Part Four: The Foundation Comes into its Own

The Nathan Cummings Foundation


Part Four: The Foundation Comes into its Own

"Yes, we made a difference."


Five years into its existence, the Nathan Cummings Foundation had tackled and solved many problems of a new organization. Certain techniques contributed to, and solidified, those accomplishments. Among the most important was evaluation: the continuous evaluation of board process, of staff responsibilities, and of the foundation's program objectives. Evaluation was ongoing and permeated all foundation activities.


Evaluation was at the heart of the retreats, the foundation's annual decision-making forums. Held during the summer months at conference centers in such places as Santa Fe, New Mexico and Aspen, Colorado, they lasted three to five days. The retreats had several purposes: to allow the board, family, and staff to come together in a relaxed setting, to review the work of the past year with staff, and to chart the future. "The ideal retreat," Buddy explained, "included outside speakers to bring fresh ideas to us, with plenty of time to evaluate where we've been and where we're going to go."

The retreat agendas aimed to balance serious work with fun, to make time for refreshing bonds between family members, and to build bonds among family, outside trustees, and senior staff. Group hikes, cookouts, parties, and sports activities offset the effect of hours of serious talk and work. A consultant, Jane Pierson, helped run the meetings and fostered group participation. When James Cummings was chair of the board, he introduced the "check-in" at the beginning of the retreat, an innovative method to nourish an atmosphere of trust and camaraderie. Buddy Mayer described it:

We sat around in a circle and each of us talked about our successes and our frustrations. Everybody spoke frankly. It was a group cleansing of the soul, and it felt very good. It helped us all understand that there is no such thing as a perfect life or perfect behavior. A level playing field of human frailties came out of those discussions.

During the retreats, the board looked carefully at large questions, refining the goals of the core program areas as well as formulating new operating guidelines for grantmaking. Background papers, prepared by staff and board committees, provided overviews and analyses. At one meeting, the board examined its program objectives with an eye toward narrowing the focus of each core area. In health, for example, the program areas were pared down in order to concentrate on issues surrounding the beginning and end of life: i.e., the health needs of children under six and in the case of adults, the treatment of dying. At another retreat, the group began what turned into a multi-year evaluation of its grantgiving. The end result was an entirely new way of evaluating grant programs, proposals and projects, dubbed "Objectives, Strategies, Outcomes," or OSOs for short. As his cousins had helped shape the core programs, Rob Mayer brought his background in the business world and Ph.D. training in organization and management to bear on the development of the OSOs, which he worked on both during and after his tenure as chair of the board.

Program evaluation and change

The evaluation process which led to the OSOs was not new to the foundation. Evaluation was already embedded in all aspects of the foundation's work--from staff review to grantee assessment of the foundation's performance. On a yearly basis, staff and board scrutinized the programs, asking such questions as: "Is this an area we want to continue funding? How successful have we been? Where can we be more effective?"

Such routines were the backdrop for the preparation of the OSOs, which were designed, using a number of criteria, to clarify goals and measure results. Rob argued that without a more systematic evaluation of grantmaking, it would be "hard to know if you've done anything." The ultimate reward of a more structured approach, he stressed, "would be looking at a particular area three to six years down the road and being able to say, 'Yes, we made a difference.' Within the framework of the OSOs," Rob explained, "there is still a world of grantmaking you can do. The only difference is that now you've got a template to measure it against. Before, we didn't have a way of calibrating whether or not our grantmaking was really closely aligned with what we wanted to achieve. Now we do."

Evaluation generated substantive as well as strategic change. This was the case with Interprogram grantmaking. The foundation retained its funding of projects that crossed core program lines, but added attention to concerns--contemplative practice and democratic values--that potentially touched every core program. The goal of the "Contemplative Mind in Society" initiative was to explore and communicate the benefits of meditation and contemplation as paths to wisdom, equanimity, health, and spirituality.

The foundation's funding supported meditation programs in the three different programs: health (reducing pain and stress); Jewish Life (reviving ancient meditation practice); and the environment (retreats for environmental activists).

