In 100 years of grantmaking, the New York Foundation has distributed some $133 million to a wide range of people and groups working in extraordinary and ingenious ways to improve the quality of life for New Yorkers. The foundation has been sensitive to residents’ needs, to the failure of municipal programs to meet them, and often to the inability of the federal government to acknowledge them. When only a handful of institutions were committed to philanthropic work, its grantees were filling gaps in public health, education, charitable services, and social welfare. And it did so with the peculiar knowledge that taking risks to develop sustainable social change in a continually changing world is a primary function of a foundation, particularly at the local level. Local groups often get closer than others to the core of public policy issues.
Why should a century-old legacy of grantmaking still matter?
A singular, uniquely New York creation, the New York Foundation has evolved as the city has, along the way helping to forge some of the city’s greatest institutions-its schools, museums, hospitals, and housing developments. The organization has also supported the work of leaders in their field.
Yet the foundation’s most important work has been among lesser-known city residents-scientists, scholars, political agitators, crime victims, homeless persons, HIV/AIDS patients, restaurant workers, civil rights lawyers, educators, and community organizers. They lend the city its great diversity and its undeniable character.
It is important to understand the foundation’s roots, especially in an age when, due to a faltering economy, community needs keep escalating, making philanthropy and its inherent risks matter more than ever. It is also important to note the foundation’s faith in the abilities of community residents. Civic organizations play a crucial role in articulating and advocating community interests. While social theorists, pundits, and political theater customarily stress the necessity of calling in experts to investigate social problems, the New York Foundation has shown a century-old conviction in the irrepressibility of New Yorkers; it has striven to cultivate their capacity to engage social, political, and economic forces while respecting their will to act as the sole arbiters of their fate.
The New York Foundation grew out of the resilience of New Yorkers. It continues to serve as a catalyst for positive social reform, and its history provides valuable lessons for giving in the new millennium.