Who’s Behind the Barr Foundation?

The organization seems to be everywhere—driving Boston’s agenda on climate change, the arts, and charter schools.

Driven by Canales’s charisma and professionalism, Barr has burst onto the scene recently as a public force. Canales has a reputation for his commitment to transparency in philanthropy, and he swiftly took steps to make the once-secretive foundation more public. He oversaw Barr’s new website, with a grants database, staff blogs, and links to the foundation’s tax returns, and established a lively presence on social media. “Foundations are increasingly realizing that they bring more to the table than resources,” Canales says. “One thing they bring is their voice. None of this is about self-aggrandizement. This is in service to the goals that we are trying to achieve.”

As part of his reboot, Canales rewrote the foundation’s mission statement, which now defines the charity as “stewards and catalysts,” and was charged with forging a new strategic planning effort that he is rolling out this winter. “Evolution not revolution” is his mantra. The new planning effort, he says, is an attempt to refocus the foundation’s work and to increase its impact, not to start from scratch and create a “shiny new object,” as Canales puts it. The strategy includes extending Barr’s reach beyond Boston with a more regional focus in all three of its program areas, as well as subtle shifts, such as a new attention to success in and beyond high school, and changing the name of its Arts & Culture program to Arts & Creativity.

Canales has made other changes, too. As of this year, Barr will no longer invest money in what are known as donor-advised funds—controversial because, by law, donors do not have to reveal how the money was spent. For tax reasons, Barr has taken advantage of one of these funds: Out of a total grant budget of $47 million in 2010, it deposited $9.5 million in the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund.

Private foundations are required by law to give away 5 percent of their assets annually—a requirement Barr meets in part thanks to a complicated accounting system. This year’s grant-making budget will increase to $70 million, up from $52 million in 2015. Critics such as David Callahan, founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, point out Barr’s enormous untapped potential, saying, “They are sitting on a pile of money, with more waiting in the wings, but only deploying a small fraction of it to solve huge problems like climate change. I am waiting for them to swing for the fences.”

As a result, Barr is hardly a vanguard when it comes spending down its wealth. There is a movement in philanthropy called Giving While Living, founded by the duty-free-shopping titan Chuck Feeney, who gave the majority of his wealth to the New York–based charity Atlantic Philanthropies. Feeney, along with Gates, Zuckerberg, and Bostonian Seth Klarman, are among a group of billionaires who signed what is known as the Giving Pledge, a vow to donate the majority of their money to philanthropy. The Hostetters are not among that group. Meanwhile, the John Merck Fund, also based in Boston and with a focus on environmental issues, is spending down all of its assets by 2021.

Canales says that the trustees have decided to stay the course for now but have left the door open for future generations of trustees to spend down. The trustees have also decided to expand the three-person board. Initially, new members will not include the Hostetter children. “It is not the best time of life for Mom and Dad to be pulling on your strings,’’ Barbara says. “There will be a place for the family on the board, but it will not be a majority.” In a nod to Canales, she adds, “We want it run professionally. We want the benefit of the smartest people in the field.”


There are two types of foundations: those that hand out the money and simply trust it will be put to good use; and those that design programs, fund them, and micromanage them. Barr is somewhere in between.

Particularly in the arts, Barr is what many in the field describe as an active funder. Actor and playwright Daniel Beaty received a $350,000 grant over three years to work with Emerson College, using theater to address social issues. He says that Barr is openly involved in the process and that he, for one, appreciates the input. “Sometimes when I approach foundations, I feel like I am trying to figure out how to make a part of myself fit into a box of what they fund,’’ he says. “My experience [with Barr] was that I was able to speak about the wholeness of who I am.”

Barr’s recent strategy aims to engage new audiences, explore technology, and branch out into other sectors, such as arts and medicine. It will also expand outside Boston. The recent program name change—from Arts & Culture to Arts & Creativity—broadens the scope to include nontraditional and emerging forms of expression.

Barr designs some programs to “incentivize certain kinds of behavior,” its Arts & Culture senior program director, San San Wong, says. Some relish Barr’s hands-on approach, describing it as iterative, not directive. But others privately fear that Barr prods institutions to further its agenda. Canales, naturally, disagrees. “We have no desire to force any organization to redefine its work to fit our objectives,” he says.

Jeff Poulos, executive director of Associated Grant Makers, applauds the new transparency that Canales has created at Barr, but hopes for more openness in the grant-making process. “If the process is truly by invitation only, the responsibility of the program officers is to get to know the work of as broad a spectrum of grantees as possible,’’ he says. “Their responsibility is to look beyond the usual suspects and to have a look at the full ecology of the city, as opposed to bringing in preconceived notions.”

When choreographer Peter DiMuro became executive director of the Dance Complex, in Cambridge, in 2013, he knew he had to raise money, but wasn’t optimistic. “After the economy tanked in 2008, I saw arts funding shrivel up, like the witch’s shoes under the house in The Wizard of Oz,” he says. But then he got The Call from Wong. After a year of conversations, Barr gave the Dance Complex a whopping $500,000 grant to be used for operating support and renovations—and DiMuro went from having visions of the Wicked Witch of the East to feeling he had reached the Emerald City.

