Denver: It has been written about the New York Foundation that they are the Sugar Ray Robinson of philanthropy. Pound for pound, the best grantmaker in the business. Their vision, integrity, and willingness to take risks are matched by very few others, if any. Maria Mottola has served as their Executive Director since 2003 and has been with them since 1994, but she’s with us now. Good evening, Maria, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Maria: Thank you.
Denver: The history of the foundation is so rich. It’s really breathtaking. Although, you now solely focus on New York, there was a time that that wasn’t the case. Share with our listeners some of the history of the New York Foundation.
Maria: The New York Foundation was founded in 1909. At the time the foundation was created, there were very few other foundations in existence that were grant-making organizations. In a way, the trustees didn’t have any blueprint for how philanthropy should work. The two original donors were the Heinsheimer brothers. They made their money mostly in banking and real estate. They were German-Jewish immigrants who were part of, I don’t want to say, a club; but they had – one of the things we learned at our hundredth-year anniversary– was lots of connections in that community at that time.
A lot of the folks who served on settlement house boards or in other kinds of social reform organizations were contemporaries and colleagues of our original donors. They did start the foundation with a focus on New York. When the early trustees were thinking about the work, they really had in their mind, I think, this idea that they wanted to support organizations that were informed by people who were living in those neighborhoods or working in those communities.
The early foundation grants were different than they would have been for other similar foundations at that time. One of the very first grants that the foundation made was to the NAACP, which was itself a new organization at that time. Shortly after that, the Urban League, other organizations that were very risky startups in the early 1900s, but are now organizations that, of course, are more established. We know some of this because somewhere in the 1940s, the trustees put together a little history. So, we have some inkling of how they thought about the work in the earliest days.
I think the themes that you referenced in the beginning were themes even back then. They talked about this idea of wanting to take risks. They describe themselves as venture capitalists who felt the same way that they would look for opportunities on the finance side, they would think about the grant-making in a similar way. I think we have mostly focused on New York City this entire time. So for more than a hundred years. There’s a period of time in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s where the board recognized that for civil rights to be realized for African-Americans, much of the focus was going to have to be on the South. So, you see in our grant-making history, there’s a whole list of grants that were made in those years to groups that were doing civil rights work in the South.
…they didn’t have the impulse to reinvent themselves at different periods of time. They really from the very beginning defined their role as being responsive, as opposed to directive or prescriptive. So I think that the foundation was able to be supportive of small startup, risky groups that reflected changes in New York that were happening in real time, as opposed to sitting in a room somewhere deciding: these are the three most important issues, and now we’re going to go fix them.
Denver: What is the foundation’s view on the role of philanthropy in society? And how has that informed the work that you do and the grantmaking that you make?
Maria: I was really fortunate as a new director that the trustees had written about these things in different pivotal points of time. The foundation had this sense, I think, of itself as an outlier even in the earliest days. So they write in the 1940s about how the emergence of other big philanthropies; they were critical of those philanthropies. They felt that they were building monuments to themselves… this idea that people who are good at making money are somehow good at solving social problems, and our trustees had a different point of view. In the values even then that I think have carried forward to today have to do with really listening to people who have some direct experience with the problems that are trying to be solved. They really made a distinction even in those early years between direct charity or even philanthropic work that assumed that problem-solving could be focused on fixing individuals, as though there was some kind of pathology around being poor, or you could simply address somebody’s big social problems by focusing on individual people.
And they really saw them as systemic and caused by bigger factors in society that made the city a place where not everybody could thrive, and not everybody could go to a good school, that people couldn’t work. Some of the early grants are really interesting because you have to look at them through an early 1900s lens, but even things… one that always strikes me… they made a grant to an organization that – the title of it sounds very paternalistic. It’s something focused on shop girls and department store workers. Really what it was was this kind of precinct organizing model where young women who worked in department stores would go and organize other young women who worked in department stores for better wages and better living conditions; because they were very vulnerable in the 1900s if they were single and living in New York and trying to earn their way through these service jobs… which is not that different than a group like the Center for Frontline Work in Retail which we fund today that works with predominantly people of color, young people who work in stores around the city and who get paid poor wages.
There’s a through line of values that I think that makes it a little different than other foundations… is that they didn’t have the impulse to reinvent themselves at different periods of time. They really from the very beginning defined their role as being responsive as opposed to directive or prescriptive. So I think that the foundation was able to be supportive of small startup, risky groups that reflected changes in New York that were happening in real time, as opposed to sitting in a room somewhere deciding: these are the three most important issues, and now we’re going to go to fix them.
