"We all must awaken a larger portion of the public to the importance of education to our future quality of life. We must be able to compete on the world stage--not just beat the standards of the next county or state."
What Things in Life are Truly Important
Whether he's coaching a youth sports team, leading a Sunday school class, or evaluating million-dollar grant applications, Clay Robbins '79 is a leader in efforts to promote better communities, excellence in education, and vital congregations.
Along North Meridian Street in Indianapolis, between the anchors of the downtown skyline and the elegant Tudor- and Georgian-style mansions of the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood, sits a stocky building of Indiana limestone, faced with granite, and adorned with only its address. Home to Lilly Endowment, Inc., the structure lies in a zone where residence and commerce live as neighbors. Churches, playgrounds, and elementary schools mingle with convenience stores and fast food shops, and all fall under the shadow of tall apartment buildings-some prestigious, some not.
It's a fitting location for the nation's largest private foundation, holding assets in excess of $12 billion. But as its name implies, and unlike most of its neighbors, the main purpose of Lilly Endowment is not to make money, but to give it away.
The president of the Endowment is Clay Robbins '79, a man whose devotion to both the act and the business of giving works alongside his desire to keep himself and his organization out of the spotlight. His office is reserved and neatly organized, his coffee table filled with books of local and professional interest-urban revitalization, the Miami Indians, the Monon Bell rivalry. He also has the chair: the black and brown wooden Wabash College chair that you see in the bookstore and wonder who actually has one.
"I believe the most effective leaders are evocative, and not coercive," Robbins states, which explains why he prefers that the spotlight shine on Endowment grantees instead of the Endowment itself. "My interactions with my colleagues here at Lilly Endowment have helped me to articulate this belief. As I reflect on people whom I admired growing up, it seems as though I have always been attracted to people who were able to inspire others to maximize ¬`Jp°¦"
An attorneøèp profession, Robbins went to work for a prominent Indianapolis firm after receiving his law degree from Vanderbilt University in 1982. Concentrat-ing in law for tax-exempt organizations, he joined the Endowment in 1993 as vice president in its Community Development Division. "I would have been content to work at Baker & Daniels until I retired," Robbins recalls. "It is an excellent firm. The opportunity to work for Lilly Endowment was attractive to me for a number of reasons," he adds, citing the chance to be a part of the Endowment's community and state development efforts and to work with the Endowment's religion experts. In 1994, the Endowment's board elected him president-the man to further all three causes of the Endowment: education, religion, and community development. It seems appropriate-some would say imperative-that the leader of such an organization embody all three principles. Clay Robbins fits that description, although he'd be the last person to tell you.
Investing in Indiana Minds
Robbins, of course, appreciates the value of education, so he and his Endowment colleagues share the distress of other leaders at the "dismal" educational-attainment level of Indiana citizens. Noting that the state ranks 47th in its percentage of adults with a baccalaureate degree, he possesses a firm understanding of Indiana's educational obstacles and a vision of how to overcome them.
"There is a crisis of complacency about the overall quality of education in Indiana," Robbins insists. "We all must awaken a larger portion of the public to the importance of education to our future quality of life. We must be able to compete on the world stage-not just beat the standards of the next county or state."
In the last two years, Lilly Endowment has granted over $75 million to Indiana colleges and universities "to raise the number of Indiana high school students who attend Indiana colleges, graduate with a bachelor's degree, and find a good job in Indiana." In addition, the organization recently initiated the Lilly Endowment Community Scholarship program, which in 1998 will provide Indiana students with more than 100 four-year, full-tuition scholarships to the Indiana college or university of their choice. Robbins knows firsthand the value and long-term effects of a full-tuition scholarship; he was selected as a Lilly Scholar during the first year of the program at Wabash.
Yet generating enthusiasm for Indiana colleges is only part of the problem. Eager students continue to arrive at college unprepared to succeed in the classroom. Reacting to that trend, the Endowment has issued a grant that results in sending feedback to Indiana high schools. The reports explain how students from those school districts are performing at Indiana colleges compared to graduates of other Indiana high schools.
In addition, the Endowment is looking beyond traditional groups to help prepare youngsters for college. In Robbins' words, "the Endowment believes that many of Indiana's greatest intellectual resources can be found on the staffs and faculties of Indiana's impressive array of colleges and universities. We are trying to stress that our state needs them to help solve this problem and that such help may require that the conventional boundaries of institutions be stretched."
