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Architect/philanthropist John Larsen talks about going beyond grantmaking

For Larsen, philanthropy needs to explore options beyond writing checks — like new partnerships with government.

"I believe that wealth happens when you start giving money away. When you realize that you have enough so that you can give generously."
Photo by Bill Kelley
The Line

From the carriage house next to John Larsen’s home on Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis, Larsen and business partner Ted Barnhill run the residential architecture firm Design 45 (named for the 45th parallel of latitude, which runs through our towns). The home, which Larsen shares with life partner Michael Stewart, is an architectural and interior-design phenomenon in itself, gutted and reconfigured by Larsen with a major infusion of Green tech, then turned into 2012’s American Society of Interior Designers showcase home via an A-list team of local interior designers. 

But Larsen builds more than houses. He’s a keen philanthropist, board president of the family foundation set up by his grandmother and his parents, John and Karen. He’s the winner of the 2010 Engaged Philanthropist Award from the Minnesota Community Foundation and Social Venture Partners. And he and Stewart give 50 percent of their incomes to charity yearly. The Line caught up with Larsen in the second-floor home studio where he paints.

The Line: John Larsen, how did you morph from an architect into an architect/philanthropist?

John Larsen: From the time I was really young, I was interested in architecture. I had the great opportunity to go traveling in many parts of the world, because my grandma took our whole family on trips. We went to Egypt and saw the pyramids, to northern Europe to see Scandinavian architecture, to the Caribbean, to southern Europe to see Athens, the Parthenon, Ephesus. I was traveling between 10 and 18, and everybody was always talking about architecture, and I began to see how amazing it was. Then my dad had a friend with a civil engineering firm; they had drafting tables and other cool things. And I said, “hey, this is what I want to do.”

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I got to college and to architecture school, about halfway through my professional degree, and really began to question if it was the right thing for me. I took a step back and actually found that I couldn’t just do architecture. That couldn’t be all that my life was about. It was interesting, fun; I knew that I could help people doing it and that I was pretty good at it, but I needed to be more in service, more involved in community.

Some of it had to do with recovery — with becoming a total screw-up by the time I was 21, and then sobering up and taking a step back. That was involved in it, too. It became very clear to me that I needed to do quite a bit of volunteering, working in community, working in nonprofits, and things like that.

I was really fortunate in that my grandmother gave me a lot of money when I was fairly young. I didn’t earn it; it was incredible to have it, but it didn’t feel right to me to just hold on to it.

Real wealth

There’s another interesting factor that comes in here. I have watched people struggle with how much money they have, and heard them say that if they just had more money their life would be happy. About 10 or 15 years ago there was a survey of business executives in Chicago that asked them about their financial situation. These guys were making between 1 and 5 million dollars a year, and they were asked if they had enough money, and if they didn’t, what would be enough? Well, not a single one said that they were making enough money. Not only that; they all said that if they were making a million more a year, their financial problems would go away!

That’s absolutely crazy. I believe that wealth happens when you start giving money away. When you realize that you have enough so that you can give generously. And I see that people who give away more money often act wealthier. They feel wealthier. I feel wealthier. Michael and I for a few years have given away 50 percent of our personal income, and it just feels right.

The Line: And you are also the president of your family foundation.

John Larsen: Yes. The John Larsen Foundation is an endowment that gives 5 percent of its assets away. I’m the board president of the foundation; it’s been around for 20 or 25 years. It was set up as a legal entity — in case my grandma died and she wanted to do something with her estate. It was around for a while, and then before my grandma died she funded it with four or five million dollars.

At that point we started meeting as a board; I was the secretary and my dad was the president. He ran it for several years; then he saw how involved I was — I was basically doing most of the work, well, all of the work of the foundation — and he thought it would make sense for me to be the president of it. It’s pretty nominal; our family acts as a consensus board, and I don’t think we’ve ever failed to have a full consensus on anything we’ve funded.

The issues

The Line: What causes do you fund?

John Larsen: With the family foundation, we all have different passions. My dad really loves turkey hunting and cabin culture and supporting environmental issues. I love environmentalism, too, but my interest in it is broader than that. My passion is also around LGBT rights — which is something my whole family shares. Maybe half of our grantmaking goes to LGBT issues now, but also to the arts, education, and early childhood issues. As for my giving with Mike, LGBT issues are important to us, and so is environmentalism.

