Part Three: The Foundation Begins its Work

The Nathan Cummings Foundation


Part Three: The Foundation Begins its Work

"Learning about boundaries and teamwork"

Hiring the senior staff

Hiring a president

Hiring a president had top priority. The family sought a chief executive whose experience, world view, and approach exhibited specific traits: a willingness to take chances but not in a reckless way; a combination of innovation, leadership and creativity, leavened by personal responsibility and thoughtfulness. They hoped to find someone fresh--a person who hadn't been working in the foundation world for years, yet someone who had a background in several of the core program areas. Personality and religion were important too. Because of the role of the grandchildren, an ability to work well with young people was critical. By its mission, the foundation had reaffirmed its Jewish identity, which reflected Nathan Cummings' ties to his heritage. For many family members, this identity would best be fostered by a Jewish president who would help the foundation find its way as a progressive Jewish organization in a multi-cultural American context.

The initial attempt to find a suitable candidate--which relied on suggestions from family and friends--foundered. The facilitator then urged the family to undertake a public search, assuring them that this approach would not only yield more appropriate candidates, but also "notify the world of philanthropy that the family was serious about the foundation serving the public good." The family decided to advertise the position and engage a search firm to screen candidates. A board committee interviewed several firms, choosing the one that best understood the family's criteria for a chief executive officer (CEO). The family decided to spend the money on a search firm for several reasons: it could cast a wider net, save time in narrowing the field, protect the family from the awkwardness of turning aside interested acquaintances, and educate the family regarding interviewing and evaluation of candidates. Employing a search firm to fill this topmost position, as well as to screen for subsequent staff jobs, and working with a facilitator--these two decisions marked the Cummings family as unusually open to outside help, a somewhat atypical stance in foundation ventures.

The search firm and the family narrowed the field to a few candidates who were each interviewed several times. Out of these, Charles R. Halpern (Charlie) was selected. He was a lawyer with the requisite experience in starting up new non-profits and the active involvement with cutting-edge programs--two elements which the family believed critical in launching its foundation.

A founding father in the field of public interest law, Halpern had worked on health and environmental matters. His most recent achievement was establishing a new alternative law school at the City University of New York. As a result, he knew the foundation world from the perspective of the grant-seeker. His experience seemed to embody the mix of conventionality and unconventionality that the job required. "Charlie persuaded us much more eloquently than some of the other candidates," recounted Rob Mayer, a member of the search committee, "that he didn't have an extensive personal agenda, that his job was to serve the foundation. He also had a wonderful warm way about him as well." The family was comfortable with Charlie personally. This factor was absolutely crucial for a family foundation. He could have met all of the qualifications of the position, but if his personality had not been compatible with those of the family members, the situation would not have worked.

From Charlie's perspective, the lengthy series of interviews were important to him too. He wanted to make sure that he could work with the family. A start-up in any organization--new law school, small business, family foundation--was not easy. "I thought there was an element of risk to it," said Charlie, "but I also thought that the challenge of realizing the family's vision was so appealing that I would take the chance." He shared their values and enjoyed their company. Charlie Halpern became president in April 1989. With his arrival, just four years after Nathan Cummings' death, the foundation prepared to open its doors.

Hiring a financial officer, deciding investment policy

Searches began immediately for senior staff, starting with a chief financial officer (CFO). A search firm helped identify Ellen Lazarus, a Harvard Business School graduate with extensive experience in private sector finance, who became the CFO. Her duties comprised completing asset transfers from the estate to the foundation, deciding on investment strategies for the endowment, and setting up administrative financial systems. The CFO essentially took over the duties of Nathan Cummings' accountant, named a trustee in the will.

It was not a smooth transition, however. There were differences in procedure and philosophy--from the accountant's manual ledger book entries to the CFO's computerized files and programs, from his allegiance to Nathan's investment strategies to her use of money management firms to oversee the endowment.

This clash between an old family retainer and new staff and board was neither unusual at a family foundation nor quickly resolved. The family respected the accountant's abilities and service, and recognized his relationship with the founder. The foundation needed his knowledge and hence his cooperation. It was a delicate matter--weighing his concerns, his desire to be "keeper of the treasury," against the CFO's need to modernize the organization's financial procedures. As Rob Mayer noted, "it's difficult to have trustees select themselves out; it doesn't happen easily." The accountant eventually left the foundation board.

The CFO then worked closely with the new Finance Committee of the board to invest the foundation's endowment. While seeking the best returns, they nevertheless worked within board guidelines, which stipulated some restrictions related to, for example, socially responsible investment. The foundation avoided investment in tobacco companies and South African companies. (The latter screen was revoked after apartheid ended). Program-related investments, e.g., investing in companies whose activities supported core program goals, or other beneficial social purposes, were discussed but deferred. The Finance Committee selected fund managers who represented various investment and risk-taking strategies and reviewed their performances quarterly.

