Why Did Simon Greer Get Fired from the Nathan Cummings Foundation?

Running a family foundation may be the toughest job in philanthropy, at least for any self-respecting executive.

Families know they need to bring in strong leaders with their own ideas to have more impact. Yet family members may balk when it comes to letting that person really shake things up.

Given that Simon Greer was the third professional executive to lead the Nathan Cummings Foundation over the past two decades, you wouldn't think those dynamics would be at play in this case. The Cummings family, after all, granted plenty of leeway to two strong previous presidents, Charlie Halpern and Lance Lindblom. But clearly some sort of power struggle preceded Greer's sudden exit from the foundation after just two years. 

Before saying more about what went wrong at NCF, let me say that I can understand where both sides are coming from in this kind of situation.

If you're an executive with Greer's experience and confidence, you're going to want to do interesting things as a foundation leader and put your stamp on a place like Cummings. You won't be content merely implementing the family's vision, even if making over $300,000 a year is pretty swell. 

On the other hand, if you're a family member and you have strong views of what the foundation should be doing, giving lots of leeway to an outsider is scary because you could end up with a runaway train. 

This inherent tension is hard to manage under normal circumstances. But Greer and NCF's board upped the possibility of failure by undertaking a strategic planning process after he arrived. 

New foundation presidents like strategic planning because it's a big moment for them to shape grantmaking. Boards like the idea of such revamps to stay fresh and innovative. 

The reality of strategic plans is another matter, since they are impossible to implement without nixing existing lines of funding and tossing long-time grantees overboard. And, at least as Greer tells it, that's where things went awry with his tenure at NCF. 

In an email to staff and friends, Greer wrote:

In recent months, it became clear that my vision and the Board’s vision for the Foundation had diverged. Despite our agreement around much of the substance of the Foundation’s new direction, we were increasingly unaligned around the hard choices that are inevitably part of implementation. 

Greer got ahead of his board, which is not necessarily a fatal mistake, but can be if there are also style issues at play and other tensions already festering. Whether it was bad chemistry or personal egos, getting the board and Greer realigned was not seen as an option. 

In retrospect, the potential for trouble should have been clear when NCF unveiled its new strategic plan late last year, one that narrowed the foundation's focus to two main program areas: inequality and climate change.

This was a big shift away from NCF's long-time focus on four program areas: environment, arts, health, and Jewish values. But the new plan didn't actually leave those program areas fully in the past. It also embraced a set of four "approaches," including arts and religion. 

So, on the one hand, the plan committed the foundation to a new and narrower focus, and on the other, it left the door open to continue lots of existing grantmaking. That's a formula for conflict. 

This is especially true given that advancing Jewish values has always been deeply important to the Cummings family, and it's hard to imagine that the whole family was ever fully on board with screening each and every grant in this area through the prism of climate change and inequality.  

Arts is another passion of certain family members, and the lived reality of downsizing this area must have been difficult. 

Looking back, the new strategic plan may have been misguided. Given that NCF's resources are limited, focusing in on just two big challenges might have sounded great at some retreat center. But the interests of the family are simply broader than that. If they did have second thoughts, you can't really blame them. 

So while the details are sketchy as to why Greer was fired, you can easily imagine how things could have deteriorated: with Greer seeing a disciplined execution of the strategic plan as a limtus test of his ability to do his job and board members pushing back, wanting to make exceptions for this or that, and maybe some family members pushing to scrap the plan altogether after getting a taste of it in action. 

If that's indeed how things went, there is no reason this conflict would have to be terminal. Adjustments could have been made, unless, again, the larger relationship just wasn't working.