The democratic values initiative was more complex: rebuilding a greater sense of community by supporting such concepts as fairness, tolerance, and pluralism--all central values in democratic behavior; protecting First Amendment liberties; maintaining the separation of church and state; and defending reproductive choice. Democratic values initiatives inspired a reformulated set of programs for grantees, known as the "Toolbox." Board members recognized that there were "communication issues relating to democratic values the idea that you need technical equipment and technical training to carry out specific programs." Without appropriate technical assistance to grantees (to improve management and leadership skills), these grantees would be unable to carry out their projects, however exciting or innovative. Nor would they be able to disseminate their results. Toolbox funds helped organizations overcome weaknesses that had previously prevented them from having an equal role in kindling social change.

The kind of intense, ongoing self-scrutiny pursued by the Cummings Foundation under the rubric of evaluation was unusual for a mid-size foundation. Such shared self-examination could become a model for non-profits willing to put in the time and accept the discipline of the process. As one board member noted: "It's a different style of grantmaking. This type of approach may work only in an organization that has the right culture to accept it." Yet some family members have found themselves bewildered by the unceasing review. "When I see something working so well," said Rick, "I'm at odds with the obsession that 'we have to do it better.' Of course, we want to strive for excellence, but the margins of improvement keep getting smaller and smaller." He concluded, "So much goodness is already happening. I think now we can relax a bit and enjoy what we have achieved." Even Reynold Levy cautioned against tinkering too much with what was working well. "There's some alchemy going on. Charlie Halpern's mix of meeting with colleagues, reading, engaging consultants, and talking to trustees somehow results in divining the direction of programs that really resonate in the minds of both philanthropists and public policy practitioners."

Changes in the staff

Beginning in the mid-1990's, staff changes supplemented evaluation as a source of change. When the directors of the environment and arts programs left in early 1995 to pursue different opportunities, their replacements brought new perspectives.

Claudine K. Brown became head of arts. She had been Deputy Assistant Provost for the Arts and Humanities at the Smithsonian Institution, and previously had served as Assistant Director for Government and Community Relations at the Brooklyn Museum. As a consultant to the Cummings Foundation, a few years earlier, she had helped reshape program policy to emphasize community-based and culturally specific arts institutions. As program director, she now strengthened the foundation's leadership role in validating how essential these groups were to the larger arts eco-system.

Richard F. Mark joined the staff to lead the environment program. His experience included work with the Energy Foundation and leadership positions with such policy groups as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Common Cause, and Professionals' Coalition for Nuclear Arms Control. His community organizing background was perfectly suited to enlarging the foundation's work with local, non-governmental organizations, increasingly the front-line in safeguarding the environment as federal powers devolved to the states. He also sought projects which would explore the connections between the environment and economics, public health, and community development.

CFO Ellen Lazarus also left the foundation in 1995. She was succeeded by Henry Tzu Ng, who was appointed as Vice President with expanded administrative responsibilities at all levels of the foundation, including program work. Henry was formerly Director of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, Vice President of the American Academy in Rome, and Deputy Director of the Municipal Art Society.

In 1993, Jennifer H. McCarthy had become Director of Special Projects. Her predecessors, Elizabeth Leiman and Kathryn Roth, had successively worked as assistants to the president and then had taken on numerous assignments for projects affecting the foundation as a whole. McCarthy took over the growing communications area, as well as the supervision of Interprogram.

While the family wholeheartedly welcomed its new staff members, the entire foundation family felt the loss of the old ones. The Cummings' custom had always been to treat staff as part of its family, and that practice has not changed. However, the impact of such departures was, in this case, somewhat alleviated, as fresh waves of energy and imagination arrived in the wake of new staff members.

Organizational culture

Delegating authority

Encouraging a high degree of individual expression among staff members and trustees alike was a hallmark of the Nathan Cummings Foundation from the start. As the staff and board members grew into their roles, this feature of life at the foundation expanded. In recent years, it has had a special influence on the growth of discretionary grantmaking. Family trustees had always had a pool of community grant funds to recommend for disbursement. Outside trustees were also given discretionary funds for community grants. And the foundation's president had a pool of discretionary funds--not uncommon for the CEO of a foundation--to support projects related to the core programs or for support of the foundation's mission.

