After 18 years leading McCune foundation and championing causes around New Mexico, Owen Lopez steps aside

Anne Constable | The New Mexican
Posted: Saturday, December 10, 2011 – 12/9/11

It was an ignominious moment for Santa Fe Public Schools.

The district had overspent its budget by more than $3 million in 1999, and was forced to borrow from the state to avoid bouncing a bunch of paychecks. Even so, it had to cut 29 teaching jobs and eliminate several programs serving at-risk students.

Was the cause financial malfeasance or bookkeeping error?

Robert McKinney, the owner of The Santa Fe New Mexican, was worried. He told the paper’s associate publisher, Billie Blair, “Get that Owen Lopez who has the foundation interested in this.” McKinney remembered Lopez, the executive director of the McCune Charitable Foundation, as a young attorney at Montgomery & Andrews.

Lopez and Blair met at the Plaza Café, and Lopez soon agreed to pay for a professional audit of the public schools by the international accounting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers. The $300,000 audit, released in February 2000, found no fraud. But it produced 48 suggestions for improving district efficiency and recommended pay raises for teachers and school secretaries. For good measure, Lopez also founded a Citizens Oversight Council in response to the report’s finding that the district should pay more attention to what teachers and parents had to say about the schools.

“Owen was a funder who could move quickly and get things done,” said Blair, who later became director of the Santa Fe Community Foundation.

Now, after 18 years at the helm of arguably the most influential foundation in Santa Fe, Lopez is stepping down at the end of the year. McCune’s board has chosen Associate Director Wendy Lewis to succeed him, signaling that no major changes are in store, at least at first. Program Director Norty Kalishman is also leaving McCune, but only after the transition.

“It’s been a wonderful job. Everyone thinks that, and they’re right,” Lopez said during a recent interview (beside a roaring fire) at the foundation’s offices on East Alameda Street.

Over nearly two decades, Lopez, a visionary activist to many in the nonprofit community, has approved grants to hundreds of New Mexico organizations ranging from tiny rural day care centers, libraries and acequia associations to bigger organizations such as the Santa Fe Opera and The University of New Mexico Foundation — and has changed the face of philanthropy in the state.

“He was just as excited about a small gift as a large gift,” said Steve Rasmussen, director of the AWC Family Foundation in Nashville, Tenn., formerly the Santa Fe-based Messengers of the Healing Winds Foundation. The organization relocated to Nashville in 2009. “Rural philanthropy is a theme nowadays,” Rasmussen said. “But I think Owen’s always done that.”

When McCune first appeared on the scene in 1989, it was one of only a handful of foundations based in Santa Fe; today there are dozens, some born and bred here, others that have relocated to the state capital and many that operate very quietly.

McCune might not be the biggest — the Lannan Foundation’s assets are double McCune’s current $110 million — but its grants to arts organizations, environmental groups, economic development initiatives, and health and human resources programs reach into every corner of the state.

Last year, the foundation gave away about $5.5 million, about 5 percent of its corpus. And it’s received 700 requests for 2012, the highest in its history.

“The mission is so broad,” Lopez said. “The door is wide open to consider most anything, and so we do. Most, if not all the nonprofits, look to us.”

You give them money and you shut up

Lopez, who turned 70 this year, is blessed with the agility of a younger man, possibly from using a core-strengthening big rubber ball in place of a desk chair. He had been a lawyer for 25 years when he became director of the foundation founded by Perrine McCune after the death of her husband, Marshall, to continue the family’s philanthropy.

He took to the job with relish, often joking about how much more fun it is to give away money than to raise it.

The McCunes had been strong supporters of the opera, maternal and child health, and what was then called the School of American Research. During Perrine McCune’s lifetime, the foundation was Santa Fe-centric, Lopez said, but since then the philosophy expanded to encompass the entire state.

That shift initially troubled some of the original beneficiaries. In fact, at the time the opera’s worried general manager, Richard Gaddes, asked Lopez, “Does that mean we’ll never see another nickel?” The answer, of course, was no. In the end, Gaddes suggested, and McCune agreed to pay for, the electronic librettos mounted on the backs of seats at the opera. “I said, ‘Oh, that works for me’ because it’s about bringing opera to the masses, like me,” Lopez said.

From early in his tenure, Lopez followed the advice of Pablo Eisenberg, celebrated director of the Center for Community Change. “I knew his reputation and was eager to meet him,” Lopez recalled. They were introduced by mutual friend Susan Herter from the Thaw Charitable Trust. When Lopez asked Eisenberg about how to go about making grants, Eisenberg told him, “You identify people in the community doing what needs to be done; you give them money; and you shut up.”

