A Handshake Across the Sea Since 1953

FFN_logo_300_pan_blue_12.28.12The birth of the Finlandia Foundation, which formally took place in 1953, had its beginnings back in the war-torn Europe of the 1940s. Finland was struggling through war and diplomacy to maintain its independence.
Yrjö A. Paloheimo was a Field Secretary for a U.S. organization called Help Finland. He had organized the Finland Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, and as Finland was plunged into the Winter War by the Soviet invasion he turned his energies to raising money and broad support for his beleaguered homeland.
Towards the end of the war his audience was mainly Finnish Americans, for after 1941 Finland was a co-belligerent with Germany fighting against the Soviet Union (then America’s ally). With German help, Finland was fighting to recover her own territories lost during the Winter War. Over the course of five months during 1945 Paloheimo visited 150 Finnish-American communities scattered all over the United States to solicit support.
These communities were well known for harboring residents with strong views and often sharp political and religious differences, but as Paloheimo wryly reflected in 1983 “during the Second World War…Finnish Americans were united more than ever before, or after, in trying to help Finland.” Besides wanting to help Finland, the community leaders shared another concern closer to home: “what to do that the younger generations would join in their cultural activities and help preserve their societies’ Halls and Churches in the future.”
FFN Founder Yrjö A. Paloheimo
FFN Founder Yrjö A. Paloheimo
These two pervasive concerns noted by Yrjö Paloheimo in 1945 — nurturing the connection with and transmitting a sense of Finnishness on to the younger generations in the United States — have defined the mission of the Finlandia Foundation over the past half-century. How to achieve these aims in practical terms has been of course the hardest problem, and each Board of Trustees over the decades has had to renew the mission and create appropriate programs.
The post-WWII leadership created and named the foundation itself under Paloheimo’s guidance. They wanted to build on the unprecedented unity of the war years and create something lasting. But it took eight years to achieve a new national organization that Paloheimo and others felt “would unite all Finland Friends in this country” and help perpetuate Finnish culture in the United States.
Fenyes FFN plaque P1030273
The name Finlandia Foundation had first occurred to Paloheimo in 1947 as a possible name for this new organization. Other foundations were researched as models, and the American Scandinavian Foundation was considered the best example because of its national reach and its tax-exempt status.
Paloheimo, who had become the Honorary Consul of Finland for Southern California, wrote a Constitution and Bylaws. And on the evening of January 21, 1953 nine founders finally met at the home of Consul Paloheimo and his wife, Leonora Curtin Paloheimo, to give unanimous approval to the Constitution and Bylaws and create the Finlandia Foundation.
The home of Consul Paloheimo and his wife Leonora is now a part of the History Museum of Pasadena, California
The home of Consul Paloheimo and his wife Leonora is now a part of the History Museum of Pasadena, California

The setting was the Pirtti Room inside the Sauna House on the grounds of the Fenyes Mansion that had formerly belonged to Eva Fenyes, Leonora’s grandmother; subsequently this residence housed the Finnish Consulate and now it is the home of the Pasadena Museum of History. The national office of the Finlandia Foundation, officially opened in June, 2004, is located within this same complex of historic buildings.

The names of the founders:
  • Mr. Otto Collanus
  • Rev. Omar Halme
  • Dr. Vaino A. Hoover
  • Dr. Bennett Kantola
  • Mrs. Leonora Paloheimo
  • Rev. Everett Torkko
  • Consul Yrjo A. Paloheimo
  • Mrs. Suomi Rauhanheimo-Owen
  • Mr. Jaakko Tae
Initially the Finlandia Foundation established chapters in major cities, received dues, and awarded scholarships for musical study in Finland and the United States. As the composer Jean Sibelius had agreed to be a patron of the Finlandia Foundation, the scholarships were called the Sibelius Music Scholarships. Yrjö A. Paloheimo was elected first President, followed by Dr. Vaino Hoover in 1962.
Under the long tenure of the first two Presidents, from 1953 to 1983, vigorous local Finnish-American chapters were formed in communities throughout the country: New York City, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Santa Barbara, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, Tidewater Virginia, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Pittsburgh, and Phoenix. Some thrived, others faded, and new ones emerged.
Paloheimo's home office
Paloheimo’s home office

Today* (2018) there are 56 chapters in 25 states and Washington, D.C. Several of the chapters continue to use the name of their original Finnish-American organization:

  • Finnish-American Heritage Society, Inc., Canterbury, Connecticut
  • Finnish-American Society of the Midwest (Chicago, Illinois)
  • Finnish Americans and Friends (Hibbing, Minnesota)
  • Finnish-American Heritage Society, Inc.
  • South Thomaston, Maine
  • The Finnish-American Society of Dallas-Fort Worth Dallas, Texas
  • Finnish American Home Association, Sonoma, California,
  • Finlandia Club of Sacramento Valley, Sacramento, California
  • The Finnish Center at Saima Park, Inc., Fitchburg, Massachusetts
  • Finnish-American Heritage Association of Ashtabula County, Ashtabula, Ohio
  • Finnish American Society of the Delaware Valley, Levittown, Pennsylvania
  • Finnish Theme Committee of Hancock – Finlandia Foundation Copper Country Chapter, Hancock, Michigan
  • Upper Peninsula Chapter of the League of Finnish American Societies, Marquette, Michigan
  • Finnish Heritage Society-Sovittaja, Rutland, Massachusetts

The affiliated chapters and Finnish-American organizations are the grassroots of the Finlandia Foundation; they are active sources for new trustees and program development, providing the Foundation with a membership base of more than 7,000 members. (Click here for a list of FFN chapters.)

