President’s Letter: Highlights and Reflections

The Nathan Cummings Foundation


President’s Letter: Highlights and Reflections

Dear Grantees and Colleagues,

Today marks the close of my first month as the President of the Nathan Cummings Foundation.  I started days after the attacks in Paris and the shooting of five Black Lives Matters demonstrators in Minneapolis. As I sat down at my desk for the first time I was drawn to the window, with a clear view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.  These iconic symbols stood in stark contrast to the global refugee crisis, the unthinkable proposals to ban Muslims from America, and the increasing violence across our country rooted in a dangerous rhetoric of hate.  As an American Jew and the president of a foundation rooted in Jewish values, I reflected on the U.S. response to Jewish refugees during WWII and our legacy of partnership in the civil rights movement.  And out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a small engraved plaque that read: “Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.”  This is NCF’s motto, a core tenet of the founder and the family, and while I had heard it before, this time it carried with it a new weight and resolve for the courageous work we support.

Just a week earlier, I joined the Nathan Cummings Foundation in celebrating its 25th anniversary.  There could be no better way to kick off my time at NCF than to be in a room full of past and present trustees, staff, fellows, grantees and partners who were responsible for so many important milestones in the foundation’s history. Family members across three generations recalled the early days of developing a foundation rooted in the Jewish tradition of social justice, accountable to the public trust and committed to supporting leaders who are curious, bold and humble.  James Cummings heralded a new NCF phrase, referring to our grantees as our implementation allies, a term that has already caught on.  Allies like Heather McGhee from Demos and Ai-jen Poo from National Domestic Workers Alliance reminded us that NCF has played a unique role as a funder that focuses on changing systems and hearts and minds. Former President Charlie Halpern and Program Director Jennie Rosenn recalled how a strong culture that encourages taking risks and making bets on new ideas gives birth to new institutions and fields that have become critical infrastructure for social change.  We were also fortunate to hear from Carlton Turner of Alternate ROOTS and Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, two visionary leaders who reminded us of the power of arts and culture and religious traditions to embolden communities and call them to action. And one of the highlights of the night was when the current staff wrote and performed a song – which spoke volumes about what a talented and creative team we have here, willing to take risks out in the field and out on stage.

As I said in my talk at the 25th celebration, I believe philanthropy plays a critical role in making change in our society. Our job is to call out injustice when we see it, and back those willing to take it on. We are challengers to the old ways of working, and instigators of imagining new ways. We work best when we are a trusted and credible partner and a connector of people and resources. To make the gigantic leaps we want, we must harness our collective knowledge, networks and influence.  You can read my full remarks from the evening here and I’d love to hear from you if it sparks ideas.

And we saw proof that change is possible in Paris during the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP21. I had the privilege of experiencing history in the making when I traveled to the COP21 talks with two trustees, Adam Cummings and Ruth Cummings, Maurine Knighton, who leads our program team, and an incredible group of funder colleagues.  We saw how our support over the last decade built a much broader constituency – leaders from businesses, government, grassroots, indigenous and faith communities, young people and artists.  It was civil society at its best – a movement of people insisting our leaders take this issue seriously and work together to address it. By all accounts, the Paris accord is a huge victory, but there is still much more to do at home and abroad to usher in a more democratic, equitable, new energy economy and make the vision a reality. You can read our reflections from our trip here.

In this last quarter of 2015, the board also approved $7.8 million in grants. This is the result of much hard work on the part of the board and staff to dive deeper into the foundation’s new grantmaking strategy, focused on inequality and climate change.  We are investing in the people most impacted by climate change to help lead the transition to a greener, more equitable economy by supporting organizations like the Climate Justice Alliance and Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. And we are investigating what’s at the root of destructive narratives that perpetuate inequality, and how we create effective new frames through grants to Define American, Race Forward and the Pacific School of Religion. Our longtime partners in Israel, New Israel Fund and Shaharit, are also addressing inequality and broadening the base for leadership.  We remain committed to deepening the catalytic role that arts and culture plays in social change, exemplified by grants to the Center for Performance and Civic Practice and Junebug Productions.

So, what’s next for the foundation? NCF enters the new year re-energized and with a focus on increasing our impact, using all of NCF’s resources.  We are going to be learning and doing and learning by doing. I am committed to spending this year listening to our trustees, our staff, our grantees and partners in the field, while continuing to support bold leaders and organizations that are standing up for our values and our vision of a just society. Together, we will continue to refine our strategies and the ways we do our work.   

We are also growing. In the coming months, we’ll hire new program staff to bolster NCF's expertise and capacity, so we can collaborate more deeply with all of you.  We will also share our inequality guidelines in the first quarter, the culmination of an extensive period of learning among our board, staff and thought leaders from the field.   It also marks the beginning of a new phase at NCF, of testing our assumptions, refining our ideas and being responsive to the shifts in the world around us and the opportunities revealed in those moments.

I look forward to learning from all of you as we embark on this next chapter at NCF.  I hope you will join us in approaching repairing the world with the audacious optimism it requires.

Thank you for the work that all of you do, and may each of you have a joyous and peaceful holiday season.



Sharon Alpert

President & CEO

Nathan Cummings Foundation

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