Religion to the Fore
Similar in scope to the Education Division, Lilly Endowment's Religion Division strives to strengthen the quality of the ministry.
"We try to support programs that attract more of our society's best and brightest to the ministry and educate them to be effective ministers. The Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion is an important strategy in our efforts to accomplish this objective."
"No one," adds Robbins, "is better suited to lead such a center than [Wabash College LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities] Raymond Williams." Other examples of the Endowment's wide range of religious grantees include a youth institute at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, which attracts talented theology-minded high school students, and "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly," a news and panel program produced by WNET in New York and shown on public television stations around the country.
None of the Endowment's trinity of causes is more personally interesting to Clay Robbins than religion. As a religion major at Wabash, Robbins won the John N. Mills Prize in the Bible, an award bestowed on the three juniors who score highest in an examination of the English Bible. His enthusiasm for his studies is easily understood; he worked under the tutelage of Professors Dean, Williams, Peebles, and Placher-Wabash's very own "Four Horsemen."
"I cannot imagine a more powerful lineup in a college religion department in the country," Robbins recalls. "I remember seeking the advice more than once of Dr. Dean after reading certain course selections that troubled me because they made me aware that I was not as good a person as I wanted to think I was. These selections described man's ability to be 'in' a situation, while at the same time transcending it.
"I since have learned that the appropriate development of this capacity is crucial to being an effective leader-a leader must be engaged and present in the environment where he is called to lead, while at the same time standing away from the situation observing its evolution."
Robbins cites a book by Harvard professor Dr. Ronald Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers, as the seminal work in this area. Appropriately, the Endowment was a partial funder of Dr. Heifetz' work.
It Takes 92 Villages
In Robbins estimation, the most successful Endowment program has been the GIFT initiative-Giving Indiana Funds for Tomorrow. Begun in 1990, the program strives to establish and develop community foundations in every one of Indiana's 92 counties. Over the past eight years, the Endowment has paid out more than $80 million, and the number of viable foundations has increased from nine to 85. It's important to note that while receiving matching Endowment funds was a great incentive, the various foundations have raised an additional $330 million apart from the original Endowment grants. The foundations' aggregate assets have thus increased from $100 million to over $500 million.
In the case of GIFT grants, Lilly Endowment illustrates its power to ignite an issue, then step slightly back to watch the flames spread. "Not only are there now charitable endowments to support these local communities, there are viable community organizations that can convene around key community issues. They have great potential as community builders."
One reason that Robbins delights in the GIFT program's results is that they seem to hedge a growing trend of social isolationism. Although some forms of community interaction are flourishing, Robbins says, "there still seems to be a declining interest in joining service clubs, volunteering for PTAs, or working on fundraisers for charitable organizations. I believe that television, air conditioning, urban sprawl, and computers have changed the character of our communal interactions. In some ways, we have become more connected with the world and in other ways more secluded." Besides the GIFT program, several other Endowment grantees address this concern, including the Indiana Humanities Council's "Habits of the Heart," whose goal is teaching philanthropy and volunteerism to Indiana youth; and Indiana United Way agencies' efforts to respond to specific needs within local boundaries.
Beneficiaries of Caring Support
Clay Robbins' education, profession, and personal life have been guided by a consistent set of values.
"My father died when I was a young boy. I have a vivid memory of the way our grandparents, family, and friends rallied around my mother, brother, and me." These early formative experiences showed him the impact that compassionate people can have on others. "My brother, Lee [Wabash '83], and I were the beneficiaries of this caring support."
Losing a parent developed his awareness of priorities-"what things in life are truly important, and what things are marginal.
"I believe this led to my interests early on in religion," Robbins says. "My mother, grandparents, and aunts modeled for me the values of piety, hard work, high standards, integrity, fairness, generosity of spirit, and humor. I believe these values were also very important to the founders of Lilly Endowment."
When he isn't in the office, Robbins does similar work, but on a smaller, more personal scale. Spending time with his wife and three sons is very important, as are his church, where he teaches a children's Sunday School class, and his sons' sports teams, where he has often served as a coach. He and the children are often found rolling up their sleeves in the back yard, busily engaged in a project. His musings on their planting of a garden last spring could easily begin an address at a leadership conference.
"It's easy to go out and buy a pint of raspberries or a sack of tomatoes-material things are so available. But it's nice to teach the children that berries and tomatoes don't just appear," Robbins says. "It's important that they experience the beginning of a process and see it through to the end."