Turning Five: Reflections on the (Re)Creation of a Foundation

Emily Sproch

When I applied for a position at the Howard Gilman Foundation in the summer of 2014, there was very little I could do in the way of research or preparation. Online material about the late Howard Gilman was sparse. His foundation appeared to have a website, but upon closer inspection, it was just a single home page, and even that seemed out of date.

The most concrete information I could find was about the Foundation’s sole employee: Executive Director Laura Aden Packer. After serving for thirteen years as the Arts program director at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in New Jersey, she had — according to an online press release — announced her transition to Howard Gilman just a few weeks prior. Ms. Aden Packer, it seemed, was a real person with real credentials, and it was she who had posted the executive/program assistant job for which I was applying.

My background was in theater and writing. My resume featured the qualifications and experiences (teaching, administration, facilitation, communication) that routinely come with being an artist. My fears about never finding steady, meaningful work with this patchwork of skills were substantial, but the bulleted requirements in Ms. Aden Packer’s job description spoke to me: a dedicated interest in the performing arts, an understanding of the nonprofit performing arts arena, strong oral and written communication skills, and — perhaps most appealing — a good sense of humor.

Despite a lack of information about the organization, there was one sentence in the posting that shed light on its structure: “The executive/program assistant will report to and work very closely with the Foundation’s executive director and will be the Foundation’s only other full-time employee at this time.” This person would not just report to but also work very closely with the executive director, suggesting collaboration; and collaboration suggests creation. The fact that this would be the only other full-time position sounded like the start of something — a beginning.

As it turned out, I had not misinterpreted these clues. In many ways, Laura (Ms. Aden Packer quickly gave way to simply Laura) was looking for a partner to resurrect the long-dormant Howard Gilman Foundation with her. She had no interest in handing down decisions to an assistant. As the job description implied, she wanted someone to work with (and she changed my title to Associate before I even began). Thus began a dual coming-of-age story: the (re)creation of a foundation and the birth of a philanthropic professional. We both just turned five.

• • •

My initial confusion about the organization was well-founded: the Foundation, established in 1981, was in a murky place. When Howard Gilman was alive, the Foundation’s reputation was largely based on his personality. Mr. Gilman was known for grand and generous gestures and had all sorts of personal philanthropic interests: cardiac health, HIV/AIDS care, endangered wildlife, higher education, worldwide peace initiatives, and photography — just to name a few. He was also a beloved and popular patron of the performing arts, attending dance and theater performances at a dizzying pace. A few years after his death in 1998, however, new grantmaking stalled, and by the time Laura was hired during the summer of 2014, the Foundation had been unstaffed for a decade.

Behind the scenes, though, there was a diligent four-person board — a team that was working hard to untangle the complicated and often fraught relationships and assets left behind. In 2013, these trustees made the difficult decision to sell a major piece of Gilman family real estate in order to free up enough cash to hire an executive director. They also made another bold choice, paring down Mr. Gilman’s many global interests and identifying just one program area in one location: the performing arts in New York City.

By the summer of 2014, the building blocks were finally in place: a dedicated board, a newly leased office space at Rockefeller Center, and financial resources — the annual grantmaking budget would be between twelve and fourteen million dollars. Still, Laura took a huge risk by stepping away from her beloved position at Dodge to spearhead an organization that, publicly, had little more than a home page. The Foundation’s reputation had certainly faded over the years; by the time Laura took the reins, many younger artists and organizations were unfamiliar with the name. Only the Howard Gilman Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music seemed to spark recognition.

• • •

The “To Do” list for creating a new foundation, or at least a new version of an old foundation, is almost comically long, and made up of tasks both big and small: build a website and create all of its content from scratch, order pens, select and setup a grant management system, collect neighborhood takeout menus, schedule meetings with every other arts funder in the city, determine a yearly grantmaking schedule, create an application, write a mission, create funding guidelines, figure out the building’s recycling policy...and on and on. I began on September 4th, 2014; the goal was to launch an open application process by January 1st. Looking back, I’m astounded that we accomplished enough to “go public” in just four months.

I distinctly remember, though, not feeling anxious during that time. Part of that was naivety, of course. I had never created a grantmaking program before, and so I happily just put one foot in front of the other. The other advantage, though, was our two-person team. There were no org charts to sort through, no complicated red tape, and no one to push back. The board made it clear that they had done the lion’s share of their work before we arrived and readily admitted that the nonprofit performing arts sector — though they were fans — was not their area of expertise. They impressed this sense of freedom and autonomy upon Laura right away, and often; “You’re the professional, that’s why we hired you!” was and is one of their favorite phrases.

