Spring 2024 Honorary Degree Award: Diane Kaplan

by Green & Gold News  |   

Diane Kaplan speaks as she receives an Honorary Degree.
Former Rasmuson Foundation President and CEO Diane Kaplan speaks as she receives an Honorary Degree at the 2024 Spring Commencement Awards ceremony in UAA's Fine Arts Building. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

For nearly 30 years, Diane Kaplan set the standard for philanthropic management and giving in Alaska, starting as the only employee of a $5 million family foundation and growing it into the largest, most powerful philanthropy in the state.

As president and CEO of Rasmuson Foundation, Kaplan and her staff did not simply write checks to existing do-gooders; they identified holes in Alaska's social safety net and worked to fill them. They created programs where many were needed, and none existed; they developed training and support systems for the inexperienced, understaffed and underfunded.

Under her leadership, foundation assets grew from $5 million to an estimated $800 million, with grantmaking totaling $25-30 million annually. Needed funds went to neglected rural areas, tribes and local governments, health care, the creation of a statewide program supporting individual artists, and a sabbatical program for overworked nonprofit CEOs. Kaplan supported the introduction of a dental therapist workforce in Alaska Native communities, improving access to dental education and services. She was instrumental in a campaign that raised $40 million from philanthropic partners to combat Anchorage homelessness.

In addition, Kaplan ran point on many high-impact initiatives, including "Pick. Click. Give.," which most recently channeled more than $3 million from individual Permanent Fund Dividend distributions to charity. She helped to establish local foundations in communities across the state and was a driving force behind a campaign to grow the assets of the Alaska Community Foundation to more than $200 million.

By establishing national philanthropic partnerships, Kaplan has attracted more than $400 million in investments in Alaska projects. She engaged community members through listening sessions, formed "Recover Alaska," a statewide effort to address alcohol-related issues, and championed UAA's Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program in its growth over two decades.

Kaplan currently serves on numerous boards, including United States Artists and the Nudlaghi Leadership Institute.

The community has thanked Kaplan for her energy and commitment. Her many awards include the Council on Foundations Distinguished Grantmaker Award, the Alaska Federation of Natives Denali Award, the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce Athena Leadership Award, Commonwealth North's William A. Egan Distinguished Alaskan Award, an Ally award from Tlingit Haida Central Council and the Terrance Keenan Leadership Award in Health Philanthropy. Additionally, in 2022, she was awarded a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation's Lake Como Bellagio Center In Italy.

Kaplan holds a communications and women's studies degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Before joining Rasmuson, she explored the nonprofit world as an advocate for California public broadcasting in Sacramento, then as CEO of the Alaska Public Radio Network. 

Over the years, she came to understand the role of strategy and politics in the rarified world of big-money giving and has readily shared both her knowledge and her influence. Today, Kaplan is a community leader and national philanthropy advisor. In 2023, President Joe Biden appointed her a director of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In addition, she is a senior fellow at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. In her "spare time," she travels the country at the request of national foundations seeking her counsel on their Alaska affairs — often foundations who first became aware of Alaska’s needs through Kaplan's efforts. Thus, the mission of a woman who came to Alaska for two years 40 years ago continues to benefit all Alaskans.

On Wednesday, May 1, the University of Alaska Anchorage honored Diane Kaplan with an Honorary Degree during a special ceremony in advance of spring commencement. Also recognized were Meritorious Service Award recipients Cathy Rasmuson and Ira Perman as well as Honorary Degree recipient Alvin Amason.

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