After 25 Years, An Exciting Strategic Direction for the Nathan Cummings Foundation

by Simon Greer

The problems facing the world when the Nathan Cummings Foundation was founded 25 years ago are not the same problems our grantee partners are working to solve today. Universal health care was a perennial liberal pipe dream, the Jewish communal shift in priorities was taking root with far too few groups to carry forward the civil rights and economic justice agenda, and the planetary dangers of climate change were only beginning to be widely understood.

By working together with our partners, we have been privileged to support health care reform that is now being implemented. We have been gratified by the growth of the Jewish social justice movement and its key role in campaigns for LGBT equality, workers’ rights, and peace between Israel and its neighbors. With our support, and others’, climate change is widely seen as the challenge of the 21st century.

With its 25th anniversary fast approaching, the Board of the Nathan Cummings Foundation embarked this year on its first comprehensive planning process in the foundation’s history. Just this week it approved a new strategic plan that we believe will allow us to have a significant impact on the next generation of seemingly intractable problems: inequality and climate change.

To better address these two challenges, NCF will be transitioning out of the four core programs that have long defined the Foundation. Neither inequality nor climate change is new to the foundation. Climate has been the focus of NCF’s Ecological Innovation program for years. Inequality was never a formal program area, but it has been a crosscutting concern for many of our grant-making programs. Drawing on the experience of two-and-a-half decades of grant-making, we will support four approaches we believe can be particularly effective in confronting inequality and climate change: arts and culture; disruptive ideas; constituency building; and religious traditions and contemplative practice.

Under the new plan, Jewish organizations will have broader opportunities to become grant partners through the full range of our giving instead of being limited to a smaller pool of dedicated funding. After 25 years of building capacity in the Jewish social change space, including co-launching a $1 million Matching Fund this past year with the Jewish Funders Network, we are confident Jewish organizations can hold their own with others in their respective sectors. These changes will be implemented gradually through the end of 2014, which will be a transition year. We will provide support to long-time partners through the transition and engage thoughtfully with those grant partners most likely to continue to fit within the foundation’s new strategic plan.

Many years ago, when we started supporting Jewish groups committed to social and economic justice and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there were approaches we championed – like the two-state solution – that were viewed as largely outside the mainstream. We believe identifying and catalyzing new and sometimes disruptive ideas before they reach the mainstream “tipping point” is fundamental to who we are as a family philanthropy. Today, we are proud of our work nurturing this sector; we are humbled by today’s near consensus that the two-state solution is the best chance we have to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As this approach has moved from the margins to the mainstream, we’ve seen many more funders move into this space.

The changes we are making are an important updating of our priorities and approaches. They are meant to continue to align our work, which has been and remains rooted in the Jewish tradition, with our values and principles. These changes are intended to be responsive to the world of today and tomorrow, helping us have an impact in the years to come.

Simon Greer is the President and CEO of the Nathan Cummings Foundation.