History of the Conrad and Virginia Klee Foundation
The Conrad and Virginia Klee Foundation was founded on August 6, 1957, with a check from the Klees for $5,000. Through further contributions from the Klees, and careful financial stewardship, the foundation has grown tremendously over the years, allowing it to make nearly $31 million in grants as of January 2021. The management of the Klee Foundation, and the focus of its philanthropy, have also evolved over time.
In 1957, in accordance with the new foundation’s bylaws, all members of the original board of directors were affiliated with major banking institutions, either as directors or bank presidents. Klee nominated as chair his friend Cornelius Van Patten, who would serve in that capacity for the next 30 years. He was succeeded by longtime board member Clayton Axtell, who served 26 years, yielding the position to his son Clayton III in 2003.
Upon Clayton III’s untimely death in 2005, the board hired an executive director, established a foundation office, developed a web site and implemented terms of office for board members and officers.
For decades, the Klee Foundation made grants—many of them small—to as many as 60 organizations each year. With the reorganization in the mid-2000s, the board started to re-examine the foundation’s philosophy, gradually deciding to give fewer grants, but more substantial ones, to achieve greater impact.
Several years later, the board also started to consider a new approach grantmaking. Along with responding to grant requests in the traditional way, board members decided the foundation should initiate new programs to tackle some of Broome County’s most urgent issues. That led to a focus on childhood obesity, which gradually evolved into a multi-faceted, multi-year pilot program to promote healthy living in one Binghamton neighborhood.
As part of Klee’s initiative to address some of Broome County’s most pressing issues, in 2012 we awarded $300,000 to fund what would become the Healthy Lifestyles Coalition and its pilot program, Eat Well. Play Hard. Binghamton!
Another example of the Klee Foundation’s focus on larger, (multi-year) grants with lasting impact was the $300,000 we provided to United Way of Broome County to help local victims after the disastrous flood of 2011.
The question of impact has become more and more important to the Klee Foundation’s board in recent years. Members believe that they need to consider not only how much money the foundation distributes, but how effectively these gifts help to address the community’s most significant needs, as determined by needs assessments. Thanks to those discussions, we have continued our work on healthy lifestyles, while also exploring how the foundation can help in areas such as poverty, access to food and workforce development.
Conrad and Virginia Klee would probably be surprised to see how their foundation has grown and matured, and to see how local needs have changed since their day. Given their love for Binghamton and Broome County, we feel sure they would approve of our work to meet this community’s most critical needs as they continue to evolve.
David Campbell, Chair
Cathy Frankenbach, Vice Chair
Stacey Duncan, Treasurer
The Klee Foundation Board of Directors appreciates the hard work and efforts of the volunteers in our community. “In every organization, there are volunteers who work behind the scenes and who do not seek leadership positions or recognition, but their dedication and service is critical to the success of the organization,” said Patricia Ingraham, Past Board Chair.
In recognition of their work, the Klee Foundation created the Arthur Orr Award for Exemplary Volunteer Service. The award honors Arthur Orr, a longtime Klee Board member who embodies the qualities that the award is designed to celebrate. Previous recipients include Chris Julian, a longtime volunteer at Tri-Cities OperaOpera, Stacy Richards, a dedicated VINES volunteer, and Bill Austin, leader of the Broome County Council of Churches’ Ramp It Up Youth Initiative.
Organizations that have previously been funded by the Klee Foundation may nominate volunteers for the award. The Board will also consider nominations from nonprofit organizations whose missions closely align with that of the Klee Foundation, and whose programs address critical community needs.
Each year, the Board will choose one volunteer from among the nominees and honor that person at its Annual Partner Reception in November. In addition, the Klee Foundation will make a $1,000 grant to the nonprofit of the volunteer’s choice.
Do you want to nominate someone for the Exemplary Volunteer Service Award?
Information about the 2023 Volunteer Recognition Program will be coming soon!