Hiring program directors

Next to be hired were four program directors, one for each of the core areas. The board and president sought experienced staff; seasoned professionals, they reasoned, would merit the respect of the board and their peers and could exercise leadership in their fields. Diversity also figured into the selection process, reflecting the foundation's mission and the family's interests in serving a multi-cultural society. The search firm identified candidates; then the president and a board committee interviewed the finalists. This direct involvement assured the board that the program officers were, as Rob put it, "sensitive to the same issues and knowledgeable about the same things that were important to the trustees." Such teamwork reinforced the sense of a collaboration between board and staff. The family was delighted with the results of the search process--a strikingly diverse and talented group that included African-American and Japanese-American women.

This group of accomplished staff were drawn by the opportunities to shape the programs of a foundation that, on the one hand, had enough money for them to do innovative work, and that, on the other hand, was small enough so that they wouldn't get trapped in a bureaucracy. In their interviews with Charlie, he described himself as a collaborator who would share ideas with them but still give them enough room to build the core programs, and initiate projects around ideas that were really important to them.

First, Joan Shigekawa was chosen to head the arts program. She came to the foundation with a background as an executive producer in public television and with the Program for Art on Film.

Next, Andrea Kydd was recruited to develop the health programs. A dedicated community organizer, she had served as director of the Youth Project in Washington, DC and as a senior executive at VISTA.

Then, Rabbi Rachel Cowan, herself a convert to Judaism, was asked to lead Jewish Life. She was co-author of Mixed Blessings, a book on intermarriage. Her personal experience and professional expertise with innovative religious programs resonated with many family members who had mixed marriages.

Finally, an experienced activist and administrator, Conn Nugent, was drafted to head the environmental program. He had been co-ordinator of the Five Colleges Program in Amherst, Massachusetts, and was previously Executive Director of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

This diversity among the senior staff underscored the progressive identity the family had sought for its programs. Support staff, headed by Annette Ensley, mirrored New York's multi-ethnic population as well as the foundation's commitment to promoting diversity in all aspects of its grant programs.


Designing the grant process

As the program directors settled in, their earliest challenge was to create a user-friendly, yet efficient grant process. Potential grantees were invited to submit preliminary letters of inquiry with brief outlines of their proposals. These were screened by staff, and those applicants with ideas which seemed most promising were invited to develop full proposals. Program directors consulted with each other, with the president, and with some members of the board's Program Advisory Committees (PACs) to determine which projects to recommend. Proposals which made it through this evaluation process were presented to the board in summary form, in a group "docket," for approval.

Once a grant was funded, program directors continued to work with the grantees. They made site visits, traveling to check on progress and to offer assistance. "Each site visit makes you a more sophisticated grantmaker," affirmed Charlie Halpern. Then he continued, "It is not enough to sit in an office and look at what people promise or expect to do and then how they report on what they've actually done. Dealing with that much abstraction can be misleading. Site visits help give you a framework for thinking about what those words on paper mean." Such interaction often stimulated new thinking and new projects. Charlie frequently passed on to his program staff ideas inspired by site visits. His ongoing involvement with the programs was directly related to the flexibility of work in a medium-size foundation.

Site visits reflected a two-way relationship between grantmakers and grantees. Program officers gained a renewed appreciation for the grantees' work in the field. Cummings' staff encouraged grantee organizations to evaluate their organizational culture in light of strongly held foundation values. "On your board do you have women? Do you have minorities? Do you have representatives of the constituency you're serving?" were the kind of questions that provoked change, reported Ruth Sorensen.

Program advisory committees

The program directors worked closely with board members serving on the PACs for each core area. At the early PAC meetings, guest speakers helped sharpen the focus for program areas by providing overviews of current work in the field and by identifying topics that might be explored with funding. Such experts were invaluable at all stages in the foundation's development for educating trustees and staff. Speaking to the Environment PAC, for example, policy analyst Jessica Tuchman Matthews singled out transportation as an issue which not only merited attention but one which also currently lacked significant foundation involvement. As a result, the Cummings Foundation became one of the leaders in this field, assisting the many groups working on the development of mass transportation alternatives to the automobile. Rachel Cowan first came to the attention of the family as a guest speaker at the Jewish Life PAC, where she outlined the religious and cultural concerns of contemporary American Jewish communities.

With the exception of one year when the board set up a unified program committee, the individual PACs now meet several times each year, reviewing the program objectives for their core areas and for the grant dockets. Representatives from each PAC, with the president, also oversee a fifth program area known as "Interprogram." It funds projects touching two of the core programs. An example bringing together Jewish Life and art is photographer Frederic Brenner's documentation of Jewish life around the world. Entitled "Chronicle of Exile: A Vision of Memory," the project will culminate in an exhibition, a book, and an archive of Jewish life in the 20th century. Another Interprogram grant, linking health and the environment, funded the Physicians for Social Responsibility, which has turned its attention from nuclear war to the impact of environmental protection on public health as revealed through studies of toxic contamination by industrial poisons.

