In Memoriam: William S. White

William S. White stands at a podium.
William S. White, addressing The European Foundation Centre in 2009. Photo: Andreas Franke

One of the longest-serving leaders of a major philanthropy in the United States, William S. White passed away peacefully on October 9 at age 82. Just two days earlier, White delivered an impassioned speech as his storied career was celebrated by the Council of Michigan Foundations at that organization’s annual conference.

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1937, he was the only child of Nathaniel Ridgway White, a business writer and editor for the Christian Science Monitor, and Mary Lowndes White, a civil engineer. He grew up in Westchester County, New York, and Boston. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from Dartmouth University in 1959, he completed a Master of Business Administration at the university’s Tuck School of Business the following year. From 1960 to 1962, he served with the United States Army.

In 1961, White married Claire Mott, a granddaughter of industrialist Charles Stewart Mott, who created the Foundation that bears his name. Eight years later, White’s father-in-law, C.S. Harding Mott, hired him as a consultant. In that role, White subsequently helped to reorganize and modernize the Foundation’s administrative, financial and grantmaking procedures.

His success in those efforts led to White being named vice president and secretary of the Foundation in 1971 and elected to its board of trustees. Over the coming years, he would be elected to the positions of president, chief administrative officer, CEO and the role he served until his last day: chairman of Mott’s board of trustees.

Under White’s leadership, the Mott Foundation grew from a primarily local funder with assets of roughly $377 million to an internationally recognized philanthropy with assets of more than $3 billion.

As a grantmaker, White built a reputation for seeking out solid, well-managed organizations and funding them to create infrastructure and sustainability in key sectors. He recognized that the stubbornness and complexity of the issues we seek to address means that they will not be resolved overnight. He often said that having patience and taking a “long view” are essential for meaningful, sustainable change to take root. And he embraced Charles Stewart Mott’s belief that good things happen when people work in partnership with their communities.

The possibility of failure never prevented White from taking calculated risks, and many paid off — none more than a $2 million grant and $55 million multi-year commitment to help seed and support the expansion of the federal government’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative. Mott’s support helped build the fledgling, bipartisan effort to keep children safe after school into a highly regarded national program that now provides high-quality enrichment and academic programming for 1.7 million children each year.

White was known as an institution builder, both internationally and domestically. The governance of organizations was of great importance to him, especially in the charitable sector. He supported good practice and transparency in philanthropy, and he believed foundations must be accountable for the assets they have at their disposal and responsible for using them for purposes intended by the donor.

The recipient of many honors, perhaps none more gratifying to him than the Council on Foundations’ Distinguished Grantmaker Award in 2002, White also received The European Foundation Centre’s first-ever Philanthropy Compass Prize in 2009; the Beacon Award for Services to Community Philanthropy from the Community Foundation Network in the U.K. in 2010; and the Republic of Poland’s Officer’s Cross of Merit award for his contributions to the development of civil society in Central and Eastern Europe.

He served on many local, national and international boards throughout his long career, but most enjoyed the opportunity to observe world conditions firsthand, as he did through his appointment to the Carter Center’s observer delegation to the Palestinian elections, on the U.S. Presidential Delegation led by former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to observe the elections in Bosnia, and on a Presidential Economic and Business Development Mission to Croatia and Bosnia.

Outside his philanthropic responsibilities, White also served for many years as the chairman of the board of the U.S. Sugar Corporation. He was a member of the governing council of The European Foundation Centre and was the recipient of five honorary degrees. A generous supporter of the arts, he and his wife Claire were recognized by ArtServe Michigan with the Guvvy Award — the Michigan Governor’s Award — for lifetime achievement in advancing and supporting arts and culture in the Flint area. A deeply spiritual man, he was a member of and served three years as Reader at the First Church of Christ, Scientist, Flint.

White was preceded in death by his wife Claire and his son-in-law, Robert E. Lovett, Jr. He is survived by his second wife, Louise Hartwell; daughter Tiffany White Lovett; son Ridgway White (Shannon Easter White); stepdaughter Kathryn Pickett Davis (Andrew Davis); four grandchildren; and three step-grandchildren.

While the trustees and staff of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation are deeply saddened by Bill White’s passing, we will be forever grateful that we had the opportunity to benefit from his wisdom, wit and counsel for so many decades.

Read some of the milestones and achievements of William S. White’s philanthropic career — one that was remarkable for both its longevity and impact.