byrne Foundation money go further and have a bigger impact than if it were more conventionally managed.

It is also refreshing that in a day when big charitable donors more than ever seek the limelight that the publicity-shy Dorothy Byrne goes out of her way to avoid it. Perhaps the purest form of charity is performed by those who seek no public acclaim in bestowing it. 

But as Lippman also reported, there is considerable unease in the  Upper Valley nonprofit community about the future. That’s because Dorothy Byrne is believed to be in her 80s and the foundation lacks an endowment sufficient to generate income to be disbursed at the multimillion level of giving that has been maintained since 2007. Instead, the annual IRS reports show that from the beginning, the foundation has been funded through the sale of Byrne-controlled assets and cash donations that are then charitably disbursed. Robert Snyder, a director of the foundation and its longtime accountant, told Lippman that the pattern of giving will not change, but that’s not quite a blanket assurance that things will continue as they have been. 

As such, this perhaps serves as a wakeup call for nonprofits that depend on the Byrne Foundation to fund part of their annual operations to begin building bridges to a new generation of Upper Valley philanthropists who may be called on to do good on a grand scale, as The Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation has done and continues to do.