Philanthropy: The Morris Foundation changes the model to maximize impact

Todd Liles speaks to the Fort Worth Business Press at The Morris Foundation headquarters. (Photo by Paul K. Harral)

When Linda and Jack Morris formed their foundation, they had a clear vision of who the beneficiaries were to be: Fort Worth’s most vulnerable people.

“They said let other people give to things like that that make life richer, but we care about making life happier for those who can’t get a leg up. We care about alleviating that suffering,” says Todd M. Morris Liles, the executive director and a trustee of the foundation.

But Morris, who died in 2004, also wanted it to be efficient and make the best use of the money he had worked so hard to earn. For that, he turned to a next-door neighbor, Joe Monteleone, who had worked at Deloitte and Touche, to become the first executive director of the foundation.

You might not have known Morris, but you are very familiar with the product that made him wealthy. You’ve walked on it, sat on it or, depending on your religious faith, knelt on it: carpet padding.

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When he sold his company – MPI Industries – to Carthage, Missouri-based Leggett & Platt, he held around 90 patents for different products in the market. An aside – MP stands for “Me and Poppa.”

“He made all the soft ‘stuff,’ Liles said, “all those things that go into your bus seats, your car seats, your bedding, all of the extensions of those foam products.”

Leggett & Platt made all the hard things – the springs in beds, mattresses, car seats and bus seats.

“It was a great vertical integration of the hard and the soft together,” Liles said.

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The foundation was founded in 1986, with an initial $20 million in assets before Morris died in 2004. The funding was $90 million after his death and by 2017 it had grown to $198 million.

Monteleone set up a rigorous evaluation process for making funding decisions.

Monteleone was selected because Morris felt he could trust him, and because of his background he would be “good for a blank canvas” organization, Liles said.

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Morris didn’t have deep knowledge and expertise in foundations.

“He wanted somebody to bring structure to it, not just relationship structure but the inner workings from the financial side and the accounting side to manage that money going out,” Liles said.

The process became the foundation’s brand over the years.

Liles says he mentioned to Sid W. Richardson Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Pete Geren – whom he considers a mentor – that it seemed to him as if The Morris Foundation was known for that really buttoned-up vetting process.

“He said, ‘Oh, it’s not only known for that; it’s kind of the blue ribbon or gold standard for that.’“ Liles said.

“Joe put great efforts and talents into that, including teaching people what outcomes are versus outputs back in the 1980s,” Liles said. “An output is how many people did you sleep in a homeless shelter. An outcome is how many people did you help move out of homelessness.”

And that’s the bedrock for expanding The Morris Foundation to better achieve the founders’ vision.


Liles joined the foundation in 2015 and began thinking about ways to change the organization model from one person at the top of the organization holding most of the knowledge. How could that person be expected to be current in education and healthcare and social services?

Running the organization is a fulltime job let alone trying to keep track of best practices, research, things being tried and solutions on multiple fronts.

That’s when he decided on a segmented model with subject matter experts recruited from around the country to find the best people to run the foundation’s giving categories.

“It’s a different model, but it was what I knew. I guess we all do what we know, and that’s what I knew from segmentation, Liles said. “I had led two different groups at Charles Schwab in segmentation, one at Visa and one at Silicon Valley Bank.”

The foundation rolled out a strategic vision in August that added subject matter experts, known as “Heads,” to make better data-informed decisions and to bring additional value to the foundation’s agencies, partners and ultimately to those served through consulting and other services.

He figured there were a number of ways The Morris Foundation could leverage expertise in addition to making smarter grant decisions.

Collaboratives are one, where the foundations’ subject matter experts would be able to have a seat at the table to provide some expertise, some thought leadership to get things going, and serve as consultations to organizations being funded.

Liles tested the idea, reaching out to Campfire, asking how the agency would feel about working with such a person.

“They loved it,” he said.

They would be working with someone who already knew the language, the business and the systems and would not have to be brought up to speed.

When he got the same reaction from others, the decision was made.


There are subject matter experts in three areas – education, healthcare and social services.

Elizabeth Brands, who holds a master’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a doctorate from the University of Oklahoma – both in education – is Head of Education Giving.

Andy Miller, who holds a master of health science with a specialization in community and public health promotion from the University of Florida is Head of both Healthcare Giving and Social Services Giving. Miller also has extensive experience in non-profit social services.

Brands and Miller are free to run their respective giving areas including agency relationship management, strategies, funding recommendations and partnering with collaborators on initiatives in their categories.

There likely will be a third Head at some point, but the workload now fell into 45 agencies in education and 45 in a combination of healthcare and social services, Liles said.

“Andy had spent his education and professional career in both – very unusual and a rare find who was discovered in a nationwide search. When adding a new Head becomes prudent, Andy will remain in the category he has demonstrated the most effectiveness, strengths and interest, and we will hire for the third category Head,” he said.

The Morris Foundation supports about 100 programs annually and has distributed $95 million since 1986, $10 million of that in 2018.