Core grant programs

From the very beginning of its operations, the foundation's grantmaking was premised on the values inherent in its mission--compassion, innovation, creativity, and reasonable risk-taking. Projects funded by the board soon created the profile of a cutting-edge foundation. Grants catalyzed new areas of inquiry and reformulated traditional fields of practice. The foundation's core programs began to take on a distinct personality, shaped by the energetic interaction of family members with the skilled, professional staff.

To this end, three experienced family members lent their voices to the arts programs. Diane Cummings, after first volunteering as a docent, had served as a trustee and then president of the Phoenix Art Museum. Ruth Sorensen was a museum professional and filmmaker. Buddy Mayer and her late husband, Robert B. Mayer, had amassed one of the best collections of contemporary art in America and had also been among the founders of Chicago's Museum of Contem-porary Art. In the arts, foundation grants helped set up model arts education programs which assisted youth at risk; encouraged arts institutions to foster cultural pluralism in their programs, staff and audience; and helped support the work of innovative arts entrepreneurs.

Sustaining freedom of expression in the arts was another major focal program area. Significant grants went to the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation to create the Project on Arts Censorship, a program designed to protect First Amendment rights of artists and arts institutions. This aid to legal strategists committed to protecting freedom of expression--central to artistic creativity in any democracy--was accompanied by funds to educate and develop public support for the arts and humanities. Grants were given to counter threats to freedom of expression, as censorship became a politically volatile issue in the 1990s. The focus on censorship aptly met the foundation's standards for grant sponsorship: "Is the problem important? Are other foundations ignoring it or failing to deal with the issues?" On both counts, the answer was "yes" for the issue of censorship. Building a constituency that understood and supported the role of free expression and diversity in cultural affairs was the aim of grants to such organizations as National Public Radio and People for the American Way. These were the counterparts to grant projects which illuminated the terrors of repression, such as funds for a film about the exhibition, "Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant Garde in Nazi Germany"; and funds to support the exhibition at UCLA entitled, "The View from Within: Japanese-American Art from the Internment Camps, 1942-46."

Family members offered their expertise in shaping the health programs. Debra Weese-Mayer, MD., Rob Mayer's wife, had been involved in the earliest discussions of the core program. Projects were chosen that served the long-term goal of making health and well-being accessible to all Americans, with a particular focus on the health-care needs of low-income children and their families. Whether funding a monitoring program of state services through the Children's Defense Fund or funding model pediatric care units in hospitals--planned jointly by healthcare workers and families of patients--the foundation sponsored many inventive projects which attempted to rethink contemporary medical practice.

One aspect of the foundation's pioneering work in health was its active support for the emerging field of mind/body and behavioral medicine, a focus brought to the core program by James and Diane. Their knowledge of this area derived from their ties to the Institute of Noetic Sciences, originally of Palo Alto, California, and its trailblazing work in the field. A growing body of scientific evidence suggested that mental and emotional states actually do affect physical health, and that effective psychological intervention could influence the course of physical illness. Foundation grants subsidized efforts to bring mind/body techniques and other aspects of alternative medicine into mainstream medical practice and public discourse. Early grants were awarded to underwrite the research for what became a well-received public television series, "Healing and the Mind," produced by Bill Moyers. A few years later, the foun-dation's support in this area would culminate in the creation of the Center for the Advancement of Health, a clearinghouse and advocacy center located in Washington, DC. Its staff would seek to educate health policymakers on the importance of these developments, and on their potential for making healthcare more effective, less expensive, and more humane. Over time, the Center's agenda became broader than just the mind/body focus. it expanded to look at health in a larger perspective: to examine the social and economic roots of health and illness and generally to design health systems that would take into account the complex realities of what makes people sick or well.

In other healthcare initiatives, a sustained focus on preventive care informed grants for cancer programs. Approaching cancer prevention and treatment from the patient's perspective arose from the family's experience, first with Alan's death, then with Herb's illness. "When he got sick," recalled Diane Cummings, "we both rolled up our sleeves and did as much research as we could. Herb said, 'There's got to be a better way.'" Their determination led to foundation funding for projects aimed at changing the behavioral and medical protocols for cancer treatment. Grants to Commonweal, an organization headed by Michael Lerner, for its Institute for the Study of Health and Illness furthered ground-breaking work on mind/body strategies to help cancer patients cope with their illness as well as with the often stressful side-effects of their medical treatment. After Herb's death in 1992, the cancer programs honored the memory of his devotion and hard work for the foundation during its formative years.

