A new foundation to honor Ray Anderson's legacy

Two Steps Forward

A new foundation to honor Ray Anderson's legacy

Last Saturday, on what would have been his 78th birthday, a small group of friends and family of the late Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface and a giant in the world of sustainable business, gathered in LaGrange, Georgia, to inaugurate a foundation in his name to "champion a revolution in sustainable production and consumption."

Anderson died of cancer on August 8, 2011, at age 77, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy as a Southern industrialist who dared to envision his carpet company as a model for the closed-loop, restorative enterprise of tomorrow.

The Ray C. Anderson Foundation, which will roll out online next week, aims "to promote a sustainable society by supporting and pioneering initiatives that harmonize society, business and the environment for the present generation and tomorrow's child," according to its mission statement. "We will achieve this mission through inspiring and funding innovative, educational and project-based initiatives that advance the revolution in sustainable production and consumption."

The foundation itself isn't entirely new. Anderson himself created it in 1989 — several years before the ephipany that would lead him to, as he later dubbed it, his "mid-course correction." At the time, the foundation was used as a vehicle for Anderson's own charitable giving, including to endow a chair at Georgia Tech, his alma mater. Over the years, it distributed midsized grants to some of Anderson's pet organizations and causes, including several sustainability-related groups, such as the Rocky Mountain Institute.

But since his passing nearly a year ago, his family, colleagues, and friends have been pondering how to infuse the foundation with new life, transforming it into a vehicle to continue the kinds of innovative efforts that were the hallmark of Anderson's life and work.

It wasn't an easy task. "He didn't give his family any kind of directions," said Jo Ann Bachman, Anderson's longtime executive assistant, now part of the foundation's staff. "He didn't give them any kind of pointers. It was just sort of 'take it and run.'"

"Daddy left absolutely no instructions," his daughter, Mary Ann Anderson Lanier, told me last week. "We were really at a loss."

In early May, a small group gathered in Georgia to begin the process, including Lanier and her sister, Harriet Anderson Langford; Anderson's wife of 27 years, Pat Anderson; Janine Benyus, the biomimicry guru; John Picard, a veteran sustainability strategist; the philanthropist Laura Seydel, Ted Turner's daughter; and Julie Wrigley, co-chair of the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. They and several others began to envision the foundation's mission, vision and goals. A subsequent, larger meeting was held in June.

It began to take shape. "With the help of advisers who knew my dad really well, who were inspired by him and who inspired him, we've been able to identify a niche in the sustainability world that seemed to be unfunded," said Lanier. "It was an area that we felt we could do the most good: funding research initiatives and projects that will advance the sustainable production and consumption cycle, specifically the sustainable manufacturing cycle."

The relaunched foundation has four principal goals:

  • Funding innovative new ideas and projects that promote visionary change in the sustainable manufacturing cycle.
  • Educating the public and business leaders alike in meaningful ways that propel a revolutionary change in the way we produce and consume products.
  • Inspiring a new generation of leaders and consumers to be good stewards of the planet’s resources, igniting action that radically impacts the way products are created and used.
  • Connecting thinkers, builders, innovators and idealists to a shared, ethical responsibility to the environment.

The bulk of the foundation comes from Interface stock, so its size fluctuates with the stock price, but is estimated at between $25 million and $30 million. Talking to several individuals close to the foundation, it's clear that the organization is in its early stages, with some of the rules and procedures still taking shape. It's unlikely that the first grants will made until 2013.

At Saturday night's birthday dinner, the small group — which included Anderson's wife, children, four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter, as well as a few close friends — officially launched the foundation — a "soft launch," Bachman emphasizes. They previewed the website, slated to go live August 7, and a just-launched Facebook page.

"The menu was five-star and toasts were raised to Ray and the future of the foundation," says Bachman. "The spirited conversation and genuine warmth of all to one another was a fitting testament to the man we honored."