Part Three: The Foundation Begins its Work (continuation)

The Nathan Cummings Foundation


Part Three: The Foundation Begins its Work (continuation)

Collaboration and strategic grants

A number of other major grant programs were collaborative in nature. Some of these grew out of relationships forged by Charlie Halpern in periodic lunches with a group of fellow foundation presidents. Originally intended for the informal discussion of common problems, over the years these luncheons led to joint ventures. Such collaborative arrangements had many virtues, as Peggy Hamburg, a Cummings trustee noted, "Good partnerships leverage available resources; they maximize visibility and credibility as well." One of the first partnerships with another foundation led to the creation of the Center for the Advancement of Health, funded by both the Cummings Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Several national foundations joined with Cummings to create Environmental Strategies, an organization to provide more effective advocacy on issues important for the conservation of national resources. Assaults on public funding for the arts and humanities in the early 1990s led to a partnership with several other foundations--Rockefeller, Andrew Mellon, Ford, Andy Warhol--to fund the Center for Arts and Culture as a means to tackle this problem with long-range research and advocacy on arts policy. One other unusual collaboration was the Cummings Foundation work with the Dorot Foundation in Israel. Both put in money to fund projects on developing cultural pluralism among the three branches of Judaism and strengthening environmental work; but the grantmaking is supervised by Rachel Cowan, Cummings' Program Director for Jewish Life.

Large grants to such projects as the "transportation alternatives" programs and the Center for the Advancement of Health were quintessential models of strategic giving: they were designed to target an area where significant change could be attempted, either through a grant to fund model projects, or through an even larger collaborative venture that would sustain years of work. As the foundation matured, and as its goals became more focused, an experienced board and staff were able to determine where large grants would have the most impact, i.e., where they would serve as catalysts for government or private activity on a much greater scale. In a metaphor with biblical roots, Ruth Sorensen captured how this process unfolded: "It's almost like sowing seeds. You cull, you find what works, and then you choose and cultivate those things. Until we had established our areas and directions, it was important to sow far and wide. Now we can begin to see signs of growth. Seek and ye shall find."

The whole question of large-versus-small-grants was more than philosophical or strategic. It had programmatic and pragmatic implications. Administratively, it was cheaper--both in terms of the paperwork and the labor involved to process the forms--to give fewer large grants. But administrative convenience was not the determinant. Program directors decided what was appropriate to the project goal and to the size and type of the organization being funded. A grass roots organization needed only a small grant to make a difference; a larger sum might overwhelm it. A small grant was best suited for a riskier, cutting-edge program with a novel approach. "In terms of getting bang for your buck," observed Rob Mayer, "a $10,000 grant could have made just as much impact in the right place as a $50,000 grant." Alternatively, the task of moving a national agenda necessitated large sums.

Strategic grantmaking could take the form of large and small grants, and the foundation did both. Strategic grantmaking took other shapes, as well. Multi-year grants helped sustain new projects until their organizers completed their missions or the programs were on sound enough footing to attract broader-based funding. Pro-active grantmaking funded projects where the foundation identified a need for new thinking and action. In this mode, the foundation took the opportunity to implement change directly, as did operating foundations. Pro-active grantmaking--taking the initiative in formulating innovative approaches in partnership with new or existing organizations--came to characterize a greater number of major grants as well as the collaborative projects.

Community grants

As the core program areas came into their own, so did community grants. Community grants were administered by family, rather than by staff. They were given by the board at the initiative of family members, not awarded in response to applications. Generally, these grants were for activities in the communities where family members lived, for programs in which they either took an active interest or had an established connection. Guidelines clarified legal and ethical issues: the grant, although identified by a family member, was still a grant from the foundation, and any public acknowledgment by a grantee needed to reflect that. All branches of the family agreed that community grants should not be given to replace personal giving commitments, and that they would abide abide by limits set for multi-year grants. Guidelines helped family members say "no" to inappropriate requests, and provided ground rules that treated all potential grantees equally. Yet, these rules were balanced, said James Cummings, by "sufficient openness on the board to allow for exceptions." Family members were required to avoid conflicts of interest and to consult staff members when they had questions about content or procedure. Each branch had a family representative who was in charge of the paperwork, a system which assured that the appropriate forms were prepared for the grants before they were placed on the board docket for approval.

