See more of the story

Most charitable foundations are designed to be around forever. Twin Cities-based Robina Foundation has an unusual guiding principle for its money: Spend it all.

Spend all $165 million of it on innovative, new programs that promote human rights, nurture a creative spark in writers and artists, and revolutionize health care for people with chronic illness.

The unusual limited-life philanthropy, started in 2004 by former Honeywell President and Board Chairman James H. Binger, could be out of business by decade’s end on explicit orders from the late Binger himself. Its work and the life-changing results are showing up on a national stage, at the U.S. Supreme Court, on Broadway and in the pages of national medical journals.

“He wanted to make inspired, transformative gifts,” said Kathleen Blatz, former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice who serves as chairwoman of the Robina Foundation’s board of directors. “It’s so outside of the box from typical philanthropy. I am so amazed by Jim’s vision that created this model.”

Per Binger’s instructions, nearly all Robina dollars should be spent in two decades and go to four institutions close to his heart: Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis and its parent nonprofit Allina Health; University of Minnesota Law School; Yale University, and the Council on Foreign Relations based in New York City.

Those investments are already showing up in innovative programs in Minnesota.

Allina Health sends “care guides” to visit hundreds of patients each month as part of a program that’s keeping people out of the emergency room and the intensive-care unit. A new center at the University Minnesota Law School is assisting immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers. At the Guthrie Theater, crews are preparing for the opening this month of “Indecent,” a play nurtured at the Binger Center for New Theatre at Yale and performed on Broadway.

The Guthrie describes “Indecent” by Paula Vogel, a play about the controversial 1923 Broadway debut of Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance,” as shedding light on “one of the most fascinating scandals in theater history.”

Jennifer Kiger, director of New Play Programs at the Binger Center, said “Indecent” is one of 27 new American plays that have premiered and been produced at the center.

“We are establishing long-term relationships with writers whose voices we think are important and have the potential to really impact the American theater,” Kiger said. “It’s because of the generosity and the vision of the Robina Foundation, we are able to cast that wide of a net.”

History of philanthropy

Binger grew up on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue, the son of a doctor. He earned his undergraduate degree from Yale and his law degree from the University of Minnesota.

He became president of Honeywell in 1961 and chairman of its board in 1965, earning a reputation as a corporate innovator. Honeywell expanded into aerospace, computers and cameras under Binger’s leadership. Binger also loved theater. He owned a handful of theaters on Broadway and was a lifetime member of the board at the Guthrie.

Binger and his wife, Virginia McKnight Binger — daughter of 3M Chairman William McKnight — were also renowned philanthropists. Virginia served as president of the McKnight Foundation from 1974 to 1987 and Binger was a leading member of the foundation. Before his death in 2004, Binger laid out the plans for the Robina Foundation to innovate and to give back.

The foundation would be lean — just a board of directors and two part-time staff members. While many other foundations give away their earnings from interest on investments, allowing the principle to remain intact, Robina would give away every penny.

The four recipients organizations quickly learned that the foundation wasn’t just going to hand out checks, Blatz said. Board members have pushed the organizations to pitch new ideas and programs, and made them compete against each other for the funding, selecting about two dozen proposals so far.

“We don’t have to divide the money equally,” Blatz said.

Blatz said they didn’t want to fund existing operations or buildings. They also avoided the obviously good ideas they know other foundations would be eager to support.

“We take some risks, too — calculated risks,” she said.

Projects that were chosen promised to transform lives.

Allina won financing for a new kind of care program, called LifeCourse, which sends care guides to chronically ill patients’ homes and helps with both quality of life and medical issues.

“It’s an excellent idea. I am glad to have someone come and visit, to talk to and ask questions,” said Terry Skelton, a retired Bloomington resident and a participant in LifeCourse who has chronic ailments including congestive heart failure, diabetes and kidney failure. More than anything, he wants to stay out of the hospital. “It’s a chance for patients to share what’s important to them and what they value.”

Robina gave Allina $19 million for the program, which has drawn 400 participants since its inception in 2012. The visiting care guides share the information they gather with patients’ doctors and nurses. And it’s changing lives: A study found LifeCourse participants had 16 percent fewer emergency room visits, 27 percent fewer days in the hospital and 57 percent fewer stays in the intensive care unit when compared to a control group.

Paige Bingham, LifeCourse director at Allina, said Robina really pushed them to think boldly and innovate — and show results to win grants in a competitive environment.

“Funders are wanting grantees to know it’s not a gravy train,” Bingham said. “Grantees need to demonstrate groundbreaking thinking and report back on the results.”

‘Changed the landscape’

At the University of Minnesota Law School, the James H. Binger Center for New Americans started with nearly $30 million in Robina money, has already represented 800 people detained by the Department of Homeland Security and educated 2,000 immigrants about their rights. The center, which partners with local and national advocacy nonprofits, is a training ground for law students but also attracts professional lawyers who donate their talents.

“It’s tremendous. It has changed the landscape of immigrant legal services regionally as well as nationally,” said Deepinder Mayell, director of its Education and Outreach Program.

The center has already worked on a case that ended up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, Mellouli v. Holder, and set precedent for immigrant rights related to drug conviction deportations. Blatz, retired from the judiciary, heard an attorney cite the case in court recently during a tour with students — proof that the foundation’s work is already affecting the lives of everyday people.

But she’s already moved on to figuring out how to spend more money and dim the lights on the Robina Foundation before long.

“2020 has a nice ring to it,” Blatz said.

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804