by Richard J. Alley
Anyone who has traveled across the country has Kemmons Wilson and his Holiday Inn concept to thank for a good night’s sleep. And if you were to look at the boardroom rosters of many nonprofits across Memphis today, odds are you’ll see the name Wilson listed there.
Just as the Kemmons Wilson Companies, with its global reach, has remained firmly entrenched in Memphis, the children of Kemmons and Dorothy Wilson have kept their hearts and interests close to home.
A look at the 2015 annual report of the Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation — its guiding principles include engaging family, faithful stewardship, and building legacy — shows that gifts were bestowed on West Cancer Center ($500,000), Shelby Farms Park Conservancy ($250,000), Exchange Family Club Center ($20,000 over two years), and Teach for America ($150,000 over three years), among many others. A total just shy of $1.8 million saw its way into the coffers of some of the area’s most solicitous institutions.
In addition, the family members themselves take an active role in giving back. Bob Wilson flies wounded veterans for Veterans Airlift; Allison Wilson leads Wilson Animal Rescue, which rescued over 400 dogs last year; McLean Wilson has led the charge in the Crosstown Concourse development; and Lauren Wilson Young founded Sweet LaLa’s, a bakery that employs graduates of Juvenile Intervention & Faith-based Follow-up (JIFF).
It is clear that, for a city divided along so many lines — socioeconomic, educational, racial — philanthropy is a salve that is best slathered on. For decades, the Wilson family and their foundation have directed much of that healing.
Spence Wilson, the oldest son and chairman of the board of the Kemmons Wilson Companies, and his wife, Becky, personally made the lead gift for a children’s hospital at Baptist Hospital East, which opened last year. In 1988, Becky saw a need to bring the races closer together in Memphis and started the Bridge Builders program at BRIDGES. I recently sat down with the couple in their East Memphis home to learn more about the KWFF, the crucial issues facing our city, and the state of giving in Memphis.
IMB: When did you get involved in philanthropy? Was that something you grew up with in your own families?
Spence Wilson (SW): I’m one of five and I don’t know that we ever sat around the table with my family for a lesson in philanthropy or giving. Mom and dad made gifts to the church, they made some other gifts I was aware of — dad made a large gift to Methodist Hospital in his mother’s name to the nursing school. It was named for her back in the early ’70s; she passed away in ’68, when we were on our honeymoon, actually.
I think there was a sense that something ought to be done but we probably just, over the years, kind of figured out things on our own.
Becky Wilson (BW): I grew up in a small town and my parents did not have a lot. My father’s a retired dentist, 95 years old. But I think in my case, through church activities and civic activities, I observed my parents. They didn’t have a lot of money to give, but they gave all kinds of time and energy to the Jackson community in a variety of ways. That was just something I grew up with, I knew that’s just what you do.
Why was the Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation founded?
SW: Mom and dad established the Foundation, but it was more of a pass-through entity. If they decided to make a gift, they would give to the Foundation and the Foundation would make the gift for them in the Foundation’s name. I can’t tell you why they founded it because they could have given gifts directly, but I will tell you this: It was not until the death of the last of them, my dad — he died two years after my mother — that the foundation had any significant assets, and those assets were gifts that came out of their estates. That would have been in 2003 that the Foundation had the assets that it has today.
I’ll be frank, my dad didn’t give us a lot of guidance on how they wanted these assets, or the earnings on these assets, to be given away. We had some sense of things that they were interested in, but we had to figure out a little on our own and kind of anticipate what they would be pleased with.
It’s a little bit of a reflection of what we think their interests were and also our own interests in having grown up in the community and being active in the community by 2003.
Has it always been managed by the family?
SW: It’s always been family managed. Our daughter, Lauren [Wilson Young], held her hand up after we began to structure this in a more professional way to be the executive director. So she and I collaboratively figured out, “Okay we’ve got to get a board, we’ve got to get some money invested, we’ve got to set up a grant review process.” All those kinds of things. She ran it extremely well for 12 years until she decided to step down this past June. But she’s really put her stamp on it. I’d like to think I put my stamp on her, because we collaboratively worked on all of this, but she really carried it out.
Are the Foundation’s interests solely local or do you have national interests?
SW: Predominantly local, but we do have the ability to direct the Foundation since a percent of the annual giving is available to each family. And to the extent that some of those family members are in other cities, some of that directed giving would go to Nashville or to Denver where we’ve got a couple of family members living. But it’s a very small piece, the unified giving of the Foundation is Memphis-focused.
BW: This has been a way to help the next generation establish their own giving. By giving them a portion every year, they can allocate it how they want to. Each couple decides what touches their heart the most.
That leads me to my next question: You involve the next generation pretty early, as rising sixth-graders. Why is that?
