BRAF president lauded for ‘visionary’ leadership _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Baton Rouge Area Foundation President and CEO John Davies speaks at a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday for the Center For River Studies, which will be part of The Water Campus located between Terrace and Oklahoma Streets, near the Mississippi River Bridge over I-10.

The Baton Rouge Area Foundation has wielded its influence across the capital city for the better part of 50 years, but its president is less recognizable than many other Baton Rouge leaders.

BRAF’s longtime President and CEO John Davies likes it that way. He leads a team of more than 20 employees and oversees a quiet empire that holds $600 million in assets through real estate and donor-advised funds. Davies also took home more than $728,000 in 2013, which puts him in the upper echelon of highest-paid nonprofit presidents in the city.

The year before, Davies earned more than $1.3 million. The additional money was a one-time deferred compensation incentive.

Former BRAF board of directors Chairwoman Christel Slaughter said the group decided to give Davies the boost after conducting compensation studies and seeing other foundations eager to lure BRAF’s leader away.

His annual compensation dwarfs that of the heads of nearby community foundations in Houston and New Orleans. But his 2013 package lagged behind those for presidents of national nonprofits like the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, who respectively received $128,000 and $187,000 more than Davies, according to the most recently available 990 tax forms on the Guidestar website.

“You have a CEO and they’re going around giving talks, and you realize that BRAF is really visible on a national scene,” Slaughter said. “Is someone going to try to attract him away?”

Davies acknowledges that he and his employees are well-paid and said that is key for getting the best workers.

Before he joined BRAF, the foundation mostly managed funds from donors and made occasional charitable contributions. The amount of projects that BRAF began taking on increased dramatically in the late 1980s.

The foundation’s funding comes in large part from donations by Baton Rouge’s elite, who set up grant and scholarship programs managed by BRAF. It takes a minimum of $10,000 to open a donor account with BRAF, and the foundation boasts 600 active accounts.

Fees collected for managing the accounts go toward BRAF’s $4 million operating budget.

Over the course of its life, BRAF and its wealthy donor base granted more than $350 million to nonprofits and projects. Among them are donations to the Society of St. Vincent De Paul, Pennington Biomedical Research Foundation in Baton Rouge and the Hospice Foundation of Greater Baton Rouge. BRAF also has helped give computers to children in Mexico and built a medical center in West Africa with money donors allocated to perform these tasks.

BRAF’s assets also include properties and wealth accumulated from its Commercial Properties development firm. The company has developments in Texas, Mississippi, North Carolina and Puerto Rico, as well as Louisiana.

Commercial Properties manages and develops properties for the Wilbur Marvin Foundation, a supporting nonprofit of BRAF. A share of earnings from the real estate are used by BRAF to make grants.

Slaughter and former BRAF board of directors Chairwoman Mary Ann Sternberg say BRAF owes much of its success to Davies’ visionary leadership. BRAF donor and former board Chairman John Noland is credited with recruiting Davies to BRAF.

“One man can make a small difference in a community, but in the case of John Davies and BRAF, he has made a profound difference in our community,” Noland said. “Much of it for the good.”

Davies is not a Louisiana native; he grew up in Peru. His father, John Paton Davies Jr., served as an American diplomat in China. He became a high-profile victim of McCarthyism and was forced out of the foreign service.

The Davies family left the United States for years but eventually returned. The younger Davies made a career in consulting and academic fundraising. He lived in Asheville, North Carolina, before coming to Baton Rouge 28 years ago.

Despite all of his travels, Davies considers Baton Rouge home and raised two daughters here.

It’s the failures that Davies say drive him and affect his and BRAF’s way of operating — he’d rather take risks than always be guaranteed a success.

“He’s absolutely inspiring,” Sternberg said about working alongside Davies. “He’s positive; he’s energetic. And he sort of brings you along with him.”