Byrne Family Philanthropy Has Given $72 Million Since 2003; Can It Continue?

By John Lippman

Valley News Business Writer

Published: 09-10-2017 1:37 AM

Hanover — There was the overhead projector for Hartford High School’s Friday morning assemblies and the new roof for the Parish Players’ Eclipse Grange Theatre building in Thetford.

There have been funds for restoration projects at the Enfield Shaker Museum, a six-figure sum to help buy a low-income housing complex for Twin Pines Housing Trust in West Lebanon, hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual support for the Haven homeless shelter in White River Junction and millions toward the establishment of a new palliative care and hospice facility at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon.

When it comes to giving money to nonprofit organizations, to schools, for medical research and private social welfare programs in the Upper Valley, there are few causes that haven’t been helped — sometimes substantially — by The Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation.

The private foundation’s grants each year help literally hundreds of community organizations across the Upper Valley, making the two sides of the Connecticut River a fortunate landscape in the realm of private charity.

Founded by Etna residents Dorothy Byrne and her husband, the late insurance industry titan John J. (Jack) Byrne, to focus on making financial bequests for cancer research, the Dartmouth College community and “general philanthropy” in the Upper Valley, the foundation has given away more than $72 million since 2003, according to the organization’s annual reports to the Internal Revenue Service.

In 2016 alone the foundation gave away $11.9 million, with the vast majority of it going to 358 nonprofits in the Upper Valley.

The year before, in 2015, the foundation gave $11.7 million, most of it to 323 nonprofits in the Upper Valley. (A small percentage of the donations goes to schools, churches, medical research and social programs outside the Upper Valley.)

At the center of The Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation is Dorothy Byrne, a woman who tightly guards her privacy and shuns publicity despite the prominence of her family’s name throughout the region.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

To those who know Dorothy Byrne, that is not surprising.

“What her donation files will show you is a really deep commitment to two things: one is this area, her home, because she believes it is community that is at the heart of the well-being of people. And the other is cancer research and care,” said Sara Kobylenski, the executive director of the Upper Valley Haven in White River Junction — a family shelter and food shelf — and one of the few nonprofit professionals who deals personally with the philanthropist.

“You have to wonder,” Kobylenski said, reflecting on the impact of the Byrne Foundation, “how much the culture of the Upper Valley — which is known as a good place to live — has been fostered and enhanced by the Byrnes’ investment in the arts, in the environment, science, social services and in schools.”

As it turns out, some of the people who run those nonprofits also have been wondering what might happen if Byrne Foundation funding were to disappear or be significantly curtailed. Robert Snyder, the foundation’s longtime accountant and a director, said there is no intention to change the “pattern” of giving. Whether that assurance will ease nonprofits’ anxieties isn’t clear. The Byrne Foundation has not disclosed a long-range plan that explains how it will be able to sustain itself, and it doesn’t go out of its way to communicate with its beneficiaries.

Fortune Made in Insurance

The 18-year-old Byrne Foundation’s origins begin with Jack Byrne, the son of an insurance agency owner who became an actuary and later an insurance industry executive and entrepreneur.

Jack Byrne’s wealth was created by his turnaround of struggling low-cost insurer Geico in the 1970s, when he ruthlessly cut costs, dropped high-risk drivers from coverage and raised rates.

The moves attracted the attention of legendary investor Warren Buffett, who began accumulating stock in Geico and whose Berkshire Hathaway company eventually bought the entire insurance company.

Later, Jack Byrne accomplished a similar turnaround feat at American Express’ Fireman’s Fund unit, which was then sold to the German financial services Allianz for $1.1 billion. Byrne transferred some of the Fireman’s Fund assets that weren’t included in the Allianz deal to White Mountains Insurance, a Hanover-based insurance holding company, in 1991.

In 2002, Forbes magazine reported that Byrne’s 20 percent stake in White Mountains Insurance at the time was worth $200 million.

Organized in 1999, The Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation did not begin giving money until 2002, according to its IRS tax forms. In the early years, the foundation was funded largely through the sale of stock in Berkshire Hathway, White Mountains Insurance and Lehman Brothers.

