Billion Dollar Baby: How Will the New Ralph C. Wilson Foundation Spend Its Big Money?

Ralph C. Wilson Jr., was the founder and owner of the Buffalo Bills. He was the third longest-tenured coach in league history, owning the western New York team for over five decades. When he passed away in 2014 at the age of 95, he was also the oldest owner. Apart from sports, Wilson also had a career in business, taking over his father's insurance business and investing in Michigan area mines and factories. He eventually purchased several manufacturing outlets, construction firms, television and radio stations, and founded Ralph Wilson Industries.

Why am I telling you all of this?

Well, in life, in addition to being active in sports and business, Wilson was also a very active philanthropist, particularly in the Buffalo area, as well as in Michigan. On paper, the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation hasn't looked particularly overwhelming in recent years. The foundation did around $1.6 million in grantmaking in 2013, and held assets of around $4.8 million. One of its larger recent grants was $206,000 to the University of Buffalo Foundation.

Well, all that's about to change, thanks to a huge bequest. When Wilson passed last year, his estate sold the Buffalo Bills for a whopping $1.4 billion and Wilson left around $1 billion to be steered toward charity. The result? A roughly $5 million foundation became a $1 billion one.


To put this all in context, we've written a lot about the money waiting in the wings from the 100 year old David Rockefeller when he passes; somewhere in the neighborhood of $560 million will go to philanthropy. Well, Wilson's bequest has topped even that, and this is a guy that many haven't really heard of outside of Buffalo and the NFL.

So far, the revamped Ralph C. Wilson Foundation appears to have awarded just one grant last year: $50,000 to American Red Cross of Western and Central New York to help local residents recover from a strong snowstorm that hit the area in November. 

But this latest phase of Wilson's philanthropy is just getting started. For now, officials have stated that the foundation is engaging in a “transitional legacy grant program” through the duration of 2015 and that no new applications will be accepted. Part of the process involves staffing the rebooted Wilson Foundation.

Recent tax records, filed prior to the bequest, include a short list of staff that includes his wife Mary Wilson, Wilson’s niece Mary M. Owen and longtime Wilson associates Eugene Driker and Jeffrey Littmann. These trustees will continue to be involved with the foundation going forward but it's likely others will come aboard as well.

As for what lies ahead, while Wilson indicated that he wanted his philanthropy to target western New York and southeastern Michigan, it's possible that other areas will be targeted as well, or that national groups can get a piece of the action. We've seen that pattern before: a big foundation that mainly has a local focus, but with a few priorities that lead to more far-flung grantmaking. And locally focused foundations can also channel money to national groups that bring initiatives to their region. All of which is why it may pay to keep an eye on the new Ralph C. Wilson Foundation as it gets up and running. 

It's also worth digging into the career that Wilson had in life as a philanthropist. Historically, he has had an interest in health and established the Ralph Wilson Medical Research Foundation. The foundation has contributed over $11 million to support medical research, and together with the Wilson Foundation, supported outfits such as Buffalo’s Roswell Park Cancer Institute, the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, and Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. And Wilson served as honorary chair for the Alzheimer’s Association for the Detroit Area Chapter.

Another Wilson interest is education. He helped establish scholarship programs at various colleges including Canisius College, SUNY Fredonia and St. John Fisher College. Wilson established a perpetual scholarship program at Canisius College for student athletes beginning in 1995. He also endowed the University of Virginia’s Jefferson Scholars Foundation with a scholarship fund for Buffalo area students wanting to go to UVA.

Finally, while Wilson no longer has any stake in the Bills, it's possible that he's interested in sports-related programming. Wilson founded the Buffalo Bills Youth Foundation in the late 1980s to support youth-related charities in Western New York, and he supported USA Football’s Heads Up Football, a program that teaches youth safer sports techniques.

Whatever it does, the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation has the ability to go big, now that it has $1 billion to work with.