From grassroots community support in Wisconsin to global initiatives with the Gates Foundation, four generations of socially-progressive thinking has seen the Kohler family make an impact. Margie Goldsmith was given a rare insight into their philanthropic efforts
When Google’s parent company Alphabet announced in June it would provide temporary affordable housing for 300 employees, headlines lauded the $30 million decision as an example of corporate citizenship.
But the Silicon Valley giant was in fact lagging far behind Kohler Co which, nearly 100 years ago, was already giving its workers a hand-up in the housing market; building homes near its headquarters and selling employees the properties at cost through a worker-owned building and loan association.
Today, Wisconsin-based Kohler Co is one of the largest privately-held companies in the US, with more than 50 manufacturing locations on six continents and more than 33,000 “associates”—a term Kohler favours over “employees”.
It’s the family name known worldwide from daily glances at kitchen sinks, toilets, bath taps and other upscale interiors, with specialities including gas, gasoline and diesel engines, and generators; resorts and hosting golf majors. However, Kohler is also a leader in philanthropy.
“Lending a hand is just as important to us as leading the market,” says fourth-generation Laura Kohler, 54, a daughter of executive chairman Herbert V Kohler Jr (Herb), and senior vice president of human resources and stewardship.
The Kohler family’s philanthropic efforts are split into two distinct blocks. The first is the corporate giving driven by Kohler Co, which contributes more than $4 million each year towards sustainability, health, and welfare projects related to the lives of its associates.
The second sees the Kohler Foundation and two trusts distribute about $15 million each year to causes ranging from the conservation of work by self-taught artists to environmental education at one of the country’s most prestigious secondary schools.
Most of Kohler philanthropy stems from the work of the Kohler Foundation, led by president Natalie Black Kohler, plus two trusts chaired by Laura Kohler: the Kohler Trust for the Arts & Education, and the Kohler Trust for Preservation.
Kohler Foundation was co-founded in 1940 by the “Kohler girls”—Evangeline, Marie, and Lillie. The three unmarried sisters were all in their fifties at the time, and were bright, well-educated and devoted to their community in Kohler, Wisconsin. It was 1931 when they helped start the local Girl Scout troop, which met in a replica Austrian farmhouse called the Waelderhaus, and is still maintained to this day as a gathering place.
Other founders of the Kohler Foundation were Herbert V Kohler Sr—chairman, president, and chief executive of Kohler Co and the girls’ brother—and a family friend, OA Kroos. The trust’s original mission was to care for “the aged, orphans, infirm, students, and victims of floods, famine, epidemics, tornado, and other national emergencies”. Marie was its first president.
Neither the foundation nor two trusts are associated with Kohler Co other than their holdings, most of which is Kohler Co common stock. In the case of the foundation, this stock was acquired years ago as a gift from the company; then passed on to the two trusts as a way of meeting a 5% Inland Revenue Service (IRS) distribution requirement.
Today, the foundation gives on average nearly 60 cash grants a year, mostly to local non-profits. It has a scholarship programme oriented towards those who as leaders “create beauty and inspire learning”. Up to 25 scholarships are awarded across 12 high schools in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin each year. At the top of the pyramid, two students attending private college or university receive $80,000 each over four years. One of these is in honour of Herbert V Kohler Sr, and is given for proficiency in academics, contribution to community, but most importantly, leadership and the ability to advance the frontier in their discipline of choice. The second scholarship is named after Ruth DeYoung Kohler and is awarded to the student with the greatest proficiency and potential in any of the arts.
Ruth in fact established another arm of the foundation in 1944, called the Distinguished Guest Series, which allows the residents of Kohler, Wisconsin to enjoy the best speakers and performances at an accessible price. Luminaries including Admiral Richard E Byrd, Pearl S Buck, the Boston Opera Choir, and Joe E Brown, were all brought to the area by the foundation. More recently, it has featured artists including Yo-Yo Ma, Maya Angelou, the Russian National Ballet, Wynton Marsalis, and Audra McDonald.
Making the difference
But foremost among the foundation’s work is preserving the fragile and often eccentric work of self-taught artists.
It all began in 1975 when Frank Jacobson, a board member at the time, heard of a character named Fred Smith, who had created a large statuary in northern Wisconsin. Jacobson, an explorer, could not resist the temptation to find out more, and discovered that Smith, rejected by his family, was creating sculptures grounded in reality but with a whimsical touch. Jacobson also discovered these pieces were built around the skeletons of creatures such as elk, deer, and horses and were shaped with cement and pieces of bottle glass.
Jacobson was so enthralled, he mentioned this discovery to Ruth Kohler II and the two of them resolved to acquire the collection, preserve it, and donate it to Price County, Wisconsin. The purchase price in 1978 was $19,257. The conservation cost $23,289. The appraised value at the time of gifting to the county was $320,231.
This first conservation project fuelled the foundation’s interest in self-taught artists, and it has gone on to preserve 13 sites, the latest being a folk art palace in Georgia. It has also conserved 36 major collections and 75 works of art; re-located eight sculpture parks; and has gifted art to more than 300 institutions and organisations.
US law states private foundations need to give away at least 5% of the value of their investible assets each year, so in 1977 Herbert V Kohler Jr created the Kohler Trust for the Arts & Education as a recipient for the funds the foundation was required to donate.
He designed it as a Type II supporting organisation with a primary beneficiary, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. The center would receive at least 85% of the trust’s annual net income, with the remaining 15% distributed at the discretion of the trustees.
The Kohler Trust operates under IRS rules which require no more than a minority of trustees be family members, with the rest being members of the public, each dedicated to a trust recipient. The trust has donated $68 million since it was enacted.
The Kohler Trust for Preservation is similarly structured. It too is a Type II supporting organisation created in April 1990 as a means of diversification.
The majority of trustees of this new organisation were also to be non-family, but instead of gifting 85% of the income to one beneficiary, 85% could be given to approved parties with no requirement to distribute the residue, which could be added to the overall holdings.
The trustees of the Kohler Trust for Preservation allocate their 85% to a combination of the Nature Conservancy, the Kohler Environmental Center at Choate Rosemary Hall, the Wisconsin Historical Society, Aldo Leopold Foundation, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Wade House Historic Site, Eagle Valley Nature Preserve in southeastern Wisconsin and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. Its gifts have grown steadily and now total about $1.7 million per year.
Kohler philanthropy is alive, well, and growing at a meaningful rate, impacting young and old in Wisconsin, but having an effect far beyond the state—the result of four generations of giving.