When Lee Salter first met philanthropist Leah McConnell in 1985, he had no idea he would be invited to help build a foundation—literally and metaphorically—that has benefited North State residents and international partners for three decades.
Salter, 76, will retire March 31 as chief executive officer of the McConnell Foundation. He leaves a staff of 36 and assets of nearly $500 million. When he joined the foundation in 1988 as chief executive officer, assets totaled about $42 million.
“The board credits Lee with aggressive vision, high standards, ambitious goals, and an entrepreneurial spirit,” said Bob Blankenship, chair of the five-member board, which also includes Salter, Doreeta Domke, John Mancasola, and Bill Cox. “He has stewarded the Foundation through programmatic expansion, geographic expansion, and real estate acquisitions and development.”
Under Salter’s leadership, the foundation has funded numerous projects, with a special focus on long-term investment in the areas of education and international work. The foundation has made recent headlines for its downtown Redding revitalization efforts, including purchase of the former Redding police station and Bell Rooms, and partnership in a mixed-used project to replace the aging parking garage.
Salter is particularly proud of the foundation’s longtime work with the NatureBridge program, which has enabled more than 3,000 high school students to experience a weeklong environmental education program in Yosemite National Park since 1989; its peacebuilding investments in Nepal and Laos; and its commitment to education through scholarships and support of College OPTIONS and North State Together.
The foundation’s international work in Nepal and Laos began after Salter attended a Council on Foundations conference in 1998, during which foundations of all sizes were challenged to fund emerging, third-world countries where small investments provide significant returns.
We sat down with Salter recently inside his office inside the McConnell Foundation headquarters at Lema Ranch, a 200-acre property off Shasta View Drive purchased by Leah McConnell in 1993. Salter worked closely on the design and construction of the ranch, which includes a guesthouse and miles of paved and dirt trails the public enjoys daily, as well as meeting spaces offered to eligible organizations at no charge.
You made a life-changing decision in 1988 at age 46 to leave your law practice to become the McConnell Foundation’s CEO. Tell us some about your career path.
I’ve been very fortunate to have three wonderful separate careers. After graduation, I spent eight years as an IRS revenue agent. Law was my second career. When I met Leah McConnell in 1985, I began representing her as an attorney, which grew into full-time work as foundation CEO. I learned much from her, businesswise. She was a very intelligent investor. Each career has been better than the other.
In this video about the foundation’s international programs, you note, “I’m a firm believer that if you don’t fail, you’re not taking enough risks.” How did your McConnell Foundation career most challenge you?
The biggest challenge was coming from law practice, where everything is confidential, and working for Mrs. McConnell, who was very private and often gave anonymously. As we moved into the foundation world, one of the mistakes we probably made was being too private and not transparent enough. With the foundation being very visible in a small community, this was a learning experience for us. We didn’t have anything to hide but no reason to make things more public. We’ve done that now by promoting what we do and have done. We seek to highlight the grantees we have helped and how we went about that. There’s a lot the public doesn’t know we do.
[Note: North State residents may or may not know that the McConnell Foundation has been heavily involved in funding for Redding School of the Arts, Shasta Community Health Center, Turtle Bay Exploration Park, Healthy Shasta, recreational trails in the greater Redding area, Hill Country Health and Wellness Center, the Weed Community Center, as well as the Fourth of July Freedom Festival fireworks each year, among other investments. They also help fund the Shasta Community Regional Foundation, which helps nonprofits become better through grants. Learn more about McConnell’s programs here.]
What would you like Redding residents to know or understand about the McConnell Foundation?
We are an independent private foundation, not a public entity. We’ve always said we want to be the frosting on the cake; but we’re not the cake. Our board of directors determines projects of interest in which we invest. The bulk of our funding has gone into education in one form or another.
What will you miss the most about not being involved with the foundation on a daily basis?
I know I’ll miss having my fingers in everything on an operational basis.
Where do you hope the foundation will be in 50 years in terms of projects and scope?
It will be whatever those five directors decide at the time. When the foundation was set up, it was set up without geographic or programmatic restrictions, which is rare for a foundation. But that means the directors make those project decisions at the time. That’s how it will be forever.
That said, I don’t expect to see huge changes. We have a decade-funding philosophy, and with a small board, there’s not tremendous variation.
In 2017, the foundation began a 10-year commitment to community vitality, focused especially on downtown Redding. How have you seen Redding change during the decades you’ve been CEO and what do you see ahead?
I think Redding is on the cusp of making real strides. I think before the Sundial Bridge, Redding had an attitude that it wasn’t good enough to advance the culture. I think the opening of the Sundial Bridge and Cascade Theatre in 2004 was a turning point. There was a cultural shift.
We’ve looked at downtown for a long, long time. We finally connected with K2 Land and Development and are partnering with them and the city to go for a state affordable housing grant. We’ll hear about that grant in June. Our vision has expanded significantly, so we have made a long-term commitment to downtown. As part of that, we decided we needed to hire Rachel [Rachel Hatch is McConnell’s new program officer focusing on community vitality].
With our project and K2’s project and other developers coming in to create a vibrant downtown, and with a new cultural district, I think all of those things will put Redding in a much more progressive stance.
What are you most looking forward to in retirement?
We’ve been traveling—at least one big trip a year, so we’ll do more of that. There are a number of places we want to go before we’re too old. I also enjoy woodworking and hunting, and Judy loves to fish, so I’m trying to do more of that.
We wish you well, Lee. Any final words about your time and success at the McConnell Foundation?
It’s been very rewarding. You hire good people and let them do their thing. Our program officers have wide latitude in running their programs. There’s more than one way to get to the end results. John Mancasola has transitioned to CEO seamlessly, and the staff are talented, competent and passionate. Stepping aside feels right.