Denver: That’s a very admirable way to go about it. So often what happens is when you get a new executive coming into a foundation, all of a sudden the priorities change. Really, did the world change that much since they assumed that position? As you said, they were always like venture capitalists, and you are today. That means that you invest in high-risk startup organizations, and many of those would have a hard time getting funding from other grantmakers. What do you look for in these organizations? And how do you go about deciding which ones you’re going to fund?
Maria: Some of this… it sounds to me like common sense. I know there are lots of buzzwords in the field, especially now about what to call this. We still have an open application process. We take proposals. Groups don’t have to wait to be invited. We have three deadlines a year. Any group can apply. We’re very accessible. We’ll talk to anybody who calls about what we’re looking for. We actually read them all. We don’t have any kind of eligibility quiz that screens folks out in some kind of algorithm.
We have three program staff. I’m included in the program staff, and we read everything that comes in. We look for where there’s direct involvement on the part of people who are experiencing whatever the problem is that the group is trying to solve. That’s a factor. We look to see: are these groups that wouldn’t otherwise have access to private philanthropy? So we’re often the first at least formal foundation that might consider that group.
Denver: A real difference maker!
Maria: We look for groups that have real roots in a neighborhood or within some consistency; might be day laborers; it might be nail salon workers; it might a community of people who come here from another country and establish their place in a neighborhood. Or it might be folks who lived in a neighborhood for a long time. Really that idea of some connection, some deep connection to place or point of view, and that’s important to us.
We look for groups that have real roots in a neighborhood or within some consistency… Problems and solutions live in the same place.
Denver: It’s a real belief that the people who are closest to the problem are probably closest to the solution as well. You really live that.
Maria: Colleagues said on a panel I was on a couple of weeks ago, a colleague said, “Put it this way,” she said. “Problems and solutions live in the same place.” That was a great way to say it. I wish I had thought of it myself.
Denver: There’s certainly a lot going on in the country right now, and in turn, the city in which we both live. What are some of the social movements and advocacy efforts that you’re really looking at right now that are taking up your attention and energy at the moment?
Maria: Most of the groups that we support use community organizing and advocacy as an approach to their work. Somebody asked me, in this time: Did we feel it was necessary to pivot or adjust our strategy? We don’t because I think certainly our grantees have had to pivot and adjust and adapt, but in terms of our support, we feel like now more than ever, it’s important for us to remain steadfast and to be a core supporter of the groups that can do this work.
Our grantees have been on the frontlines of a lot of the social activism that’s occurred over the last year and a half. We’ve actually converted all of our grants or most all of our grants to general support to give them that flexibility to be responsive to what the current moment requires. In terms of issue areas, again, since the beginning, the foundation resisted limiting the grantmaking to issue area focus because they felt very strongly that the issues have to bubble up from the community, and they didn’t want to box themselves in like some foundations do into certain program silos.
So, the foundation has been in a good position to respond, I think, in that we don’t have those kinds of limitations. A lot of our grantees are working on immigrant rights. Many of them were in La Guardia Airport last night in a rapid response demonstration regarding family separation. We have groups that are working on racial equity, economic mobility, affordable housing, a lot of our groups are currently working on. Criminal justice is another big area of work. These change as opportunities change for groups that do this work around the city.
Denver: Your grants are $45,000, somewhere in that neck of the woods?
Maria: Yeah. More or less.
Denver: One of the things you also provide to your grantees is an extensive capacity building program. What kind of support does that entail?
Maria: This grew out of the fact that we were funding so many startup groups. Our capacity building program is pretty old. I think it’s almost 40 years old now. So I think we probably were one of the first foundations to incorporate that into our grantmaking focus, at least that I know of. The idea was that startup groups really needed that kind of on-ramping. We literally get calls from groups: How do we now open a bank account with the check that you just sent? How to get started, how to hire staff, how to set up a board, how to apply for your 501(c)(3).
Over the years, the capacity building field itself has grown. It’s much larger, much more robust. I think when we first started the program, there weren’t that many nonprofit capacity building providers even out there to support. We now actually do this work collaboratively with a set of other funder colleagues. We all realize that where we have grantees in common, it didn’t make sense for them to have to pick and choose between our different capacity-building programs. So, we work with about seven other foundations where there’s overlap in our grantees and collaborate on workshops and things like that. As I was a grantee of the foundation myself before coming on the staff, and the capacity-building program was really instrumental in getting our group up and running. All kinds of basic things like budgeting and by-laws because we were also startup.