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Impact doesn’t necessarily have to be measured in dollar amounts. Sometimes relatively small grants can pack a great deal of wallop; that is, they can be “small but mighty.” For example, each year Klee invests $10,000 in NYCON (New York Council on Nonprofits). That grant, combined with the same amount from each of three other Broome County funders, supports a wealth of services for Broome nonprofits. NYCON offers four to six seminars annually in Broome County, completely free to staff and board members of nonprofits that are members. Topics vary according to current “hot spots” and changing trends, and sessions are geared to be interactive. In addition, those organizations that attend (board and staff) qualify to apply for mini-grants.
Members also can contact NYCON for some technical assistance.
Funders meet annually to review the past year’s results and to determine priorities for the coming year.
Impact? The result of this modest investment is a stronger, more informed nonprofit community.
BUILDING CAPACITY AND SUSTAINABILITY
The mission of the Rural Health Network of South Central New York aligns well with that of the Klee Foundation: “…to advance the health and well-being of rural people and communities.” Rural Health Network collaborates with numerous agencies to serve the needs of the more rural communities, which frequently lack services available in the immediate Binghamton area, or the means to access “remote” services. Klee has supported the Network’s efforts with more than one grant. The first was to provide required matching funds for AmeriCorps and VISTA members who, through the Rural Health Service Corps, helped to build the capacity of 13 nonprofits to address increasing rates of obesity and chronic disease. The second grant supported a staff coordinator position for the Food and Health Network, helping to build that network’s capacity to ”reduce hunger, improve access to healthy, affordable, regionally produced food, and decrease diet related disease.”
In supporting a new position, Klee adhered to a pattern it has followed with similar grants, decreasing the amount of the grant over three years, while requiring the grantee organization to increase its financial support for the position. In this way, the Klee grant helps to establish a new position without creating ongoing dependency on our financial support.
The Ross Park Zoo (Southern Tier Zoological Society) needed to expand its tiny gift shop. The existing shop generated significant annual revenue to help with the Zoo’s operations. By enlarging it with a 625 ft. addition, not only would the zoo generate much needed additional revenue, but it would also gain a second exit from its grounds. Steering more visitor traffic past the shop’s attractive merchandise, much of it educational in nature, this new exit could help to spur more impulse purchases. A Klee grant helped the zoo accomplish this goal and build its sustainability.
The Promise Zone, a program of Binghamton University’s College of Community and Public Affairs, has achieved much success in connecting families with schools. Promise Zone uses the community school model, which makes schools the hub for bringing services to the community. Promise Zone’s goals include improved student attendance and academic achievement. It nurtures family engagement with the schools so that students can access services more easily. Assisted by graduate student interns, Promise Zone coordinators partner with school administrators to zero in on key problems they have identified. Klee has partnered with Promise Zone more than once. Because its program paralleled the goals and activities of the Healthy Lifestyles Coalition in the Roosevelt School neighborhood, Klee funded a Promise Zone coordinator to expand that project. This additional resource provided a variety of informal channels that parents could use to connect with the school and with one another other. Beginning in the fall of 2018, a Klee grant will place a Promise Zone coordinator in the Harpursville school district. She will be a continual resource for both parents and teachers, and in the absence of a school-based social worker will be able to link them with support services. Working with the Promise Zone, schools build a greater capacity to link with the communities they serve, to strengthen families, and to enhance teacher’s understanding of their pupils and their home environment.
GRANTS THAT DON’T WORK OUT
Unlike government sponsored programs, a foundation, as a private funder, can decide to take a calculated risk in funding a program. Sometimes various circumstances converge to cause a good program to close. Does this mean failure, or dollars wasted? We don’t think so. Over the past decade, exactly this has happened with several good programs. More often than not, the ongoing financial support needed to keep operating simply isn’t there. Sometimes the government cuts its support. Sometimes the program simply loses out in the competition for donor dollars in a shrinking community. In select situations, Klee funding can provide the opportunity for an organization to pursue every alternative before making the difficult decision to shut the doors.