SW: They’re the fourth generation, but it’s not all totally connected to the Foundation. We have something that we are calling our “family council” in that we have an educational component that includes asking the older children to read my dad’s autobiography [Half Luck and Half Brains: The Kemmons Wilson Holiday Inn Story] to get a sense of what his life was like, what mother’s life was like. It mainly focuses on his business career and the family; a lot of philosophy and other values come through the book. We get them to do that, then we have sessions with them where we answer questions.
The oldest grandchild will be 17 in November. She was just 2 or 3 years old when my dad died, so none of them had a really long connection with him while he was living. He loved the ones that were living while he was living, but they were not of an age where they would absorb anything like that. We do that, and then we talk about the values of the family that we have in our “Wilson Way,” which is what we refer to ourselves in the Kemmons Wilson Companies, so we’ve got values of humility and things such as that.
And that’s the company culture?
SW: The company culture, yes. Then we actually have something like that in the Foundation as well. They’re not exactly the same but they’re very similar, you might expect that. We talk about those values, we talk about family traditions, and things like that. Growing up, we had dinner at my parents’ house every Sunday night for over 20 years. As spouses came on board, they were there and as children came along, they were there. That’s why our cousins know each other as well as they do.
Is the next generation willing and excited by giving back and what’s expected of them?
BW: They seem to be. And having an annual family get-together is a new tradition, because there are 78 people in the family now. We’re doing it once a year as part of a big family meeting. When they all get together, it’s a nice experience for all of them.
Would you say that there’s an expectation of giving back?
BW: I think that they have seen where we have put an emphasis. I could only speak about our children on that, but I think it’s true of the other families that every family has had particular things over the years that they have given to philanthropically individually. Couples have had certain passions, so all of that generation, the third generation, has observed that within their own families. I think there’s a tacit expectation that we may not say, “You’ve got to go give,” they just do it.
The Foundation’s 2015 annual report says you gave to Agape, Memphis Music Hall of Fame, West Cancer Center, and Junior Achievement, among others. How are those decisions made?
SW: It’s a very formal process, we encourage people to go online to make an application. The staff gets those grant applications, often makes site visits, then encourages board members. It’s a majority vote. With Lauren’s departure, we now have three staff members and we meet two times a year. We have advisory board members who are members-in-waiting to step onto the board when the vacancy is available. We have 10 board members now, so we’ve brought the next generation onto the board to join my generation. I’ll retire at the age of 75, we’ve set some retirement rules and I have to step down at the end of next year. That allows some fresher blood to come in and grow off that.
What would you say has been the Foundation’s greatest accomplishments?
SW: I think there would be several, but one that certainly stands out is the gift that helped create the Kemmons Wilson Family Center for Good Grief. It’s served over 4,000 people now; adults, children, etc., who are going through that grieving phase either through natural causes of a loss of someone, or disruptive causes of violence, shootings, and things like that. It’s all complementary, there’s no payment for anything.
The reports we as a family get back about the impact it’s had on others is really heart warming. In fact, they want to expand the facility and they want to add additional staff because they have such a waiting list for people to try to serve.
I would personally say, and I think my siblings would say, that’s been one of the signature gifts that we’ve made as a foundation that has had a superb impact.
How did the Baptist Children’s Hospital come about? Is that a Foundation gift?
SW: No, that’s ours personally.
BW: Three of our four children were born at Baptist and most of our nieces and nephews were born at Baptist, so we’ve had that kind of association. We’ve both been on boards at Baptist.
SW: Our children, Lauren and Spence Jr., have been on the board, and my brother Kem is on their foundation board and advsory boards. A lot of family connectivity, in addition to the births, and very satisfactory experiences in terms of the health services provided, the people, doctors, nurses, etc.
BW: When they came and talked to us and said they had this dream of building a children’s hospital, we started thinking about it and started looking at some of the statistics, and realized that a quarter of the folks in Shelby County are below 18 in age; that’s 250,000 kids.
Le Bonheur is wonderful and they are doing a great job, but they even say it’s hard to get in sometimes because they have so many people, and their preference has been to deal with the more serious types of issues with a lot of specialists. As we explored things, we realized there’s a lot of room for a hospital for children if you have a broken arm or an asthma attack, or you have something that is not so highly specialized in its treatment.
SW: Baptist’s children’s services were all tucked in under the main hospital, so they were providing these emergency services and other things like that, but nobody really knew much about it because it was just in the hospital. So the idea was to sort of take the covers off, you might say, of these services. Put it in a building that is going to do this ER work, then hopefully expand their activities to an intensive care unit where a kid may need some help, but readily transfer them to Le Bonheur for any special, unique care that couldn’t be provided there. We were motivated by that, we thought that made a lot of sense. And it’s sort of a continuum: You’ve got the women’s hospital, you birth the children there . . .
