Murdock Trust: A Vancouver powerhouse of charitable giving

The M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust is considered one of the most effective and exacting foundations of its kind in the nation

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter


photoJack Murdock

Murdock brings Civil War scholar to WSU Vancouver

When it heads for local universities, Murdock money doesn’t just pay for laboratories. It also underwrites the annual free James B. Castles Endowment Lecture, administered by the Washington State Historical Society. Castles was a founding trustee and 20-year board member of the Murdock Trust.

If you go

• What: Public lecture: “The Hold of the Civil War on the American Imagination, Past and Present.”

• Who: David Blight, Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University.

• When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18.

• Where: Washington State University Vancouver, Dengerink Administration Building Room 110.

photoMedical Teams International of Portland got a $125,000 grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, based in downtown Vancouver, for relief efforts in Haiti.
photoPatient care coordinator Mitch Hustad assists Florina Hernandez, 57, left, to re-enroll in Project Access, a program funded by Murdock that helps the uninsured get health care.

(/The Columbian)

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Murdock grants not political, executive director says

Many Murdock grantees serve basic human needs.

The Clark County Food Bank got $138,000 this year; a Loaves and Fishes Center in Portland got $150,000 in 2011; a Seattle training center for the homeless got $220,000 for a teaching kitchen; Grays Harbor County Public Hospital got $150,000; and Forks Community Hospital got $43,000.

Other grantees are farther afield and, sometimes, championing a political point of view.

In 2011, the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation got $375,000 for "educational reform" from Murdock. Heritage is famous -- or infamous -- as a conservative think tank and political lobby that advised Congressional Republicans on their 1994 "Contract with America" campaign. Heritage's website includes a sort of call to conservative arms, urging visitors to "Join Rush Limbaugh" and become members.

Murdock also gave $180,000 for "education reform" to the Seattle-based Washington Policy Center -- which mentions on its website that it's considered the "Heritage Foundation of the Northwest."

In 2010, two grants worth $660,000 went to Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based organization that opposes abortion, divorce, premarital sex and gay rights, to "teach Christian worldview to young people." The Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund (now the Alliance Defending Freedom), which litigates against gay marriage, for Christian prayer at public meetings and allowing protesters to picket abortion providers, got $300,000 in 2008 "to provide education and public awareness among college students."

Murdock executive director Steven Moore denied that these grants are political.

"We do not get involved in political perspectives," he said. "But we do support religious freedom."

He said Focus on the Family has changed. "I don't think Focus on the Family would be viewed as extreme right now," he said.

"There are people who think we are very liberal," he said. "There are people who think we are very conservative. I think we're in the broad middle. When you're weaving the fabric of a verdant and healthy culture, it requires strands of all different perspectives."-- Scott Hewitt

Melvin Jack Murdock

Lifelong fascination with electronics benefited many

Melvin Jack Murdock was born in Portland on Aug. 15, 1917. According to diary excerpts in a biographical video called "A Life Well Lived," created by the Murdock Trust, he was all of 2 years old when he first grew fascinated with electronics -- by way of his Nebraska grandmother's phonograph. He grew skilled enough to become Franklin High School's resident electrician even while a student there.

"I would like to learn all there is to know about radio," he wrote while a teenager. "I shall probably make some inventions. I have at present several ideas for inventions which, if put into use, would be of great benefit for the people of the world."

Murdock graduated from Franklin and chose business rather than pursue a college education; with his parents' help, he bought a radio and appliance repair shop. That's where he was approached in 1936 by Howard Vollum, a radio technician and engineering graduate from Reed College, and the two of them worked together for years -- splitting up to do radar and radio operations work during World War II, and coming together again to found Tektronix in 1946.

Tektronix caught fire with an oscilloscope that was smaller and handier than anything that had come before. After that came innovations in radio and television, health care, computers and aeronautics, to name just a few. It was the beginning of the so-called Silicon Forest, which broadened the economic base of the Pacific Northwest beyond lumber and water.