Then, in 2007, in addition to stock sales, the foundation received $7.9 million through the transfer of assets from The Byrne Foundation, a pre-existing foundation that the Byrnes controlled, in order to “reduce the administrative burden of operating two foundations,” according to Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation’s tax forms.

In subsequent years, funding for the successor Byrne Foundation has come through the sales of shares in Berkshire Hathaway, White Mountains Insurance, Sequoia Fund, Flagstone Reinsurance Holdings, and Interepublic Group of Companies, in addition to personal financial contributions from the Byrnes themselves.

The Byrne Foundation received its largest contribution in 2013, the year Jack Byrne died, when it received $42.2 million, most of it from the sale of shares in Berkshire Hathaway and White Mountains Insurance, according to IRS tax forms.

Since 2013, the foundation has given away a total of nearly $55 million — $23.3 million in 2014 alone — the majority going to Upper Valley nonprofits.

At the end of 2016, the most recent period for which information is available, the Byrne Foundation received $5.1 million in contributions from Dorothy Byrne in addition to $612,000 the foundation earned in income from the sale of Berkshire Hathaway stock, according to the tax forms.

The tax forms also show that the foundation had $2.2 million in assets at the end of 2016, indicating that it will require another large contribution this year if it is to maintain the level of bequests it has made in recent years.

‘The Honor System’

When it comes to asking the Byrne Foundation for money, the process is unique, if not idiosyncratic, in the formal world of philanthropy, according to nonprofit organization staff members.

The typical grant process is often a burdensome exercise in proposal writing, explaining the organization’s mission, justifying the need, supplying program data, marshaling feedback from past accomplishments, filling out forms and cajoling grant administrators.

For Dorothy Byrne, who runs the Byrne Foundation with an assistant and the help of Snyder, the foundation’s accountant, a one-page letter can suffice.

Indeed, the Byrne Foundation has not even joined the Internet era: It has no website, commonplace in today’s nonprofit world, to explain its philosophy or highlight its accomplishments.

There is no public email address. Applicants who seek funding instead need to read the foundation’s 990-PF filing through Guidestar, the online tool for accessing IRS nonprofit financial reports, where they will find the instructions to “send (a) letter outlining your particular needs to Dorothy Byrne and it will be reviewed. No telephone calls please.”

There is no application deadline.

“She works it like an honor system,” said Dolores Struckhoff, executive director of Enfield Shaker Museum, who estimates that the Byrne Foundation and its predecessor have given a total of $250,000 to the nonprofit since 1996. Recently, donations have gone toward restoring the Bretheren’s East Shop and the purchase of IT equipment.

Struckhoff, who said she typically writes a two-page request outlining the purpose to which the funds would be used, said the Byrne Foundation “does not have a substantial application process and that really helps us.”

Nonetheless, what the foundation does like to see, Struckhoff said, is evidence that the organization seeking money is also making a concerted effort to raise money from other sources as well.

“She offers to give us $10,000 if we can raise another $5,000 or $10,000,” Struckhoff said, a process known as a “matching grant” that is designed to motivate other donors to give.

A donation can come out of the blue, too. “We send out our newsletter to her and announcements of events and sometime she sends back a check for the event,” Struckhoff said.

Unlike many foundations that give money to nonprofits and require post-funding “metrics” to demonstrate the outcome of how the money was utilized, the Byrne Foundation does not require recipients to follow up.

“The (Byrne) Foundation is so accessible to nonprofits,” said Jaye Olmstead, executive director of David’s House, which provides free housing to families whose children are being treated at Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth and for which the foundation supports about 7 percent of the nonprofit’s budget.

“It’s so wonderful not to have to go through a very cumbersome request and reporting process for the funding,” Olmstead said. “I feel that’s so much a part of who Dorothy is. She’s just about supporting nonprofits and to make it easy for them.”

Snyder said the simple write-a-letter process was intentionally designed by Dorothy Byrne to relieve small nonprofits, which typically operate on a shoestring, of time-consuming burdens when it comes to requesting funding.

The honor system does not always work, however.

One of the largest recipients of foundation funding in 2015 and 2016 was Project VetCare, a Hanover-based charity founded a few years earlier to help U.S. military veterans access the myriad social and medical programs available. It received a total of $880,000 from the foundation.

