Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Foundation continues
Ross's legacy


Thomas E. Horn is director of the Bob Ross Foundation.(Photo: Tom Schmidt)
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Almost 10 years after the death of Bob Ross, the Bay Area Reporter's publisher and founder, the foundation that bears his name continues to support a diverse range of HIV-related, LGBT, cultural, and other nonprofit organizations.

Thomas E. Horn, the director of the Bob Ross Foundation, became the B.A.R.'s publisher after Ross died of complications from diabetes in December 2003 at the age of 69. This month marks the paper's 42nd anniversary.

The foundation offers "ongoing evidence" of Ross's "commitment to the cultural health and educational vitality of San Francisco and the Bay Area" that he contributed to when he was alive, Horn said.

"That didn't stop with his death," he said. "It's only increased."

Horn, who isn't compensated for his foundation work, said that Ross "knew that when he died there would be a substantial estate," and he'd wanted an organized way to make distributions.

Ross was right about the size of his estate – Horn said it was between $11 million and $12 million, and it all went to the foundation, which is currently worth roughly $7.5 million. (Although the foundation owns the newspaper, "they are financially completely independent," Horn said.)

He estimated that Ross established the foundation around 1995, and that in its first year, the foundation distributed $100,000. After Ross died, the contributions jumped to $300,000.

In 2012, the foundation donated almost $450,000 to more than 40 groups. Horn expects it will share at least as much money this year.

AIDS Emergency Fund, where Ross was once a board member, is a longtime beneficiary.

Last year, the foundation contributed a total of about $60,000 to the nonprofit, which provides cash grants to people living with disabling HIV/AIDS so that they can pay rent and other expenses.

"There were a handful of pioneers who really stood up at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic," AEF Executive Director Mike Smith said. "Most of them have passed either from AIDS or just from old age. I think it's important we remember those people who made a difference in the early days of the epidemic. Bob was one of them."

The foundation has also provided funds to the Transgender Law Center for several years.

TLC Executive Director Masen Davis said the foundation's support of his agency has ranged from $2,500 to $10,000 each year.

"Unfortunately, very few people and foundations provide support for transgender legal services," he said. The foundation's assistance "has been critical for us to provide free legal services to low-income people in the Bay Area," Davis said.

Ross's interests weren't strictly LGBT-related. He also gave to groups like Meals on Wheels and the San Francisco Ballet.

In 2012, Horn made a commitment of $250,000 to the ballet. Distributions start this year and will be spread out over five years.

Ross was on the ballet's board for many years and often traveled with the company, according to Horn. He also funded San Francisco Ballet School scholarships named for Keith White and Eric Hellman, two B.A.R. dance writers who died from AIDS. Each scholarship cost Ross $250,000.

Tom Flynn, the ballet's development director, said Ross and the foundation's assistance, which totals more than $1.5 million, "have touched virtually all aspects of the San Francisco Ballet." Ross's legacy includes the three endowed scholarships that he and his foundation established. Since 2000, the funds have supported 21 students in the ballet school, "many of whom have gone on to have professional careers," Flynn said.


Since his death nearly 10 years ago, Bay Area Reporter publisher Bob Ross's foundation has distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to nonprofit organizations.

Little instruction

Horn said he asked Ross once whether he had instructions on how to distribute the money. He said that in Ross's "typically charming manner," he said, "Oh, you know who I give to." That was just about the only instruction Horn received.

"The current beneficiaries are very close to the beneficiaries he gave to during his lifetime," Horn said. There isn't a formal application process, but inquiring groups need to make a "really compelling" case to get on the roster, he said.

Ross was a "stickler" for administrative efficiency, and Horn said he's continued Ross's practice of studying organizations' finances to make sure they weren't spending too much in areas like salaries and fundraising.

The foundation's assets include about $3.2 million in mutual funds. Growth in that portfolio "pretty much" covered last year's grants, Horn said.

Usually, grants are made from the earnings and principal from those funds.

Ross didn't necessarily intend his foundation to last forever, Horn said.

Mitch Richstone, the foundation's chief financial officer, said Horn has run the foundation well, and he seemed to agree with Horn's remarks about longevity.

"I think the emphasis is not on having it be around forever, but getting the charities and the community some money that they need currently, and finding a mix between the two," said Richstone, who's with Good and Fowler, LLP. "You don't want to give the whole thing out in one year. You want to have it be reasonable, so you can make some money off the investments and use that money, along with the principal, to fund the donations."

Horn said he expects the foundation to be around for at least another 10 years, but he added, "When it's gone, it's gone."



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