In one such instance, Klee received the following note in a final report:
“I would love to add that the support of the Klee Foundation was INSTRUMENTAL to our ability to complete last season and not simply shut the doors mid-season, leaving many more people in the lurch. Had we been able to meet our challenges, it would have been due to the Klee’s faith in our future…. Please share my personal gratitude to your board for their support, and my apologies that we didn’t meet with better results.”
— [former executive director]
Conrad and Virginia Klee
Conrad Klee was a shrewd businessman, a wise investor and a man with a generous spirit. Born in 1881 in Binghamton, he was the fifth of eight children. His father, also named Conrad Klee, came from Germany, and his mother, Margaret Culli, from Tioga County.
After graduating from Binghamton High School, young Conrad joined First National Bank in Binghamton in 1900, working first as a “runner,” and later as a note teller, cashier and manager. He married Virginia DeLavan, of Guilford, N.Y., in 1907.
Eventually, Conrad moved from banking to insurance. By 1920, he was The Travelers’ general agent in Binghamton, running his business from the third floor of the Binghamton Savings Bank building. Reportedly, he enjoyed an unusual arrangement that brought him commissions on all transactions for Travelers throughout the region – a lucrative agreement that lasted more than 40 years.
A friend of Thomas J. Watson Sr., the father of IBM, Conrad was an early investor in that company. Friendship also led him to back a new venture called Azon, based in Johnson City. Both investments paid off well, with earnings that helped fund the Klee Foundation after Conrad’s death.
While Conrad’s business acumen made him prosperous, he and Virginia never flaunted their wealth. Their home was not one of Binghamton’s showcase mansions, but a modest establishment on St. John Avenue. Their only real extravagance, a niece remembered, came on their annual trip to Florida, when Conrad spared no expense for the comfort of Virginia, who suffered from arthritis.
Conrad also used his wealth to help friends and relatives with generous gifts. “My Uncle Conrad annually helped my struggling parents in purchasing school clothes for both my brother and myself,” one nephew said.
The niece recalled quiet kindnesses toward many people. One was a gift to her husband and herself after they had suffered the loss of a young daughter. Slipping discreetly into the husband’s office, Conrad left an envelope containing a check. “He knew that our expenses were very high at that time,” she said.
Relatives weren’t the only people to receive gifts, large and small, from the Klees. When one young member of their church, Trinity Memorial, was preparing to leave the service, he expressed a wish to become a lawyer. Conrad and Virginia offered to pay his way through Albany Law School.
Robert (Bob) M. Best (now deceased), retired chairman and CEO of Security Mutual Life Insurance Co., recalled his first Rotary meeting, around 1950, when he nervously attempted to make conversation with Conrad. Best mentioned how much his wife loved the Currier & Ives calendars that Conrad’s business sent out each year. When Bob returned to his office after lunch, Conrad appeared at the door with a stack of those calendars for Bob’s wife.
Even the neighborhood children knew the Klees’ reputation: the house on St. John Avenue drew big crowds every Halloween. “Boy, oh, boy—did they give out the candy bars! No wonder their doorbell rang all night long,” their niece recalled. Virginia loved those evenings, but her disability kept her indoors. “Uncle Con made everyone come in and show their costumes to Virginia,” the niece said.
Like many wives of her day, Virginia considered it her primary role to support her husband. Formal and gracious in manner, she disapproved of drinking and smoking. Did she know that the family’s driver, Joe, kept a secret stash of cigars for Conrad in their car? Did she realize that Conrad, when behind the wheel himself, sometimes stepped on the gas and gleefully zoomed down the highway at speeds she would never have approved? Virginia must have known about his boyish streak of mischief, but her thoughts are lost to history.
History does, however, tell us how Conrad’s will continued the generosity of his lifetime. The Klees had no children of their own to inherit their money, but Conrad made more than 70 bequests – ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 – to family and friends. In addition, he created 21 lifetime trusts for family and friends, each ranging from 2 to 7 percent of his estate.
Conrad also continued his lifelong giving to organizations, making bequests to nearly 20 of them, ranging from $1,000 to $25,000. And, of course, he created a permanent legacy in the Conrad and Virginia Klee Foundation.