This entry to the One Post Challenge comes from Elizabeth Miller. Elizabeth works as a Program Associate for The Overbrook Foundation, a New York City-based family foundation established in 1948 by Frank and Helen Altschul. Its mission is to improve the lives of people by supporting projects that protect human and civil rights, advance the self-sufficiency and well being of individuals and their communities, and conserve the natural environment.
This post first appeared on the Future Leaders of Philanthropy blog.
By Elizabeth Miller
Growing up, my favorite books to read were those from Sydney Taylor’s series, “All of a Kind Family.” The five books detailed the lives of an immigrant family living on New York’s Upper East Side just prior to World War I. I read the books over and over and at one point, my grandmother even recorded the books so that I could fall asleep listening to a tape of them every night. Looking back, I’d like to think it was a sign that I’d someday go to work for a family foundation in New York.
Now that I have that job, I realize that a lot of my friends and family don’t really understand what I do. When I tell people I work for a family foundation the most common response I get is, “Oh so you must write a lot of grants.” Well, not exactly. I wasn’t even quite sure what I was getting myself into when I first came to The Overbrook Foundation in the spring of 2004.
In order to understand what it’s like to work for a family foundation you first have to understand why families would be motivated to start a foundation in the first place. The overarching reason is usually a desire to give back to a community that you care about. Families might want to support issues that they feel strongly about, or pass on the tradition of giving to future generations, and they also probably have a general desire to unite all the branches of the family with a shared sense of purpose. Along the way of figuring out all of the above (for example, what issues in a community are you going to focus on – education, health, environment?), people probably come across unique challenges and opportunities, enriched by the lively personalities in their families.
So what is it really like to work for a family foundation? On a daily basis, the tasks I undertake vary tremendously. In “All of a Kind Family” the five young girls encounter everything from everyday chores, to missing library books, to trips to the Rivington Street market. Ironically, I too have “chores” whether it’s drafting minutes from committee or board meetings, responding to letters of inquiry that the Foundation is unable to fund, cleaning out grant files or setting up for meetings; I search for missing pieces of grant proposals; I even make trips downtown to the flower district to pick up orchids before our quarterly Board Meetings.
Taylor’s books also had a unique way of illustrating life in the 1900s. There were episodes of scarlet fever, peddlers, and weekends spent at Coney Island. Likewise, my job is often impacted by modern-day New York City. Just this summer the steam pipe explosion on Lexington Avenue closed our offices for two weeks; I had to walk to work from Battery Park City during the subway strike in December of 2005. And likewise, our grantmaking at the foundation can be impacted by big-scale events or issues, such as September 11th or the Board’s desire to create a climate change initiative, respectively.
There’s a chapter in one of Sydney’s books where the girls spend their penny allowance at the local candy store. The girls would stand next to the counters, trying to decide which chocolate or treat was worth their precious allowance. I’m sure a penny went a lot further almost a hundred years ago, but fundamentally what the Foundation staff does with our annual grants budget is similar: we try to be strategic in the way we manage our portfolio of grants and try to figure out how to best spend the limited resources that the Foundation has available. We look for opportunities that support our Board of Directors’ interest in the Environment and Human Rights Programs, whether it’s continuing old programs or being more innovative with new grants. We try to be responsive to the needs of our grantees and to understand how to improve the grantmaking process.
In the end, I think what makes my experience at a family foundation truly unique from other foundations is the interests and personalities of the Directors. What is different about my job from others who work in philanthropy is that The Overbrook Foundation’s entire philosophy is based around a set of family values, values that have evolved over time. Each family has unique traditions and values, and it’s those values to a large extent that shape the Foundation’s grantmaking. Luckily, I happen to share the specific set of values with the family I’m employed by (which is why I’m so happy with my job). Yet I constantly remind myself that I’m merely a steward of a family and that the work I do is for them. (Of course there is a famed family tree on the wall in front of my computer in case I need a reminder, although I must admit that even with a family tree it took me over a year to figure how everyone was related to each other).
According to The National Center on Family Philanthropy’s recent estimates, there are between 30,000 and 40,000 family foundations in the US that distribute approximately $5 billion dollars a year. While factors such as families’ motivations for giving, personal giving interests, level of assets, and number of generations and family branches interested in participating will inevitably vary from family to family, I’d be willing to bet there’s at least one thing that will remain constant – like the five sisters from “All of a Kind Family,” you’ll always feel like it’s an adventure.