Jon Stryker

The Rights Champion

Jon Stryker, grandson of Dr. Homer Stryker, the orthopedist who founded Stryker Corporation, a prominent medical device maker, is a leading American philanthropist and founder of the Arcus Foundation. Stryker has focused his giving efforts on championing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights as well as great apes conservation. Arcus supports work in Stryker’s hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan, across the state of Michigan, throughout the United States and around the world. Since founding the Arcus Foundation in 2000, he has awarded more than $100 million, and become an international leader in support of LGBT communities.


Prior to founding Arcus, Stryker had been active supporting LGBT causes and other interests. But he became concerned that he wasn’t achieving the impact that he desired. Stryker realized that in order to get the results he wanted, he would need to hire professional staff who could grow the programs to a meaningful scale. Stryker decided to hire an executive director and staff and design a thoughtful planning process that examined how best to use resources. This ultimately culminated in the decision to focus on the areas of LGBT rights and great apes conservation, two issues seemingly unconnected. However, as Stryker reported in a 2008 interview for Synergos,


It’s about compassion. Great apes are under huge threat. They are becoming extinct in the wild, and they are being used in the biomedical and entertainment industry then just being thrown away. We don’t use the language of animal rights — it’s more of a compassion and conservation language. That’s one common ground — the compassion side. Another connection is justice. In our work for human rights, we are among those trying to expand traditional ideas of social justice to include sexuality and gender. In our great apes work, we often see a link between economic development for people and ape conservation — social justice for people can truly enable conservation.


Under Stryker’s leadership, Arcus has convened human rights funders, including Atlantic Philanthropies and the Ford Foundation, to collaborate on how to increase support for LGBT issues. He also sought ways to increase the number of individual donors around the world who have an interest in LGBT rights. This has been challenging given the concerns about personal safety that surround donors in conservative countries where discrimination remains a problem, even in countries with legal protections for LGBT communities.


Over the past 10 years, Arcus has also become a leading funder of great apes conservation around the world. The Foundation’s support has been vital to efforts to learn more about these species, educate the public about their importance, and conserve the habitat which is vital to their survival. In addition, this has included efforts to stop illegal poaching and trafficking of great apes species, and end the use of primates in science and other medical experiments. The Foundation gives nearly $7 million a year to support great apes preservation.


In addition to his LGBT and great apes work, in 2008, Stryker began to explore how to make a meaningful major gift to his alma mater, Kalamazoo College. He wanted to support the institution in a way that reflected his philanthropic values while also supporting the College’s strategic goals. Stryker and the Arcus Foundation had made prior gifts to Kalamazoo College that sought to increase educational access and to enhance the diversity of the campus community. But as the Foundation’s trustees thought through the best way to truly advance the missions of both institutions,they came upon an ambitious idea — the establishment of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College.


The Arcus Foundation wanted this gift to be transformational for the College, and for it to establish a viable leadership resource for social justice movements. The trustees recognized that a gift that accomplished these goals effectively would likely represent one of the largest gifts ever made to a liberal arts college. It would also require a shared vision and strong commitment from both the donor and the College. The Arcus Foundation turned to Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors in 2008 for strategic advice on how to structure the gift to create a center that would undertake cutting-edge work integrating social justice leadership with a rigorous examination of the liberal arts.


In developing recommendations for the Foundation, RPA embarked on a benchmarking process that included interviews with eleven other centers at academic institutions, as well as conversations with a dozen leaders in the social justice movement. Simultaneously, a team of advisors at RPA examined multiple funding models to determine the best strategy to support the realistic and responsible development of a center that would ultimately be poised for national prominence and global focus. While Kalamazoo College had a long history of service learning, as well as a president who was dedicated to promoting social justice values, a center of this scale was a new and significant endeavor for the institution. RPA consulted with the leadership of the College to assess the institution’s needs and resources relative to the task of developing the center. It also worked with a prominent academic consultant to begin to consider potential mission, goals, and governance models.


Ultimately,the Arcus Foundation’s trustees adopted a phased funding model and timeline for development of the Center’s planning, launch, and early operations.