There were some decisions that needed to be made right away that we could have spent months on. Who should we hire to design and build our website? Which grants database should we use? Laura’s method was thoughtful, but not drawn out. She sought the recommendations of a few trusted friends and colleagues; we interviewed the two top choices, and then went with our gut. We were small and personable, and our early decisions reflected that. We went with Foundant as a grants management system — the fact that a real person always picked up the phone when we called was a major factor. We could have invested more dollars and time in these early choices, but that would certainly have delayed the launch of our application. What was more important? We wanted to get money out the door.

• • •

During this time of preparation, the driving consideration for any decision was “What’s best for the applicants?” We were able to answer many of our own questions by putting them to that test. It often went something like this:

  • Should we create two grant cycles per year or three?
  • What’s best for the applicants?
    • The quicker they know about funding once they’ve submitted an application, the better. Three.

Or this:

  • Where should we hold meetings with grantees?
    • We’re mindful of their time, so we’ll travel to their offices. And if they don’t have an office, we’ll meet them for coffee wherever is most convenient.

One of the most valuable things we did in those early months was attend an A.R.T./New York board meeting. A.R.T./New York is a service organization for nonprofit theater companies in New York City, with over four hundred member theaters, and a very large board that includes artists and theater leaders. We sat in a circle of folding chairs and asked the group what they wanted to see in an application and what they needed — aside from funding — from a grantmaking process. How did they want to be treated? What made them crazy? What don’t funders understand about their work? Many of the points they made that day found their way directly into our application.

Having the grantee/applicant experience as our North Star paved the way for us to start building meaningful, trust-based relationships with the organizations in our portfolio — perhaps still the Foundation’s proudest accomplishment to date.

• • •

My own growth was nurtured immediately. Within days of starting my position, Laura invited me to the 2014 GIA Conference, which was only about six weeks away. I was stunned; I felt I had done little to garner a field trip so early in the game. But I was also thrilled — this kind of offer further solidified the fact that Laura wanted a philanthropic partner. And what better introduction to the field than the GIA Conference?

It was the ideal year to attend GIA as a first-timer. I was surprised by Houston’s gentle beauty and delighted by Hotel ZaZa’s wild style. I attended a Sunday preconference session titled “The Unique Practice of Arts Grantmaking.” It was a substantive crash course. Like everything else at the beginning of this journey, I absorbed it without realizing how much I was learning. Five years later, I know how much that one preconference day did to set me up for success. Laura knew what she was doing as she casually gave me all the tools I needed to gain confidence in this new world. “That’s Maurine Knighton from Nathan Cummings,” she whispered, “she’s amazing. And that’s Eddie Torres, he just became deputy commissioner at the DCLA.” Little did I know that relationships were forming, and that five years later, I’d be working alongside the members of this crowd in myriad ways. Ms. Knighton would later move on to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and Mr. Torres, of course, now presides over GIA itself.

Laura also encouraged me to take an intensive course for new program officers at Philanthropy New York, another lifeline. Despite the fact that I wasn’t a formal “program officer,” I was accepted. The truth was, my formal title meant very little. There were only two of us, and we both did it all. I was associate, assistant, grants manager, communications director, project manager, web designer, and, yes, program officer all rolled into one. After two years, my business card caught up with my responsibilities, and I officially became a Howard Gilman Foundation program officer.

Despite my inexperience in philanthropy, I was not new to performing arts nonprofits, especially small ones. This is what Laura valued, a fact that provides another glimpse into the culture and priorities of the Foundation. There was a lot of expertise I could not bring to the table, but there was also quite a bit that I could. When a grantee explained that they were in tech all week while trying to write a grant application, I could not only empathize but deeply and personally understand. On paper, tech is a busy week before a production goes into previews during which the technical elements (lights, sound, costumes) are tested and incorporated. In life, tech is an emotional and exhausting effort, where every problem with a show is magically unveiled beneath a giant ticking clock. This experience I brought from working in the field was more valued than any experience I might have as a grantmaker. As the Foundation grew, Laura filled it with people who came from all sorts of valuable backgrounds: philanthropy, yes, but also dance, music, theater, and fundraising.