By the 1960s, "the word Tektronix was magic. It was the future," Murdock friend Ralph Crawshaw says in the video. The company had thousands of employees and thousands more enrolled in its educational programs; founder Murdock was just as interested in management innovation as he was in technical innovation. He joined on the board of the Menninger Foundation of Topeka, Kan., because he was enthusiastic about its new approaches to corporate psychology and human motivation.

According to the video, Tektronix was a precursor of the sort of loose, familial, creative business campus that's associated with cutting-edge outfits like Microsoft and Nike today.

"I think he felt (his business) was an opportunity to help society," Frank Consalvo, a friend and Tektronix employee, says in the video.

Murdock, on his way to becoming an Oregon legend, eventually bought an elegant home overlooking the Vancouver waterfront (at 5601 Buena Vista Drive). He had an office at Pearson Airfield and was an avid aviator -- which is what led to his death at age 53 in 1971. He was piloting a seaplane, attempting to take off from the Columbia River, when strong wind flipped the plane onto its back. A companion made it to shore, but Murdock's body was never found.

"It was very unfortunate because he still had lots of work to do," said Marian Haro, an employee of Melridge Aviation. "It was a loss to mankind."

When the will was read, it was found that Murdock, a lifelong bachelor, left token amounts to relatives but the vast bulk of his $80 million estate to a new charitable foundation.

photoSteven Moore is executive director of the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust

Christian missionaries and mass spectrometers. Food for shut-ins and hospitals for the rural poor. A community ice arena in Post Falls, Idaho, and a World Kite Museum in Washington's Long Beach. Mentoring money for K-12 science teachers in classrooms all over the Pacific Northwest, and hard-science dollars for research such as "Vitamin D Regulation in Breast Cancer Cells" at George Fox University and "Study of Rotation Period of an Accreting White Dwarf Star" at the University of Washington.

The M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, based in downtown Vancouver, is a powerhouse of charitable giving that aims its largesse mostly at the Pacific Northwest.

On Friday, the trust announced an $858,000 gift toward the University of Portland's $12 million library project.

"We're trying to partner with the best organizations that are making the best contributions," said executive director Steven Moore. "As they grow stronger, the fabric of the Northwest grows stronger."

Murdock has given away more than $650 million since it was created in 1975 by the will of high-tech titan Melvin J. (Jack) Murdock, the co-founder of Oregon firm Tektronix Inc., and, later in his life, a resident of Vancouver. Murdock's will named three trustees who were to "nurture and enrich the educational, cultural, social, and spiritual lives of individuals, families, and community" by establishing the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. The trust started out with $91 million, the vast majority of which came from Murdock's estate.

The trust's total assets at the end of 2011 totaled nearly $800 million. Watchers of the nonprofit world consider it one of the most effective -- and most exacting -- charitable foundations in the nation.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy, which studies the high-end nonprofit world, surveyed Murdock's grantees as well as its unsuccessful applicants in autumn 2011 and compared the results with data from 273 foundations and more than 40,000 individual grantees; it found that Murdock placed in the top 3 percent of charitable foundations helping grantees achieve their organizational goals and in the top 6 percent of funders overall.

In 2010, Murdock was the seventh-largest grantor to Washington state nonprofits and the fifth-largest to Oregon nonprofits, and was tied for the 10th-largest grantor to Pacific Northwest nonprofits overall, according to the latest "Trends in Giving" report from Seattle-based Philanthropy Northwest. Murdock's median grant size was $155,000.

Despite all that, the trust remains something of a Vancouver secret.

"We're trying not to be so secret," said Moore, "but the real story isn't our foundation. It's the organizations we are serving."

Murdock is a self-described "general purpose" foundation, Moore said, but its support swings heavily toward rural and community health, education, scientific research and arts and culture. It also emphasizes Christian outreach and teachings, from overseas missions to college campuses to Indian reservations.

