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Shirley Leung

A mandate to build on solid foundation

Jim Canales was recently named the first ever president of the $1.4 billion Barr Foundation, one of the biggest family foundations in the city.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Jim Canales was recently named the first ever president of the $1.4 billion Barr Foundation, one of the biggest family foundations in the city.

Jim Canales is about to become everyone’s best friend.

He’s the new gatekeeper at the $1.4 billion Barr Foundation, the biggest family nonprofit in Massachusetts. Canales started this week as the first-ever president of the Barr, which was started 15 years ago by Amos Hostetter Jr. and his wife, Barbara, after the media mogul sold Continental Cablevision for $11.6 billion.

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The foundation has had an executive director, but when the fiercely private couple brings in a rising star in the world of philanthropy and gives him a seat on the board alongside them, it signals a new era.

“It is a good time for us to step back and let it go,” Barbara Hostetter said in a phone interview.

The new Barr will remain committed to Boston but expand its national footprint. This doesn’t mean there will be an overall increase in grants — it gives about $60 million a year — or that Barr will be everywhere, a la the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In fact, the Hostetters don’t want that. “I hope we never get too big,” said Barbara.

So what does the couple want the Barr to be?

“I hope we can be smart and nimble, responsible and proactive,” she said, pausing to catch herself, as if realizing that’s not much of an answer. “It doesn’t sound unique when you say it, but it is hard work.”

A lot of that work will be done by the 47-year-old Canales. For a decade, he ran the $1.6 billion James Irvine Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit focused solely on California. In particular, it is known for funding projects related to the arts, youth, and democracy.

Canales was brought in to that foundation to clean up somebody else’s mess, and he pushed for more transparency and clarity in the organization’s procedures. He also became a leader among California’s nonprofit executives and sat on high-profile boards, including the board of trustees at his alma mater, Stanford, a post Canales still holds.

“I have worked with CEOs in the nonprofit sector and for-profit sector — he is one of the best I have ever seen,” said Greg Avis, chair of the Irvine Foundation and founding managing director at Summit Partners, a private equity firm with offices in Menlo Park, Calif., and Boston.

The only thing that worries Avis is the native Californian’s baseball allegiance.

“I still think he will be a Giants fan,” said Avis. “I am not sure if he has a Red Sox cap yet.”

Actually, he owns two. Let’s see if he wears them.

Tinkering with a foundation’s formula can be unnerving, especially for the current beneficiaries of Barr’s largesse. The Barr — which is Hostetter’s middle name — has focused on funding the arts, education, climate change programs, and global initiatives.

Canales said the foundation will continue to write checks, while he spends time listening and learning about what it does right, what it can be better at, and what causes needs attention. He also promises to tell us more about what’s going on through the Barr website and a newly created Twitter account, @BarrFdn.

“Change will occur,” said Canales. “It will be gradual and evolutionary. It will be carried out in a respectful and transparent way.”

But there’s one thing Canales wants to make clear immediately: “This is a foundation that was birthed in this city. It has a deep history and commitment to Boston, and that commitment will be sustained.”

The Hostetters personally courted Canales last fall after he said he wasn’t interested in the job. His name kept bubbling up, so when the billionaires were visiting a daughter at Stanford’s business school in Palo Alto, they also arranged to have lunch with him.

At the end of a hour-and-half meal at an Italian restaurant, Amos Hostetter asked Canales to keep his name in the running. Canales needed 24 hours to think about it, which turned into a couple of weeks before he finally accepted the job offer.

If the Hostetters were looking for fresh eyes, they found them in Canales. He was born and raised in San Francisco and had never lived outside the Golden State. His mother’s family is from Nicaragua, his father’s comes from Mexico. Canales and his partner, Jim McCann, now live in downtown Boston.

Paul Grogan, head of the Boston Foundation and the dean of our nonprofit world, said Canales’s arrival will deepen Barr’s impact. “You don’t get someone like him,” Grogan said, and not “take advantage of his reach.”

Welcome to Boston, Jim. Don’t be afraid to change us.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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