Board and Staff Reflections

The Nathan Cummings Foundation


Board and Staff Reflections

Rob was a passionate and disciplined thinker in his role as a Board member - his engagement has challenged all of us to think more deeply and broadly about issues, be a learning organization, and contributed to the thoroughness, conviction, and leadership of our work at NCF. 

--Adam Cummings, Board Chair 2005-2007, 2013-2016; Associate 1989-1992, 1995-1997; Trustee 1997-present


The passing of my precious son, Robert Nathan Mayer, has left a deep hole in our hearts, but especially in mine. Rob’s leadership at the Nathan Cummings Foundation was invaluable.  He became involved after my father passed away in 1985, and carried on the principle of my father’s vision. Rob dedicated himself wholeheartedly to the foundation in a meaningful, positive and productive way. He worked hard to benefit the foundation and ensure its legacy. He was always willing to help, carried out his responsibilities with great pride, and respected the professional staff.  He also took great pleasure in working with the board to make NCF what it is today. His desire to build and expand the foundation proved to be most successful.  His passion for the foundation and the many strides he made were rewarding and will live on forever.

--Beatrice Cummings Mayer, Trustee 1989-2007; Trustee Emeritus 2007-present


While my father may not have been a tall man in physical stature, his life's work left behind the footprints of a giant. He believed in the importance of the voice of the fourth generation, and served as a most valued sound counsel and confidant for many. He gave up his Trustee seat for my cousin Danielle Durchslag over a decade ago, to lead by example and, literally and figuratively, make space for my generation. My father never settled for the status quo and had little patience for those who did. The consummate businessman, he constantly sought out new ways for NCF to punch above its weight, most notably with our shareholder activism program. He was the most incredible champion of out of the box thinking, of the underdog, of asking the hard questions, and had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and tolerance for risk. He was truly one of a kind, and NCF wouldn't be the foundation it is today without his dedication and devotion to his grandfather's legacy.

--Jaimie Mayer, Associate 2001-2010; Trustee 2011-present


In the formative years of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, there was no more conscientious, disciplined or hard working trustee than Rob Mayer. He felt privileged by the opportunity to distribute funds that were not of his own making. He appreciated that doing good in the world is often the product of gifted men and women working together. But he also understood that, to endure, contributions to the commonweal required sturdy institutions, and they could only be built day by day, week by week, month by month, committee meeting by committee meeting. In other words, there was no substitute for rolling up one’s sleeves, for freely donating time and intellectual energy and for doing so with generosity. Rob performed precisely in that way. By precept and by example, he encouraged others in the family and outside the family to emulate him. Today, the Nathan Cummings Foundation stands as his legacy as it does of all of those in the family who still contribute to the realization of its common ideals.

--Reynold Levy, Board Chair 1997-1998; Trustee 1991-1999 and 2001-2003


As a non-family Board member of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, I was the recipient of both the wise counsel and the generous friendship of Rob Mayer. On many memorable occasions he took the time to provide me with his point-of-view on a particular issue and then to respond to my comments. If we were not in agreement, I could always count on Rob to be deeply thoughtful and honest. This is what one always hopes for in a trusted friend or colleague, and Rob never disappointed. When I will think of Rob in the future I will smile at the memory of a man whom I feel so fortunate to have known in a formative period of my life. I loved visiting Rob at home and seeing him as the head of a family who will always be the beneficiaries of his deep intelligence, unfailing kindness and courage.

--Kenneth Brecher, Trustee 1996-2001


What I loved and respected most about Rob was his complete integrity. He offered ideas, took them very seriously, was open to discussion and disagreement, and then worked with me to find a way to make a grant idea work.  And of course – there were his 60s rock and roll performances! His memory is a blessing for so many of us.

--Rabbi Rachel Cowan, Former Program Director, Jewish Life and Values Program


I will always remember Rob's dedication to and extraordinary efforts on behalf of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. His leadership, insight, experience and willingness to help were crucial. I personally deeply appreciated his wisdom, advice, directness and candor, even when critical. We and the whole sector will miss his earnestness, persistence, and many contributions. Our thoughts are with Rob's extended family at this sad and difficult time. Our memories of Rob and all the wonderful things he accomplished will not be forgotten.  

--Lance E. Lindblom, President & CEO, Nathan Cummings Foundation, 2000-2011


From my first days at the foundation, my Uncle Rob served as key leader in helping me understand and navigate the foundation world. He was a person of vision, integrity, and a fierce commitment to the enhancement and involvement of the fourth generation. Uncle Rob was a person who had the unique quality of excelling at the detail-oriented tasks of the foundation coupled with the ability to excel at big picture visioning. And though he always addressed foundation business with a serious mind, he was the first to bring laughter and levity to the board table when appropriate. Even when we did not agree on something, he always made my opinion feel valued and welcomed.