• • •

Another early endeavor was the creation of a mission statement. The primary content of the statement had already been handed to us by the board — fund the performing arts in New York City — but we knew we needed a more specific roadmap. We wanted to be simple and clear, and we developed a mission statement that we thought was both of those things: “We support the most robust, innovative, and promising performing arts organizations in New York City.” We also developed eligibility requirements that sharpened the scope, most significantly that an organization must have a minimum annual operating budget of $250,000 to apply.

This “simple” mission statement has prompted more deliberation among staff than perhaps anything else in the last five years. As we have grown, so have our thoughts about the mission (and my how we’ve grown — the team of two has become a team of eight: administrative director, administrative assistant, grants manager, grants/program associate, two program officers, one senior program officer, and our executive director). The adjectives are ripe for interpretation: What makes something robust? Artistically robust? Administratively? Fiscally? A robust reputation? History? Membership base? And beyond all that — robust according to what rules? What culture? And it’s not just the adjectives — there is plenty of room for interpretation in other parts of the statement as well. What, exactly, constitutes a performing arts organization? Is a social service organization that houses a theater company also a performing arts organization? What about a museum dedicated to the history of jazz? Even the “New York City” qualification, which seems quite straight forward, quickly becomes vague when hundreds of letters of intent come your way. What about a company that performs exclusively in New York but has its offices in Hoboken?

We’ve wrestled with these questions since the beginning, and each conversation has brought us deeper into the work. We haven’t discovered the answers per se, or certainly not the “right” answers. We’ve had ideas, followed by more questions, followed by more ideas. Finally, last fall, we decided that we needed to take all of this collective thinking and rewrite the mission, armed with years of notes. We also wanted a vision to go with it. Why, exactly, are we supporting the performing arts? What kind of world do we want to see and how do the performing arts move us toward that? We are now in the process of trying to articulate this for both the field and ourselves. In other words, the Foundation is growing up — finding itself, its voice, and its place in society. And this, of course, isn’t happening in a vacuum: the entire field of philanthropy is making discoveries about itself — discoveries about its complicated and questionable past and its proactive role in both progress and oppression. The Howard Gilman Foundation has entered its adolescence; philanthropy might be having its midlife crisis.

• • •

By 2014, the philanthropy sector was already touting the benefits of unrestricted general operating support (GOS), and we structured the bulk of our grantmaking dollars around it from the onset. The board, bless them, was completely supportive. We had a good deal of flexibility, and we quickly realized there was more we could do.

In the spring of 2017, driven largely by the efforts of our senior program officer, Anna Campbell, the Foundation worked alongside Duke, Ford, Mellon, Mertz-Gilmore, and Time Warner to bring GIA’s Conversations on Capitalization and Community Workshop to New York City. This two-day affair, geared at both arts nonprofits and funders, teaches the principles of proper capitalization (or, as GIA puts it, “the resources an organization needs to fulfill its mission over time”). These workshops, designed and facilitated by former GIA President and CEO Janet Brown and arts finance consultant Rebecca Thomas, take a holistic look at organizational fiscal health. Beyond GOS, the workshop stresses, there are other types of funding that organizations need to become and remain fiscally healthy.

There was no way we could teach our grantees about capitalization and then not help them move their own needle. We had dabbled in other types of funding — debt relief, cash reserves, artistic risk funds, working capital, change capital — but after the workshops, we grew more confident and intentional. There was a roadmap toward fiscal health, and we wanted to work with organizations to accomplish their goals. We could help to retire a small debt in one year, build working capital the next, and then seed a cash reserve in the third. Note that this strategy is separate from and on top of annual general operating support. Nonprofits need money to operate each year; they also need money to build fiscal health. Because our area of focus is so contained, we’ve had the time and energy to create these sorts of detailed funding plans. Are there times when we want to fund more broadly, adding urgent priorities and worthy organizations to our portfolio? Of course. But the benefits of funding deeply are also clear.

For the most part, the Foundation views general operating support as an annual commitment. Grantees rely on institutional dollars to create their annual budget; to pretend otherwise is to ignore the financial model on which nonprofits are built. On the other hand, some organizations might not fit within the Foundation’s priorities forever. This is compounded by our rapidly changing world and the alarming number of national and international crises that have accumulated over the past five years. Though the Howard Gilman Foundation has no plans to veer from supporting the performing arts in New York City, we also can’t ignore that climate change, racial inequity, threatened democracy, gentrification, violence, technology, and mass migration have rapidly changed — and are continually changing — the landscape in which the performing arts exist.

