Risking Boldly

The Nathan Cummings Foundation


Risking Boldly

Dear Colleagues

One of our partners shared this poem by Clarissa Pinkola Estés and it inspired me to think about what philanthropy is built for. We are in a moment in our nation’s history where powerful forces are working to divide, isolate and attack. From Charlottesville to Puerto Rico and the #MeToo movement, our grantees, Fellows and partners are courageous leaders on the frontlines. They are protesting inside the White House and outside Trump Tower, leveraging the power of Wall Street and Main Street, and speaking truth to power from Hollywood to the halls of Congress. Like Clarissa’s poem says, they are standing up, speaking out and fighting for the soul of our democracy and our shared humanity. Together, we are pursuing justice for people and the planet, and the risks we face are real and growing.
Philanthropy is uniquely built to take risks and support work that pushes the edges of what is comfortable and what is conceivableThe theme of our November board meeting, one year after the Presidential election, was Risking Boldly. Our Board and staff gathered to share our perspectives on risk – how we prepare for, learn from, and lean into it. We focused ourselves, as our Board Chair Ruth Cummings said, on embracing risk and defining it for ourselves.


Aligning Around Our Risk Identity

Those of us who believe that philanthropy is the risk capital for civil society and who are betting on bold leaders with innovative ideas and social movements with ambitious goals need to get better at identifying our risk profile and aligning our culture and operations around that. We’re not the first to recognize this gap in philanthropy’s practice, and we are heartened by partners like the Center for Community Change and the Ford Foundation who have echoed a similar message of courage because the stakes are higher now than they’ve ever been.
Bold risk-taking is part of our DNA and our goal was to emerge with clarity and consensus about our profile so that we can act accordingly, whether in times of calm or crisis. We drew uponexpertise from the sector, including articles and toolkits like the Risk Management Toolkit created by the Open Road Alliance. We brought stories of risk into the boardroom, shared videos of people’s personal accounts of being stalked, harassed and attacked, and trusted each other as we exposed our vulnerabilities. Like so many of you, our Board was angered and moved to act. We agreed that we must support social movements and the leaders and organizations that mobilize them because even when we don't agree about everything, this is no time to let our differences divide us.
NCF is a foundation that is willing to take on a high level of risk. We heard loud and clear from our Board that we can view risk as an asset, not solely as a liability to be managed. We are focusing on what this means in practice and developing new ways of working – asking grantees different questions about how they are sustaining themselves in these times, improving our internal practices, and communicating more so that our intentions are clear and so that we aren’t on defense.
I am inspired that our Board is showing this courage, that so many of our partner funders are willing to do the same, and that our grantees are clearly stating what they need from us.

Focused on the Future We Want

We know that to advance our mission we must embrace this risk-taking mindset like never before. Earlier this year, we made the decision to increase our spending and to use our voice more to speak up for our values. We want to use all of the resources in our toolbox, not just our grant capital, to stand alongside our grantees and share the risk.
Over the last several months, we continued to have important discussions about our future as it relates to our endowment and how we harness the full power of our assets to achieve the change we want to see in the world. We engaged our foundation colleagues and experts in the impact investing field, with the support of Sonen Capital and Global Endowment Management. We heard from Justin Rockefeller of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund about aligning their endowment with a different version of capitalism, and the progress they have made on their impact investing goals. And in November, we were joined by Kate Wolford, CEO of the McKnight Foundation, and Board member Debby Landesman, who shared how their decisions have transformed their perspective on philanthropy’s fiduciary responsibility and challenged the dominant notion that grantmaking alone is what philanthropy is built for. As we come to the conclusion of our learning process, we are looking forward to sharing a decision about our next steps in the new year. 

Funding Social Justice Movements and Visionary Leaders

At our Board meeting, we approved 79 grants, totaling $16 million across our integrated framework to ignite social movements at the intersection of faith, politics, culture and justice. We also made three responsive grants that address the devastating impacts of hurricanes in the U.S., especially Puerto Rico. We remain concerned with the unequal response to the recovery effort in Puerto Rico – the people that were hit the hardest by these storms have the least and are not getting enough funding or support. 

  • The Poor People’s Campaign and the Movement Strategy Center are building resilience and transformative social justice movements.
  • Color Of Change, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network are working to advance racial justice, gender equity and economic fairness by getting to the root causes of inequality and building power for a multi-racial/ethnic working-class movement.
  • The Climate Justice Alliance Just Recovery Fund, the Miami Foundation Hurricane Irma Relief Fund, and El Puente, in partnership with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, are supporting community-based, grassroots efforts that will create sustainable and equitable recovery.
  • Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the NAACP, and the Climate Justice Alliance are working side-by-side with frontline communities to build inclusive solutions to climate change and create an economy based on clean and renewable energy.
  • Just Capital and MapLight are activating investors and businesses as allies on climate and social justice.
  • Firelight Media, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and the Pop Culture Collaborative are shifting dominant narratives about race, class, gender and ethnicity, challenging stereotypes, building radical empathy and telling more inclusive stories. 

I’m proud to share a new multimedia piece to help you learn more about our partners

Meet Our Fellows

Earlier this year, we announced our 2017 Fellows – Francisca Porchas Coronado, who is building healing, resilience and restoration for immigrant communities through Seeds of Resilience; Anna Claussen, who is engaging rural communities on climate change through national Voices for Rural Resiliency;and Jasiri X, who is training artists to become advocates for social justice through the 1Hood Artivist Academy. I’m excited to release a new video that show cases their work.



Pursuing Justice for People and the Planet

While it’s a troubling time for our country and world, I am emboldened by the remarkable work of our grantees, Fellows and partners. It felt incredible to be in the Board Room with our Board and staff embracing risk as necessary for progress. As our Vice Chair Jaimie Mayer said – we are starting from within, by building trust and vulnerability, and doing the difficult work of coming into alignment about what we’re fighting for, and what we’re willing to risk getting there. 

In solidarity,




Sharon Alpert
President & CEO
Nathan Cummings Foundation     


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