BW: Five thousand a year are born there.
SW: Then up to age 17 or 18, which the children’s hospital focuses on, it seems like a natural. You’ve had a good experience in birthing, well you’ve got to have a good experience in taking care of them in an emergency or something like that. That just had a positive ring to it.
BW: And, as evidenced by the numbers, they [Baptist] expected to have about 500 kids a month to be treated. Well, the first year there were over 1,000 a month treated, so it was a much larger need than they had actually anticipated.
It’s not the Foundation, so is this the kind of gift you would talk to your kids about?
SW: Definitely, because we struggled a little bit asking, “Do we want our name on this?”
BW: We struggled a lot.
SW: A lot. We did because we said, “We’re not sure that’s really appropriate.” But we finally came awake in a sense when talking to Baptist that it would help them in their greater identity and the community, and we’ve somehow put a family endorsement on it. Perhaps it will help them in their fundraising along the way. Not so much from our family per se, but from others who would say they want to join hands with them and continue this good work there at the hospital.
What do you think is the greatest challenge facing Memphis today?
BW: I still come back to education. That is the key to everything. If you’ve got a good, decent education, you have a chance at making something of yourself. If you don’t, if you go to a sub-standard school with teachers that have a sub-standard education, then that’s just a wheel that we can’t get off of. That’s why I’ve been so excited to see all of the experimentation that’s going on in Memphis as an educational laboratory.
So many millions of dollars have been put in that lab right now. To see all the young teachers that are coming here through Teach for America and various programs — the fact that they opt to stay in Memphis more than in any other city after their two years, because they know that they can make a bigger difference here than a lot of the larger cities.
You can actually get your hands around things in Memphis. That’s what I think we have going for us that a lot of places don’t have. That and the enthusiasm of this next generation and all of our children involved in this city — our nieces and nephews — so I’m very optimistic. Much more so than a lot of our contemporaries who don’t come up against this every day. A lot of people sit in their houses and complain, and I say, “If you’re not doing anything to make it better, you don’t have a right to complain in this city because you’ve got lots of opportunities to make something better.”
SW: To add to that, I agree with Becky’s assessment of education. It’s a big contender. We’ve got all this emphasis on taking care of kids zero to 12 — 12 months, not 12 years old — to get them ready for kindergarten, so that by the third grade they’re reading at levels they need to so they can progress through the system. In addition to that, and initiatives that are important in that regard, we have this continued socio-economic dislocation, the haves and have-nots of the community.
We’ve got to figure out how to reach families. Whether it’s the mentoring thing . . . or finding ways in which to improve these depressed areas and help these kids so when they have a good education or go to a good school and come back home, they’re not confronted in their environment. It’s just a cycle that we’ve got to break somehow.
What do you think about the state of philanthropy in Memphis? Outside of your foundation and your family, is it healthy?
SW: I think it’s really healthy.
BW: I do, too. It’s probably the best it’s ever been. Many more millions of dollars are being invested in Memphis, and not just by Memphians. That’s been exciting to see.
SW: Well, I’ll just mention a couple. We’ve got the BRIDGES capital campaign, a $10 million capital campaign that’s within a 120-odd thousand dollars of being completed [the total has since been raised] to meet a challenge grant of an equal amount; that’s a huge number. West Cancer Center, you’ve got the Madonna Learning Center capital campaign. You have Shelby Farms [Heart of the Park project] that just finished. Some people have held up their hands and written big checks and smaller checks.
Why do you think that is? Why is Memphis sort of this epicenter of giving?
BW: It’s second in the country.
SW: I can’t answer that. I don’t know, but maybe something out of our faith heritage. We’re a pretty strong community from a faith standpoint. To me, I’m motivated more by what the cause is. I would give to causes that I think are really worthwhile and are really going to do some good. I think some of these things have touched the heartstrings; they’ve resonated.
I chaired the Rhodes College capital campaign we just finished at the end of 2014. We raised just over $300 million. What I found was that you could make a call on someone that had the resources, but you had to be sure they connected with what you were doing. When you can link that connection, people will dig deep. I’m really serious about that. Becky and I dug pretty deep to make our gift to the Baptist hospital.
BW: I think our city is a unique place. I have not lived anywhere other than Memphis — other than New York 40-some-odd years ago — so I can’t speak for other cities, but my observation from travel, knowing people all over the country . . . I think Memphis is actually a much healthier community than we are given credit for.
