The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation board announced Tuesday that acting president, Wendy Guillies, will lead the Kansas City, Mo. grant maker.
Ms. Guillies, a 15-year veteran of the foundation, is Kauffman’s fourth president in less than four years. The grant maker, which has about $2 billion in assets, focuses on expanding entrepreneurship, improving education, and supporting local efforts in the Kansas City region.
The foundation’s trustees conducted a national search that lasted several months, according to board member John Sherman.
"In the final analysis, it was clear that the best candidate to lead us into the future was already here," he said in a statement.
In January 2012, longtime president Carl Schramm stepped down. He had been criticized for placing a priority on making grants for entrepreneurs at the expense of the foundation’s local and educational efforts. During his tenure, three board members resigned because they disagreed with his vision for the organization, and the Missouri attorney general investigated the foundation and eventually cleared it of engaging in illegal activity.
Upon Mr. Schramm’s departure, Benno Schmidt served as interim president until December 2012, when Tom McDonnell, a former chairman of the foundation’s board, took over. Last May, Mr. McDonnell left, and Ms. Guillies, then the foundation’s vice president for communications, was promoted to acting president.
After Mr. Schramm left, Ms. Guillies, 51, played a key role in developing a 10-year strategy for the foundation.
The leadership churn, she said, has had minimal effect.
"We’re a resilient organization," she said. "We have a great plan. People are motivated by the mission, and that hasn’t changed."
Under Kauffman’s strategy, which was formalized last year, the foundation will maintain its own entrepreneurial programs, but it plans to increase funding to outside organizations that support start-up companies. Later this summer, the foundation plans to announce competitive grants for groups that want to grow and reach more entrepreneurs. Ms. Guillies said the level of support had not been finalized.
During the past five years, the foundation’s educational work has centered on its own charter school and the Kauffman Scholars college scholarship program.
Over the next several years, the foundation will begin developing a new scholarship program to replace Kauffman Scholars, which sunsets in 2022. The grant maker would like to build on lessons learned at its own charter school. Ms. Guillies plans to do this both through larger collaborations — like it did in January when it joined the Hall and Walton family foundations and put a combined $2.65 million toward the construction of four Citizens of the World charter schools in Kansas City — and by making smaller grants to individual schools.
"When schools can start small and receive substantial funding at the outset, they can bake in effective practices," she said. "We can help them scale up and improve what they’re doing."
As the foundation sorted out its leadership roster and finalized its strategy last year, grant making leaped 189 percent to top $72 million. The foundation expects grants to remain level this year.
Business and political leaders praised Ms. Guillies’s appointment.
“We have had the honor of working with Wendy over the years and are tremendously excited about her new role,” said Jean Case, chief executive of the Case Foundation.
"Her focus on creating a more productive environment for entrepreneurs is widely recognized across the country, making her an incredible ambassador for Kansas City and the ideal person to lead the foundation moving forward," said Marcelo Claure, president of Sprint, in a statement. Sprint’s headquarters is right outside Kansas City, Kan., and the company has worked on several efforts with the foundation.
Kansas City Mayor Sly James said Ms. Guillies had a "passion" for the city and a deep knowledge of education and entrepreneurship.
Ms. Guillies joins a number of major foundation leaders who have risen through the ranks. LaJune Montgomery Tabron was named president of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in 2013 after serving in various roles for 26 years. The same year Darren Walker, an insider, was picked to lead the Ford Foundation. Most recently, the top job at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation was given to Julia Stasch, who had led the grant maker's U.S. programs and served as interim president.
Twenty-five leaders at the nation’s top 100 foundations were promoted from within, according to a May analysis by the Center for Effective Philanthropy. That’s up slightly from 2012, when the center found that 21 of the nation’s leading foundation chiefs were internal hires.
Often, foundation experts said, people hired from within are effective leaders because they start with a thorough knowledge of the organization.
Debbie Wilkerson, president of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation said Ms. Guillies didn’t act as a provisional leader when she was made acting president.
"Wendy knows all the inner workings of the foundation," she said. "She owned that job."
Foundation trustees are unlikely to "jump ship" and hire an outsider if they have an internal candidate who understands the culture of the institution, said Leslie Lenkowsky, a philanthropy expert at Indiana University and Chronicle columnist. That’s particularly true at a grant maker with a big regional footprint like Kauffman, he said, which has tightly bound relationships with business, nonprofit, and government leaders.
"The trustees will have a certain sense of caution," he says. "They know the foundation is closely watched, and promoting from within isn’t surprising."