Who’s Behind the Barr Foundation?
The organization seems to be everywhere—driving Boston’s agenda on climate change, the arts, and charter schools.
A lot can be learned when the NEA comes to town.
In 1991—in the midst of the culture wars—U.S. Representative Chester Atkins ferried the National Endowment for the Arts director on a tour designed to highlight the agency’s good deeds around Boston. A few years later, Senator Edward Kennedy did the same, accompanying the NEA chairwoman to an elementary school in Roxbury, where they sat on teeny chairs and watched adorable tots perform a concert. These official visits were as carefully choreographed as a Swan Lake solo, and featured our biggest-name elected officials in their snazziest suits. So something was decidedly different last May when NEA chairwoman Jane Chu arrived on a whistle-stop tour and the host was the wholly unelected Jim Canales, president of the Barr Foundation—the state’s wealthiest and most influential privately funded philanthropy. Unlike previous visits, this time around the sights and speakers on the tour had a singular theme: They all received generous funding from Barr. Sure, folks from City Hall and the state arts council were on hand, but the picture was clear: Barr is in control.
Although the Barr Foundation has given out more than $710 million since 1999, chances are you’ve never heard of it. Until around 2010, donations were largely made on the condition of anonymity. Now that grants are given openly, Barr’s influence is finally visible. Established 29 years ago by Amos and Barbara Hostetter, who founded Continental Cablevision, it started as a kitchen-table family operation: Amos handled the investments, and Barbara managed the programs. In 2016, the foundation has assets totaling $1.6 billion and a mandate to focus its philanthropic endeavors on Boston and the region.
Now, suddenly, you can’t turn around without coming across an organization or project bearing the Barr Foundation’s stamp of approval. Barr is, after all—along with the Klarman Family Foundation—the funding muscle behind Boston Creates, the city’s yearlong process to develop a cultural master plan. But the Barr Foundation’s generous funding is not limited to the arts. It is equally indispensable in two other important arenas: education and climate change. Recently, for instance, it granted $5 million to Year Up, a nonprofit that links young urban adults with educational and career opportunities. In climate change, Barr funds research studies as well as grassroots organizations such as the Massachusetts branch of the Clean Water Fund. You’ve rented a Hubway bike? Barr is a partner in that venture as well.
Barr’s influence, however, extends well beyond bikes on the streets all the way to City Hall and the State House. Barr Foundation money helped fund the search for Boston’s new school superintendent, Tommy Chang, and several Barr fellows were on Mayor Marty Walsh’s transition team. John Barros, a former Barr fellow, is Walsh’s chief of economic development, and Rahn Dorsey, Barr’s former evaluation director, is the city’s first chief of education. Barr also funds Go Boston 2030, the Walsh administration’s initiative to redefine transportation in the city, and two Barr fellows withdrew from the program last year to join Governor Charlie Baker’s administration.
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t credit the Barr for its enormous largesse, as the left-leaning charity funds causes that are dear to the city’s liberal residents. But you would also be hard-pressed to find a grantee who will critique the foundation publicly. No big surprise there. Barr makes its grants by invitation only. Those who receive funding want to keep it, and those who don’t want to get it. Like all foundations, “They tend to live in a bubble of positivity,’’ says Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy. “They are surrounded by people who are predisposed to tell them whatever they want to hear.”
In private, though, many City Hall watchdogs, including some grantees, are questioning the kind of clout that Barr wields in public policy and city government. “Private foundations—whether it be the Hostetter family or Bill and Melinda Gates or the Walton family from Walmart—can operate with impunity in perpetuity and can have enormous impact on public policy issues,” says Alan Cantor, a nonprofit consultant based in New Hampshire. “With our elected leaders, we can unelect them, but we cannot get rid of the private philanthropists.”
If you enjoy your Hubway, your fine-arts organizations, and efforts to create universal early childhood education, you can thank cable television. Amos Hostetter, a self-made pioneer in the industry, sold his Continental Cablevision to U.S. West in 1996 for $10.8 billion. Today, he and his wife are worth some $3 billion, according to Forbes. The couple knew they wanted to use their new wealth to “do good,” but unlike such current tech magnates as Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, who broadcast their philanthropic efforts, the Hostetters chose a quieter route, starting what at first was called the Hostetter Foundation in 1987. Twelve years later, they changed the name of the foundation to Barr, after Amos Hostetter’s middle name, a subtle way of keeping the family connection without grandstanding.