I was really involved with Mei Ann’s Circle of Friends, 120 women — almost half black and half white — who came together to support the symphony. None of us had done that five years prior to doing it, but we found a common meeting place and that has grown. To see that when you begin to know people face to face, and you begin to hear about their interests and their projects, I just think that we have a better community today than it has ever been. Black and white are meeting together and are doing things together that are positive for the community. I would really put us up against any city of this size for talking about race and dealing with issues that, in a lot of places, are just pushed under the rug. Or people think they’re going to be too polite, they don’t want to talk about that. I think that a lot of what we have going on here now is what has led this city to give more, because we understand each other more.
I’m extremely optimistic. When I see what Bridge Builders is doing, we’ve had 28,000 kids go through that program in 28 years, and more to come. To hear them talk about what it was like before and after they had that experience, it is truly transformational. It’s changed a lot of their parents’ thinking about things too, which is something we never anticipated, that it would float up as well as down.
With racial tensions so high around the country, do you think there’s as much of, or more of, a need for Bridge Builders now than almost 30 years ago when you started it?
BW: I’m afraid you’re right. Frankly, I said that two years ago with the school board situation, when the suburban schools decided to set off on their own and all of that, I said I would never have dreamed that long ago that we would still need it. In fact, because of the behavior of some of the suburbs, I’m afraid that we do need it as much today. The national conversation during this presidential campaign has certainly done a lot to try to alienate people and to try to divide people along racial lines. Again, I think Memphis can be an example of a better way of doing things.
Do you think the suburban schools spinning off on their own was a mistake?
BW: I do, personally. I felt very strongly about it. I respect people’s choices, we all have choices to make, but I think in the long run, looking back, that will be a pivotal point that was not a healthy decision for our city as a whole.
What’s on the philanthropic horizon?
SW: Well, in the Foundation we’re really taking a hard look at what we want to do across the entire spectrum of education. Do you want to fund a charter school? Do you want to fund Teach for America or Memphis Teacher Residency? You could spend a lot of money funding a lot of good organizations.
Our daughter-in-law, Tate Wilson, is on the board of TFA and she’s taking the initiative to help the Foundation, the board members, and the advisory board members, to understand the full spectrum of what’s available out there. We’ve already had one session on that and we’re going to probably begin to narrow our education funding. Meaning, it will be a large sum, but it’s going to be targeted more to a couple things that we think will move the needle better.
Do you think that will be next year?
SW: I think we’re going to do something in a much more focused way next year. It is a wide-open, complicated situation.
There are two really good organizations out there that we’ve had a chance to learn more about: People First, which Lora Jobe has been leading; then there’s a young guy, very talented guy, named Mark Sturgis. He runs Seeding Success and is a data driven guy. So between those two organizations, they are connecting with lots of organizations out there in the education spectrum, collecting data on their success, and lack of success, rates.
We as a foundation are going to be talking to them, [asking], “Who is really making a difference out there? Who’s having the results, the effects, and success that they say you guys can measure what they’re doing?” We’re using that as a way to confirm and perhaps learn about who’s really doing something great in the education arena that we may not have known about.
What are some other philanthropic passions of yours?
BW: Both of us went to Vanderbilt, that’s where we met, and we have minority scholarships for Memphis students at Vanderbilt. I have a chair at Vanderbilt and he has a chair at Rhodes; those schools have meant a lot to both of us. Then the zoo was an earlier passion. I spent 12 years involved with that and our family has continued over the years to stay involved because that’s something that I think is one of the best things that we have in the city for people of all walks of life.
SW: I’ll just run down a couple of the things that I think have been important initiatives for the Foundation, and some combination of Becky and me as well, and the family in general: We’ve mentioned the Good Grief Center and West Cancer Center. We’re involved with Shelby Farms. The Kroc Center was another that the Salvation Army did; that was a pretty sizable gift that our Foundation made there.
You may not be aware of the Wilson Speaker Series that is hosted by Christ United Methodist Church. We bring in a speaker each year. It’s a public event. It has a faith-based message to it, but there’s a lot of practical wisdom there as well.
Then in some of the private schools, we have what’s called the Wilson Society. It’s a service-oriented initiative at MUS, Briarcrest, Hutchison, and St. George’s, where these young people create a project each year. We have Foundation resources to support them.
You think about it, we’ve got five siblings, and now we’ve got children involved. We’ve got a lot of interesting dialogue because everyone has a slightly different passion or slightly different interest. We bring that to the table and we find out that we have connectivity in many places. Then sometimes we don’t have connectivity, but someone’s got an initiative that we think is really worth supporting so we get behind that.
And everyone still gets along?
SW: Yeah, knock on wood. We do, but we work at it. Anything that’s coming out of this conversation, I hope you understand that it doesn’t just happen. There’s a lot of communication, and a lot of effort to be sure that we listen to each other and we respect each other.
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