Historically, the Finlandia Foundation was composed of two parts: The Finlandia Foundation National (non-tax exempt administrative body), which was originally founded in 1953, and the tax-exempt Finlandia Foundation Trust, which was initiated by Dr. Vaino Hoover some years later due to an unintended development. The vigorous growth of the chapters as self-supporting cultural organizations had begun to cut into the administrative funds and scholarship money available to the national body, as the scholarships had been funded from chapter dues and contributions.

President Hoover’s solution was not to raise dues (then $1 per member) or reconfigure the relationship with the chapters; instead he chose to create the tax-exempt Finlandia Foundation Trust and to endow it with his own money. The income from the Trust was then used exclusively to fund scholarships and a small grants program. Hoover also covered the administrative costs for the non-tax exempt Finlandia Foundation National from his own pocket. During the Hoover era there were thus two Boards of Trustees and tenuous communication between chapters and the two national bodies.

FFN leaders Hoover and Paloheimo
FFN leaders Hoover and Paloheimo
In the 1980s, following the deaths of its first two Presidents, Vaino Hoover in 1983 and Yrjö Paloheimo in 1986, the Finlandia Foundation began a process of reorganization. As an initial reform, a single board of trustees coordinated The Finlandia Foundation National and the Finlandia Foundation Trust; then in 2002 the trust was eliminated completely.
The Finlandia Foundation now operates as a private philanthropic foundation.  Under the leadership of Gertrude Kujala (1984), Jorma Kaukonen (1989), Juha Makipaa (1991), Carl W. Jarvie (1993), Paul O. Halme (1995), Inger Pancoast-Edwards (1999), John Suomela (2001), and John Laine (2003) the Foundation has greatly increased its grants and scholarships and become the major source of private funding for Finnish and Finnish-American cultural activities in the United States.
The foundation newsletter, edited by Eero Korpivaara (after 1984), by Arthur Koski (from 2000 to 2005) and Armi Koskinen Nelson (from 2005 to 2010) has grown from 4 to 20 (and even 24) pages, and appears bi-annually. The Foundation Trustees now geographically represent all areas in the United States where significant Finnish-American communities developed; professionally they range from businessmen to community leaders, from attorneys to teachers. In generational terms, the trustees include post-WWII immigrants from Finland as well as second and third generation descendants of the original pre-1924 immigrants.
In the 1990s, the capabilities and activities of the Finlandia Foundation have expanded considerably. Under the skillful management of the Finlandia Foundation Finance Committee, the overall endowment grew from $500,000 in 1993 to well over one million dollars in 2000. In 1992 $47,000 were awarded in grants and scholarships; by 1997 the awards already exceeded $100,000. In the early years of the new century, the Board has initiated a national fund raising campaign to insure the continued growth of its funding capability.
Most gratifying for trustees and chapter members is putting the foundation funds to good use. Dozens of excellent projects are funded each year. Individual projects range from outdoor mural paintings of Kalevala scenes in the Upper Peninsula community of Hancock to major international festivals showcasing Finnish and Finnish-American talent; from nuts-and-bolts support for the preservation of Halls to the underwriting of promising young scholars and artists. The long record of funding excellence in the performing arts continues with the Performer of the Year Award initiated in 1995 by Trustee Anja Miller.
Ambassador of Finland to the U.S. Ritva Koukku-Ronde and FFN President Ossi Rahkonen at the gala celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Foundation, March 2013 in Pasadena, California
Ambassador of Finland to the U.S. Ritva Koukku-Ronde and FFN President Ossi Rahkonen at the gala celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Foundation, March 2013 in Pasadena, California
After celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2003, the Finlandia Foundation is striving to enhance its past achievements and to become a model in its own right of a small foundation dedicated to the continuing vitality of one ethnic group in the United States.
In March 2013 in Pasadena, California, FFN chapter representatives, FFN members, friends of Finland and dignitaries gathered to celebrate the 60th anniversary of FFN and look forward to a vibrant future.
*The article has been updated to reflect the current number of FFN chapters.
NOTE: The History Committee of the Board of Trustees (Chaired by Jon Saari with committee members Paul Halme and Kalevi Olkio) composed this brief history for the first annual report in 2000. For the 50th anniversary of the foundation in 2003, Jon Saari wrote a book-length history entitled Black Ties and Miners’ Boots: Inventing Finnish-American Philanthropy. A second edition of the book was published in 2010. Copies can be ordered here.