The subject matter experts deliver expertise in four areas of engagement:

• Grant Management

• Consultative Support

• Co-Authoring New Projects

• Collaborative Leadership

The original vetting process was a bottom-up strategic approach. The new approach – to better serve the Founders’ mission – is adding a top-down strategic approach to align giving with the Foundation’s values and long-term goals.


Monteleone stepped down in 2017.

“The Founders always wanted a family member to be at the helm of the foundation,” Liles said. “With my mother’s health deteriorating from congestive heart disease, she felt it was time for me to take the helm.”

Liles originally came home intending to only a short time.

“I was living in San Francisco and I loved my career in financial services banking, and strategy and marketing, but I told her I’d come for a year,” Liles said.

But as he and his mother discussed plans to build succession into the organization’s structure to ensure the foundation’s longevity, she decided that his functioning as executive director was the best option.

His sisters were already serving as trustees – positions formerly held by herself and husband Jack Morris.

Jack B. Morris died May 17, 2004, at age 84. Linda Morris passed away June 26, 2018. She was 77. In 2007, after Morris’s death, she married David Elsey, whom she had known in high school, after they reconnected at a class reunion.


The foundation has a laser focus at the direction of the founders.

Liles tells a story about Morris’ commitment to local area funding. Morris was fond of nicknames and referred to Liles, who he had raised since age 7, as “Mr. Todd.”

Liles recalls a discussion about the foundation when he was in college, in which he suggested that making the money go as far as possible might be to spend it overseas where it could have a greater impact.

“And he said, ‘You know, Mr. Todd, I want to do it here in our own backyard where we raised our families, where we started our businesses, and we have to take care of things here before we can go out and take care of things elsewhere.’ ”

Liles pushed back again.

“He said, ‘Mr. Todd, when you grow up and make a whole lot of money, you can give your money to whoever you damn well please. But this money is going to Fort Worth,’ ” Liles said.

Hence Liles’ purity to the Founders’ vision.

“We will stay true to what he wanted with his money. You’ve got the what, which is education, healthcare, social services; the where and the who are the most vulnerable at Fort Worth,” Liles said.


The family says Morris’ father, Elmer, walked from rural Kentucky to Texas for a better life – barefoot and able to write his name only with an X. He married his wife, Carrie, who was a Texan, and went to work for Sleep-Ezy Mattress Co. on Cold Springs Road in Fort Worth.

When that business failed, Morris took it over in lieu of the months of back wages the owner owed him.

Elmer Morris – and his wife – were hard workers 24/7 learning and running the business.

“Jack grew up in that environment. He learned the work ethic of just doing whatever it took, working all the time, to make ends meet and then to build up a nest egg for his family,” Liles said.

But there was a downside.

“He didn’t have a very nurturing, loving family at home, Liles said.

Jack Morris had to leave school in the eighth grade to help in the family’s mattress company during the Depression.

As he grew older and more successful he believed that his lack of schooling was a deficit and made him feel inferior at times.

“It was a big bug in his craw as he climbed the ladder later on, and was on boards like at Leggett & Platt, where these gentlemen had Ivy League educations and were flying in their private jets,” Liles said.

“He wanted to make sure other people did not have to go through those problems – lack of education or food assistance or a nurturing family at home. After selling MPI to Leggett & Platt, he decided to put that money to work to help those people here in Fort Worth,” Liles said.

Linda Morris was equally motivated and, as a former schoolteacher who sought out assignments in lower income schools, education and the health and welfare of children were especially important to her.

A divorce that left her with almost no resources and two children (one of them Todd) made her want to assure that mothers trying to raise their families alone for whatever reason would have the needed resources.

Liles tells a story about the decision to establish the foundation. It was in the context of redoing Morris’s will and he asked Linda what she wanted to do with the money.

She told him that she wanted as much as possible of it to go to those in need in Fort Worth. The problems are big, the solutions need to be big and the support should be as big as possible.

“So, the vast majority of their wealth went to the Morris Foundation,” Liles said.

Those were the motivations that led them to establish the foundation but the money to fund it came from repurposed throwaway material.


Morris created a process to recycle polyurethane into carpet padding, which previously had been made mostly of jute, fiber and felt.

You’ve seen it – multicolored pieces of compressed polyurethane with a thin film of latex – usually pink – on one side.

“He was not an engineer, but had great engineering capabilities,” Liles said. “This just naturally evolved as things do with somebody who doesn’t have an education but has a lot of ingenuity and a lot of determination to try to create something.”

Liles said Morris had an incredible work ethic.

“He raised me since I was 7 and my sister 5, and he worked all of the time, but he did make time to come home every night and have family meals and spend the evening together,” Liles said.

Morris became very family focused.

“He learned that because he didn’t have it in his life, and he loved creating that with my mother. He really wanted that to be something special in his life,” Liles said.

So much so that he didn’t really want the children to leave home after college and graduate school.

“And my mother said, ‘Let them go,’ and Jack said, ‘I’m having so much fun. I want them to stay.’ And my mother won that battle,” Liles said.