About half the money, as intended, went toward buying a large home on Lebanon Street in Hanover to serve as a residence for veterans enrolled at Dartmouth College. But, working on a tip called into its office, the Charitable Trusts Unit of the New Hampshire Attorney General Office’s recently found that the organization’s executive director had diverted Project VetCare money for personal use, as well as loans to certain of the organization’s directors and staff.

The Charitable Trusts Unit brought a civil suit against the principals and settled with them to repay a portion of the misappropriated fund, and on Aug. 30 Hanover police arrested Danielle Goodwin, Project VetCare’s former executive and co-founder, and charged her with theft over the diversion of funds.

Snyder, the Byrne Foundation board member, said earlier the foundation was “extremely disappointed” over how Project VetCare mishandled the funding. He declined to comment further because the matter is still under law enforcement investigation.

Seeding the Valley

The list of Byrne Foundation beneficiaries is lengthy.

From Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon and the Aloha Foundation summer camps in Fairlee to Windsor High School and the Woodstock Area Job Bank; the Claremont Soup Kitchen and David’s House in Lebanon to the Lebanon Opera House and the New London Police Department; the Bugbee Senior Center in White River Junction to the Charlestown Foursquare Church to the Royalton Memorial Library and the Mascoma Wrestling Boosters, there are few people in the Upper Valley whose lives have not been touched by the foundation’s financial largesse.

Sometimes recipients recognize the foundation’s donations by naming a building after the philanthropists.

The Upper Valley Haven, which annually receives funding from the foundation to cover between 8 percent and 10 percent of its budget, has the Byrne House Family Shelter, which accommodates four families on the Haven building’s second floor, and the Byrne Community Service Area on the ground floor that doubles as a seasonal shelter in the winter.

The Byrne name adorns many buildings and programs at Dartmouth College, making it one of the most prevalent names on campus. (All three of Jack and Dorothy Byrne’s sons attended Dartmouth.)

There’s the Jack Byrne Undergraduate Commons at the John Kemeny Mathematics Building, Byrne Hall at the Tuck School of Business, Byrne II, a residence hall near the medical school, and the Byrne Fund in Chinese Studies.

In 2015 Dorothy Byrne committed $20 million to Dartmouth — along with $5 million from a special fund at the college — to create the Jack Byrne Scholars Program in Math and Society which, in addition to funding 32 undergraduate Byrne Scholars scholarships, also underwrote the John J. Byrne Jr. Prize in Mathematics and endowed three new faculty positions: the Byrne Distinguished Professorship in Mathematics, the Byrne Distinguished Professorship in Decision Science at Tuck and the Byrne Professorship in Mathematics.

On the weekend of Nov. 3, the Jack Byrne Center for Palliative and Hospice Care is scheduled to open at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, made possible by a $10 million gift from the foundation 2014. And this year the foundation gave a boost to the Prouty, the annual fundraiser for Norris Cotton Cancer Center, ponying up $100,000 to sponsor the event along with a $500,000 matching grant.

Hints and Worries

But how long Upper Valley nonprofits will be able to rely on foundation funding has been unclear. The word among some Upper Valley nonprofits is that the funding will come to an end one day.

When that might be has been one of the mysteries, although it has been widely assumed that the day may be sooner rather than later.

If that day were to arrive, it would have huge consequences for area nonprofits, especially smaller organizations, where a $5,000 or $10,000 contribution — a typical disbursement from the foundation — represents a meaningful portion of an annual budget.

“I keep hearing that they are in a spend-down mode,” said Kevin Peterson, senior program officer for the Upper Valley region for the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, which manages charity funds around the state.

“The only hints I have of that is people call and ask me what’s happening.”

Peterson, who says he has no direct knowledge of the situation, is not alone in that view.

“I’ve heard there’s a date when the funds cease,” said Merilynn Bourne, the former executive director of Listen Community Services, which assists struggling families and people in the Upper Valley and has been a long-time recipient of foundation funding.

If the funds were to stop coming, that could pose a significant challenge for small nonprofits that do not have a broad fundraising network, Bourne said.