Denver: Let’s turn our attention to: Engage to Change. That’s an initiative you started several years back, and it focuses on client feedback versus participant engagement. Tell us about this effort.
Maria: It was a partnership with the Building Movement Project, which is a national organization that has been working on these issues for years trying to help shift folks’ thinking about where civic engagement activities happen. They don’t just happen in standalone organizations. They also can be very robust within a social service context. And that sometimes social service organizations are really the trusted entities in the community, where people come together to engage with one another as community members.
I think the New York Foundation… partly we were feeling pushed by some of our grantees to pay attention to this that some of the most exciting community organizing was happening in places like settlement houses, soup kitchens, which most of our colleagues think of as purely direct service or human service organizations dealing with people’s problems one-on-one. But in some of these places, the staff and board members were doing really important and creative work engaging their constituents in social change.
If you were a parent in the after-school program, plugging you into efforts to make sure that the city budget for after-school wasn’t going to be cut. If you were a young person coming to the college access program to try to get help applying for college, that you could also be drawn into efforts to make sure that your school had enough guidance counselors, that colleges had fair admissions processes, that kids weren’t being suspended or expelled at high rates.
We profiled a number of organizations. The one I think is easiest to visualize is, we funded Neighbors Together, which is a soup kitchen in Brownsville. Obviously, if you went to visit, you would say,” Oh, this is a soup kitchen.” It’s a wonderful soup kitchen in an amazing space. But what they really do that’s distinctive, I think, is they engage the people who come there in activism around economic equity. You’re not just here as a recipient of service, but you are someone who has the power to engage around these issues that brought you here in the first place.
Our effort with Building Movement Project and the grantees that we worked with is to really highlight these kinds of stories, both to encourage organizations to think about this, but really to encourage our funder colleagues– particularly those that primarily fund direct service– to recognize that this kind of work is on a continuum of work that any of their grantees might engage in.
There isn’t an impulse to necessarily reinvent the foundation. It’s more like an impulse to protect the legacy of something that has value in the city. I think being even a staff person, you come in with this sense of — “My role is to shepherd this organization for whatever amount of time in its history I’m going to be there.”
Denver: You are really bottoms up here. You really get there. As opposed to many foundations which tend to look, as you know, from the ivory tower and determine what the problems are and what the solutions are. I know you’re assisted in all of this by your board and the important role that they play. Tell us what they do to help guide and direct the activities of the foundation.
Maria: When you said that before about each new president comes into a foundation and maybe has a slightly different point of view, I think one of the things that mitigates that with the New York Foundation is the board. The board had a strong commitment to including women and people of color on the board, going back to the 1920s. I think that there’s this sense when people join the board that they’re part of a legacy. They’re a point on this historical through line of the New York Foundation values. There isn’t an impulse to necessarily reinvent the foundation. It’s more like an impulse to protect the legacy of something that has value in the city. I think even being a staff person, you come in with this sense of– “My role is to shepherd this organization for whatever amount of time in its history I’m going to be there.” The board is made up today primarily of people who are either former grantees or academics, or people who have some stake in the kind of work that we fund, or some expertise in the areas in which our grantees are working. And they are enormously helpful to the staff in helping us understand the landscape and what’s going on.
I think maintaining a certain level of agitation, curiosity. I think my worst days are the days where I start to settle into a sense of certitude about things we haven’t figured out, and then I know I’m in trouble because nobody has it figured out. So, I try to maintain almost a sense of surprise.
Denver: Having been an executive director of the foundation for some 15 years now, and having an impeccable track record and having tremendous respect throughout the sector, what do you think foundations could do a little bit differently that would help them to become more effective?
Maria: I think we can all do more listening. I know lots of us say that we do. But I think there’s always more. I think maintaining a certain level of agitation, curiosity. I think my worst days are the days where I start to settle into a sense of certitude about things we haven’t figured out, and then I know I’m in trouble because nobody has it figured out. So, I try to maintain almost a sense of surprise.
We’ve just had a conversation on staff yesterday about a group that the program officers went to see that was a high-risk group we funded probably 15 years ago. We really didn’t think they were going to make it. Now, 15 years later, they are doing great. They’re really rooted in the community. They just hired a new executive director. I think the surprise joy of knowing that you don’t have all the answers. I think that’s really hard in philanthropy. There’s a lot of pressure to explain away the uncertainty. I feel that myself, so I’m not saying anything I wouldn’t say to myself on my worst day.