"We can't do everything, so we have some niches we tend to work in. We look for the areas where we can make the most difference," Moore said. "We are not a religious foundation, but we see faith-based charities as very important. It's an underserved niche."

It may not be religious per se, but one major wing of Murdock is its Christian Leadership Initiative, offering faith-based training for women, nonprofit board members, missionaries and other developing leaders. Murdock will host a "Christian Leadership Advance" conference at the Hilton Vancouver Washington on Nov. 28 and 29.

The Great Recession has eaten into Murdock's outflow; after the trust's highest-ever watermark in 2008 ($42.4 million given away), there was a significant dip in 2009 ($29.1 million) and 2010 ($27.2 million). Last year, the charity built back up to nearly $33.7 million in grants. This year, Moore said, Murdock is on track to grant between $35 million and $40 million.

"This is the time that organizations need us the most," Moore said. "Our trustees have said, let's be really responsive to organizations that serve the underserved, the poor and needy."

Rigorous process

The trust, housed on the seventh floor at 703 Broadway, has three lifelong trustees and a staff of 22. Executive director Moore, 59, a native Texan with a gentle drawl, worked as a vice president at Seattle Pacific University -- where he helped win Murdock money -- and then in the nonprofit sector. He came to Murdock in July 2006.

Murdock does all of its investing through independent fund managers -- separate firms hired to grow the trust's money. Moore said the relationships are long-term, and the managers have a good sense of the trust's mission and its goal of steady growth.

That leaves Murdock staff to do what they consider their real job: working with applicants to develop and vet the best proposals possible. In addition, Murdock hosts seminars and classes for potential applicants and posts exhaustive materials about every aspect of the nonprofit world -- including the "best and worst ways to choose a charity" -- on its website, There's even an annual summer Founder's Day, a social mixer where aspiring and successful grantees can rub elbows with one another and with Murdock staff.

That's just the pre-application scene. Murdock's formal application process is renowned for its rigor.

"We really do our due diligence on the front end. We do a lot of homework," Moore said. "People joke that Murdock does the most unglamorous things."

The Center for Effective Philanthropy survey found that Murdock requires twice as much proposal development as "most other funders." Respondents said that Murdock's tough process "helps us ask strategic questions."

"The Murdock Trust has a long and storied history of kind but tough-minded trustees and program officers," writes Tom Wilson on, a website aimed at the highest levels of the philanthropic world. Murdock requires "an in-depth proposal, a structural proposal, that covers all aspects of the project and your fundraising for it. A full proposal can take up to 20 pages to complete. Staff reviews your proposal over 6 to 9 months and will come for a site visit of several hours to interview team members involved with the project. Follow-up questions and clarifications are all part of their due diligence."

Another aspect of due diligence is the trust's firm policy against underwriting basic daily expenses. Any applicant must have that covered first.

"We don't do ongoing operating expenses," Moore said. "We build infrastructure so they can sustain themselves. 'Can we have $50,000 because we're running low?' 'No, you can't, but you can come to this seminar on the essentials of development. Then you can come back to us with a plan,'" Moore said.

Health care for poor

Murdock was encouraging but "extremely tough" on the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington as it developed its Project Access proposal, according to clinic executive director Barbe West.

The clinic has provided medical and dental care for the uninsured poor for decades, but its process for helping patients with serious problems, such as cancer, used to be wholly based on participating physicians' personal connections. A doctor donating time to the clinic might call a colleague to ask for some free help for a particular patient -- "but there was no system and no guarantee," West said.

Meanwhile, people without insurance continued to put off getting care until their ailments grew intolerable. Then they'd land in local emergency rooms -- with taxpayers shouldering the bills.

The clinic wanted to emulate a North Carolina model for attacking the problem. In 2008, it applied to Murdock to create "Project Access, a way to systematize specialty care for the uninsured," West said.