One key decision was to give nonprofits grants for general operating expenses rather than for specific programs, a decision that went against some conventional thinking.

“Some funders penalize nonprofits for good performance,” said Carlotta Baca, former director of the New Mexico Association of Grantmakers. “But a good funder elevates performance among its grantees. One way Owen did that was giving grants for operating costs. That’s the biggest, most import thing he did.”

Good grantmaking, according to Lopez, is part intuition, part analysis, but depends on picking good leaders. (A former colleague said a favorite saying of Lopez’s is, “I don’t bet on the horses. I bet on the jockeys.”)

Early in his career, he recalled giving $10,000 to the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, because “they were three young men who seemed to have it together.” Today, the nonprofit is a $2 million-plus operation with government contracts.

“Do you invest in the restaurant or the chef?” asked Rasmussen. “I think the chef was very important to him. He cared about who led the organization, personified its mission and how much fidelity he or she had to carrying it out.”

Besides grantmaking, McCune also has played an important role as a convener, working with government, private groups and other nonprofits on issues requiring buy-in for many different parties. The foundation even built a conference center attached to the office to facilitate a role, Lopez said, that “comes naturally to me and my staff.”

And he used his contacts to persuade major national foundations to consider funding New Mexico causes over the years, and by his support sent strong signals to other funders about which organizations were worth supporting.

Taking risks

Many from the nonprofit community pointed out that throughout his time at McCune, Lopez was willing to take risks, even in recent years when its endowment, like that of other foundations, has shrunk substantially.

“A lot of foundations only want to invest in things sure to be successful. Owen was willing to take risks on places that were doing good work,” Rasmussen said.

“In most cases, he gave wisely, and even his risks were wise risks,” according to Baca. She recalled that during the latest recession when funders were hunkering down, switching to basics like food and shelter, Lopez “stuck to his guns and kept giving to all their areas of interest.”

Needless to say, not all of Lopez’s bets have paid off, although some may eventually. For example, the foundation is heavily involved in the revitalization of downtown Albuquerque, to which it initially committed $7 million. McCune controls the development rights for most of the area between 1st and 3rd streets and between Central and Lead. To date, it has lost several million dollars, but Lopez said the foundation believes these investments — up to $20 million now — might eventually pay off.

The foundation also is the prime mover behind New Mexico Community Capital, a venture capital fund that backs entrepreneurs who lack the capital to start and grow their own businesses. McCune was an early promoter and helped raise the first $15 million; now the organization is seeking another $25 million.

He didn’t often make mistakes, although those in the philanthropy community would say, “If you don’t make mistakes, you’re probably not doing your job in philanthropy.” But if he had made many, according to Baca, “We’d have heard. Santa Fe is the original quilting bee.”

Over the years, a prime focus of McCune has been food security — storehouses, feeding programs, farmers, farmers markets, policy issues, etc. Lopez has long supported the Santa Fe Farmers Market and helped pay for its building in the Railyard. “Has it solved the problem? No. Has it had an impact? Yes,” Lopez said.

Education, he admitted, has been “a tough nut to crack.” Overall, however, he said he’s been really impressed by the efforts of the state’s community colleges. “It’s been easier to support them than the major four-year institutions,” he said, adding, “My hat is off to Sheila Ortego [president of the Santa Fe Community College]. Their values are right on.”

Lopez was also interested in professionalizing nonprofit grantees. He funded a Santa Fe Community Foundation program to provide it with technical assistance to improve its operations.

“The great thing about Owen is he taught other foundations how to behave,” Baca said. “He was the first one who really said, ‘We have to stop inventing silly projects to get grants.’ Nonprofits were thrilled that someone understood what they really needed.”

While “some foundations continue to give a lot of money to dumb things, mostly because of personal connections,” she continued, Lopez rejected that practice and “professionalized the giving away of funds.”

“It’s not that easy to give away money,” Baca said.

A good listener

Plain-spoken, dynamic in his own quiet way, Lopez also was regarded as someone who gave you all his attention when you were in the room.

“McCune may not get any great acclaim” for some of its investments, but Lopez “knew where the needs were, because he was really a great listener,” Baca said.

To Rasmussen, who had moved to Santa Fe from Nebraska and found a mentor in Lopez, “he had the capacity for clarity unlike any other person I’d encountered. Even if that meant giving people bad news. Owen could say and do things that weren’t popular.”

And that earned him respect from the nonprofit community. “If people want to be popular, that’s easy. To be respected is more difficult, especially by groups you don’t fund,” Rasmussen pointed out.

