Exit Interview

Ruth Salzman looks back

The outgoing CEO of the Russell Berrie Foundation spearheaded the organization’s largest project, a healthcare effort in the Galilee, a capstone to her 13 years at the foundation

When Ruth Salzman took over as CEO of the Russell Berrie Foundation 13 years ago, it was something of a home-grown operation. The New Jersey-based foundation, which focuses on diabetes care and research and regional economic development in Israel, was “a mom-and-pop shop where the trustees met every other week to review applications,” said Idana Goldberg, the foundation’s former chief program officer. Salzman, she said, transformed the organization, professionalizing it, increasing its grants and pushing it to “partner with grantees” and spur new projects.

Now, with Salzman having just stepped down at the end of 2021, handing the reins to Goldberg, the former CEO’s last and most ambitious project — a comprehensive diabetes prevention effort in Israel’s healthcare-starved Galilee region — is up and running.

“This was a way to bring our knowledge and depth about the Galil and about regional development, together with our appreciation and understanding on healthcare issues and specifically diabetes,” Salzman told eJP, referring to the project called The Russell Berrie Galilee Diabetes SPHERE (or Social Precision-medicine Health Equity Research Endeavor). The foundation’s cornerstone investment of $20 million — its largest gift in recent years — jump-starts what is envisioned as a 10-year, $75 million program. 

SPHERE’s comprehensive approach aims to tackle diabetes and reduce healthcare disparities in Israel’s Galilee region by integrating health care, social services and industry professionals as well as engaging religious community leaders, women’s organizations, municipalities, NGOs and the Israel Diabetes Association centers. 

The foundation, created by New Jersey philanthropist and sales entrepreneur Russell Berrie, who founded Russ Berrie & Company, a gifts company, in a rented garage in 1963, focuses on groundbreaking work in areas that reflect Berrie’s passions: advancing diabetes care and research, strengthening Israel through pluralism and regional economic development, building interfaith bridges, improving healthcare and enhancing Jewish communal life in New Jersey.

Under Salzman’s leadership, the foundation approved 875 grants totaling more than $200 million, more than $5.5 million of it in emergency grants to organizations serving communities in New Jersey and Israel during the pandemic. 

While health and diabetes treatment are core interests of the foundation, the grant to SPHERE came through the strategic lens of regional development, Salzman said. 

“The Galilee is the most diverse part of the country. It also has the longest wait time for any medical services and is really medically underserved institutionally,” Salzman noted. “This means longer wait times for primary and specialty care, and less access.”

According to the intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), central Israel’s public health profile is similar to those of industrialized Western countries. But underinvestment in health infrastructure and personnel renders the Galilee similar to the health systems in developing countries. Unemployment is also higher in the Galilee, and average net income is 47% lower than in Israel’s center. Specialty medical care is limited and infant mortality rates and incidences of infectious diseases are higher; in 2011, the Israeli government created Israel’s fifth medical school, the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine of Bar-Ilan University, in Safed, to improve medical care in the region. SPHERE is partnering with that medical school.

Goldberg, Berrie’s former chief program officer who succeeded Salzman as CEO, told eJP that her predecessor had professionalized the foundation, hiring a full staff in New Jersey and opening an Israel office as the foundation’s grant-making increased there. 

“Ruth understands that as valuable as our philanthropic investment is, we can be more than the sum of our dollars,” Goldberg said. “She pushed us to partner with grantees in thinking through solutions to problems; to convene organizations and other funders so that knowledge can be shared; and to catalyze projects with early dollars when others might not be ready to take a risk. Most of all, Ruth consistently reminded us to listen to the ‘need-knowers’ — those on the ground, in communities, who know better what is needed than we would, as foundation professionals at least two degrees removed from the problems.” 

Before her work at the foundation, Salzman had served Chase’s Community Development Group (CDG) as senior vice president of commercial lending and investing, where her portfolio included small businesses, including some nonprofits, but also minority- and women-owned businesses and businesses in low-income communities. This work was especially important after the 9/11 attacks, when small businesses were suffering. Salzman said that time taught her about the value of networks, a lesson that she put to good use when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Salzman saw that the federal programs that provided loans to keep small businesses and nonprofits afloat were organized through the Small Business Administration (SBA), and realized she was probably the only person in her philanthropy networks who had ever made an SBA loan to a business. Drawing on her expertise, Salzman connected with The Jewish Federations of North America and with a former Chase colleague who had run the SBA lending; the outcome was a series of webinars to help nonprofits apply for SBA loans. 

In the aftermath of massive social change and organizational shifting due to the coronavirus, Salzman cautioned against returning to the processes of the pre-pandemic era if they’re not helpful to the process of grant making.

“My hope is that we remember, as times normalize, that it’s not that rule books don’t make sense, it’s not that rules don’t come about for good reason. But at a certain point, their utility is a game of diminishing returns,” Salzman said. “You get to a point where you’re asking for information because you [always] asked for that information. And as a grantor, as a funder, you need to interrogate yourself, why am I asking this? Am I doing it because it fits the form? Or is it something that will really help me make an informed decision, and be effective as a thought partner with my grantee?”

As a leader, Salzman prefers a collaborative management style, with a senior leadership team whose job it is to bring its own expertise into the room and work collaboratively, she said. 

“All of us are trying to make happen what the board hopes to accomplish in terms of impact and building a legacy. I think that’s really important. The responsibility of the professional team is to take the board’s ambition for impact and for setting sights on mission priorities, but our job is to really understand, to go deep, to ask the right questions, to kick tires and to be able to provide good, fair, objective, well-grounded information for the board in support of a recommendation that we make. And also to know when a recommendation that we make is one that’s not going to be where they want to prioritize.” 

With the foundation planning to sunset around the year 2033, Salzman spoke to the need for more effective connections and partnerships between funders who like to provide seed funding for new projects and those who prefer to work with more established organizations. 

“They don’t really have a good mechanism for finding one another and for understanding what the different stages of an initiative are,” she said, “so that there is a more effective handoff when you get past being the cute startup, and you need a different kind of funding.” She added that NGOs need a better way to find funders so that they “understand what you’re working towards, and make yourself better, make your organization better.”

Salzman expressed deep gratitude for her years at the foundation. 

“I really come away with a tremendous appreciation not only for the wonderful opportunity I was given individually, but [also for] the insight it gave me in how philanthropy done well indeed meets its own test of being transformative, has impact, really can make things better.”