John and Dyan Smith: Creators of Opportunity

Published: December 13, 2021 | By: Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation | Category:

For John and Dyan Smith, charitable giving is a labor of love. For more than thirty years, they have supported a range of causes, projects, and organizations in the Cedar Rapids area. Today they are among the area’s leading philanthropists, though they did not set out with that goal in mind.

The two met at Washington High School shortly after Dyan moved to Cedar Rapids from Charles City, Iowa. They started dating almost immediately— “It wasn’t quite day one,” John said, “but almost.” They continued to date while John attended Cornell College and Dyan the University of Iowa, and by the time graduation rolled around in the early seventies, they were married. They look back fondly on the time they spent in married student housing on Cornell’s campus.

After spending a few years out east so John could earn an MBA from Cornell University, the two moved back to Cedar Rapids. John took a job at CRST, which his parents had started out of a chicken coup in 1955, and Dyan began her career as an elementary school educator.

Twenty years later, John was the CEO, leading CRST through a period of remarkably sustained growth. At the same time, the Community Welfare Foundation was undergoing the process of garnering enough public support to become the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation. John and Dyan, who had been using a collection of spreadsheets to organize their personal and corporate charitable giving, were excited learn about new ways of supporting the community.

“I was one of the first board members when the Community Foundation became a public charity,” John said. “I had never heard of donor advised funds. I just thought it was a great idea, and so I not only supported it, but I established one of the first at the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation.”

This year, the CRST International Donor Advised Fund celebrates its 30th anniversary. In that time, the fund has granted more than $6 million to 128 different organizations.

“In business you have a plan, and you set goals,” the Smiths said. “We never did that with philanthropy.” Although they didn’t have a plan, John and Dyan learned a lot about responsible charitable giving over the years, and they have sought to teach their children about the process.

“The idea that you would like to give money away is not as straightforward as people might think,” Dyan said. “Our children are all philanthropy minded anyway, but there are a lot of decisions to be made; there is work involved.” In recent years, the Smiths’ adult children have helped recommend grants from certain donor advised funds, taking advantage of Family Philanthropy at the Community Foundation, which seeks to establish familial legacies through multi-generational charitable giving.

While the years have flown by for John and Dyan—who were surprised to learn they had been making grants through the Community Foundation for three decades—there was one year that was particularly memorable. “One of the things that sticks in my mind is the flood in 2008,” Dyan said. “I was really pleased to be able to give money to help meet the immediate needs of those who were losing their homes.”

But not all of the Smiths’ giving is in response to disaster—a large portion of it, in fact, is what you might call proactive philanthropy. Recently, John and Dyan announced major gifts to support the futures of two organizations that are very close to them—Cornell College and the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre.

With help from a $4 million gift from the Smiths, the Cornell College Ingenuity Fund will help provide real-world experiences for students, such as internships, research opportunities, or off-campus courses. These experiences, called Ingenuity in Action, are a key part of the new Ingenuity curriculum.

“This will differentiate Cornell from the rest of the liberal arts colleges in Iowa and the Midwest,” John said. “Students are asking for things like this because they know real experience makes them stand out, and Dyan and I both agree. We really wanted to help build the endowment for this program.”

Similarly, the Cedar Rapids Opera Young Artists Program Fund will support an innovative initiative that brings aspiring, world-class singers to Cedar Rapids. The Young Artists Program of the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre—which Dyan helped start more than 25 years ago—provides a paid performance opportunity for graduate-level singers who are just starting out.

“When you graduate with a vocal degree, you don’t necessarily jump into making money right away,” Dyan said. “This program provides a stipend to help them along the way.” For these young artists, Cedar Rapids is becoming a steppingstone to some of the largest stages in the country.

And perhaps it is this perspective that has allowed John and Dyan to be successful in business and philanthropy. Good leaders and good educators provide people with the tools they need to be successful, and that is what the Smiths’ giving has done.

“If someone gets an education, nobody can take that away from them” Dyan said. “They will have that their entire life.”

Whether it is through education, housing, or healthcare, the Smiths’ philanthropy, though not guided by a singular goal, aims to create opportunity.

“The number of lives impacted and opportunities created through John and Dyan’s philanthropy is truly incalculable,” said Les Garner, President & CEO of the Community Foundation. “Together, the funds they have established at the Community Foundation recently achieved the milestone of having granted $10 million. Our community’s future is brighter because of John and Dyan Smith.”

To learn more about the CRST International Donor-Advised Fund’s 30th anniversary, click here.

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