How the Meadows Foundation Supports the People (and Animals) of Texas


On a hot Sunday in September, Ellen Jefferson, a veterinarian, animal-welfare advocate, and president and CEO of Austin Pets Alive, held a very cute, very scared white puppy with gray ears in her lap. The last of the puppy’s siblings had been adopted out that day, and this dog, Druid, peered out from large, gray eyes, looking disconsolate. But like her siblings, Druid would soon find a home because of the work of Austin Pets Alive, a no-kill shelter and advocacy organization that led the effort that made Austin a no-kill city in 2011 — and a grantee of the 75-year-old, Dallas-based family philanthropy, Meadows Foundation

Since 2015, Meadows has given Austin Pets Alive eight grants totaling $600,000. Grant money supports a wide range of work — not just the feed, care and placement of dogs and cats in a state that kills more pets than any other state in the nation, but also veterinarian education in an affordable type of just-in-time pet care, and advocacy around a variety of issues, including allowing shelter vets to offer medical care to community pets (which they can’t do now). 

This work is critical because the current shelter system is a holdover from the old city pound approach created more than 100 years ago to rapidly exterminate stray dogs with rabies. Today, most dogs are vaccinated against rabies due to states’ mandatory vaccination policies. Furthermore, some 95% of animals that wind up in shelters previously had human families or other people feeding and caring for them. “Animal welfare is human welfare. When an animal is in crisis, there is a human in crisis,” Jefferson told me. Austin Pets Alive is at the forefront of shifting the paradigm. 

Funded solely by private dollars, Austin Pets Alive would not exist without the support of the Meadows Foundation and a dozen other foundations and private donors. “We are at a tipping point in animal sheltering in America. But we need more investment, not just to put a Band-Aid on this old impounding model, but to change the institution to represent the value we place on our pets in modern America,” Jefferson said.

Here’s an overview of how the Meadows Foundation gives in its home state across a whole range of causes – and a look at why family very much matters to this grantmaker’s governance and operations. 

Money sprung from the ground in the Lone Star State

Originating with the General American Oil fortune of Al and Virginia Meadows, the Meadows Foundation has given a total of $1.36 billion in grants and through charitable projects in all 254 Texas counties. This includes $67 million to organizations working to counter the effects of climate change, caused in part by the oil industry. Much of this money goes toward water conservation, a big issue in Texas. “My great uncle made his fortune in Texas and wanted to give back to the people of Texas,” said Peter Miller, the foundation’s current president and CEO. “There is no other limit on what we do.” Other key funding areas today are education, mental health and homelessness. 

Meadows currently holds $700 million in its investment portfolio and owns 22 acres in downtown Dallas. About 50% of its grants are one-year grants. But over the course of its existence, it has also engaged in multi-year creative partnerships rooted in its deep understanding of the people and issues of Texas. 

That’s a mighty big place-based foundation

Meadows strikes me as a place-based family foundation — in a place that just happens to be the size of France. One example of this: the commitment it made in 1981 to renovate a collection of derelict Victorian mansions in what is now known as the Wilson Historic District near downtown Dallas. Meadows bought the 22-acre parcel, invested in the restoration of the fading Victorian beauties, and created a mixed-use district that preserves the city’s architectural past while also housing organizations focused on its present and future. Meadows has offered free office space to more than 150 nonprofits in the district over the years, for as long as they need it. “The idea is that they mature out of the area and leave the campus,” Miller said. 

Meadows recently announced its involvement in a new social enterprise operating on the grounds, literally, of the Wilson Historic District. Called Liberty Street Garden, this organic urban garden offers survivors of trafficking and exploitation a way to gain work experience, earn a sustainable living wage, and benefit from the solace of working with plants. Meadows gave the land, funded its transformation, and worked on all kinds of details as the garden took shape alongside two partners, New Friends New Life and Bonton Farms. “It was very different from the normal grant request,” Miller said. “We went through the whole soup to nuts — zoning, just everything. It’s a lot more work than the usual process.”

