Reflections: Seven Lessons

The Gift of New York, launched on September 13, 2001, enlisted the tri-states’ cultural, sports, and entertainment venues to help families who lost loved ones on 9/11.
The Gift of New York, launched on September 13, 2001, enlisted the tri-states’ cultural, sports, and entertainment venues to help families who lost loved ones on 9/11.

[We are pleased to share with you a series of essays from Reflections: Thirty Years of Focused Philanthropy. This publication is composed of essays, anecdotes, and photographs acknowledging the many partners of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP). These partners have contributed meaningfully to our success. The nine core programs, which we initiated and guided during our many years of activity, will continue in the future, while not under our auspices. And, in addition to these core initiatives, ACBP has granted funds to some 1,820 organizations over the years.]

By Jeffrey Solomon

It is almost two decades since I walked into the Seagram Building to assume the mantle of the Presidency of ACBP, a new American foundation, expanding the work of the CRB Foundation in Canada and Keren Karev in Israel, both in existence for more than 10 years at that time. Reflecting upon these two decades, I must begin with gratitude in the opportunity to do this work; to cap a career in human services and Jewish communal work with this opportunity to make a better world. Much of that gratitude and success of the Foundation’s endeavors falls on the leadership of Charles and Andy Bronfman, whose passion for the work of the Foundation made them full partners with each other and with me in its endeavors. This partnership, while often discussed in the nonprofit sector, is not to be taken for granted. The cause community is filled with rhetoric about the lay/professional partnership. It is a rare opportunity to work with people who understood the nature of partnership and their ability to amplify the work of the Foundation through hard work, risk taking, and incredible values.

In our book, The Art of Giving, Charles and I subtitled it: “Where the Soul Meets a Business Plan.” In many ways, that is the secret sauce of ACBP. We would talk often about how we boxed above our weight class. After all, we were a relatively small foundation, one that became significantly smaller with the lost assets following the Seagram-Vivendi merger. One of the most memorable moments was seeing the advertisement for the Philanthropy Roundtable in which they called for philanthropic strategy like those of Andrew Carnegie, Bill Gates, and John D. Rockefeller. Included in their list was Charles Bronfman. While Charles thoroughly deserved to be on any list of outstanding philanthropists, the Foundation had neither the asset base nor annual expenditures to put it in the same class.

At the heart of the Foundation’s achievements were several important components. First was absolute clarity of focus, organizational alignment, and ongoing intensity that had all of the Foundation’s resources pulling in the same direction. Andy, Charles, and I spent the first months of our relationship working very hard to identify the areas in which we wanted to make a difference and doing so with absolute clarity.

Second, we could position most of our work in the building of identity, meaning, and community whether looking at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada or Historica Canada or Birthright Israel or Reboot. The common theme was the desire to create individual meaning and communal connections through the development of intense identity, even with the challenges of contemporary society in which we all live with multiple identities.

Third, we had a deep commitment to experiential education. This, the bastard child of the education field, became a huge opportunity as we saw and analyzed how experiences could change an individual. We saw this in one out of three Israeli elementary school students who experienced art and music over and above their formal education classes. We saw it in the countless Birthright Israel participants who said, “The trip has changed my life.”

Fourth, the three of us were amazingly risk-tolerant. We each believed that change, even change for the better, cannot take place without risk. We saw, as others have stated, that foundations have the capacity to be the passing lane for society; the entities that represent the venture capital for social good. Playing it safe simply was not in our collective vocabulary.

Fifth, we engaged in a relentless pursuit of quality. Believing that one cannot improve what one cannot measure, we used evaluation as a management tool and constantly sought to make our work better and to find ways of working with our funding partners to stretch in order to obtain higher quality.

Sixth, Andy and Charles, as previously noted, were prepared to use all of their resources to achieve the Foundation’s goals. At no time was this clearer than when we initiated The Gift of New York, a program aimed at helping families who had lost a loved one during the tragedy of September 11, 2001, by making available to them the hundreds of arts, cultural, and sports venues as a way to begin a healing process. For days on end, Andy would be on the phone, cajoling museum directors and theater producers to make their venues available. Charles would talk with his former colleagues in major league baseball, as well as commissioners of basketball, hockey and football. They were indefatigable. They never received a “no.” An amusing anecdote was shortly before the launch of Slingshot, when we thought about creating a guide to excellent Jewish programming along the lines of a Zagat guide, Andy stalked Tim Zagat until he finally returned her phone call. She wanted his permission to use the Zagat brand for this effort. He turned her down. Yet, more than 10 years later, Slingshot has created a brand of its own with horizontal and vertical extensions that more than fulfill the original vision.

Finally, we believed in the power of leverage. After proving the validity of a program concept through using our risk capital, we sought funding partners and measured our own effectiveness, in part on the ratio of our grant to the total budget of the project. Whether Project Involvement in Israel or the global efforts of Birthright Israel, we annually saw the impact of our work, with more than $250 million in annual programming for those efforts in which we were providing $15 million.

This booklet tells the story of a modest spend-down foundation. It is not designed to magnify the founders’ efforts or that of the staff. It is designed to thank our many partners: the 1,820 Foundation-supported organizations over 30 years of grantmaking, whether strategic, autobiographical, relationship-based or, simply, being good foundation citizens, whose hard work helped make a difference; the many funding partners who shared our vision and who were prepared to invest in these efforts, and the countless lay and professional leaders who work in the three societies in which we operate … driven by their love of humankind and their firm desire to create a better world. As we leave the formal philanthropic scene, we look with pride at the emergence of new, highly effective forms of philanthropy. Whether through living donor-driven foundations like ours, the emergence of giving circles among so many diverse groups of generous individuals, limited profit purpose-driven corporations, or the continuation of the extraordinary generosity of everyday North Americans, we see smarter manifestations of the unquenchable desire to leave the world a better place. We are grateful to play a small part in this global effort to advance the societies in which people live.

Jeffrey Solomon has been President of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies since 1997.