In 1995, the board decided to invest senior staff officers with discretionary authority to award some grants--within certain guidelines--without prior board approval. These staff-initiated grants were then reported to the board at its next meeting. Such grants enabled the program directors to respond quickly to grantees outside the normal grantmaking cycle. For James Cummings, this delegation of control "honored staff and allowed them to have greater ownership, as opposed to just being employees." Furthermore, such discretionary grantmaking authority was comparable to that of program officers at some larger foundations and offered program directors an incentive to stay at the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

"It was a challenge in a small organization such as ours for the board to find ways of encouraging the staff to continue to develop themselves professionally," said Rob Mayer. The discretionary grants complemented the other tools the Cummings Foundation used to enrich the work of its staff. The board encouraged their leadership of professional affinity groups and their work on the boards of organizations the foundation had created. "In return, the additional work the program directors did in their grantmaker affinity groups," said Charlie Halpern, "was a way of promoting the values the foundation stood for by methods other than just giving money away. They used their meetings to project the foundation's points of view in its various program areas. All things considered," he concluded, "the time was well spent."

Family values and culture

Organizational culture reflected the foundation's family origins as well as the values articulated in its mission. Expanding upon the foundation's religious heritage opened up possibilities for innovative projects with definite spiritual dimensions, outside the parameters of the Jewish Life program--projects which might otherwise have been bypassed. Examples of these were the recruitment of religious organizations to improve the environment, and the contemplative practice initiative.

In addition to the emphasis on religious, or spiritual values, personal ethics, too, have influenced the foundation's culture. "My grandfather's values of integrity, and excellence in business and charity have been imparted to the foundation," Rick Cummings commented. "And at the same time," he continued, "values of my generation have been incorporated--our idealism and respect for diversity have influenced the work, the staff and the board." Some of the concerns for social justice originated in Buddy's social welfare work and in her admiration for the achievements of Eleanor Roosevelt; her later involvement in civil rights was an experience shared with her nephew Rick. A lighter aspect of family influence on the foundation's culture was evident in the ongoing life of the organization. "We do business very socially," stated Ruth Sorensen. "It's the family culture that has seeped into the way we've set up our office." A central common area in the office was specifically designed to serve as a gathering place for conversation and meals; and no major meeting was scheduled without including time for convivial talk.

Contemporary mores concerning the role of women have had an impact, through the family, on organizational culture. While women in family foundations have traditionally served on their boards--in proportions much greater than for corporate or other independent foundations--the complete egalitarianism found on the Cummings Foundation board is distinctive. Women of the family have chaired the foundation's board and occupied virtually all leadership roles. The transformation from the patriarchal style of Nathan Cummings could not be more dramatic. That he would have been pleased with this outcome, Ruth Sorensen has no doubts: "Grandpa did not discriminate between the girls and the boys among his grandchildren. He believed in excellence and in equality of opportunity. He would not have wanted any talent to be lost to the foundation. In our family, there has never been any question about gender equality among the ranks of the third generation working with the foundation." Staff demographics also reflect the mass movement of American women into the workplace as professionals, and their increasing numbers as senior foundation personnel.

Finally, inherent in family culture is the idea that to be good grantmakers, family members must remain vitally interested in the programs, even passionate in their commitment to the foundation. Sustaining enthusiasm for the work--whether on the board or in community grants--would best be supported by feeling that the intellectual adventure continues, that the mandate holds infinite possibilities. At the first hint of routine, or complacency, grant-making could become burdensome. The only way to avoid that, says Ruth Sorensen, is to "stay sharp and not be too content."

She continues:

"You don't want to change everything in the first few years. We thought, 'Wait until we reach middle age when we can settle in and just have the ship moving.' But the opposite is that you don't want to get too comfortable, and you don't want to talk to the same people who are going to say, 'Yes, you are doing great.' You need to talk to other people, to have multiple viewpoints, and to do whatever else is necessary to stay sharp. If we want to be bold and creative, we should always be poised on the edge."

Fortunately, many of the practices already part of the ongoing life of the foundation--such as the retreats, the ongoing evaluation, and the site visits--also serve as channels for new ideas and as forums where the family finds inspiration to continue its growth and "remain on the edge."