The Hostetters are notoriously private. They live in a mansion on Beacon Hill, but a close associate says they didn’t raise their three children—Caroline, Elizabeth, and Tripp—with silver spoons in their mouths. Caroline is a now a principal at the consulting firm the Parthenon Group; Elizabeth is pursuing an MBA at Harvard; and Tripp attended Duke University. They all share an interest in the foundation, but Barbara Hostetter says she wants them to build their own lives and careers.
As newcomers to philanthropy, Amos and Barbara Hostetter didn’t harbor delusions of grandeur, let alone pretend to know what they were doing. “It’s important to know when you start this work that there is no expertise in the house,” Barbara says. “We didn’t start with being the smartest people in the room. We knew we had a good learning curve ahead of us.”
But there was another reason they didn’t pretend to know what they were doing. “Humility,” Barbara says softly, sitting in a conference room at the Pilot House, the waterfront property on Atlantic Avenue that is home to the Barr Foundation headquarters. The room affords a stunning view of the harbor, and the offices are well appointed without being ostentatious, with gleaming natural-wood floors, exposed beams, and brick walls. Barbara doesn’t play the stock role of a powerful magnate capable of changing the lives of those less fortunate. On the contrary, she is modest and contemplative, not so much guarded as reserved. As the last person to arrive for our interview in the conference room, she reluctantly sits at the head of the table, but it’s clear she’d rather not be the center of attention.
As they slowly built their foundation, the Hostetters hired staff members who knew how to direct funds to their targeted areas of interest. But the grant-giving remained largely anonymous, with the stipulation that grantees couldn’t mention the foundation in marketing materials. In 2010, though, the Barr and its carefully guarded profile began to shift when the foundation boldly announced that it was directing $50 million over five years to fight climate change. “It was an opportunity to use our voice,” Barbara says.
It was also a way of flexing some muscle to advance the couple’s green agenda. But it’s not just about money: It’s about political clout and using power to forge public policy. Amos Hostetter is now cochair, along with Mayor Walsh, of Boston’s Green Ribbon Commission, a group of power players who advise the city on its Climate Action Plan. “A foundation like Barr has two roles,” says Robert Lynch, president and CEO of the advocacy group Americans for the Arts. “The first is obviously giving out money. The second is a public role, standing up there as a leader saying these are changes we believe in.”
Barbara gets it. “We began to realize that we don’t have the privilege of stepping back and doing the work anonymously,” she says. “We need to stand behind the work to leverage it and make it better.” To do this, the Hostetters knew they needed the best and the brightest. Enter the foundation’s new executive: Jim Canales.
Canales’s star had already risen by the time the Hostetters began recruiting him to be Barr’s first president—and its third trustee, joining Amos and Barbara on the board—in 2014. As president and CEO of the James Irvine Foundation in San Francisco, he was at the helm of a $2 billion philanthropic organization in sunny California, his lifelong home. The couple courted Canales, but he needed to be persuaded. “His values are akin to our own,” Barbara says, explaining why she and her husband pursued Canales. “He believes in humility and collaboration and partnerships in philanthropy.”
After discussing the position with the Hostetters over lunch, it took two weeks for the Stanford University alum, who sits on the school’s board of trustees, to accept the job. Ultimately enticed by the idea of not only leading a foundation with deep pockets and community roots, but of reshaping it and refining its strategy, he says, “It was a singular leadership opportunity.”
Canales embraces the Hostetters’ commitment to humility, but carries himself with a forward-looking panache that the couple would be uncomfortable employing themselves. He knows how to work a crowd in both English and Spanish, and grew up in San Francisco with a mother whose family is from Nicaragua and a father whose family is from Mexico. After graduating from Stanford with a BA in English and an MA in education by 1989, he worked as a high school English teacher before entering philanthropy. Maybe that’s where he developed his communication savvy. He joined the Irvine Foundation in 1993, rising to president 10 years later. After accepting the job at Barr, he moved to Boston with his husband, James McCann, a doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. They live in a condo at Millennium Place, the Washington Street property that defines itself as “a new form of luxury urbanism.” His total compensation last year was a shade over $700,000.
As an outsider in a town not known for its fondness of strangers, Canales has quickly immersed himself in Boston’s field of movers and shakers. He is cochair of the Boston Creates Leadership Council, a group of roughly 60 arts leaders, donors, and civic leaders. I watched him dazzle them at one of the council’s recent meetings, and he had no trouble coming up with anyone’s name. “The fact that I am a newcomer here cuts both ways,” he told me during an interview at the Barr offices. “I have a lot to learn, and the learning curve has been steep. On the other hand, you look at things with a fresh perspective. You’re not as anchored in the past.”