“There are smaller agencies that have been dependent upon the support of the Byrne Foundation. It will be interesting to see what the impact is, and I wonder if they are looking for ways to make that up,” she said.

A Prouty Moment

The annual two-day Prouty sports event fundraiser that supports research for cancer treatment at Norris Cotton Cancer Center in Lebanon has a long history of support from the Byrne Foundation.

“When I produced my first Prouty in 2004, I called Dorothy and asked if she would support us because she never had before,” said Jean Brown, executive director of the Friends of Norris Cotton Cancer Center, which organizes the Prouty. “We asked for and received $5,000 the first time and they’ve been giving every year since. … We’re just grateful because it has made a huge difference.”

Brown called Byrne “amazing in wanting to stabilize the Prouty in what you could call a tumultuous year,” referring to the most recent Prouty, which took place after Mark Israel, the former director of the cancer center, filed a lawsuit alleging that money raised for research from previous Proutys had been used to cover operating expenses for Dartmouth-Hitchcock.

The hospital denies the claims — and the Attorney General’s Office ultimately concluded that D-H did not violate the law and a judge dismissed Israel’s lawsuit in May — but the attention nonetheless cast a pall over the Prouty and could have been one of the reasons for the slight dip in donations this year, which organizers blamed on its proximity to the July 4 celebration and the prior weekend’s damage from intense storms.

But as to what would happen if the Byrne Foundation funding were to stop, “I don’t have a plan,” Brown said.

“We’re going to deal with this as it comes.”

Dorothy Byrne, through Snyder, declined to comment for this story. But Snyder, who is one of the Byrne Foundation’s only two directors along with Dorothy Byrne herself, said, “there’s no intention for anything to change from the pattern that’s been going on for the past 30 years,” referring to the Byrnes’ history of philanthropy that predates the formation of The Jack and Dorothy Bryne Foundation.

Snyder pointed to the foundation’s public form 990-PF reports to the IRS that detail its income, disbursements and balance sheet as an indicator of its financial position.

Notably, the annual reports show that the foundation does not have an endowment that can generate income to meet the multimillion-dollar level of annual charitable giving it has maintained since 2007.

Instead, they show that the Byrne Foundation has been funded since its inception through the sale of Byrne-controlled assets and personal cash donations that is then tapped for charitable disbursements.

Snyder declined to comment on how the foundation would continue to replenish its fund after Dorothy Byrne, who is believed to be in her 80s, dies.

If the Byrne Foundation were to continue its mission without the annual contributions that have sustained it in the past, it presumably would require the establishment of an endowment from the Byrne estate or another source — or find another benefactor, or several, to make regular infusions of cash.

Preparing for the Future

For many recipients of Byrne Foundation funding, their only communication with Dorothy Byrne has been through the mail.

With the exception of major Upper Valley nonprofits, such as Norris Cotton Cancer Center, the Haven and Listen, few recipients of foundation funding interviewed for this story said they have talked with Dorothy Byrne, and fewer said they have met her.

“I did call her once — and she said ‘send a letter,’ ” recalled Nicole Jorgensen, executive director of High Horses in Sharon, which runs therapeutic riding programs for people with physical and emotional challenges.

“She replies back with a letter,” Jorgensen said. “It’s all done through the mail.”

The foundation gave High Horses $100,000 last year, both to help cover operating expenses and for a capital campaign to buy a 38-acre farm in Sharon, where it moved from its longtime location on Route 5 in Hartford.

At Hartford High School, Principal Nelson Fogg said the foundation has been integral in supporting “learning service” trips for students to places such as the Dominican Republic, Peru, Laos and Thailand by helping to foot the travel expenses of students whose families could not otherwise afford the cost.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that Byrne Foundation grants btouch us on a weekly basis and have touched individual students in life-altering ways,” said Fogg.

Fogg, too, said he “heard rumors recently that the foundation is winding itself down” and if that happens, then the school will have to “find another way to fund the things that foundation got off the ground. That becomes our burden.”

“If we become reliant on one source and don’t find other ways to internally support those things, sort of shame on us,” Fogg said. “I am aware in all likelihood one day we won’t have them as a source anymore,” added Fogg. “So life after the Byrne Foundation might be different.”

John Lippman can be reached at