Diane at Silver Salmon Creek

Diane Kaplan at Silver Salmon Creek.  Dr. Sven Haakanson

From Practicing Backyard Altruism to Leading Alaska’s Philanthropic Family

An interview with Diane Kaplan

Interview by Sheila Toomey

Winter 2022-23, FORUM Magazine

DIANE KAPLAN STEPPED DOWN on December 31 as Rasmuson Foundation’s President and CEO, a position she held for more than 25 years. She recently reflected for the Alaska Humanities Forum (AKHF) on the evolution of the Foundation during her tenure from a tiny no-employee family charity to Alaska’s largest, preeminent philanthropy—and her personal philanthropic journey, which started young.

AKHF: You’ve spent most of your professional life working for nonprofit organizations— public broadcasting in Pennsylvania, California, and here, in addition to a bunch of charitable boards like the Alaska Community Foundation and, of course, Rasmuson Foundation. You were raised in Brooklyn by a single mother, the only girl with two older brothers. Did anything in your childhood forecast your path?

Diane: I was always a fundraiser. When I was five years old—you remember that Jerry Lewis thing?—I collected for muscular dystrophy. I turned our backyard into a carnival for Jerry’s Kids. On Halloween, I did trick or treat for UNICEF. [...] The other kids were eating candy; I was asking for donations. I did Trees for Israel, sold chocolates for the synagogue. When the neighbors saw me coming they would run in the opposite direction. [laughs]

AKHF: Why do you think you were like that?

Diane: Well, we didn’t have a lot. My father was a violent person, and my mother eventually threw him out. Suddenly she had to support us by herself—three kids, a mortgage. She wasn’t prepared. She had no real job skills, hadn’t finished college. The jobs she could get didn’t pay enough. When she tried welfare, they told her she’d have to sell the house first. In the end, we had to depend on money from relatives for two years so she could go back to school and qualify as a teacher. […] She paid them back, every penny.

AKHF: What drew you to the philanthropic life?

Diane: I am a product of philanthropy. I went to summer camp for three years thanks to the United Jewish Appeal. At the time, it was hugely important to me. Getting rid of us for a while saved my mother’s life. When I graduated from high school, I was given a financial package that allowed me to go to the University of Pennsylvania—money and loans and work study. It covered everything. I could never have afforded to go to an Ivy League school. Generous donors made my life possible.

AKHF: You spent 11 years running APRN [Alaska Public Radio Network], a period that saw huge expansion of network services with the building of stations throughout rural Alaska. In 1995 you had your own consulting firm when Ed Rasmuson offered you a part-time gig as his Foundation’s first employee—10 hours a week, $15 an hour. Why did you take it?

Diane: Because it seemed like a really cool thing to do and because it came with health insurance. I was in my late 30s. I had a very successful company. I was making good money. But I had no retirement and no health insurance. I talked him up to $30 an hour and took them on as a client. [...] But frankly, I didn’t think they’d ever want to pay me enough to work for them full time.

I am a product of philanthropy... Generous donors made my life possible.

AKHF: I’m sure that’s one prediction you’re happy was wrong. When you left last year, the Foundation had a staff of 30, widely regarded as dedicated and capable. How did you learn the art of picking good people?

Diane: I learned the hard way. I made mistakes early on. But one day, I asked Janet Weiss, then head of BP, how she did it. She said the most important thing was “alignment with the mission. If they believe in your mission, you can teach them everything else.” I’ve followed that ever since. Of course Rasmuson Foundation applicants are also asked, “Can you sing? Can you dance? Can you filet fish?” [laughs]

AKHF: Looking back over your 27 years leading the Foundation, tell us about something you got wrong.

Diane: Well, here’s a bad one. Over a series of visits to Napaskiak, I got to know the tribal administrator, Phillip Nicholai. The village needed money for Head Start and a fence around the cemetery, and I kept urging him to apply for a grant. But he kept not doing it. I finally told him if he didn’t apply, there was no point in me coming back.

The next year when I arrived, he didn’t show up, wouldn’t meet me as usual. Turned out they had finally applied—and been turned down. Whoever was at the front desk sent their application back because something was missing. The cover letter said something like, “Unfortunately we cannot accept this application because it’s incomplete.” And that’s all the villagers read. Rejection. They didn’t talk to us about it. They didn’t ask any questions. When I figured out what happened, we changed our letters, so they began, “Congratulations. Your application is being processed. We would appreciate it if you would send us...” We changed our guidelines to accommodate their reality. Staff learned to be flexible.

AKHF: Apart from any individual grant or program you fostered while you and Ed were building the Foundation, what satisfies you most among your accomplishments?

Diane: Building a culture of philanthropy in the state. […] Getting the people of Alaska to value and support nonprofits through programs like Pick.Click.Give and creating local community foundations. According to data, Alaska ranked very low in the amount of support given to charity per person back then. The state data is now way better.

AKHF: Any final thoughts?

Diane: I remember that five-year-old girl collecting for UNICEF. She’s always with me. As she and I seek out new adventures, we take with us the satisfaction of knowing our work—the Foundation—changed the practice of philanthropy in Alaska, changed the face of Alaska itself. ■

Sheila Toomey worked as an Alaska journalist for more than 30 years, starting with public broadcasting and then with the Anchorage Daily News. She and Diane have been friends for years.

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The Alaska Humanities Forum is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that designs and facilitates experiences to bridge distance and difference – programming that shares and preserves the stories of people and places across our vast state, and explores what it means to be Alaskan.

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