When he walked into Annie E. Casey Foundation’s old headquarters in Greenwich, Conn., in 1990, Doug Nelson thought he was there to give foundation leaders some advice on a project. Instead, they asked him to run the whole place.
Nearly two decades later, Nelson announced today that he will retire as president of the AECF in April 2010. His successor will inherit a foundation that has grown considerably in both size and stature.
“One of things I’m proudest of is that nobody had ever heard of Casey in 1990, or really 1995,” he said in an interview shortly after his retirement was announced. “Now there are lot of people who look to us for advice, guidance or partnership. Our influence and credibility have grown a great deal.”
Nelson was working at the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington when he first paid a visit to Casey’s headquarters in Greenwich, an affluent New York suburb. It was an odd fit for a foundation dedicated to serving impoverished communities, he recalls thinking.
When he took over the reins, he found a staff of 36 that struggled to spend the required-by-law 5 percent of Casey’s $590 million in assets.
“By the end of the first day, I knew we needed to be bigger, smarter and somewhere else,” Nelson said. Four years later, the foundation moved to Baltimore.
Casey’s growth under Nelson has been exponential. Its 36 staff became 500; its assets rose from $590 million to a high of $3 billion in 2007 (now at approximately $2.5 billion, after the recession knocked it to as low as $2.3 billion in March of 2009). , All the while, Nelson said, Casey spent an average of 7 percent of its assets during his tenure. (Youth Today is a recipient of AECF money.)
His legacy at Casey will include the foundation’s commitment to philanthropy conceived of data analysis. Casey initiatives started under Nelson include, Kids Count, which now provides data on dozens of youth indicators for each state; the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which helps communities to make informed decisions about the use of secure detention facilities; and Family to Family, which has helped state and county child welfare systems reform around foster homes and family preservation while minimizing the number of placements to institutional care.
Nelson would not comment on whether he thought one of his executives should succeed him, but indicated that whoever it is will not come out of left field.
“I and the board want someone to fill this seat who really understands our mission,” he said. “We’re not looking for a stranger here. It will be a believer in what Casey aspires to do.”
Nelson will split his time between Baltimore and Wisconsin, where he was once a history professor and before that served as Assistant Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services. He’ll remain involved with Casey projects on a volunteer basis, particularly the foundation’s East Baltimore Development Initiative, which includes efforts to keep together foster children and their children.
Nelson will also involve himself in a project to build a museum at a Japanese relocation camp called Heart Mountain. Nelson earned a Pulitzer prize nomination in 1976 for his book about the World War II relocation of Japanese Americans, and sits on the board of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which is building the museum.