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How Poetry Magazine Is Spending Its $200 Million Donation

If you haven’t heard this story before, it’s a good one: in 2002, Ruth Lilly, an heir to a fortune built by Indianapolis pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, donated $200 million to Poetry magazine, which at the time was a modest literary publication with a circulation of 10,000 and an annual budget of $700,000. The Chicago Tribune tells the fascinating story of how this enormous gift changed the game for poetry publishing.

Today, the foundation has a budget of more than $6 million. The magazine gets $1.5 million a year, and $2.2 million goes to educational programs. Poetry’s website alone receives a hefty $1.2 million, a point of contention in literary circles. Then there’s $1.3 million for administrative costs, including salaries for the 20-person staff. “We have a guideline that forces us to never spend more than 5 percent (annually) of the total market value of the endowment,” said John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation.

How much has this helped? By some accounts, a great deal: circulation at the magazine is up to 26,000, and last spring the magazine won a National Magazine Award over favorites like the Paris Review. At the same time, more money, more problems: Barr has met with a huge amount of criticism for overspending and other management issues aside:

[Barr] immediately rubbed much of the poetry community the wrong way: He announced plans for a building (which some foundation trustees considered wasteful and unnecessary), briefly put his wife on the payroll (drawing cries of nepotism) and was accused of an anti-education approach to outreach. The more benign critics wondered if poetry’s stature could be raised by marketing campaigns; the more damning — including more than half of the dozen trustees who resigned or said they were forced out by Barr — cried allegations of mismanagement.

This led to an ongoing investigation by the Illinois attorney general’s office, which handles the oversight of nonprofits. And despite acknowledging that the magazine is having “a moment,” the Tribune maintains that the unlikely combination of poetry and money remains “complicated.” As Paris Review editor Lorin Stein put it:  “I mean, that much money is a curse, in a way. How do you not change your direction?”

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