--Rachel Durchslag, Associate 2001-2004; Trustee 2005-2011


I am grateful to Rob for the numerous ways he brought his experience, knowledge and wisdom to NCF…

Rob always pushed on us to deepen our knowledge, to excel beyond our existing limitations and comfort zones, to acquire additional skills which would better serve NCF and each of us in our personal and communal work… He was always a stickler for precise detail. OSOs, Objectives, Strategies and Outcomes still echo through my mind. I cannot say when Rob first introduced these, just that I initially found them onerous, requiring far too much of my time to digest, extremely detailed and challenging to implement.  Little did I realize that the OSOs would lead to better grantmaking, comprehensive evaluation tools, and once they were posted on the NCF website, greater transparency.

Rob was tenacious. He had the ability to take any point of view, whether his or others, and without missing a beat, present multiple facets to the discussion. I often admired this when we were on opposite sides of a challenge and it remains one of his skills that frequently moved us forward.

I cannot say Rob was a song-writer, but he did scribe some delightful jingles which were shared at some NCF retreats and celebrations.  He once created a delightfully-challenging, humorously teaching philanthropy game modeled after a popular television show. Although it might require a special examination, Rob’s heart was present in everything he undertook.

--James K. Cummings, Board Chair 1995-1997, 2001-2003, 2010-2013; Trustee 1989-2013; Associate 2014-present


The focus on innovation and impact along with a deep commitment to multi-generational family philanthropy, all of which Rob cared so deeply about, are what attracted me to the Nathan Cummings Foundation. His leadership in the field and his dedication to the fourth generation cannot be understated, and we’re all so grateful for the example he leaves behind.

--Sharon Alpert, President & CEO, Nathan Cummings Foundation, 2015-present


If one ever wanted to learn about being a responsible NCF trustee, Rob was the perfect example to emulate.

In all the years we served on the board, I was privileged to observe and respect how inquisitive, diligent and conscientious Rob was in every thing he did or said. Rob had a strong sense of self-discipline and was a stickler for details and precision in all aspects of the NCF board and its management.  He had low tolerance for flattery. Unafraid of controversy, he would offer solutions with relentless determination and conviction. He also cared in honoring the family legacy, NCF values and in including all voices around the table. He consistently probed every issue seeking transparency and honesty, presenting all sides of arguments so all views could be clearly heard and understood by all.

Under his leadership, he encouraged me to be engaged and contribute as much as I cared to and appreciated curiosity and intellectual banter. With the privilege we all shared, he expected all of us to be committed to the work of the foundation and to be fully present.

He also very much cared about the next generation, grooming them, and ensuring they too would act responsibly and be aware of their privilege to share Nate’s legacy. He believed in open choices allowing and creating change even in his conservative ways but most of all, he cared about NCF being a family foundation honoring its three branches. Rob, as a leader, had the skill to capture his audiences and often introduced creative tools to teach us new ways to learn about the field via practical games and humor. His renditions of the worst scenarios of a grant applicant remains a memorable and joyful retreat experience. His unique voice, wit, wisdom and expert knowledge will be greatly missed.

--Sonia S. Cummings, Associate 1995-1997; Trustee 1997-present


There were a number of things I appreciated about Rob Mayer; one that stands out is when he visited the Foundation office, whether for Board meetings or Board Committee meetings, Rob always took a few minutes to stop by our offices to say hello and to share a few accolades on staff group contributions to the meetings. It meant a lot to us.

--Annette Ensley, Former Director, HR & Administration


Rob's commitment to and passion for the Nathan Cummings Foundation was truly impressive. As a board member, Rob asked thoughtful questions that led to excellent discussions and better decisions. He offered important perspectives rooted in a deep appreciation for donor intent and informed by his extensive experience in the field. And Rob always made sure all of us – family and independent trustees alike – understood the unique opportunities and responsibilities associated with being a family foundation. The Nathan Cummings Foundation is forever indebted to Rob's leadership and service, and I will always be grateful for having the good fortune of learning from and working alongside him.  

--Andrew Lee, Trustee 2003-2010 and 2011-2014


Rob brought his professional skills of negotiating and business administration to the NCF board. His skills were highly valued by the board and filled a big “gap” when we needed to negotiate contracts dealing with staff and our office lease. He always empowered the family board members to share their passion for determining NCF program / funding areas. He believed in leadership development and training and was an advocate for family board members – including younger generations – to learn and acquire the skills necessary to become better board members and therefore become a better family foundation. He also practiced his leadership both at the NCF board table and with other philanthropic entities. He set a great example of living "your passion" and doing it as well as you could.

On a personal note, Rob was a positive influence on my early life. We were both Citizen Band Radio operators when I was in elementary school… Those early childhood memories are very dear to me. His passing was something very difficult for me as my feelings for him were rooted in my childhood memories of him. Rob’s CB license station call letters were KLK-3477, mine was KPK-6878. When I got word of his passing, my final thoughts were what we would always say to each other over the air when signing off. I would say to Rob “KPK-6878 is clear with KLK-3477" and he would say “KLK-3477 is clear and “10-7” (out of service - off the air).