All family members, whether on the board or not, had the opportunity to participate in community grants and to feel that they were part of the foundation. The three family branches had different allotment formulas for their members. Initially the older members tended to have more funds to disburse; but more balanced formulas later prevailed, and branch members had to resolve any disagreements among themselves, not through the board. Family members helped train each other to become effective grantmakers. Adam Cummings learned from his older siblings Ruth, Michael, and Marc. For him and others, site visits to grant organizations were key:

"I met the grantees on the level of their commitment to their profession and their work. That's what moved me. It wasn't just writing a check from the foundation; it was the sense of personal involvement, of programs that spoke to my heart or that I believed in. "

The community grants process made family members foundation representatives in their local communities, thus enhancing the foundation's national profile. For some, it augmented their status as community leaders. Community grants also gave family members an opportunity to learn more about grant-making, to develop an expertise which spilled over in their evaluation of grants in the foundation's core programs. And, finally, community grants were personally rewarding. "It enriched my life immensely," said Rick Cummings in a sentiment shared by all, "and it was fun to do something really generous with a particular group." Marc Cummings reported that "Recommending community grants helped me grow as a person, taught me a tremendous amount, and gave me incredible satisfaction." According to Sheila O'Brien Zuieback, Diane Cummings' daughter-in-law, "Being able to recommend grants was one of the tangible rewards of being part of the family."

Community grants protected the core grant programs from outside pressures on family members to give in their local area. Conversely, community grants gave family members leeway to move outside the core programs. They could fund projects that mirrored their own interests, projects that had a personal connection. For Rick, "There were times when I just found a needy organization and recommended giving a grant, and other times when I felt a resonance with the organization and became more intimately involved." On the other hand, as Ruth Sorensen pointed out, a community grant could be adventuresome: "research and development money, a test for something that would become a core grant if it turns out well." Rick's grant to a small town in California to pay for computers in a public housing project led to programs that attracted the attention and endorsement of President Clinton and eventually became a national model for linking poor communities with the Internet. Marc summed it up well when he said, "This is the hot part about being a trustee. This is what makes the difference."

Disagreement over program goals and other stresses of institution-building that led to the breakup of some family foundations were mitigated in the Nathan Cummings Foundation by the community grants program. No more enthusiastic assessment of their worth could be found than that of Ruth Durchslag, who saluted community grants as an "essential tool that every family foundation should put in place." For her, the existence of these community grants "accounted for individual differences, provided flexibility, and was one of the reasons that the family came to consensus on the main program areas. Over time," she concluded, "the community grants program proved itself to be a very valuable part of the foundation. I don't think I would change it in any way."

Growing pains

During the first few years, the family came to terms with its sense of itself as a family foundation. Herbert Cummings, who had led the foundation through the planning period as chair of the board, was succeeded in 1989 by his sister Beatrice "Buddy" Mayer. With her tenure she brought extensive experience as a board member of the Sara Lee Corporation; of the Michael Reese Hospital; of the Museum of Contemporary Art; and of several other institutions in Chicago. She, along with everyone else on the board, mastered new roles. Buddy Mayer and the new president, Charlie Halpern, sought the right balance between their respective responsibilities for governance and management. Staff were busy translating broad program areas into specific grant guidelines so that grantmaking could officially begin. Everything was new and challenging. Inevitably, there would be moments of friction and discord, some unavoidable bumps along the way, in the midst of the earnest institution-building of the first two or three years.

