News and analysis
November 20, 2013

Barr Foundation Taps Irvine Leader as Its 1st President

Jim Canales

James Canales, chief executive of the James Irvine Foundation, announced Wednesday he will step down early next year to become the first president of the Barr Foundation, a philanthropy that is on the verge of a national and international expansion.

The Barr Foundation, in Boston, was created by two intensely private living donors, the cable-TV billionaire Amos Barr Hostetter Jr. and his wife, Barbara. They now want to expand their Boston-centric organization’s nascent national and global giving.

Forbes estimates Mr. Hostetter’s wealth at $2.9-billion, ranking him in the top half of the magazine’s list of the nation’s 400 wealthiest individuals. The Barr Foundation has $1.4-billion in assets and has been awarding about $60-million in grants in recent years. That is slightly smaller than the Irvine Foundation, which awarded $74.5-million in grants in 2012 and has $1.65-billion in assets.

Expanded Influence

Mr. Canales, who has led the Irvine Foundation for 10 years, will have a rare opportunity to craft a strategy to put the Barr Foundation in a position to become a national leader on issues such as combating climate change, a longtime priority of the foundation.

The Hostetters will also make room for Mr. Canales on their now two-person board of trustees when he starts the new job in May.

“The time is right for a new challenge,” Mr. Canales said in an interview. “The ability to work in tandem with the Hostetters made this a hugely attractive opportunity.”

Mr. Canales said he was attracted to the position after learning of the Hostetters’ desire to expand their influence regionally in the Northeast by forging new partnerships with other nonprofits to combine resources, while expanding their national and international grant making.

The Hostetters want to maintain their focus on Boston while contemplating “future growth and expansion,” an Irvine Foundation news release states.

“They’re thinking hard about how they organize the Barr Foundation work to have greater impact going forward and to position the foundation as a leadership institution,” Mr. Canales said.

Diana Aviv, chief executive of Independent Sector, said the Barr Foundation’s search firm called her earlier this year to ask for names of potential candidates and stated that the organization was looking for a leader who could help the foundation become a statewide and national player. Its most recent executive director, Patricia Brandes, retired in June.

Ms. Aviv said the Barr Foundation presidency will give Mr. Canales an opportunity to lead an organization with greater reach. Mr. Canales has been a much sought-after foundation leader for conferences and seminars, Ms. Aviv said. In 2010 President Barack Obama appointed Mr. Canales to the White House Council for Community Solutions. But, she added, the Irvine Foundation’s California focus limited his abilities to become more of a national voice.

“This will give him a larger platform even as [Barr] remains deeply committed to Massachusetts,” Ms. Aviv said. “It’s a huge opportunity to grow something, to fashion it, to shape it, to broaden it.”

Leading With Humility

Darren Walker, chief executive of the Ford Foundation, said Mr. Canales is well suited for the unique and sensitive work of helping living donors with such large resources develop new giving strategies.

“It’s rare for a leader to leave an established legacy foundation like Irvine for a newer, living-donor foundation,” Mr. Walker said. “I think he is exactly what the Barr Foundation needs if it now wants to extend its reach and impact beyond the Boston area.”

He said Mr. Canales’s extensive experience and networks built over two decades as a foundation professional at Irvine will serve the Hostetters well. He also said Mr. Canales’s personality will be a good fit.

“It takes a special set of skills to successfully lead a philanthropy with a living donor,” Mr. Walker said: “humility, patience, a real sense of being a steward and recognizing that it’s not your money.”

Mr. Canales wrote in an August opinion article for The Chronicle that an “embrace of humility” is a trait that foundations and their leaders must possess to “become more transparent and less insulated.”

He says he shares that trait with the Hostetters.

Barbara Hostetter mentioned his humility as well.

“The integrity and value that Jim brings to his work set an inspired standard of excellence,” she said. “His humility reminds us all that the purpose of our work is to be in service to others.”

Greater Transparency

But Mr. Canales will have a long way to go in enhancing the Barr Foundation’s transparency. Its website provides no detailed financial reports about its work and does not even mention the Hostetters.

The Irvine Foundation website, meanwhile, provides federal tax returns, financial statements, program evaluations, a grants database, and the governing policies of the board of directors, among many other publicly available documents.

Greg Avis, chairman of Irvine Foundation’s board, said in a statement that Mr. Canales is leaving the organization “in a very strong position.”

“We will certainly miss Jim’s exemplary leadership and are deeply grateful for his remarkable tenure of 10 years as president and CEO,” Mr. Avis said.

Under Mr. Canales’s leadership, the foundation focused its grantmaking on three areas: the arts, California democracy, and youths. The strategy has helped position Irvine as a state leader on such issues as better preparing high-school students for careers, college, or other postsecondary credentials.

During his decade as chief executive, the Irvine Foundation increased its grant making by 33 percent and its assets by 21 percent.

Mr. Canales has been a lifelong Californian who earned a master’s degree in education from Stanford University. But he says he welcomes the geographic shift. He noted that his partner, the physician Jim McCann, is a native of Massachusetts, where his extended family still resides.

Said Mr. Canales in a statement: “On a personal note, I am embracing the adventure of a move to Boston, a city with many similarities to my hometown of San Francisco, including a World Series trophy.”

Barr Foundation: A Sampling of Recent Grants

Arts and Culture

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: $3-million

New England Aquarium Corporation: $2.5-million


Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Inc.: $1-million

Conservation Law Foundation: $650,000


Family Independence Initiative: $330,000

Hyde Square Task Force: $100,000


Children’s Investment Fund: $760,000

Boston Plan for Excellence: $600,000


Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia: $900,000

Mercy Corps: $600,000

Send an e-mail to Doug Donovan.