The Jewish Life program turned to Jewish heritage, religious insights, and culture as the basis for its grants in four key areas: (1) relations between Jews and non-Jews, and among Jews; (2) social justice; (3) Jewish renewal and spirituality; and (4) Jewish arts and culture. The personal religious journeys of both Ruth Sorensen and James Cummings influenced the Jewish Life program, as did that of Stephen Durchslag, who was also an ardent collector of Haggadah (the texts used by families during the Passover seder), and Buddy Mayer, who had been raised in a religious home. Their interests influenced grants for reviving Jewish contemplative traditions, supporting rabbinic education, and furthering women's efforts to find spiritual meaning and new roles in Jewish religious life. Other grants, reflecting even wider currents in American-Jewish life (such as those related to the complex blending of Jews and non-Jews in the families of the Cummings foundation--both board members and staff alike), sustained programs to assist the Jewish community in dealing with the short- and long-term consequences of high rates of intermarriage. Revitalizing Jewish congregational life and improving the curriculum of religious schools were a program response to the uninspired teaching Cummings' grandchildren and great-grandchildren had experienced. "The family is a microcosm of American Jewry," observed Ruth Sorensen, "and the Jewish Life program mirrors that."

While normally limiting its giving to groups within the United States, the foundation awarded a major three-year grant to address the events spawned by the break-up of the former Soviet Union (FSU) and the attendant mass migration to Israel. It helped those who remained in the FSU (principally in Russia and the Ukraine) to live freely and knowledgeably as Jews, and those who migrated to Israel, to integrate into Israeli society. The Nathan Cummings Foundation had been the first foundation to recognize and evaluate the needs of Jews choosing to remain in the nations of the FSU; Cummings' leadership had encouraged other funders to provide for educational, religious, and community-oriented programs.

The FSU programs grew out of a report the Cummings Foundation had commissioned from a scholar in the field, as well as what was learned during an intensive site visit by several board members and the foundation president. On that trip to the FSU, and during one other to Israel, meetings with various groups and individuals generated new program ideas. "They were also important institution-building experiences for members of the board," said Charlie, "for people really get to know each other traveling from Moscow to Kiev on the overnight train." He continued:

"Some of these journeys have been deeply emotional experiences. During the Russian trip, one was a visit to Babi Yar outside Kiev, the site of the Nazis' slaughter of 30,000 Jews. Then we went to a Reformed Jewish service in Moscow with a lot of people who were rediscovering their Jewish identity--and they looked like they could have been our cousins. We were very moved, and that emotional energy fueled the foundation projects. I see these things, and I turn them into project ideas."

In the eyes of the board, the educational value of such trips and their contribution to developing the foundation's programs far outweighed their costs. Commitments to social justice and social change--central values for both the foundation and other Jewish institutions--were affirmed in grant support for education and outreach. The history of the struggle for social justice was explored in research supported by a foundation grant for an exhibition sponsored by New York's Jewish Museum. The subject of the exhibition was the experience and relations between African-Americans and Jews in America: "Bridges and Boundaries" opened in 1992 and then traveled to several other cities. Social justice informed grants made in Israel: to encourage dialogue between Jews and Palestinians, to address the injustices faced by Arab citizens in Israel, and to stimulate the evolution of inclusive democratic organizations in Israel. These may have been among the many initiatives advanced by non-governmental organizations which have cumulatively helped to facilitate the peace process.

The environmental program, championed by James, Rick, Michael and his brother, Marc, focused on three areas: energy efficiency, protection of natural resources, and the projection of a sustainable future. In energy efficiency, the foundation targeted U.S. transportation policy, calling for its consideration "as an environmental issue of utmost urgency." In a field which was virtually ignored by other grantmakers, the Cummings Foundation mobilized several funders to work in collaboration on a new environmental agenda to change the ways in which Americans traveled, whether commuting locally or journeying long distances. Again, since such massive change was not something that could be accomplished quickly, the foundation committed itself to a multi-year grant program. By the mid-1990s, public policy began to reflect the priorities promoted by the foundation's grantees for improving and expanding mass transit, and for coalitions working to force debate about the environmental dimensions of American transportation--most notably, the detrimental impact of the automobile and its infrastructure, and their drain on energy resources.

Substantial seed money secured spiritual allies for the foun-dation's program focus on a sustainable future. The roots of The National Religious Partnership for the Environment, an organization embracing representatives of all faiths in the United States, originated with the foundation's first year start-up grants. Achieving a sustainable future was predicated on the need for widespread support for environmentally responsible behavior. Hence, there were grants to secure more leadership for environmental causes from communities of color, as well as to support environmental ethics programs. The foundation funded mainstream organizations, such as the Environmental Defense Fund, in addition to such regional organizations as the Indian Law Resource Center in Helena, Montana, and the Southwest Network for Economic and Environmental Justice, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The foundation's long-term approach was reflected in grants for college-level environmental educational programs and for teacher-training courses.