Meadows also learns from other Texas-based foundations. After the Houston Endowment – whose work I covered recently – helped that city house 25,000 chronically homeless people, to national commendation, Meadows brought Mandy Chapman Semple, one of the leaders of that effort, up to Dallas to try to achieve similar results. Meadows gave $500,000 to the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance and helped get commitments from other foundations to the tune of $10 million total. The investment is paying off. “It’s working. Our point-in-time numbers went down. I don’t think it could have happened if we didn’t structure it as a collaborative effort of the funders in town and shown unity in philanthropy,” Miller said. 

Partnering to change policy

In 2012, after conducting a strategic review of its mental health funding, the foundation decided there was a need for an independent research and policy institute to inform its grantmaking and the state’s mental health policy. This led to the creation of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute (MMHPI), a separate 501(c)(3). Meadows fronted an initial $8.5 million and has since made two additional five-year grants of $10 million each, the last one starting in 2023. 

Its focus on mental health was cutting edge in Texas when MMHPI started back in 2014, Miller said. “Nobody talked about mental health then. Here we are 10 years later, and it’s top of mind with the state legislature and in communities.”  

MMHPI has received more than $150 million total in grants and donations to date. In its decade of existence, it has made huge strides toward improving mental health services in Texas. It has “grown from [being] a respected Texas leader with a vision to a nation-spanning team with a staff of 136 working globally to improve mental health in the nation,” said MMHPI’s president and CEO, psychologist Andy Keller, by email. Since 2014, MMHPI has worked with government leaders to increase behavioral health funding in Texas by $5 billion; the state allocated more than $11.2 billion to the cause in 2023. It also has managed to sway the Texas legislature to pass 115 of the 127 legislative and agency priorities it proposed.

MMHPI also established the Texas Child Mental Health Consortium at 12 leading medical schools and transformed practices at outdated state hospitals. “Thousands of Texans suffering mental health crises have been diverted from jails, tens of thousands of Texas students have received urgent care at school, and over 5 million receive care in health systems who have committed to our Lone Star Depression Challenge,” Keller said. 

As Miller put it, “We like to partner with a key individual, develop best practices, and then turn those to state-funded projects.” On the national level, Congress has passed more than 20 of MMHPI’s federal priorities and allocated $10 billion toward them. To me, this shows the potential power of locally rooted but nationally resonant efforts.  

“Truly a family foundation” 

Miller is only the fourth president in the foundation’s 75-year history, following a line of family members who have led the foundation since its inception in 1948. Miller has helped modernize the foundation, such as by moving teams to digital communication during COVID. He has also worked to diversify the board’s slate of non-family members. Miller is the only family member involved in the day-to-day operations. He started as president and CEO in January 2020, after retiring from a career in financial services. He moved from what he described as his “forever home” in Connecticut down to Dallas for the job. Eleven family members sit on the board, along with four non-family members. Al and Virginia’s son, Robert, serves as the chairman of the board. 

The family brings a range of viewpoints to the foundation. Family members live all across the country, hold a variety of jobs, and represent the spectrum of political positions. “And we get stuff done,” Miller said. “We fund some things that are left of center and some that are right of center, but it works. We haven’t had any tears or anger.” 

While Meadows is run by a staff of about 40 — working from office space in the Wilson Historic District alongside many of the nonprofits it helps fund — Miller has a lot of sway as foundation president. He can, for instance, make emergency grants of up to $1 million. And while grant requests are all vetted the same way, the interests of the president can influence the direction the work takes. The Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University, for example, funded under the foundation’s second president, Curtis Meadows, reflects that president’s concern for the arts. “Because of my uncle, it is one of the largest collections of Spanish art outside the Prado,” Miller said. And to loop back to Austin Pets Alive, Meadows Foundation’s last president and CEO, Linda Perryman Evans, who served in the role for 23 years, was concerned about animals and mental health, leading to the foundation’s support for the animal welfare organization. 

“It’s truly a family foundation,” Miller said. “Our first fourth-generation board member came on last January. My job is to set the foundation up for the next 75 years.”