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John Larsen
Photo by Bill Kelley
“My passion is also around LGBT rights — which is something my whole family shares.”

That’s expressed in this house, by the way — this is a Minnesota GreenStar Gold house, so it’s super-Green; we’ve got photovoltaic panels on the roof, geothermal heating; it’s painted with VOC-zero paint. Pretty much everything is locally sourced. It’s super-insulated, full of re-used things … you name it.

We support the arts too — but we try to keep a good chunk of our focus on LGBT issues.

Restorative justice has become an important piece for us, too — Mike is really involved with that — and youth homelessness has become a big deal as well. We funded the GLBT Host-Home Program of Avenues for Homeless Youth, and we take part in it, too; we have a young woman living with us. Now before Mike and I lived together, I was giving money to that organization, but I thought, I don’t know how I would ever actually be a host; how do you invite somebody you don’t know to come live in your home and share your most personal space, safely?

But after Mike and I had lived together for maybe five years it became a question: Why aren’t we doing this? I work out of the carriage house, Mike works out of the home, and we’re here all the time. We have resources and a big house, and a very stable relationship. So it felt like a no-brainer. And it’s been a great gift for us.

Beyond grantmaking

The Line: How has your idea of philanthropy evolved as you’ve made these commitments?

John Larsen: For one thing, I’m really interested in program-related investments. It’s one of the ways that we leverage more than just our grantmaking dollars in helping us see our mission through.

Around the time of the housing crisis we started doing some significant program-related investment, where we were helping sustainable housing, low-cost housing; instead of people losing their homes, maybe underwriting low-cost CDs that go into a pool that then support lowered interest rates for people who can’t afford to keep their houses unless that happens. Other program-related investments: Many nonprofits were struggling to get lines of credit. We backed those lines of credit so that they could get them.

Also, we vote all our proxies with a pretty serious conscience. For example, we’re very environmentally sensitive, so any opportunity to vote for better environmental policies on the part of any corporation — we’ll do that. LGBT inclusiveness: any domestic partner benefits, that kind of thing. Diversity on boards, diversity of staff; we’re always in support of that. We’ve supported employee ownership of companies. So there a re a number of ways in which we are leveraging assets.

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I think we have some really spectacular leadership in our foundations in Minnesota, and I’m inspired by many of those leaders. But there are still so many ideas out there that need to be tested. And I think that the nonprofit community, in partnership with foundations that are willing to take a risk, well, that’s a place where those ideas can be tested.

Untested areas

The Line: What are some of the areas for innovation, for testing, as you see them?

John Larsen: I’d like to see more engagement in areas of advocacy. Foundations have some money, government has a ton of money. Government is spending money in ways that are sometimes smart and sometimes not. Foundations have learned through their relationships with nonprofits about what’s working and what isn’t. Taking that knowledge into a discussion about how the foundations might engage with government is something that could happen a great deal more often than it does.

John Larsen
Photo by Bill Kelley
“I think we have some really spectacular leadership in our foundations in Minnesota, and I’m inspired by many of those leaders.”

Many foundations feel they can’t do this, that this will risk their tax-exempt status. But there all kinds of ways that foundations can fund work that will ultimately influence how government works and what government is involved in. Many foundations are hesitant to go there, but I think there is room for a lot more of that.

And most foundations don’t use their assets as a way to create change and achieve their missions. These are the things I mentioned — program-related investment, how you vote your proxies, and shareholder resolutions — foundations have a lot of assets, and they can use them.

Also, for many years we’ve had a nondiscrimination form that all of our nonprofits must sign in order to be in relationship with us; all of our vendors have to agree to it as well. That form talks about all kinds of diversity, and it goes above and beyond the law. It’s an amazing tool to, first, start a conversation with an organization on what they care about, and what we care about, and see if they align; and then, beyond that, we’ve seen organizations change their policies just because we’ve put that out there as something we care about.

There are so many ways to create change, and it’s not just grantmaking!

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.  Jon Spayde is Managing Editor of The Line.