Public image

During its formative years, the foundation did not seek public attention for its work. Its appearance in the media was normally limited to the "trade press," that is, such specialized publications as the Chronicle of Philanthropy and Foundation News, in which its grants were announced, or where it was cited in articles about family foundations. True, community grants usually received mention in local newspapers where grantees were located; but with the exception of a few articles by the president, the foundation tended to take a low-key, almost old-fashioned view towards public disclosure. It did not have a press officer as did some of the major foundations. "If anything, this family tends to err not on the side of self-satisfaction," observed Reynold Levy, "but rather on the side of 'what's the next challenge and how do we meet it?'" For the family, the rewards came from doing good work, not from public recognition.

In recent years, however, the foundation has begun to attract more public notice. With its cutting-edge philosophy and progressive values, the foundation inevitably funded some programs which were controversial. Among them were programs which mounted a defense against the practice of art censorship. Harsh debate surrounded "Old Glory: the American Flag in Contemporary Art," an exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum in 1996 which documented the uses of the flag to make political--as well asesthetic--statements. Most criticism of the Cummings' programs originated from within an environment that fostered negative attacks on progressive foundations in general.

In light of these developments, the Nathan Cummings Foundation moved to define a more coherent communications strategy. Rather than courting publicity for its work per se--it had always helped grantees to disseminate information about the results of their projects--the foundation sought allies for the issues it propounded and the values it believed in. It worked with the Council on Foundations and with the Independent Sector to improve the image of foundations. The ultimate goal of the Cummings communications outreach was to make its grantmaking more effective, while at the same time, strengthening the role of the non-profit sector overall.

To this end, the foundation changed its presentation to the outside world. It crafted a pro-active communications stance to be carried out by Charlie Halpern. Having built an effective staff organization, and having hired able deputies to administer the foundation on a daily basis, he and the board reconfigured the president's role as a spokesperson. Charlie Halpern and the trustees decided that he should devote more time--through speeches and publishing--to the task of giving the foundation's mission a human voice and a public face. Furthermore, he sought to clarify the important role foundations have always played in our democracy. He also strove to emphasize the positive impact foundations have had in this century--by virtue of their progressive values and their willingness to experiment. He hoped to persuade others to follow a similar path.

Internal and external communication

Staff and board began to evaluate their channels of internal and external communication. By now, the foundation was large enough and its trustees sufficiently far-flung so that a regular, formal means of communication was desirable. A quarterly newsletter, Cummings & Goings, kept family members informed about foundation work and activities. Advanced computer technology allowed family and staff to communicate swiftly via e-mail. The installation of a Web site invigorated external communication: suddenly, people all over the world had immediate access to detailed information about the foundation's grant programs and grantees.

The Internet supplemented that more traditional medium for reporting on the foundation's work--the annual report. The report's essays permitted staff to comment on the grant programs within the context of foundation objectives and of social conditions in the United States. Singular illustrations and attractive graphic design enticed readers and expanded the reach of the report, which was sent out nationally and internationally. Over the course of six years, the report had become not only a more sophisticated reflection of the foundation's philosophy and grantmaking, but also the most comprehensive means of communicating its values and achievements. For an extraordinary melding of content and design, the 1995 report received an award.

Changing role of the family

As the foundation matured, it was clear that relationships among family members on the board were fraught with as many quirks and permutations, positive and negative, as in "real life"--with one huge difference: this family was engaged in the ongoing job of dispensing millions of dollars each year. "One of the challenges of a family foundation," asserted Ruth Durchslag, "is that it involves family relationships, and family relationships are, by nature, intense and complicated."

Working together with their parents on the board had enriched those fortunate enough to have done so. For James Cummings, working with his father Herb "was really the first time that we had ever been in some kind of a collegial arrangement. Instead of being just father and son, we were now also two men dealing with issues of importance to us both." With his mother Diane Cummings on the board, Michael Zuieback found disagreements about issues "no different than when you sat around the dinner table and voiced opposing viewpoints." His wife Sheila regarded Diane as a mentor in helping her assimilate well onto the board. Buddy Mayer felt blessed to have worked so closely with her son Rob, an experience which she described as "a repetition of the privilege she had in learning about charitable giving with her father many years before." To some younger members of the third generation, it seemed to take a while, as Karyn Cummings expressed it, for the second generation "to see their adult children as true adults, or to see young professionals, new to the board and family, as equal to the tasks of governance." This became less of an issue as the third generation came to prominence.