Denver: That’s human nature. We want to justify what we’ve done.
Maria: I think I’ve started to think of it as, we want to rationalize what we can’t do. In other words, people don’t realize until you get into the field, that most of the time your job is to explain why you have to say no, and I think often our impulse to come up with boxes is really about wanting some level of comfort about saying why I’m saying yes to this and why I’m saying no to this, when sometimes the true answer is: no particular reason except our lack of resources, and that’s not about… you can’t strategic plan your way out of that, I don’t think. I wish there was something.
We have the luxury of taking our time. I just think that disconnect between how our grantees have to function in the world and the way we are able to function in the world, I feel like that has to change.
Denver: We don’t like ambiguity. We’d like to be able to say this is the reason whereas sometimes just “Goodness knows!”
Maria: I think the other thing I would say; I do feel like this is changing a bit – the thing I take away from every conversation in every site visit with a grantee or a potential grantee is this incredible sense of urgency. I don’t feel the same thing when I’m with my colleagues. Again, I feel like that’s maybe changed in the last few months. But philanthropy has the luxury. We have the luxury of taking our time. I just think that disconnect between how our grantees have to function in the world and the way we are able to function in the world, I feel like that has to change.
Denver: That’s a great point. I also sometimes think that urgency is one of the things that brings collaboration. When you feel that you all want to work together because the problem has become so large. When you don’t feel it, you can go your own way a lot more easily.
You mentioned your staff before. Tell us a little bit about the corporate culture of the workplace at New York Foundation, what you do to shape it, and why you think it’s a special place to work.
Maria: We are very small. So corporate culture perhaps doesn’t fit our description. We only have six people.
Denver: Ok, your office culture.
Maria: Our office culture. A lot of foundations are small. So, I think many foundations by the numbers look more like us than like the Ford Foundation in terms of staff.
We have a very collaborative process that I think helps shape the culture of our workplace. People don’t own their own portfolios. We don’t separate our work by issue areas. All three program staff members make decisions together about what grants we’re going to make, and no one person owns environmental justice or affordable housing. So, I think it helps me certainly to get the most expansive view I can about an organization and about the work and about their potential for success.
We also have done a lot to try to break down the barriers between what program staff do and what administrative staff do. Every staff member attends all the board meetings these days. The grant manager and our communications manager are part of our discussion about grand decisions that we make because we feel like their input is really crucial. So I think it’s a place where everybody understands how their particular job fits in with our mission as a whole. I think that probably makes a difference.
Denver: I bet it does. Let me close with this Maria. You’ve been at the New York Foundation some 24 years. In that time, how has the nature of community organizing and advocacy changed? What do you think is needed today in order to be effective in that realm?
Maria: I feel very hopeful about how it’s changed over time. I feel in the time that I’ve been doing this work, a real sense of its potency and its robustness. Sure, we’ve funded many, many groups that have come and gone, that’s for sure. But even in those cases, we’ve seen those leaders go on to either run for office, become neighborhood leaders… in some other way work for other organizations and become leaders there. That gives me a tremendous amount of hope. We’re not necessarily looking for every grant we make to become a well-established nonprofit. If out of that work emerges strong leaders in the movement, that’s a great thing,
I think it’s way more sophisticated. People’s understanding of the political landscape is much more sophisticated. Groups that we support have started 501(c)(4)s and have a whole political arm to their work that was not true in the past. Sure, there’s still issues around who gets credit for what or who covers what area. But in general, I feel like the silos have broken down a lot. There’s much more flexibility in terms of how groups work across issues that I think is a good thing for the field.
Denver: Maria Mottola, the Executive Director of the New York Foundation. I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. You have a few interesting items up on your website. Tell us what they are.
Maria: We have a website that is meant to be not just a place to find out what we do, but also to understand more what our grantees are doing. The point of it is to amplify their work. We have terrific content where you can listen to grantees talk about what motivates them to do their work. We have a partnership with StoryCorps where grantees are interviewed. We also have resources for new nonprofits if people are looking for help, and we have a whole section on our history of the foundation for people interested in that.
An important feature on the website is also we are anxious for people to know that our grantee leaders are experts in their field. We feel like too often the same people are asked to comment on different issues around the city, and the same voices are heard. We have a section of our website that functions as a virtual speaker’s bureau and encourage people to take a look there to see who they might bring on a panel to talk about things that are important.
Denver: I think we could all use a few different perspectives. That’s for sure. Thanks, Maria. It was a great pleasure to have you on the show.
Maria: Thank you, It was fun.
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