Board issues

Board members had internal issues to work out with each other, especially regarding board agendas. Meetings were long, in part, because, as in most new organizations, everything had to be decided from scratch. Giving everyone a chance to speak about a question had the advantage of promoting inclusion but the disadvantage of allowing meetings to go on far too long without decisions. To many, it seemed that the same issues were revisited too many times. Reviewing every grant in a docket individually was physically tiring. "We wanted to know everything," said Diane Cummings. "The program directors were frazzled. We didn't want to give them the power to make grants without our input." As a result, it seemed as though there were too few board members to do too much work. Expectations about time and commitment to board work may have been unreasonable; or perhaps it was the agenda that needed adjustment. The inclusiveness of the planning years, it seemed to some family members, had given way to formalized rules and stipulations, designed to test their seriousness. The pressing need to get the foundation up and running, the desire to prove that it was an effective organization, seemed to have overwhelmed the idea of keeping open the possibilities; such conflict drove some members of the family away. The original motivation for involvement, "the exciting part, the opportunity for everybody to get a lot out of it," as Michael Cummings phrased it, was vitiated by the tension and the heavy workload.

Conflicts between board and staff

The relationship of board and staff was not clear, either, in the beginning; and this, too, needed to evolve over time. What exactly were staff functions, and what were board functions, both on a day-to-day basis and long-term? What powers were delegated? Who was making the decisions? Who was in control? "In essence, this was a family business," mused James Cummings, "and the top manager was an outsider." The president and the chair of the board sparred over the management of the office, traditionally the president's responsibility, and the overall direction, traditionally the purview of the board. This was further compounded by the president's dual position as CEO and trustee. Board membership was usually offered to the chief executive officers of the larger foundations; but this arrangement is not always the practice in smaller foundations.

It is a way of recognizing that the president is part of the policy-formulating body of the foundation, not just a person who executes policies made by others. The position gave Charlie Halpern the status to work as an equal with other foundation presidents; but paradoxically, it complicated relations with a board that was still learning its role. "We were feeling our way," said Charlie:

"I probably was a little too rigid in thinking that a family foundation's board is the same as any other non-profit board. In retrospect, I should have given more weight to the fact that this was a family board, that this was a brand new organization, and that we had to work towards a common understanding of board-staff relations. The proper line between management and board had to emerge from a process, not start as a given. I started with it as a given."

Family members brought certain expectations about their oversight responsibilities to the chairmanship, which shaped the amount of time--very heavy during the tenures of Herb, Buddy and Ruth Sorensen, and only slightly less so with Rob--they devoted to the position. They were trying to live up to the high standards of Nathan Cummings, as was Charlie; and some tension was inevitable. Yet individual members of the family could sometimes see their way out of an impasse. "I didn't always agree with Charlie, and Charlie didn't always agree with me," said Herb, serving as Vice Chair after his sister Buddy became Chair, "but as long as we could always talk about it, and get it out on the table, we could take whatever errors we had made and use them to the best benefit."

Family board members sometimes felt isolated from the work of the foundation because of an early decision by the president which required board members to channel communication with the staff through his office. It also seemed to the family that there was a gap between the docket prepared by staff and what the family wanted in its programs. Staff had an advantage that family members did not: they knew about the universe of the program areas they directed, while family members knew only segments. Who was running the foundation, the family or staff? Perhaps James Cummings framed the issue best: "It was learning about boundaries and team work with incredibly strong personalities, each with his or her own ideas. There were common goals, but the paths to achieve those goals were certainly different." Finding the right balance "was an issue of time and confidence," said Ruth Durchslag. Such an equilibrium would emerge from an ongoing process rather than from a rigid set of rules.

The changing dynamics of growth could be seen in the workings of the budget. Almost overnight, the budget seemed to have ballooned. Salaries for program officers, their assistants and additional support staff, plus rent and other operational costs added up. The board reviewed all costs, and the president sought to justify them. The same large numbers which shocked the board were considered absolutely necessary by a president trying to get an organization up and running. Both sides had legitimate concerns. Every dollar spent on operations was a dollar lost to programs. Yet without a competent organization, grantmaking could not proceed and the foundation could not begin to influence policy or programs. In this instance, comparison with the budgets of other foundations was useful in assessing the ratio of Cummings' administrative costs to its grants. An analysis showed the foundation was well within the lower range. As the president, the staff, and the board's Finance Committee became more sophisticated in their budget management, contention eased around this issue.