Unlike the heads of some family foundations, who are extremely private, Lopez has a fairly high profile in Santa Fe. He publicly supported the city’s new convention center as a way to encourage tourism and economic development, and he made a bid to manage the city’s Railyard District through a nonprofit coalition. He regularly wrote letters to the editor, in various venues, and railed against the “patron system” that he said was holding New Mexico back.

He didn’t hesitate to criticize The New Mexican when the newspaper came down against a federal court decision reaffirming that groups (in this case New Mexico Youth Organized and the Southwest Organizing Project) cannot be forced to register as PACs because they spend money criticizing federal officials. And he defended the Center for Civic Policy for publicizing the voting records of legislators.

Herter said, “I remember asking him once [when she was still at Thaw] whether he thought we were making a difference. He said, ‘Well, we’re certainly helping things from getting worse.’ ”

Giving away somebody else’s money is a “hoot,” she added.

To which Lopez would say, “It was a privilege.”

Contact Anne Constable at 986-3022 or aconstable@sfnewmexican.com.


Owen Lopez, the basics

Owen Lopez was born and raised in Albuquerque. He said in a 2001 interview that his maternal great-grandfather came to New Mexico with the railroad and his father headed west from New Jersey to hang phone lines. His mother is Irish and his father is half Irish and half Hispanic.

Lopez went to Catholic school through the 10th grade, then to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where David Rockefeller Jr. was a classmate. Other students assumed Lopez was the son of a South American dictator. Lopez then attended Stanford University, where he planned to become a teacher of the classics.

Lopez had intended to continue on to graduate school at Stanford but instead went to Bogotá, Colombia, where he taught English as a second language. He finally returned to the U.S. to study law at the University of Notre Dame.

He later clerked for Judge Oliver Seth in Santa Fe, met his wife, Vicki, in 1969 and joined the law firm of Montgomery & Andrews. Subsequently, he opened the Hinkle Law Firm. He practiced law for 25 years before taking the job as executive director of The McCune Charitable Trust. Lopez and his wife, a former teacher, have two sons: Todd, a Santa Fe lawyer, and Christopher, who lives in Durango, Colo.

Lopez said he will not continue to advise McCune in a formal capacity. And he has promised his wife that he won’t serve on any boards for at least a year. His plans include making use of his senior citizen’s ski pass at Taos, working on his golf handicap (the coffee table in his office has a copy of Golf Resorts of the World), helping elect his brother, Floyd, to a state district judgeship in Taos and spending time with his four grandchildren.

 

McCune by the numbers

$110 million in assets
$5.5 million annual grants
700 requests for funding in 2012

Highlights

New Mexico Community Capital Corp., 2004: In partnership with New Mexico banks, other foundations and state government, helped create the first community development venture capital corporation in the Southwest.

Arts impact study, 2004: With Burnett and Azalea Foundations, funded study revealing that four out of every 10 dollars that come into Santa Fe from outside the county are directly related to arts and culture, and that 22 percent of the jobs in the city are from the arts-and-culture sector.

Institute of Entrepreneurial Development: Partnered with the state Economic Development Department and three rural communities (Silver City, Deming and Taos) to foster new business development by seeking out local residents with the skills and passion to start their own businesses and connecting entrepreneurs with existing business support programs.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2000: Funded a study into a $3 million shortfall at Santa Fe Public Schools that disclosed incompetence, but no fraud.

Mission of the Marshall L. and Perrine D. McCune Charitable Foundation

Enriching the health, education, environment, and cultural and spiritual lives of New Mexicans.

 

The McCunes

Marshall Lockhart McCune was born Dec. 17, 1908, in Pittsburgh, the fifth child and fourth son of a banker and an oil company heir. After graduating from Princeton University in 1930, he volunteered as an officer in the U.S. Army during World War II and was stationed in the Far East as a Special Services officer. In 1946, he received an honorable discharge from the Army and was told by his cousin, who had summered at Ghost Ranch, that he should visit New Mexico. After a lengthy trip through the Southwest and West, Marshall’s journey ended in Santa Fe, where he settled at Bishop’s Lodge.

Perrine C. Dixon was born Oct. 27, 1904, in New Orleans. She was the only child of William A. Dixon, a banker, and his wife, Corrine Kilpatrick. Her grandfather, Dr. Brandt V. B. Dixon, was the first president of Sophie Newcomb College, the women’s coordinate college of Tulane University. In 1925, she graduated from Sophie Newcomb College. Perrine’s father, never a well man, was instructed by his doctor to retire to the Southwest, as his health would deteriorate in the Gulf Coast climate. The family then moved to Santa Fe.

The McCunes met at a party at Bishop’s Lodge. They married in Bishop Lamy’s Chapel on Jan. 6, 1949, and lived in Tesuque. They were principal supporters of the Santa Fe Opera, the Maternal and Child Health Center, the School of American Research (now called the School for Advanced Research), the Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Fe, and other charitable causes.