The branch relations on the board had changed, too. After working together for some years, the family no longer felt the need to mandate branch equality, and so this stipulation was removed from the by-laws. It remained only in the equal division of community grant funds. No longer did it seem necessary to define board roles in such terms; for, with few exceptions, board voting patterns had not been defined along family lines. The chair had rotated from branch to branch, from generation to generation, from Herb and Buddy to Ruth Sorensen, Rob Mayer, and James Cummings. After completing these rounds, there was no family member available who had both the time and the experience to take on the office of chair. The family decided that the position would go to one of the respected outside trustees who had been on the board since 1991, Reynold Levy. He had been on the board long enough, they thought, "to feel like family." The family interest would be safeguarded, predicted James at the beginning of this experiment, "by the knowledge that the family was being served well and that nothing was being taken away." Nonetheless, electing a non-family trustee to the board chair brought home the important lesson that maintaining long-term family participation was critical; if there were only a limited number of family members to call upon, it would be difficult to keep up the foundation's record of family commitment and input.

By the mid-1990s, there were more opportunities for people to stay involved with foundation governance without taking on the responsibility of a trustee: interested parties could attend PAC meetings or retreats, become associates, or serve as adjuncts who represented the foundation in special capacities. A more consciously welcoming atmosphere permeated the board, inspired by the success of the foundation itself, as well as by the wisdom that came with maturity. Ruth Durchslag reminded the family "to keep in sight that the goal was involvement; that there should be various means to accomplish that goal; and that the point is to have people be there in whatever capacity they want." Rick Cummings, who had been involved since the beginning, traced some of those changes as the family and foundation had grown: "There were lower hurdles to be jumped over. One didn't have to try so hard to receive the appropriate levels of respect and acceptance. A young person could sit at the board table as a full-fledged member without trepidation." For Karyn Cummings, it was simpler: "I felt much more valued, and my opinion was listened to." Regard for the perspectives of other family members characterized the dynamic of board conversation, as Reynold Levy noted: "People are more patient with one another. They listen more carefully, not simply so they can anticipate the end of someone else's contribution, the better to begin their own. Now they really try to listen to what is being said and to engage with it." An atmosphere of openness didn't in the least eliminate disagreement; but the expression of difference had a more constructive tone, as Levy reported: "Family members might say, 'That's not the way we would do it, but we'll yield to your view.' Or, 'Let's try that and develop some criteria to measure whether it's been successful in a year.'" That was the kind of conversation heard around the board table as trustees and associates refined their skills and grew into their roles.

Nevertheless, there was more that could be done to prepare new people for the board. A structured introduction to the business of the board by the foundation and training courses on foundation work offered by relevant organizations such as The Council on Foundations or The Philanthropic Collaborative were suggested as ways to help assimilate family members into the culture of the foundation world.

"Training programs in philanthropy would provide the groundwork," Adam predicted, "for acquiring skills in assessing the work of organizations or grants." Or, as Michael Cummings phrased it succinctly, "Empower people to grow. Do what you're doing for the rest of the world, but first just do a little of it internally. Take care of home."

The family also needed to think about how the larger issues of career, life-cycle and burnout affected board service. Family members who needed to concentrate on their careers or family life at certain times dropped out of a formal commitment to board or committee service. Then they came back on when they had more time to give. Certainly the community grants program had proven invaluable as an important way of engaging family members on a continuing basis with the foundation, whether they were serving on the board or in other capacities. The family members who had been involved the longest "found it difficult to maintain the same intensity," observed Ruth Sorensen. "We needed new blood and new energy and new ideas." A sabbatical year for long-serving family trustees provided the opportunity for reflection and renewal.

The board had been expanded to fifteen so that there would be a place for several more outside trustees--people who could provide depth for the core subjects and PACs and foundation expertise--while the family preserved its majority position. A larger board meant less work per person, as more people were available to serve on committees. Board service was more reasonable in its time demands than it had been during the early years of institution-building. A more limited time commitment made it possible for more members of the family to serve. At the same time, the associate system prepared people gradually to assume full membership on the board. Even with all of these changes, being a trustee still carried with it grave responsibility: "You have tremendous power. You make big decisions," Marc Cummings explained. "When I voted and made these decisions, I was always conscious of that." Fundamental to Reynold Levy was recognizing "that different kinds of contributions can be made by different kinds of trustees. Together, that makes for a challenging and exciting board."