On November 14, 2015, the Nathan Cummings Foundation celebrated its 25th Anniversary. We were deeply honored to be joined by current and former trustees, staff, grantee partners, and long-time friends and allies. During the event, the Cummings family reflected on Nathan Cummings’s leadership style, passions, and faith—all of which inspired how they shaped NCF’s mission and priorities. Our grantee partners helped us see how that original spirit has been carried forward to support exciting, game-changing work and leaders. Artists for Humanity curated a special exhibit that revolved around NCF’s focus on Inequality and Climate Change, featuring artwork by the organization’s talented youth artists.
Just days before stepping into her new leadership role at the Foundation, NCF’s President and CEO Sharon Alpert shared this thought as we closed the evening:
The next 25 years will require more courageous leadership from the Nathan Cummings Foundation. That means standing up for our values and our vision of a just society, standing by those who are out there doing the hard work every day, and stepping out in ways that positively reflect the change we want to see in the world. It will require that we continue to pay attention to changing systems, as well as hearts and minds, and that we approach repairing the world with nothing less than audacious optimism.
Below are Sharon’s full remarks from that evening.
NCF 25th Anniversary Gala – November 14, 2015
What an amazing and inspiring evening. I’m still pinching myself that I am about to embark on this journey with this incredibly committed family, an experienced board with a passionate next generation of leadership poised to do great things, an impressive group of independent trustees and advisors, and a dedicated staff. And to all of you remarkable leaders in the field: I count myself lucky to know you and promise to continue to draw upon you in the months and years ahead.
Extraordinary people have been preparing me for this opportunity throughout my life. My own grandfather, Norman, was particularly fond of debating with the rabbis and he liked nothing more than bringing his granddaughter along to shul to see him in action. He inspired me to question the inequities in our world and debate the paths to addressing them.
My early mentors were environmental justice leaders like Michelle DePass, who demonstrated to me the power of organizing and of grassroots social movements. At the Ford Foundation, my first foray into philanthropy, my colleagues challenged me to break down the silos between fields and programs. Since then, collaboration has been my hallmark. And the board and staff at the Surdna Foundation, many of whom are here tonight, showed me the value of patience, humility, and authentic engagement if you want change to stick.
All of this makes me who I am today, and makes me feel like I was meant to find my way here at this important moment for the Nathan Cummings Foundation.
Our work is about living our values. We’ve spent this evening together hearing about the values and culture which define the Nathan Cummings Foundation and which are the reason I’m standing here tonight. There’s a famous saying at NCF, coined by Buddy: “With great privilege comes great responsibility.” Those words embody the NCF ethos as well as my own belief that family philanthropy – when it’s at its best – is built on accountability. Accountability to its values, to its mission, and to serving the public trust.
Now more than ever, we need models of progressive, innovative, and accountable family philanthropy committed to social justice. You all know how rare that is. I count myself doubly lucky to have been part of that at Surdna, and to now join another leading model in the field.
I was drawn to NCF because it is a leader known for using all its resources – its grants, its investments, and its people – to achieve social change. Tonight we heard about the foundation’s belief in supporting leaders that are curious, bold and humble. NCF seeks innovation and ambition and puts all sorts of capital behind them. We heard about the foundation’s deep-rooted belief in taking risks. This foundation tests new ideas and builds new fields. It is not afraid to makes mistakes and is eager to learn from them.
I believe philanthropy plays a critical role in our society. Our job is to call out injustice when we see it, and back those willing to take it on. We are challengers to the old ways of working, and instigators of imagining new ways. We work best when we are a trusted and credible partner and a connector of people and resources. To make the gigantic leaps we want, we must harness our collective knowledge, networks and influence.
Our shared success will rest on the integrity of our relationships, on our willingness to build bridges across divides, and on our ability to invest in the best ideas and the brightest leaders. Like good dance partners, knowing when to lead and knowing when to follow. I promise to try to remember that on the dance floor tonight.
You may have seen the article in the NYT about the new philanthropic ambition. It noted that climate change, inequality and the broken criminal justice system are the issues du jour. That signals to me the opportunity for an unprecedented level of collaboration on the issues we care about. Since none of those issues are low hanging fruit, it’s nice to have good company and a good dose of humility.
As I reflect on the attacks in Paris, I know that the next 25 years will require more courageous leadership from the Nathan Cummings Foundation. That means standing up for our values and our vision of a just society, standing by those who are out there doing the hard work every day, and stepping out in ways that positively reflect the change we want to see in the world. It will require that we continue to pay attention to changing systems, as well as hearts and minds, and that we approach repairing the world with nothing less than audacious optimism.
From the stories we’ve heard tonight, and that the staff shared with me when I asked them about NCF’s special spark, it’s clear that we have a lot to live up to. I don’t take that lightly. I am awed at the prospect and humbled to work to make our next 25 years as courageous as the first 25. I don’t think I could ask for a better set of dance partners than we have in this room tonight, so let’s get to it!
Patrick Joseph, Expressing Inner Colors (right)