Marshall died Dec. 13, 1975. In 1989, Perrine McCune established the McCune Charitable Foundation to further their philanthropic legacy. She died March 7, 1991.

Source: nmmccune.org

Grant recipients

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, general operating expenses

Chimayó Cultural Preservation Association, quarter-time arts coordinator and supplies

Duke City Chorus, for performances by the barbershop chorus

Fine Arts for Children and Teens, general operating expenses

Flickinger Center for Performing Arts, free professional events for rural students

Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, general operating expenses

Las Cruces International Mariachi Conference

Los Niños del Teatro/Taos Children’s Theatre, for a tour of 7 counties in Northern New Mexico

Millicent Rogers Museum, 4 community days to encourage family participation

Museum of New Mexico Foundation/International Folk Art Market

Museum of New Mexico Shops, creative initiative between shops and New Mexico artists

National Hispanic Cultural Center, general operating expenses

Open Hands, general operating expenses

Pen New Mexico, Cities of Asylum project

Santa Fe Art Institute, watershed project

Santa Fe Community Foundation, general operating expenses

Santa Fe Opera, new administrative office wing; performance of The Pirates of Penzance

Statuary Hall Foundation, creation of statue of Popé

World Poetry Bout Association, education project

New Mexico Community Foundation, Buy New Mexico Project

Pueblo of Jemez Department of Resource Protection, orchard project

Santa Fe Business Incubator, general operating funds

Santa Fe Farmers Market Institute, planning for post-building phase

Santa Fe Railyard Community Corp., national marketing campaign

UNM Anderson School of Management, to commercialize

UNM faculty-created technology

Abiquiú Public Library, general operating expenses

Amy Biehl High School, general operating expenses

All Saints Catholic School, computer tables and chairs

Boys & Girls Club of Northern New Mexico, general operating funds

Capitan Public Library Volunteer Organizations, monthly art classes

Cooking with Kids, general operating expenses

Desert Academy, general operating expenses

Fine Arts for Children and Teens, in-school programs

Institute of American Indian Arts, Library and Technology Center

Literacy Volunteers of America/Cibola County, general operating expenses

KNME-Albuquerque, production of public affairs programs

Mentoring New Mexico, peer tutoring program in Santa Fe Public Schools

Pink Church Art Center, to build all-strings programs at Ramirez Thomas Elementary School and Ortiz Middle School

Santa Fe Preparatory School, Breakthrough Santa Fe initiative for public middle school students

School for Advanced Research, general operating expenses

St. John’s College, scholarships for Saturday symposium series for teachers

Teach for America/Navajo Reservation, to increase number and quality of teachers in northwestern New Mexico

YouthWorks, for counseling service for students in Santa Fe Public Schools

Acequia de Alcalde, development of water bank

Acequia de La Cienega Ditch Association, for studies of impact of private water wells upstream

Amigos Bravos, general operating expenses

Bicycle Coalition of New Mexico, general operating expenses

Audubon New Mexico, capital improvements and education programs

Cerrillos Hills Park Coalition, trail system in Cerrillos Hills Historic Park

Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, fact-based technical assessment of the Rio Grande Watershed

Dixon Animal Protection Society, general operating expenses

Farm to Table, organization expansion

Ecoversity, scholarships

Earthworks Institute, general operating expenses

Nature Conservancy Inc., mechanical thinning and prescribed burning of forest land in the Jemez Mountains

New Mexico Environmental Law Center, legal representation to New Mexico citizens fighting to protect their communities from environmental degradation

New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance, Night Sky Program

Quivira Coalition, general operating expenses

Taos Land Trust, general operating expenses

Trust for Public Land, general operating expenses

Wildlife Center, Española, general operating expenses

Alzheimer’s Association, development of dementia-care curriculum

Community End of Life Care Network, development of integrated end-of-life care community based model

Friends Forever Foundation, trips to Disney World for 12 critically ill New Mexico children and their families

La Familia Medical Center, general operating expenses

Villa Therese Catholic Clinic, general operating expenses

UNM Young Children’s Health Center, general operating funds

Acoma Pueblo Boys & Girls Club, drama program building self-esteem

Atalaya Search & Rescue, rescue equipment and training

Assistance Dogs of the West, general operating expenses

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northern New Mexico, statewide strategic plan

Catholic Charities, support services to grandparents raising grandchildren

Food Depot, general operating expenses

First Serve-New Mexico, general operating expenses

Gerard’s House, general operating expenses

Monastery of Christ in the Desert, general operating funds