Jim and Karen Ansara

Addressing Poverty at Home and Abroad Through a Donor Advised Fund

Boston Foundation donors Jim and Karen Keating Ansara both have deep roots in the Greater Boston community.  Jim Ansara grew up here and started a successful construction business called Shawmut Design and Construction. And at the suggestion of her uncle and role model—Boston attorney Michael Keating—Karen Ansara traveled to Boston from Chicago in the early ‘70s for an internship with Summerthing, an arts program that brought her into some neighborhoods that were experiencing high rates of poverty.

In her words, that summer “transformed my goals for my life.”  She decided to return to Boston to attend college and, while a student at Wellesley College, developed a profound interest in issues related to poverty—in developing countries and in the U.S.

Karen and Jim Ansara

The Ansaras married in 1983, and while Karen worked on her Masters in Divinity at Andover Newton Theological School, Jim continued to build his business, which eventually would provide them with the resources to become philanthropists.  They built their family through a series of adoptions, first adopting an American boy and then, after a trip to Peru where they saw orphaned children living in grueling poverty, adopting children from Latin America.  Eventually, they adopted three children from Ecuador.

“Through our adoptions, we witnessed poverty firsthand,” says Karen, “which led to our initial experiments with philanthropy.  After funding some direct service projects in Ecuador, we realized that we wanted to get at the root causes of extreme poverty—which led to our interest in programs that deal with social and economic change on a systemic level.”

While the Ansaras opened a private foundation in the mid-nineties they decided that professional grantmaking services would help them to be more strategic in their giving—so in 2006 they opened a Donor Advised Fund at the Boston Foundation.

“We were in the process of learning what we were good at and what we needed help with,” explains Jim, “and that led us to the Boston Foundation.  Grantmaking is hard in the U.S. and even harder in developing countries.  The Foundation helped us to get organized and put procedures in place that assisted us in the way we think about our grantmaking.  We became very comfortable with the Boston Foundation—and the staff has helped us to be more effective in our giving.”

The Ansaras’ international giving reflects their commitment to human rights and development, through major support for organizations like Oxfam America.  They also invest in young organizations with dynamic, entrepreneurial visions.  “Part of what we do is provide capacity-building grants to organizations that we think can become models for other programs,” explains Jim.  For instance, a number of grants from the fund have gone to the dZi Foundation, which supports health, education and community development programs in the Himalayan region of India and Nepal.

“The Boston Foundation has helped us to launch a collaborative group called New England International Donors,” says Karen. “We’ve held a couple of meetings at the Foundation and we’re hoping the group will help to strengthen international giving.”

To a lesser degree the Ansaras have focused their giving on poverty in the United States. A grant to Share Our Strength is helping that organization to pursue its mission of ending childhood hunger in America.  Closer to home, the Ansaras have made a major commitment to StreetSafe Boston, a public-private partnership designed to prevent and  reduce youth violence in Boston neighborhoods affected by high rates of violent crime.

“We know some of the neighborhoods StreetSafe Boston is focused on,” says Karen.  “Jim’s business has been based in Roxbury and the South End and we lived in Dorchester for years.  Many families in these neighborhoods are struggling with poverty, which is really at the root of most inner-city problems, including youth violence.”  Jim adds: “We believe this program can make a real difference.”

Like many other donors, the economic crisis has prompted the Ansaras to make grants to organizations providing food and shelter to families in Greater Boston.  “The Boston Foundation was very helpful in identifying some nonprofits that needed funds,” explains Karen.  “Ultimately, whether our grants go to international causes or a program in Boston, our goal is to give money away in an ethical and responsible way, and the Boston Foundation is helping us do just that.”