Ruth Lilly’s Legacy Was Poetry In Giving

February 1, 2010       Mark Hrywna      

The name Lilly is associated as much with philanthropy as it is with the City of Indianapolis, Ind. Ruth Lilly, the last surviving great-grandchild of pharmaceutical magnate Eli Lilly, gave millions through the Ruth Lilly Philanthropic Foundation, her name gracing buildings throughout the city. She died Dec. 30 at the age of 94.

“There was lot of local philanthropy and this was the wonderful thing about her as a philanthropist. She had these primary passions but also gave very broadly,” said Eugene R. Tempel, president and CEO of the Indiana University Foundation and former executive director of the Center on Philanthropy. “She gave to about every cause that you could imagine in the City of Indianapolis,” he said, from Red Cross to most of the arts organizations to homeless shelters. Others familiar with nonprofit and charitable law, however, are flabbergasted by the legislature’s move. “It’s rather extraordinary,” said Bruce Hopkins, an attorney with Polsinelli Shalton Flanigan Suelthaus in Kansas City, Mo., and a prolific author on nonprofit governance and law. “It sounds like thievery to me,” he said. “Through that, she really touched the lives of citizens all over Indianapolis and in the State of Indiana,” he said, estimating that Indiana University received $30 million in gifts over the years, including an endowed chair of poetry in the English Department and several fellowships.

Eli Lilly & Co. was founded in 1876 by Eli Lilly and eventually spawned a number of philanthropic initiatives, including the Lilly Endowment, created in 1937 through gifts of stock. “The Lilly family’s name is synonymous with philanthropy. Ruth Lilly faithfully built on that invaluable tradition while blazing her own trail to support and advance the causes and organizations closest to her heart,” said Patrick Rooney, executive director of The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University in Indianapolis.

Millions in donations through the Ruth Lilly Philanthropic Foundation have resulted in her name gracing buildings throughout Indianapolis. It’s estimated that Lilly donated as much as $800 million of her inheritance, including a gift to the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation in 2002 that was estimated to be valued at $200 million at the time. According to the Indianapolis Star, 90 percent of Lilly’s $200 million estate will be retained by her foundation for future distributions. The remainder will go to local organizations, including the Center on Philanthropy. “She was an extraordinary philanthropist in the truest sense of the word, exemplifying tremendous generosity of spirit that exceeded even her many very generous gifts,” Rooney said. “Her legacy is one of passion for the beauty of the human spirit and compassion for others,” he said. “Great philanthropists enlighten and inspire others. Miss Lilly was an inspiring role model for future philanthropists. She understood the power of philanthropy as a catalyst for learning, for new discoveries and for creating transformative changes in the lives of individuals and communities. The impact of her giving will be felt in Indianapolis and nationwide for generations to come,” he said.

In 2002, Lilly donated $120 million to Washington, D.C.-based Americans for the Arts. “The selfless vision and generosity of Ms. Ruth Lilly has benefitted numerous arts groups, artists, and cultural audiences across the United States,” said Robert Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts. “Her extraordinary gift to Americans for the Arts allowed us to greatly expand our work in serving nonprofit arts groups and local arts agencies, as well as advancing the arts for all,” he added. In addition to ensuring Poetry magazine continues to publish in perpetuity, Lilly’s $200-million bequest to the Poetry Foundation established the annual $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize honoring a contemporary poet’s lifetime accomplishment and five Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowships that go to aspiring poets.

“Poetry has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly,” Poetry Foundation President John Barr said. “Her historic gift is notable not only for its size — that part of her largesse is known to every corner of the poetry world — but also because it was made with no conditions or restrictions of any kind as to how it should be used for the benefit of poetry. In that, it was the purest expression of her love for the art that meant so much to her as poet herself, and as benefactor,” he said. But the Chicago-based organization has not been without some difficulties because of the mega-gift. Coincidentally, the day after Lilly’s death, the Chicago Tribune reported on a rift among board members of the Poetry Foundation regarding the proper uses of the donation and questions about compensation and spending by some trustees.

The online magazine Slate reprinted a 2002 article by culture critic and poet Meghan O’Rourke who called the gift an act of bad philanthropy. “Poetry, which had a staff of four, an annual budget of $600,000, and a circulation of approximately 12,000, is suddenly among the best-endowed cultural institutions in the world,” she wrote, while The Guggenheim Foundation’s assets are $219 million. She questioned whether the organization would be “adept at managing large sums of money” or the publishing house that was planned to start, “and yet the Lilly bequest means the sun will never set on Poetry’s empire,” she wrote. “An organization like that will certainly have some growing pains from a gift that size, but I would emphasize that there are plans in place, and they have done some things with that gift to foster the development of poetry,” said Tempel. “We need people to pursue various things like that in our society that are part of the rich tapestry of who we are as a people. That’s kind of one of the ways I look at philanthropy myself is talking about philanthropy as a way in which people express selves in society, through that expression, of different individuals with different interests and passions, that we provide for the broad array of things that exist in our culture rather than focusing on a fewÉ our culture is richer because have all these things that take place,” he said.