Lee Salter Retires from McConnell Foundation

Lee Salter / Photo by Bret Christensen

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.

Lee Salter in the Spider Caves at Yosemite National Park. McConnell Foundation funds have enabled more than 3,000 young people to attend a weeklong environmental education program at Yosemite since 1989. / Photo courtesy McConnell Foundation

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.

McConnell Foundation’s headquarters at Lema Ranch include a guesthouse and meeting rooms for nonprofits, school groups, and government agencies. / Photo from mcconnellfoundation.org

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.]

From mcconnellfoundation.org: What first began as a gift from Leah McConnell to the City of Redding to enhance the city’s fireworks show has become an annual Foundation tradition of funding Redding’s 4th of July Freedom Festival Fireworks. Leah McConnell, though she was a frugal and private person, loved fireworks and delighted in funding this spectacular regional show. Ninety thousand dollars up in smoke in just 22 minutes may not appear to be the best investment, but as Leah always used to say, “at least you can see where your money is going.”

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.

The McConnell Foundation funded the $30 million Redding School of the Arts building project. The LEED Platinum-certified building opened in 2011. / Photo from mcconnellfoundation.org

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.

Candace L. Brown
Candace L. Brown has been a newspaper and magazine reporter and editor since 1992, including eight years at the Redding Record Searchlight. She lives in Redding and can be reached at candace.freelance@gmail.com.
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15 Responses

  1. Avatar cheyenne says:

    As one who benefited from a grant to help build the playground at Anderson River Park and for the use of many other projects around the north state, Thank you Lee.

  2. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    Our little non-profit library in Fall River was a beneficiary of a Shasta Regional grant so that it could expand. Thank you, McConnell for having a non-profit arm of the Foundation.

  3. Avatar Common Sense says:

    Thank you, Lee! For your Vision and Numerous contributions to make our area a better place to live! Now time to start drinking some of that wine in the Cellar instead of just collecting it!

  4. Avatar DBC says:

    The trust was valued at approximately $42 million and had been created from Carl’s estate and the sale of the Farmers Insurance Company stock. The Foundation was the primary beneficiary of Mrs. McConnell’s estate and upon her death the asset base increased to about $250 million. (From website)

  5. Avatar Linda Cooper says:

    In 1992, I had just been transferred to Shasta State Historic Park. There wasn’t a computer in sight for cataloging and managing the museum collections, and producing educational materials for the school groups. Mr. Salter was instrumental in providing funding for implementing these projects. He did this without “red tape.” I’ve long since retired, however, I can’t pass up this opportunity to acknowledge his support and vision. Because of his interest, a lot of good work was accomplished in the areas of preservation and education. My very best wishes, Mr. Salter, on your next new step!

  6. Tom O'Mara Tom O'Mara says:

    I don’t know where the computer and printer McConnell gave the Youth Violence Prevention Council in 1995 ranks on their grant list, but it sure was appreciated at the time. Thank you Lee and the McConnell Foundation for all you have done!

  7. AJ AJ says:

    We are blessed more than not blessed to have entities and leadership of those entities active in our community. For all the whining and wailing we hear about us and our community, it’s particularly reassuring to know that there are such folk so generously contributing to the health of that community. ENJOY THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, LEE.

  8. Avatar Janine Hall says:

    Thank you and Judy for your love of Redding and being a part of the great things to come. Job well done!!

  9. Avatar Patricia Bay says:

    Lee and Judy Salter have been, and still are, ncredible assets to our community.

  10. Avatar Patricia Bay says:

    Lee and Judy Salter have been, and still are, incredible assets to our community.

  11. Avatar Betty Dickerson says:

    Enjoy your retirement Lee and Judy. You both are incredible people and we thank you both for all you’ve given to Northern CA.

  12. Avatar Debra Lucero says:

    Lee and Judy (and, of course, The McConnell Foundation) have been key in many of the good things that happen in Redding and the North State. We are so very fortunate to have the foundation, its assets, its vision and its commitment to Redding and the True North of California. Thank you, Lee. I’ve learned so much from your leadership.

  13. Avatar Lang Dayton says:

    Had it not been for the McConnell Foundation’s timely financial support, direction, and partnering with government agencies and private citizens in the 1990s, Redding’s popular Westside Trail with its historic Gold Rush water ditches and iconic views from the “Top of the World” would not exist. Without the Foundation’s critical involvement, Redding’s western skyline would now silhouette a row of hilltop mansions and be off-limits to the public.

    This successful project was only the start. An incredibly productive partnership between the McConnell Foundation, the City of Redding, the BLM, the Redding Foundation, and dedicated volunteers followed and led to a trail renaissance that created most of the 200+ miles of new trails in the area. Redding’s trail system has gained statewide and even national recognition because of this work, which has helped make the area a better place to live, visit, and play.

  14. Avatar Janet Tyrrel says:

    You have been an admirable leader for the McConnell Foundation. Very best wishes for this next phase of life!