Mitchell fund to expand in 2018

A foundation set up by the late billionaire George Mitchell and his wife intends to expand its grantmaking programs as well as pour resources into fighting poverty and improving education in Galveston Island, after Mitchell's estate is settled, the foundation president said Friday.

Galveston will be one of a number of new and expanded programs from a major infusion of funding to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation starting in 2018, said Katherine Lorenz, Mitchell's granddaughter and president of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.

In the meantime, the foundation intends to carry out its two existing commitments and will continue a grant program for clean energy, natural gas sustainability, water and sustainability science, she said. The Cook's Branch Conservancy, a 5,600-acre habitat preserve in the Piney Woods of East Texas, also will continue being funded, she said.

Commitments made personally by Mitchell, such as a four-year pledge to the Houston Symphony, are unconnected to the foundation and cannot be honored now, Lorenz said, although she left open the possibility of foundation funding for the symphony in 2018.

The Houston Chronicle reported Tuesday that Mitchell's death and the need to settle his estate had led the foundation to halt grant-making. Lorenz clarified the foundation's status in a telephone interview Friday.

After Mitchell died in July, all donations from his estate to the foundation were frozen until the estate is settled, a process Lorenz said could take at least three years. Meanwhile the foundation is spending more than triple the 5 percent of its endowment the Internal Revenue Service set as a minimum annual payout, raising fears about its long-term sustainability, she said.

With no new money coming in until Mitchell's estate is settled, the foundation decided to temporarily curtail expenditures.

The two outstanding obligations, totalling nearly $40 million, are to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M University and the Carnegie Institution of Washington for the construction of the massive Magellan telescope in Chile. Lorenz said it would take more than three years to pay off those two obligations. The foundation expects to spend about $4 million a year combined on the grant programs.

The foundation has about $120 million in assets, she said, but can expect a large influx of wealth from the estate once it is settled. Mitchell in 2010 signed a pledge to donate a substantial portion of his fortune through the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.

Lorenz said the pledge ensures that the foundation will receive a large chunk of her grandfather's money by 2018.

"We are expecting to be fully functional with a maximum endowment in 2018," Lorenz said.

Foundation spending is aimed at carrying out the mission laid out by Cynthia Mitchell, who died in 2009, and her husband before their deaths.

"My grandfather and I had very many conversations in the years before he passed away," Lorenz said. He told her that he wanted the foundation to focus on science and sustainability.

Both grandparents expected the foundation to improve Galveston, Mitchell's birthplace. Cynthia Mitchell's concern was poverty.

"We see education as the best route out of poverty," Lorenz said about plans to help low-income Galvestonians. Other donations are being considered for downtown Galveston, where Mitchell Historic Properties is the largest property holder, and Galveston's education system.

The Galveston programs are still in the planning stage.

Although institutions like the Houston Symphony were not part of Mitchell's vision for the foundation, the symphony was important to him and his wife and one of the institutions the family will consider funding after 2018, Lorenz said.

"We want to make sure we are caring about the things they cared about," Lorenz said. "That will be very much a family dialogue."

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