--Michael Cummings, Associate 2006, 2013; Trustee 1989-1993, 2007-2012, 2014-present


I remember the twinkle in Rob’s eye as he saw the humor in all that we did, I remember his enormous sense of integrity in all activities the the Foundation undertook, I am grateful for and admired his leadership in both good and bad times, his ability to listen to all sides and bring out the best in all of us. I'll never forget his creative lyrics as he entertained us with his his sense of fun and his ability to make us enjoy what we were about. I admire his steadfast commitment to the foundation and his grandfather’s legacy. Most of all, I will remember him and the remarkable person he was. I will miss him deeply.

--Steve Durchslag, Associate 1990-1994, 2011-2013; Trustee 1995-2010


Rob was a tough board member; tough, but fair. He could be counted on to ask hard questions, to challenge staff to be focused and clear. Our work was better as a result, to the benefit of NCF and the accomplishment of its important mission. 

--Peter Teague, Former Program Director- Ecological Innovation and Contemplative Practice Programs


We will remember Rob as: a devoted son to his mother, one of the guiding lights in the creation of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and passionate about providing dignity for the elderly. Above it all, we will remember Rob for leaving the legacy of his three loving and bright children.

--Diane Halle, Trustee 1990-1995, Associate 1996-1997; Michael Zuieback, Associate 1992-1996; and Sheila Zuieback, Trustee 1996-1998, Associate 1999-2000


I was so sad to hear about Rob’s passing… I worked with Rob when he served as the Treasurer and Finance Chair of the Board during my tenure at NCF. I always admired Rob’s ability to have analytical grasp of the financial and budget issues. Though he had his own strong opinions, he was always able to open the floor to other voices and come to an agreeable resolution. He was also a fine husband and father who was very proud of his family. You can’t ask for more than that. I will miss him.

--Leisle Lin, Former Executive Vice President


As director of the Environment Program for several years, I enjoyed my docket check-ins with Rob. He always had just the right question or two. I also appreciated Rob's commitment to supporting newer trustees who chaired or participated in NCF's Environment committee. Rob was very committed to their engagement and leadership of the committee and was pleased when they showed leadership on environmental issues during and between docket meetings.

--Dick Mark, Former Program Director, Environment Program


Rob channeled the donor's/our grandfather's keen attention to detail and desire for every dollar in our philanthropy to have its impact.  He held the high ground on accountability and evaluation and cared deeply for the professional administration and analysis to run the foundation's work with clear adherence to its mission. While he and I differed in our views and approaches to the program as it developed over time; we both shared a passion for the mission, the family legacy and the contributions of the Nathan Cummings Foundation to transform what is broken in our world. We both loved the chocolate snack breaks in the afternoons of our board meetings – that’s where we really shared a sense of purpose without any contention!

--Ruth Cummings, incoming Board Chair 2016; Associate 1996; Trustee 1989-1993, 1997-present


Rob Mayer, a grandchild of Nathan Cummings, was one of the family leaders in creating, organizing and setting the direction for the Nathan Cummings Foundation. I first met him as a member of the search committee which greeted me, over cappuccino and croissants, for our first interview. His questions were friendly, but precise and probing. He was particularly interested in practical issues – my ability to launch a creative new enterprise, to manage a large organization, and to oversee the financial side of the operation, including the investment of a substantial endowment. Perhaps more surprising for a person with a business background, he was also interested in interpersonal issues – my ability to get along with flexibility and good humor with a complex, intergenerational family board, and to build a staff that would be engaged with the leaders of their fields and also mesh well with the family-led board.

After a series of exhaustive meetings with family members, I was selected to be the first president of the foundation. I often worked closely together with Rob, first as an engaged board member and then as board chair. Our fruitful partnership during the first decade of the foundation contributed greatly to the fast and effective entry of the foundation into the philanthropic world, with creative grantmaking and development of close working relationships with our grantee community.

Buddy Mayer, the founding chairperson and guiding spirit of the foundation (and Rob's mother), took the lead and provided the moral compass for us as we labored to put together a truly outstanding foundation program. She relied heavily on Rob and his contributions were significant. His clarity and penetrating analysis provided a useful complement to some of our more visionary projects, helping to bring everyone onto the same page, into the realm that Buddy called "prudent risk-taking".

When I heard of Rob's illness last fall, I sent him a letter reflecting on our intense and rewarding work together. I was moved by the warmth of his response, revealing just how much he valued the work of the foundation. His letter, written less than two weeks before his death, expressed his commitment to the foundation and its work, his respect for the staff, and the pleasure he took in the board and staff working through our areas of disagreement.

"As I reflect on our many years working together to craft this new philanthropic endeavor," he wrote, "they were some of the most creative and exciting that I can recall. After all, what greater gift can there be than the gift of the capacity to give, coupled together with the passion and interest to carve out areas of unexplored but much needed philanthropic support. As a new enterprise, no expectations or specific organization requirements or policies had to be followed. We had the rare luxury of being able to make up our own as we went along."

Rob's letter reminded me of the excitement, creativity, and high-energy that board and staff brought to this new venture. I hope that Rob's voice will continue to inspire the foundation to embody these qualities as it moves ahead.

--Charles Halpern, President & CEO, Nathan Cummings Foundation, 1989-2000



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