A moving and personal tribute to the late Mott Foundation chairman, William S. White, from colleagues and friends Wendy Richardson and Leticia Ruiz-Capillas
The red and blue flashing lights in his review mirror – no doubt those of a Brussels police car – were unmistakable. His stomach sank as he dutifully pulled the car over. Gerry Salole, European Foundation Centre (EFC) chief executive and driver of the vehicle in question, rolled down his window, to be promptly lectured on how he had just driven the wrong way down a (quite visibly signposted) one-way street. In his defence, Gerry did know he was making an illegal turn. However, he had been trying to follow a car full of EFC staff (driven by an author of this piece… but we won’t name names) on their way to an evening reception.
Bill listened to us, and many other young people finding their way in the world of philanthropy, before it was trendy or ‘the thing to do’.
The injustice, of course, was the first car got away with making this illegal manoeuvre, while Gerry was pulled over, shamed, and then fined… all with then chief executive officer and chairman of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, William S. White (Bill), sitting in the front seat. Gerry’s mortification was complete. And Bill? He loved every second. He laughed all the way to the reception venue, and then spent the rest of the evening telling anyone who would listen the tale of Gerry’s brush with the law.
On 9 October 2019, Bill passed away. A few months on, as we sit to type this tribute with lumps in our throats, we are both still terribly heavy-hearted. The Bill in Gerry’s car that night – with a mischievous glint in his eye, full of humour and ready for adventure – is the Bill that we remember. With Bill around, one had to be on their toes. Just when you thought he had fallen asleep or not paid attention to a portion of a meeting, he would suddenly pipe up with one question, or a slightly cheeky comment, that could turn a discussion on its head.
Bill focused on the importance of building strong, resilient philanthropic infrastructure: a commitment he had honoured throughout his career.
Beyond his inclination for positive disruption, to us, he was a friend and a supporter. While it is becoming increasingly common to find younger people playing active roles, and having voices in the work of foundations, that wasn’t always the case. But Bill listened to us, and many other young people finding their way in the world of philanthropy, before it was trendy or ‘the thing to do’. When the EFC launched its Next Generation Programme in 2012, he was delighted to speak at the first convening, offering the advice: ‘Accept that you are all going to make mistakes: nobody is perfect and that is fine.’ In an age of rapid communications and impersonal emails, Bill was still a man of letters and phone calls. We could count on letters of support in difficult times, and notes of congratulations in happier times. He was known to phone, most often in the early evening when others had left the office and he would have your undivided attention, just to check-in.
A couple of days before Bill passed away, at its annual conference the Council of Michigan Foundations celebrated Bill’s five decades of philanthropic leadership. This included a wonderful video tribute, with contributions from Members of Congress, foundation presidents and Arnold Schwarzenegger, amongst others. Of course, we were aware that Bill’s work had him rubbing shoulders with notable figures. We were also aware that under his leadership the Mott Foundation had grown from being a primarily local funder, to an internationally recognised foundation with more than $3 billion in assets. But, despite that impressive amount and the circles he moved in, to us Bill was simply the friend who – long after others had gone to bed during an EFC conference – could be found socialising in the hotel bar. With a Diet Coke in hand, he would be catching up with EFC staff about the day’s happenings.
At the Council of Michigan Foundations conference on 7 October 2019, Bill’s address focused on the importance of building strong, resilient philanthropic infrastructure: a commitment he had honoured throughout his career. He reminded attendees of how vulnerable the US sector had been in 1969 when the Tax Reform Act was introduced, which would have critical consequences for foundations’ operating environment. While many foundations seem to still need convincing of the importance of funding philanthropic infrastructure, Bill was an early, vocal and dedicated champion.
In his words: ‘Having patience and taking a “long view” are essential for meaningful, sustainable change to take root.’
Significant core funding from the Mott Foundation, provided over the long-term, has undoubtedly allowed countless organisations – including both of ours – to flourish. For the issues that Bill held near and dear, after-school programming and community philanthropy to name two, he maintained unwavering loyalty. In his words: ‘Having patience and taking a “long view” are essential for meaningful, sustainable change to take root.’ We can only hope that in his absence other philanthropic organisations may finally be ready to step up their commitments to building a durable, capable sector.
But back to that infamous night with the Brussels police. Anyone who was there won’t soon forget how Bill laughed as he recounted the tale. We will also similarly remember how he would take such delight as we often tried to (nearly literally) fold him in half to fit in the front seat of Leticia’s miniature car to zip around the bumpy streets of Brussels. We believe he had a slightly larger, sturdier vehicle in Michigan! When he was awarded the first EFC Compass Prize in 2009, Bill remarked: ‘Isn’t it terrific to get an award for having a lot of fun, being productive and meeting a lot of friends!’ It has been terrifically fun Bill, and you will be deeply missed.
Wendy Richardson is operations and communications director at the Global Fund for Community Foundations.
Leticia Ruiz-Capillas is operations director at the European Foundation Centre.