As we move forward, we have a responsibility to consider how our own priorities fit into the wider, shifting world, and how each of our annual grantees fit in with our priorities. How do arts organizations stay relevant? How does art itself stay relevant? And can we boldly prioritize organizations that share our vision? If or when we do need to exit relationships, we know we must employ the same core values that we bring to the application process — we must be honest, kind, flexible, and generous.

• • •

Another hallmark of our work is the attention we pay to applicants’ capacity. The vast majority of our grantees have understaffed development departments, and many face the same two uphill battles: cultivating individual donors and attracting new board members. We can be helpful here by shouldering the bulk of the workload when it comes to applications and reporting, thereby freeing up organizations to chip away at their other fundraising concerns. We never require an applicant to fit its budget into a premade template, for instance, something we often hear causes great stress. Sure, government funders might need templates because they are part of a complex bureaucracy that is accountable to the public, but as a private funder we have tremendous freedom — and we feel it’s paramount that we use that freedom to unburden our grantees.

Additionally, we have always prioritized dialogue and relationships over lengthy written narratives. Rarely do we encounter an organization that wants to be judged solely on the content of its application; organizations want to be understood. That is why our applications are flexible — they are the beginning of a longer and larger conversation. In-person discussions often unearth an organization’s deeper or more pressing needs, and we are willing and able to accept changes to the nature of any given request. There have been numerous times when, during a proposal review meeting, we’ve discovered a different or additional need than what is on paper. Excitement permeates the air. But then, suddenly, the applicant deflates, her chest caves, her breath catches: “Does that mean I have to start over?” The answer is NO — the program officer has already taken notes.

As a method of assessing our procedures, we commissioned a Grantee Perception Survey from the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) in 2018. Four and a half years into this work, the survey gave us a snapshot of how our grantees felt about our overall grantmaking process and the Foundation’s systems and personnel. The results were excellent, with many grantees praising the Foundation’s hands on and personal approach. This went a long way in signaling to the board that their trust in the leadership and staff had paid off. In many ways, these survey results were the culmination of what we had set out to do in the summer of 2014.

• • •

The CEP survey results dovetailed with major growth at the Foundation: at the end of 2017, the board finalized the sale of additional Foundation assets, which nearly doubled our corpus. The Foundation wasn’t just metaphorically growing up; we were literally getting larger. We had to confront the fact that a larger budget — and, accordingly, a larger staff — is both wonderful and complicated. We were also no longer just the new funder on the block, we were becoming a leader in the field — and we had to figure out how to best act like one. Which of the philanthropic sector’s issue areas would we champion? How would we message that? What stands would we take and what influence did we have?

On a more logistical level, an eight-person team functions entirely differently than a two-person team. We went from two to four, where we paused for a few years, and then later from four to eight. We grew fast, too fast at times to pause and fully flesh out plans about who would do what, and how. We tried, in our larger body, to continue doing business the way we had when we were small. It did not always work. We needed to delegate, form committees, carve up responsibilities. And, inevitably, the imperfections of our original systems have revealed themselves over time: three annual grant cycles, for instance, is fantastic for applicants, but can be hell on a one-person grants department. Five years have taught us that there is no one right way to do things, and every decision we make has outcomes both positive and negative. Maturing as a foundation means continually assessing these outcomes and making adjustments.

Now, in 2019, our “To Do” list looks strangely like it did in 2014: select and set up a new grants management system, consider a new website and new content, reassess the mission and guidelines. Because we are moving into new offices in a new neighborhood, finding takeout menus and contending with a new recycling policy are also back on the list. There is no question that we make our decisions differently now. Money is already going out the door, so we can take much more time before we act. We recently spent the better part of a year comparing grants management systems, with a rigorous evaluation process and the help of an outside firm. Rather than prioritizing who picks up the phone when we call, our decision-making centered around which system was advanced enough to support the complexity of our grantmaking, which — in the past five years — has become very complex indeed. In some ways, this return to the beginning is reassuring; we are in constant rotation, with nothing ever hinging on one singular act. We are deliberately engaged in a loop: What does the sector need? Are we delivering it? What does the sector need? Are we delivering it?

As for my own growth, I certainly shudder to think of missteps I’ve made along the way — concepts I did not understand, questions I’m embarrassed I asked, perspectives I never even thought to consider. I think that this sort of reflection, both as an institution and an individual, is what Laura meant when she listed “a sense of humor” in the job description she posted over five years ago. It was more than just a way to put an applicant at ease. It was a statement of humanity, a declaration of values, a way to broadcast that we will be working — joyously and imperfectly — toward a greater good.