Liles left for Houston and then California and a career that included marketing director of startup market strategy for Silicon Valley Bank in San Francisco, and similar segment positions at Visa Inc., Charles Schwab Inc., and Gap Inc.

Liles is a graduate of the Leadership Fort Worth LeaderPrime program. He graduated from Austin College in Sherman – a favorite of Morris’ – and an MBA in marketing from the Vanderbilt University Owen Graduate School of Management in Nashville.


Early organizations supported when the foundation started were Cassata Learning Center – run at the time by what Liles describes as a “brazen nun” (Morris’ phrase, not his) named Sister Mary Bonaventure – the Child Study Center and Tarrant Area Food Bank.

The family learned to screen calls from people looking for support, but that didn’t work with Sister Bonaventure.

She and Sister Mary Fulbright opened the school in 1975 for students of high school age and older who had not yet completed their secondary education. It was named for Bishop John J. Cassata, the first Bishop of the Diocese of Fort Worth.

“Sister Bonaventure had her own way, which was about as brazen and salty dog like a sailor, if you can imagine,” Liles said, “and she captured his heart.”

She was struggling to keep the doors at Cassata open.

“She was the only person who had complete entree to our home, and she was the only person who could speak to Jack the way she did. They had a thing with each other, and she would say, ‘I need this money and I want it now. Write a check for this,’ and he’d sit back and say, ‘How you talk to me in certain ways, I just don’t understand, but OK, for you I will.’

“That was an early success, because he got to help these kids get an education. They had different educational needs, different learning styles that worked for them. And Jack loved that,” Liles said.

“The foundation has two carveouts to the Tarrant County rule – Austin College and Baylor University (where Liles’ mother attended), Liles said.

Morris had four children – a now deceased daughter from his first marriage, a daughter from a second marriage who now sits on the foundation board – Michelle Morris Piotrowski – and Laura Anne Morris Liles and Todd, who both went to Austin College.

“Well, Laura had a little stint at A&M first. It didn’t make Jack very happy,” Liles said.

He says Morris got invested in Austin College and became friends with two former presidents and was able to live a college experience vicariously through Todd and Laura.

That involvement would translate to the Jack B. Morris Center for Business Studies at Austin College, a legacy gift in his name that ultimately developed into a 50/50 partnership with the college in a contractual strategic development plan to guide all aspects of the center including the space itself, the curriculum and new faculty.

It was the foundation’s largest gift to that point.

It’s a relatively unusual model because philanthropies often work on memorandums of understanding and not collaborative partnership contracts.


The Austin College experience triggered an unanticipated effect – the idea of partnerships.

“I’d like to say I was that smart, but I wasn’t. And that’s how business happens a lot, right? Your best ideas happen to you, not by you,” Liles said.

The Foundation now has partnership agreements for programs at Presbyterian Night Shelter; with the North Texas Area Community Health Centers for a Fort Worth Northside Community Health Center; with the YMCA of Metropolitan Fort Worth and Child Care Associates for The Morris Foundation Early Education Center; and with Cristo Rey for the Jack B. Morris Corporate Work Study Program.

When Liles returned from 25 years in California, he realized that his previous experience would serve him well. Central to the concept were two issues: bring more value to the foundation and assure that it would survive and thrive beyond the lifetimes of the family members.

“What we needed to be doing was ensuring that those organizations were utilizing the money as best they could and were as strong as they could be if we were going to be ongoing investors in them,” he said.

So, he decided to stay home.

Succession and longevity of the foundation are very much on his mind.

“I’m trying to engineer today for what will happen tomorrow down the road,” he says.

How to do that?

The answer from one foundation CEO was a long-term shadow and training program. But what if that person decides to get married and move to Timbuktu? Then what? Where’s the redundancy?

“So that that led me to thinking that this foundation needed to be able to leapfrog from Todd Liles to experts already having that knowledge that we could just import,” Liles said.


The funding strategy had been a strong vetting process – look at an application to see if it meets a lot of criteria, the more the better.

“And you invest in that if it’s the right mix and aligned with your values and what you do.

“But that doesn’t help us get our founder’s vision achieved. That’s a top down strategy,” Liles said.

The new engagement model applies resources and staff hours to make sure that outcomes are planned three to five years ahead.

“We don’t want to look back and say, ‘It happened to us.’ We want to look forward and say, ‘We’re going to achieve these goals,’ ” he said.

A part of that process is having a key initative in each of the three categories designated by the founders – health, education and social services.

“We now have a much more top down approach to make sure that we are putting our efforts into a long-term vision for success and not a happenstance as it comes up,” Liles said.

Also being looked at is whether the grant is being requested by an organization with an endowment larger than the foundation. Those organizations are going to have to start showing proof that they are using some of those endowment funds to qualify for a grant.

“We’ve got some more things to do, but believe we’re on the right track and have the right team to maximize the vision of the Founders,” he said.

This article includes material from Morris Foundation Publications