The Harder Foundation History

The Harder Foundation History

The Harder Foundation was founded in 1955 by Del Harder. At that time, he was Vice President for Operations, and later he became Executive Vice President, of the Ford Motor Company. He played a key role in the reorganization of the automobile industry for the World War II mobilization, and in the post-war reorganization of the automated manufacturing processes at Ford. Harder was a largely self-taught engineer, who worked his way up from very humble beginnings. He loved automotive engines and his manufacturing work at Ford, and treasured the recreational time spent in the woodlands of northern Michigan. He died in 1973.

The Foundation was then reorganized by his friend and close business associate, Nathan B. Driggers. Both men were frugal and unpretentious. They shared great respect for the qualities of diligence and hard work. Driggers was a corporate attorney in Detroit and a successful investor. He believed that society could benefit greatly from the innovative initiatives of a well-informed private sector. He led the Foundation trustees in focusing the grant-making program on conservation and environmental protection, gradually expanding support to organizations in the Western United States. Driggers supported environmental activism and understood the need to fund grassroots organizations at the front lines of environmental threats.

He also believed that to succeed, the environmental movement needed well-run, adequately funded local and state based environmental organizations. An early initiative to strengthen the environmental community targeted several state environmental councils. The Foundation proposed multiple year challenge grants to their boards to establish and fundraise for significant endowment funds. The objectives were to financially strengthen the organizations, to inspire their boards, and to increase the standing of the organizations with the local business community. The Idaho Conservation League became an effective example of the hoped-for outcome for the program.

Driggers also developed a sophisticated investment strategy for the Foundation, and retained on the Board professional non-family members who served well and without self-interest. From Driggers’ death in 1996, to February 2015, Del Langbauer, a grandson of Del Harder, served as President, building on the values and strategies established by the founders.

The Foundation has long supported environmental campaigns and collaborative projects to protect and conserve large areas of public lands and waters, by investing in efforts that produced clear, concrete gains in environmental protection that have broad policy implications. An early project supported litigation asserting the navigability of Fisheating Creek in south Florida. In this way, a defensible legal standard was established regarding the State’s trust responsibility to protect such waterways. Human powered small boat navigability later became a general standard for recognizing public waterways in many coastal states.

Later instances of this funding approach included a series of challenge grants beginning in 1987 to Earthjustice (formerly, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund) to establish a northwest office in anticipation of the upcoming Forest Service long term forest planning process for Northern California, Oregon and Washington. Another example was a multi-year organizing and planning process to make possible the removal of two large dams built long ago and without fish passage mechanisms for important salmon runs in the Elwha River. That river flows out of the pristine high country of Olympic National Park on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.

In 2006, Kay Treakle was hired as the first Executive Director of the Foundation. She had extended experience in environmental non-profit management and campaign development. Under her leadership, the Foundation’s approach to managing the Foundation’s funding program was not only sustained but was enhanced with Kay’s thoughtful and strategic grant making.

Del Langbauer retired as President of the Foundation in February 2015, and Vice President John Driggers — who is the son of Nathan Driggers — was elected to succeed Del in that role. John continues as our President today and is very active in all of the Foundation’s activities. John’s bio can be found here.

Kay Treakle retired prematurely in early 2019 because of a serious illness and sadly passed away a year later. Kay imbued the Foundation with many of its core practices and greatly enhanced our strategic approach to grant making. Her influences will help guide us for years to come.

In August 2020, Cathy Lehman was hired as our most recent Senior Program Officer and continues in that role today.

In early 2021 the Foundation began its Program Advisory Panel to help augment staff knowledge and expertise in our core program work. Inaugural members of this Panel are Gabe Langbauer and Nels Langbauer, both are great-grandsons of our founder, Del Harder, and have strong passions for our biodiversity orientation.