Our Founder

Nathan Cummings was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, in 1896. He moved from impoverished beginnings to great success by hard work, entrepreneurial genius and a willingness to take risks. In 1939, he purchased the C.D. Kenny Company of Baltimore, a small wholesale distributor of canned foods, coffee, tea and spices. That was the beginning of the international company that was known as the Sara Lee Corporation. For three decades, he personally guided the growth of the company. He retired from active management in 1968 to pursue philanthropic interests. In his later years, he was a perceptive art collector and a generous philanthropist, with a strong interest in medicine and science. He inherited a spirit of sharing and community from his immigrant parents, and transmitted that spirit to his children and grandchildren, who contribute their time and energy to the Foundation. He died in 1985, leaving the majority of his estate to this Foundation.

As an entrepreneur and business man, Nathan Cummings believed in innovation and risk-taking and was inspired by a quote below by the English writer Samuel Johnson.

"Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must be first overcome."

He used this saying to inspire his colleagues and friends and motivate them to work through inevitable challenges that arise in life and work. It was a guiding credo in the growth and development of Consolidated Foods Corporation, which subsequently became the Sara Lee Corporation, and he gifted copper desk plaques etched with this quote to his management teams and many others, adding, “Compliments of Nathan Cummings.” Guided by this mantra, his children and grandchildren have imbued NCF with a similar ethos in its innovative and risk-taking philanthropy.

The Cummings Family

The children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Nathan Cummings inherited his spirit of sharing and community. His grandchildren and great-grandchildren continue his philanthropic work by contributing their time and energy to the foundation that bears his name.

Our Mission

The Nathan Cummings Foundation is rooted in the Jewish tradition and committed to democratic values and social justice, including fairness, diversity and community. We seek to build a socially and economically just society that values nature and protects the ecological balance for future generations; promotes humane health care; and fosters arts and culture that enrich communities. The Foundation’s approach to grantmaking embodies some basic themes in all of its programs:

  • Concern for the poor, disadvantaged, and underserved;
  • Respect for diversity;
  • Promotion of understanding across cultures;
  • Empowerment of communities in need.

Our DNA

Honoring the history and legacy of the Nathan Cummings family, and the culture and practice of the Foundation that was built over its first 25 years, we affirm the following:

What we believe:

  • All life is interdependent, and our destiny is shared.
  • We have obligations to one another and to future generations.
  • With great privilege comes great responsibility.

What guides us: Based on our mission and what we believe, the Foundation is guided by these first principles:

  • We must work to close the gap between America’s promise and practice; and
  • We aspire to a society that measures its success by how it treats those who have the least.

How we work: We fulfill our mission and live out our beliefs and first principles by upholding these commitments:

  • Focusing on what the world needs from NCF, not on what NCF can do for me;
  • Focusing on wicked problems and making the “impossible” possible;
  • Supporting those who have the least to participate meaningfully in solving the problems that affect them;
  • Using innovation, risk-taking and unorthodox thinking to disrupt conventional definitions and political divides and to generate new possibilities and alliances;
  • Being uncompromising about long-term goals, but remaining flexible with regard to means;
  • Affirming the importance of leadership that is curious, knows when it is stuck, and that is both bold and humble;
  • Being willing to fail and to learn from our failures;
  • Recognizing the arts, culture and contemplative practice as creative drivers of change;
  • Encouraging resilience through solutions that enable individuals, organizations and communities to participate meaningfully in increasing opportunity, preparing for contingencies, and recovering from setbacks and losses; and
  • Listening actively, partnering respectfully and affirming a dedication to excellence in all of our practices.

Our Legacy
News + Ideas

NCF Remembers Buddy Mayer |

NEW YORK – Beatrice “Buddy” Cummings Mayer, the matriarch of the Nathan Cummings family and a founding Trustee of the…
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NCF Remembers Rob Mayer |

A devoted family man whose passion, vision and business acumen combined to make him a leader in venture philanthropy, Dr.…
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NCF Oral History: Transformative Impacts in Society |

Rachel Cowan, Former Director, Jewish Life & Values Program + Peter Teague, Former Director, Ecological Innovation / Contemplative Practice Program
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NCF Oral History: Values Of Kindness And Inclusion Shall Remain For The Welfare Of All People |

Beatrice Cummings Mayer, Trustee Emeritus + Jaimie Mayer, Trustee + Robert N. Mayer, Trustee
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NCF Oral History: Positivity, Knowledge, Community & Future |

Khary Lazzare-White, Executive Director, Co-Founder, Brotherhood—SisterSol
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NCF Oral History: Never Felt Like An Outsider |

Andrew Lee, Former Trustee + Ernest Tollerson, Former Trustee
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NCF Oral History: Passions Of Family, Trustees And Staff. A Focus For The Foundation |

Lance Lindblom, Former President & CEO + Rachel Durchslag, Former Board Vice Chair
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NCF Oral History: Seeding The Field Of Arts And Social Justice |

Claudine Brown, Former Director, Arts & Culture Program + Maurine Knighton, Former Director, Arts & Culture Program
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NCF Oral History: Permission To Take Chances, Make Mistakes And Be Who We Are |

Rachel Durchslag, Former Board Vice Chair + Amy Sorensen, Associate
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NCF Oral History: With Privilege Comes Responsibility |

Jaimie Mayer, Trustee + Danielle Durchslag, Former Trustee
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NCF Oral History: A Hub to Connect – to Re-charge |

Michael Cummings, Trustee + Jason Cummings, Associate
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NCF Oral History: Contributing to the Better Good of the Country |

James K. Cummings, Trustee + Ruth Cummings, Trustee
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NCF Oral History: Feeling The Energy Of The Community |

James K. Cummings, Trustee + M. Annette Ensley, Former Director of Administration & Human Resources
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