The term “Midwestern values” has come to mean honesty, a strong work ethic, modesty, helping others, and keeping one’s word. Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. was the personification of “Midwestern values.”
Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1918, Ralph was raised in the Detroit area, which he called home for the rest of his life. After completing college at the University of Virginia, his time at law school at the University of Michigan was interrupted by service on a U.S. Navy minesweeper in both the Atlantic and Pacific theatres during World War II. Ralph returned from military duty to work in the insurance business owned by his father, whose influence on his career he often acknowledged. Over time, Ralph moved into a number of other industries, including construction, radio and television, and professional football. He is best known as the founder and owner, for 54 years, of the Buffalo Bills football team, his proudest and most significant professional achievement.
Much has been written about Ralph’s success and influence in both business and football. The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation is poised to become an equally important testament to its founder. Ralph’s legacy of giving will guide who we are and what we do. His passing at the age of 95 in 2014 gave rise to his ultimate act of generosity: Proceeds from the highly successful sale of his beloved Buffalo Bills of the National Football League have been directed by him into the Foundation, making it one of the largest in the nation.
As the trustees named by Ralph to carry on the work of the Foundation, we aspire to reflect and honor his values, so that his name will be identified as closely to his extraordinary generosity as it has been with his visionary leadership and success in professional sports and business. We expect the Foundation to be a catalyst for the kind of transformative impact that was the hallmark of Ralph’s life.
Ralph’s essential qualities were clear for all to see. An optimist and a fierce competitor, he was guided by the clarity of his convictions. He was a person of unquestioned integrity and believed in always playing by the rules. He expected and received deep loyalty from those close to him and he was equally loyal to them in return. Because of these essential characteristics, people justifiably placed their trust in him. Ralph thrived on taking risks in business, sports and life, but he was humble when he won and got back up and started all over again when he lost.
Ralph was not flashy. He was most comfortable in a blue sweater, Buffalo Bills shirt and tennis shoes. For him, people mattered more than tangible things. He championed the “every man” above all others, displaying a deep respect for “difference makers” in all walks of life. For each of the four years that the Buffalo Bills played in the Super Bowl, Ralph made sure that everyone in the organization, from top executives to the custodial staff, traveled to be a part of the game. For Ralph and his wife, the fans were what owning the Buffalo Bills was all about. Walking through the stadium after a game, they were greeted with an outpouring of affection and appreciation from those fans, who lifted them up through their loyalty to the team and their unwavering expression of what the Bills meant to the Buffalo region.
Ralph’s philanthropy was guided by a big heart and a love of people, which led him to support causes, individuals and organizations whose needs resonated with him. His abiding passion for sports was evident in his underwriting of recreational opportunities for youth, women and girls, and seniors. His commitment to excellence led him to support organizations that provided high quality health care for both his loved ones and himself. Ralph was moved by people in need and felt true joy in being in a position to help them. There are countless stories from those who benefited from his generosity during times of crisis or hardship. Ralph loved to create opportunities for people to advance and expressed deep gratification in supporting those in need.
In launching this Foundation, Ralph deliberately chose not to restrict the discretion of its trustees. Instead of limiting the opportunities in which the Foundation may devote its resources, he entrusted his trustees with the privilege and responsibility to define the Foundation’s mission. It is our intention to carry out this task in ways that honor his legacy, while meeting the demonstrated needs of the places that meant so much to him.
Consistent with his desire to have an impact on everything he touched, Ralph directed that this Foundation spend down its entire corpus within twenty years. In this way he hoped that the Foundation’s work will be completed within the lifetimes of those who knew him best and that its impact will be immediate, substantial and measurable.
We approach this effort with enormous gratitude for the trust that Ralph has placed in us, with humility over the magnitude of our responsibility, and with true joy at the prospect of making a difference as we steward the Foundation’s resources in ways that do justice to his humanity.
Ralph woke up each day laughing. He loved life. He loved people. His final gift to the world is this: the Foundation that bears his name.
The Trustees of The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, governed by its founder’s 20- year spend down requirement as now set forth in its articles of incorporation, adopts the following as its Foundation Charter:
The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation will operate as a grant-making organization, dedicated primarily to sustained investment in the quality of life of the people of Western New York and Southeastern Michigan.
The Foundation will be guided by three defining and uncompromising values:
× Outcomes: We will be driven to be effective in all that we do and to achieve positive sustainable outcomes for our communities.
× Teamwork: We will seek to collaborate with fellow grant makers and members of the non-profit community.
× Innovation: We understand and are willing to accept the risk that accompanies investment in innovative strategies.
Below are the core funding areas for the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation. It is important to note that within each, the Foundation will look to leverage good work already underway – connecting that work when appropriate – and collaborate for greatest impact.
× Children and Youth
Outside of K-12 education, what investments can best put kids on the path to successful and fulfilled lives?
Early childhood initiatives, sports and youth development programs, after school programs are part of the mix to strengthen young minds and bodies.
× Young Adults and Working Class Families
Often weighed down by heavy demands and limited resources, working class families and young adults many times have limited career opportunities.
The Foundation’s investments will revolve around skills training and education that can lead to pathways to good paying jobs and increased independence.
The role of caregiver can be demanding and overwhelming.
The Foundation will look to support and honor those who care for others – whether paid or voluntarily – by supporting efforts that provide needed skills, resources, education and respite.
× Healthy Communities
In this area, Foundation investments will look for:
Opportunities to support design and access to spaces, and programs that support healthy living, support non-profit productivity and innovation in order to increase service impacts; and find economic development levers that spur regional growth, innovation and equity.
× Southeastern Michigan
× Western New York
× In those other places where special opportunities present themselves in our programmatic priorities
× Our task as grant makers is to find and fund non-profits that will advance our mission in the regions and programmatic priorities on which we’ve chosen to focus. We will seek out those that are best of class and those that, with appropriate support, show promise of getting there.
Non Profit Sector Productivity:
× A healthy, vibrant, growing community needs all sectors (private, nonprofit and government) operating efficiently. Our task is to invest in the productivity of the nonprofit sector within our core regions.
× Inside of our core regions we will collaborate with others to make grants to transformative projects that advance our mission there.
× We will make grants to transformative projects outside of our regions that advance our programmatic priorities.