"Murdock embraced the concept," she said. "They saw there is a huge gap in our health care system and they liked a systematic approach to filling it. What's broken and how will this proposal change that? They could see the potential in what we were proposing."

Today, a subset of clinic staff works with uninsured clients to evaluate their finances on intake, find physicians and hospitals who will take referrals for free, and coordinate appointments, transportation and language interpreter services as needed. That's what the Murdock grant pays for. (An additional grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust covers Project Access pharmaceuticals.)

There are 289 local medical specialists signed up for some level of participation, West said. Local hospitals are all onboard.

"We do all the case management, all the front-end financial analysis to make sure patients qualify, and we provide interpreters," West said -- so doctors can just focus on providing care. "Doctors like that," she said.

The project has been a big success, West said; the clinic expected to handle 200 Project Access clients per month, but the real caseload is closer to 300. Enrollment is limited to six-month increments, after which each patient is re-evaluated for continued participation. If a patient doesn't qualify financially, Project Access care managers figure out other options.

"We don't let anybody just fall through the cracks," West said.

While Project Access can't claim to have made a huge dent in local emergency room traffic overall, West said, surveys have found that Project Access patients go to the E.R. about half as much as they used to.

Renewable research

Don't be surprised to see a small experimental wind farm rise on the east side of the Washington State University Vancouver campus in coming years.

"That's the plan," said Stephen Solovitz, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and it's due to a multifaceted Murdock grant aimed at fostering renewable energy programs and technologies.

Murdock has twice granted the WSUV School of Engineering and Computer Science. The first time was in 2005, and aimed specifically at mechanical engineering; the second time was last year, when Murdock gave $250,000 to launch this interdisciplinary renewable energy program, including three new campus laboratories and many new and updated courses. It was a matching grant, with WSUV also contributing $278,000.

The result is a network of laboratories in WSUV's newest engineering building, and new career opportunities for an estimated 100 undergraduate and 10 graduate students per year.

"As engineers, when they graduate, they'll be able to dive right into this developing sector," said Hakan Gurocak, professor, lead grantee and director of the School of Engineering and Computer Science. "It's been generating quite a lot of interest."

When The Columbian visited in late August, there was little breathing room in a lab where students in a "Microsystems in Renewable Technology" class were using Murdock-purchased equipment to test silicon solar cells.

In the lab next door sit two enormous wind tunnels -- big, blue ductlike contraptions. The latest grant provided the newer one, which tests student wind turbine blade designs at room temperature. The previous Murdock grant paid for the other one, which uses heated and cooled air to test electrical circuits under high-stress conditions.

"The technology is changing pretty rapidly," Solovitz said, and the ability to put student designs to the test is invaluable.

Here's another thing that's changing: energy use in information technology. Ever heard of "green computing"? That's what assistant professor David Chiu is pursuing.

Put together all the data centers in the United States -- the massive memory stores for operations such as Facebook and Google -- and they now consume something like 3.5 percent of all our electricity, Chui said. Murdock-purchased equipment is helping Chui's students meter the very code they write to see how much power it consumes.

"This is a new dimension of computing that most people haven't thought about before," Chiu said.

According to a statement from WSUV, the renewable energy sector is expected to generate more than 63,000 skilled and well-paying careers in Washington and Oregon by 2025.

'Up and flying'

"Social enterprise" innovations -- small local businesses that can raise up whole communities by reaching a wider customer base (such as free-trade coffee) -- are an area Murdock is eyeballing for the future, Moore said. So are very low interest loans for nonprofits that need more than just a grant to do something really dramatic -- like build a building.

"It's a faster way to build capacity," Moore said.

Murdock already did this once, with the Kodiak Quest aircraft, a small plane built in Sandpoint, Idaho, for humanitarian and mission work. The craft got its start with a loan from Murdock.

"It's a success," Moore said. "It's up and flying."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525;;