Barr has not shied away from funding groups that take their mission to the streets. The Better Future Project, a youthful advocacy organization that has been around for only five years, gets 12 percent of its $500,000 annual budget from Barr. “We are the most grassroots of the groups they support,” says executive director Craig Altemose, “and they appreciate the on-the-ground work and the marching in the streets and the raising a ruckus when things are not headed in the right direction.”

When it comes to climate change, Barr works locally rather than globally, and it ranks second only to Minneapolis’s McKnight Foundation in its regional efforts. It will continue to expand its works under Canales’s new strategy and funnel money toward key priorities—namely, creating livable, walkable communities, improving public transportation, promoting clean energy, and advocating for public policy that supports those efforts. The climate-change program will focus more heavily on building smart communities with easily accessible transportation options.

Of course, progressive, bike-riding Bostonians are nearly unanimous in their support for green transportation and community arts programs, but residents are deeply divided over issues that may have a substantial impact on our city. The issue of charter schools, for instance, opens the newly transparent Barr up to scrutiny and connects the foundation to the third rail of Boston politics: school choice. Over the years, the foundation’s reach in education has been broad, with generous grants to support early childhood education, career training, and afterschool programming. Both Canales and director of education Leah Hamilton say that Barr’s education funding is “agnostic” and not driven by an agenda other than to achieve better outcomes for all students. But Barr has been generous to several charters, making public education advocates fear that the foundation is on the same path as such charities as the Gates and the Walton foundations, which have poured huge amounts of money into charter schools and are pushing a drive for public policy to support them.

Members of the Citywide Parent Council and Quality Education for Every Student (QUEST)—two groups staunchly opposed to charters—are wary of Barr and its grant-making. They are highly critical of the Boston Compact, a coalition of charter, district, and parochial schools that is funded by Gates. Barr has paid out $150,000 to Boston Public Schools and Wheelock College to help establish the Compact here. The Compact is the driving force behind Boston’s “unified enrollment” plan, which will change the way students are assigned to schools. Barr is also investing $5 million in the Fort Point–based Boston Plan for Excellence (BPE), which runs a nationally recognized teacher-training program as well as a charter school. These connections—combined with Barr’s enormous wealth, influence, and political clout—raise fear and suspicion among parents and advocates who adamantly support public education over privatization. “A small group with a great deal of power and influence is shaping a plan with little input,” says Mary Battenfeld, a member of QUEST and the Citywide Parent Council, and it “will radically restructure and possibly destroy Boston Public Schools.”

Canales, whose foundation helped bankroll the search for superintendent Chang, says he was not aware of the growing controversy, which has been getting louder and more heated as the debate over unified enrollment unfolds. He stands by the foundation’s funding record, which includes a diverse portfolio in education grants, and he—like the advocates—is aware that funders must be very careful when investing in projects that affect people’s lives. But advocates are concerned. “The gap between the funders and these children is so wide,’’ Battenfeld says. “You have these funders who have so much money and live in such a different world than the majority of those families. They are trying to determine policy for kids who they know nothing about.”


Breeze through the résumés of officials at City Hall, and you will find clear evidence of Barr. The city’s first chief of education is a former Barr director, and the chief of economic development is a former Barr fellow. Canales talks regularly with city officials, says Joyce Linehan, Mayor Walsh’s chief of policy, and Canales describes the foundation as a “constructive partner” with city government. During the 2013 mayoral election, Barr officials approached Walsh and his opponent, John Connolly, offering to fund a city arts-planning process. Former fellow Jesse Solomon is now executive director of BPE, which receives 11 percent of its budget from Barr. “It is at the very center of the power structure,’’ says education advocate and quest member Kevin Murray.

So why shouldn’t Barr fellows rise to prominent positions? That is, after all, the whole point of its fellowship program. But Barr is clearly building its political muscle as former fellows and former staffers take key positions at City Hall. It’s certainly true that this is not a new story in the history of philanthropy—the Carnegies and the Rockefellers of the first Gilded Age didn’t shy away from political influence—but the past few decades have seen an extraordinary rise in wealth. There are currently 536 billionaires in the country, and money equals power, whether it is coming from the Hostetters on the left or the Koch brothers on the right. “It is a troubling phenomenon,’’ says Callahan, of Inside Philanthropy. “People fear the billionaires they disagree with and cheer the ones they agree with, as opposed to recognizing that all of them are pretty scary.”

Barr’s influence is undeniable, from the hallowed corridors of City Hall to the scrappy and vital community organizations. The foundation has spent the past few years moving out of the world of anonymity and understands that transparency is a good thing. After all, Canales has spent much of his career promoting those beliefs. Yet this new approach also opens up the foundation to increased scrutiny. Public education advocates are watching, as are aspiring grantees and even potential trustees, who will be handpicked by Canales and the Hostetters. The city should also be keeping a keen eye. With its rich coffers, Barr wields the kind of power that can reshape Boston, from the air we breathe to the schools that educate our children to the public art we see on our streets. It will certainly be interesting to see who plays host the next time the NEA comes to town.