Part Four: The Foundation Comes into its Own (continuation)

The Nathan Cummings Foundation

 

Part Four: The Foundation Comes into its Own (continuation)

Planning for the next generation

Succession planning

In foundation life, there is another dimension--with a much longer timeline--to sustaining family involvement. Will the Nathan Cummings Foundation remain a family foundation and a Jewish foundation over several generations? How can the family reach out to prepare and engage the fourth generation, the great-grandchildren of Nathan Cummings? In the mid-1990s, they ranged in age from 9 to 28. Most had never known Nathan; they lacked, as Ruth Durchslag put it, "that powerful impetus of connection with the founder." Unlike their aunts and uncles, they had not grown up together, with the kind of long-standing bonds that had served the third-generation cousins so well in working together. Could the third generation pass along that sense of being rooted in the family tradition, asked Ruth Sorensen, "of being anchored to something that has meaning and purpose and continuity?"

The families of the fourth generation had done some groundwork in passing along the basic concepts of charity and communal giving. They were going to follow a Jewish precept, embodied in the daily prayers of their forefathers, "You shall teach them to your children." The foundation started a program for the youngest of the Cummings offspring that included visits to the foundation office. There, the next generation could get a more tangible sense of Nathan Cummings, and of the "living, breathing business" that has flourished from his legacy. In future years, the retreats will offer an experience of foundation life to the fourth generation. Going with their parents on site visits in their community will foster the fourth generation's understanding of the community grants program, as will carefully tutored participation that expands as the children grow older. Marc Cummings predicts that community grants will be "the critical arena for channeling the interests of the fourth generation and securing their involvement with the foundation." Ruth Durchslag assesses the work with the fourth generation as "the foundation's most important task" and counsels that, "It's got to be fun, because if it's too serious and the issues are too difficult, they won't do it." The family has faith that with such mentored training and exposure, the fourth generation will continue to choose to express their understanding of tzedaka through the foundation; that they, too, will step forward and carry on "a joyous legacy."

Older family members want to pass on to the fourth generation a sense of the intangible compensation they have received. Second-and third-generation family believe that the rewards of working with the foundation more than offset all the time and effort they put in. They all share the same feeling: "To be recognized as an integral part of this foundation and to serve as a board member--these opportunities provide great satisfaction." Representative comments by family members define their experience with the foundation. The learning experience has been "an incredible gift," one that has enriched family members individually and collectively; "truly a complete circle encompassing family, community, and personal growth." Without previous training, the family set out with high ideals and succeeded in ways that they could never have envisioned. "It's amazing to look back now and see it--to take great pride in the organizations that Cummings created, of being the first to do so many different things." They were able to "do remarkable work in the world," to make a "difference in some of the important social challenges that we all face." With community grants, they all had the opportunity to do good in areas they "passionately believed in," while at the same time contributing to society as a whole. The family could be proud of the organizations the foundation had helped create, of being the pioneers in many important areas; and of standing for a different, more open set of values than some other long-established foundations; of having dared "to assist the people that no one else has looked at, the people who have great ideas for the betterment of the world."

Looking to the future

The survival and success of the Nathan Cummings Foundation demonstrate more eloquently than words that Nathan Cummings' descendants have found an exceptional way to come together.

After a decade, the family is remarkably in accord in its vision for the future. They want the legacy of Nathan Cummings--"the aggressive, creative, willing-to-take-reasonable-risks approach"--to continue to energize its activities. They want to retain flexibility, "one of our best hidden assets." They want to remain open to issues and concerns that may inspire a new generation to action. They want to say "Come in. Participate. Make it yours." At the same time, they want family members to maintain the same standards of commitment--of time and creativity--that have brought the foundation to its current eminence and that will perpetuate it as a family foundation. In partnership with a strong, professional staff, they want to retain the "camaraderie and mutual respect" they have for each other. They will continue to ask: "What is it we want to do? How do we want to do it?" They will remain open to improvement and change so that they can get into "arenas that we can't even imagine right now." They want the foundation to use its strength to gain visibility "for points of view that we think ought to be heard, for standing up and saying, 'We believe in something.'" Nathan Cummings' wish has come true. The foundation he inspired serves as a vehicle for the entire family to come together, even while it continues to evolve in directions that differ from his style of philanthropy. After a decade of making a difference, the Cummings family perseveres in its work of honoring the past and looking to the future.

Copyright © 1996 The Nathan Cummings Foundation

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Acknowledgments

In writing this essay I drew heavily on the series of oral history interviews I conducted in 1996 with members of the extended Cummings family, staff and trustees. The Cummings Foundation commissioned the interviews as part of the 100th anniversary celebration of Nathan Cummings' birth; a foundation archives will be created to preserve the history of its activities for future generations. The intent of these projects documenting the foundation's evolution from 1985 to 1996 is to better understand its own work and to glean lessons that might be of use to families contemplating, or beginning, their own foundations.

I want to acknowledge the extraordinary cooperation I received from the interviewees. Their insightful comments and detailed memories brought to life the spirit of the founder, Nathan Cummings, and clarified all the steps taken to create the foundation and build its programs. I want to thank foundation staff who assisted my work over the last year and to acknowledge the valuable help received from several people who reviewed the manuscript in draft and gave me many useful suggestions: Ken Brecher, Barbara Eubanks, Betty Caroli, James Cummings, Carol Groneman, Charlie Halpern, Jennifer McCarthy, Buddy Mayer, Madeline Rogers, and Deanne Stone. Finally, a grateful salute to Gregory Nolan, who keeps our family on track while I am writing.

--Deborah S. Gardner

Copyright © 1996 The Nathan Cummings Foundation 
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Deborah S. Gardner received her doctorate from Columbia University and has specialized in American urban and social history, with particular attention to the non-profit sector. She has written about the development of the Phelps-Stokes Fund, one of New York's oldest family foundations, and served as the Managing Editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City. She works as a consultant in history, archives, and oral history to corporate and non-profit organizations. le I am writing.

--Deborah S. Gardner

Copyright © 1996 The Nathan Cummings Foundation 
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Deborah S. Gardner received her doctorate from Columbia University and has specialized in American urban and social history, with particular attention to the non-profit sector. She has written about the development of the Phelps-Stokes Fund, one of New York's oldest family foundations, and served as the Managing Editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City. She works as a consultant in history, archives, and oral history to corporate and non-profit organizations.