A Perfect Fit? Sharon Alpert and the Nathan Cummings Foundation

It's true: We were hoping that the Nathan Cummings Foundation would choose its interim president, Ernest Tollerson, as its next permanent head. Tollerson is a keen thinker on NCF's key issues of climate change and inequality, and easy to work with. 

On the other hand, Sharon Alpert, whose selection was announced yesterday, does seem like an ideal choice to run Cummings, becoming its fourth president and the first woman in that post. 

Alpert is coming from the Surdna Foundation, where she was vice president for program and strategic initiatives. We've written quite a bit about Surdna lately, but it only just occurred to us yesterday, while thinking about this new appointment, how similar Surdna's mission is to that of Nathan Cummings.

Both foundations have made economic equity and environmental sustainability pillars of their grantmaking, although Surdna also has a major arts focus (which used to be the case for NCF). As well, both these foundations address their core concerns through a broader social justice frame and are unabashed in their progressive profiles. Not surprisingly, the foundations share a number of grantees. 

All this should make for a pretty good fit between NCF and Alpert. We suspect there won't be any emergency board meetings over the next few years to send her packing. 

Alpert's deepest expertise is in the environmental issues, and her first job at Surdna was environmental grantmaking. But she also brought her background in community development to the foundation, and eventually helped chart other parts of Surdna's work related to economic inclusion and the arts. In 2011, Surdna promoted her to a new position created for her: senior director of programs and strategy. Last year, she was promoted again, to vice president. According to Surdna's board chair, Jocelyn Downie, Alpert has been a key figure there lately in establishing the foundation's vision and translating it into "clear programmatic priorities."

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While digging into Surdna in recent months, we've been struck by the clarity and focus of the place. This isn't just another foundation that's trying to do too much, and it seems to do a better than usual job of linking up its different priorities and avoiding silo-ization. All the pieces of its work fit together nicely within a broader vision of fostering sustainable and equitable communities. Sharon Alpert helped make this happen, and you can see why NCF would scoop her up.

Alpert, in fact, may be the perfect person to raise NCF's work to the next level. Remember, this is a foundation that went through a big strategic planning process a few years ago, narrowing its agenda to climate change and inequality. Yet the new plan hadn't been in place for long before the board fired Simon Greer. That was some 15 months ago, and there's only so much even a trusted interim president can do in terms of advancing a foundation when the future is uncertain. 

To our eye, Nathan Cummings still has a way to go in translating its lofty dual agenda into a sharply defined, strategic set of grantmaking priorities that make the most of the foundation's mid-size stature, with around $24 million a year in grantmaking. Things seem a bit muddled at Cummings, with its new priorities of climate and inequality coexisting awkwardly with a set of "approaches" that include many of its old priorities, including arts and culture and what it calls "religious traditions," a piece of work that in the past has meant Jewish life. This setup suggests a reluctance to make hard choices. 

Family foundations are tough, because family members often have different funding interests, and it can be hard to set those aside in pursuit of maximum strategic focus and impact. We've speculated in the past that not everyone in the Cummings family was thrilled about kicking Jewish life and the arts to curb as central priorities of the foundation. If that's true, and if work remains toward forging a real consensus and a sharper agenda, then Sharon Alpert can look forward to a stimulating next few years. 

We're sure that all of Alpert's friends and colleagues have been congratulating her on the big new job, but it's worth keeping in mind that career moves like this are risky. Things don't always work out.

So far, though, this looks like a great fit for all involved.