Improving relations

The foundation looked for other ways to alleviate tensions. It called upon its original facilitator for guidance and brought in some experienced foundation hands to talk with the trustees. In addition, the board consciously turned one meeting each year into a retreat: at a conference center well away from New York City, the board and staff came together to work on program issues and to relax. As a result, the tenor of regular board meetings changed. Guest speakers discussed subjects of interest to the board. Agendas were tightened. Instead of reviewing every grant, trustees approved whole dockets presented by the program officers and began to focus on larger policy issues. Board members were encouraged to telephone program directors prior to the board meetings to discuss any individual grants about which they had questions or comments. The PAC chairs relied upon the program directors. They were "a great resource because of their involvement in the field, especially in terms of new developments," said Karyn Cummings, "but we needed to find a balance in how much we consulted with them, because if we had consulted them much more," she conceded, "they wouldn't have had time for all their other work." Family members came to appreciate the accomplishments of the staff. "There was tremendous energy in the offices," remarked Michael Cummings, "and you wanted to return again and again to the think-tank operated by that group of exceptional people." All of these changes were part of a progression toward a harmonious partnership of staff and board. Trying to establish the right dynamic would engage them all.

The foundation's public success after several years of operation also helped moderate the strains between board and staff. "The foundation that emerged into the world of non-profits," Charlie explained, "was recognized as an important institution, one that was respected and which each family member felt proud of and felt honored by being associated with." Community recognition signaled to the foundation that it was indeed meeting its goals; outside validation helped overcome internal differences. Such struggles had occurred at other foundations and, in extreme situations, had damaged the organization's ability to function. At the Cummings Foundation, fortunately, shared power and mutual respect between board and staff became the basis for an effective collaboration, a mode which "built up the foundation from nothing," observed Herb. "I stand amazed at what we've accomplished and at the reputation for excellence the foundation has garnered in a few short years."

Evolution of the board

Outside trustees

The addition of "outside," non-family trustees (as provided for in the by-laws) helped reshape board dynamics. For the first two outside trustees, the foundation sought people with previous board experience: one with substantive financial expertise to work with the CFO and the board's Finance Committee; and a second who could be instructive on programs and foundation governance.

Both should be people, Ruth Cummings added, "who commanded respect in their fields, as they were to be emissaries of the foundation out in the world." The family did not look to its own networks of acquaintances for these trustees, as was common among many non-profit boards, but instead turned again to a search firm, one that knew the family and understood the foundation's programs. During the subsequent interviews, the family conveyed to Reynold Levy, a candidate, the qualities they wanted in outside trustees: "dispassionate sources of advice and counsel that would help keep the family at the center of the foundation." Those candidates whose experience meshed with the board's needs and who had the best chemistry with the family were selected.

Levy was one of the two outside trustees who joined the board in early 1991. He was president of a corporate foundation, had a background in cultural programs, and had worked as an advisor to several other Jewish family foundations. The second outside trustee was Bevis Longstreth, an attorney who was a financial expert, had substantial experience as a non-profit trustee, and who had served as chair of the finance committee to a large family foundation. Later, two more outside trustees joined the board, bringing wide experience and expertise in health and the arts. Dr. Peggy Hamburg, Commissioner of Health for New York City, had previously worked on health policy at the National Institutes of Health. Kenneth S. Brecher, executive director of the Sundance Institute, was a skilled administrator of non-profits, having served as director of the William Penn Foundation and the Boston Children's Museum. None of the outside trustees received stipends for their work. Instead, like the family trustees, they were each given the opportunity to recommend community grants to the board. Dr. Hamburg found "the community grant program a thrill, having spent years in government--cutting programs and dismantling projects. To be able to support programs that were important was really a wonderful experience."

Under the influence of the outside trustees, board discussions became less emotional and more issue-oriented. The outside trustees advised and helped resolve problems, even mediating where necessary. "We introduced considerations that might not have occurred to the family trustees or to the staff and we tried to do so," Levy said, "with a sense of humor and a sense that the whole experience of being involved with philanthropy should be fun." Bevis Longstreth pointed out that, with outside trustees, it was "easier to distinguish family business from foundation business. We're around to say, 'Hey, that's family business.'" As a result, Karyn Cummings detected a greater maturity in the level of discussion, "a big change, when things were handled on a more professional level." She and others saw a shift from the board as strictly a family preserve to one whose deliberations reflected the style and competence of an experienced private foundation acting in the greater public interest. The addition of the outside trustees was an essential stage in the foundation's development, recalled Stephen Durchslag: "These people were wise choices, their personalities fit, they had enviable skills in terms of group dynamics, and they made important contributions to discussions of both governance and programs."

Board associates

Another component of board development took root during the first few years--the training of additional family members to serve as trustees. Because the board had defined "family" broadly to include spouses as well as children from a previous marriages, there was a large potential pool available beyond the original group comprised of Nathan Cummings' three children and nine grandchildren. The position of associate was initially devised by the board to introduce younger family members to the foundation and governance responsibilities. Associates were encouraged to participate in the work of the board by joining the discussions. The associates could influence the outcome with their comments, even though they could not vote. In return for serving on committees (where they could vote) and attending board meetings, their expenses were reimbursed. After two years' service as an associate, a family member became eligible for election as a trustee.

Some associates initially felt intimidated because they lacked the experience of the older trustees; others, like Marc Cummings, felt unappreciated: "You couldn't vote, you spoke when you were spoken to; you were just an able body." Nevertheless, as the board's confidence in itself grew, a more welcoming atmosphere prevailed, and associates began to feel that their comments were not only valued but, in marked contrast to the past, even solicited. "Now you are wanted, you are coached, you are trained," Marc happily explained. Sheila Zuieback described her experience: "On joining the board, I was nervous because I was impressed by everybody. But after a time, I thought, 'I do have something to say because I'm of a different generation and from a different background.' Everybody was so open to me, and I was comfortable. You learn as you go along." Immersed as the trustees were at first in establishing a national foundation, they would need a few years to improve the training of associates with a more structured introduction to the work of the board. The associate program was a start, but the orientation of new people to the board was a work-in-progress.

Committee work was important for all members of the board, not just the associates. There were standing committees, such as the Executive, Finance and Governance Committees, and ad hoc committees, such as the annual Retreat Planning Committee and the Search Committees. "Committee service," noted James, "provided an educational opportunity to learn and to be a more informed trustee."

New offices

With the growth in staff, from one to 17 in four years, and commensurate expansion of activity, the foundation had suddenly outgrown its first office. The midtown location was costly and overcrowded. The board sought larger quarters, convenient to mass transit for staff and grantees, with a design that would be pleasant but unpretentious and environmentally sound. Two members of the board, Ruth Sorensen and Diane Cummings, worked with the president and the architect on the design for a large loft space at 1926 Broadway, just across from Lincoln Center. The new offices were finished in 1993.

The result was a relaxed setting, combining the colors and mood of the southwest with an urban vernacular of brick and concrete and exposed pipes. The choice of an eclectic, informal decor for the foundation offices, rather than a more corporate look, was the physical embodiment of a style that had characterized the Cummings foundation from the start. The space, observed Charlie Halpern, "disrupted visitors' expectations in a nice way. For staff it was a joy to come to. The architecture seemed to foster creativity and excitement." A meditation room helped staff cope with life in a fast-paced, sometimes stressful city and reflected on the physical plane the foundation's program support for contemplative practice.

The large expanse of walls was set aside, by plan, for changing art exhibitions. Often related to the core programs or foundation interests, the exhibits provided both staff and visitors with material for thought and comment. The foundation invited community organizations and grantees to use the finished space, especially the large, light-filled board room. Over the course of each year, dozens of meetings were held there. The public areas were large enough for the convening of conferences and large groups.

Because its offices were located on the top floor of the building, the foundation negotiated to build a roof garden for the enjoyment of staff and visitors in warmer weather. It was a fitting finishing touch, given the foundation's support of the arts, that the garden overlooks the city's largest cultural venue, Lincoln Center, itself much emulated nationally as a model of urban revitalization.