Nathan Cummings has a fourth-generation chair of its board of trustees, as Jaimie Mayer, great-granddaughter of the founder, takes over from Ruth Cummings. Having served 18 years on the board, it was not a question of “if,” but “when” for Mayer. “Many people grow up saying they want to be an astronaut or ballerina,” she explains, “and I grew up saying I wanted to chair my family foundation.”
So this was a long time coming, but that doesn’t mitigate the pressure Mayer faces, which is unique to inter-generational family foundation leaders. Namely, the need to bridge tradition with promise and confront new challenges while staying true to the foundation’s legacy and core principles. “Family members who serve as leaders must articulate and understand what the values and mission of the foundation have been, and how those will be renewed, both in terms of priorities and practice going forward,” says Virginia Esposito, president of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.
Fortunately for Mayer, this burden is alleviated by the Nathan Cummings Foundation’s longtime practice of meaningfully engaging next-gen family members. Board members sit side-by-side with one another and learn from each other with the aim of synergizing their efforts into a collective output. As a result, Mayer’s ascension to board chair feels less like a “passing the torch” kind of moment, and more like a natural evolution of the enterprise.
This is also a foundation that isn’t exactly averse to change, either. Nathan Cummings made news last year by announcing plans to achieve 100 percent mission alignment in its investing. And it was Mayer’s father, Rob Mayer, who first moved the foundation into shareholder activism in 2002, at a time when few grantmakers sought to wield influence over corporations through their stock holdings. (Most still don’t.) Back then, it simply wasn’t possible to obtain the type of returns necessary support grantmaking through impact investing.
But times have changed, according to Mayer. She believes that in today’s investment landscape, the widespread preconception that impact investing implies a lower financial return simply doesn’t hold water. “We reject the narrative that mission-aligned investing is a sacrifice. Instead, we believe that you can make good on your mission and generate strong returns simultaneously, and it makes your work that much more impactful.”
“Change-making, Not Grantmaking”
When pressed on the potential for fewer grantmaking resources as a result of lower returns via impact investing, Mayer quotes Nathan Cummings President and CEO Sharon Alpert: “We’re in the business of change-making, not grantmaking.” The assertion is pithy, and channels a powerful zeitgeist in philanthropy right now. A growing number of foundations are realizing that in order to solve outsized problems such as climate change and economic inequality, they need to look beyond traditional grantmaking and tap into more of their financial assets—the so-called “other 95 percent” of wealth these institutions control in their endowments. More broadly, the view holds, foundations need to push capital markets to adapt in order to drive long-term sustainable value.
This is a perspective that has yet to be adopted by most foundations, but it’s one that Mayer eagerly espouses. “Promoting democratic values, social justice, aiding the most vulnerable, promoting diversity, empowering communities—those fights are still happening,” she says. “Now, more than ever, we need to figure out how to access more tools beyond just writing checks.”
While Mayer is keyed into some of the biggest questions now confronting institutional philanthropy, much of the attention of a foundation board chair is invariably on governance. As Esposito points out, governance is the oil that makes the engine run. “Quite often, when the governance functions well, grantmaking, investments and everything else also goes well.”
But governance can be devilishly tricky at family foundations—and not just because of the kinds of disputes that can divide family members. There can also be tensions between family-controlled boards and professional staff—as Nathan Cummings knows all too well. In 2014, the foundation’s CEO, Simon Greer, was fired after only two years in the job after disagreements with the board.
Mayer is fully aware of the crucial role internal governance plays. One item on her radar is how the foundation works with grantees and other partners. Over the last two years, the foundation has made a concerted effort to be more supportive of its grantees, upping its payout rate to 6.75 percent. The board also increased the size of discretionary grants, which Mayer notes has allowed them to be more responsive to growing threats like white nationalism.
With the mindset that her foundation is “in a constant state of improvement,” Mayer is looking for ways to continue enhancing partner support efforts. Perhaps the most significant operational change—and one that Mayer intends to pursue further—is the foundation’s recent commitment to a more integrated framework. Nathan Cummings has already begun the process of connecting partners focused on environmental, economic and racial justice issues as it explores ways to harmonize its efforts into a more cohesive approach. This is a process that Mayer is looking forward to doubling down on, convinced that knocking down silos is a key to amplifying the cumulative impact of the foundation’s diverse array of partners.
A Slow Transition
According to a soon-to-be-released “Trends 2020” study by the National Center for Family Philanthropy, more than half of family foundations in the United States anticipate providing leadership roles to younger family members on the board, or including them in foundation decisions over the next four years. Yet, despite this forecast, only slightly more than one-third of family foundation boards currently include a millennial or gen Z representative. As a millennial family foundation leader, Mayer breaks ground here, as well. With bold aspirations rooted in her family’s principles and core values, she epitomizes that bridge between old and new—between legacy and promise.
When I asked Mayer about the legacy she’d like to leave behind, she replied, “It’s about walking the talk.” Mayer wants an institution that holds itself accountable—no small thing, given the foundation’s big commitments to 100 percent mission alignment and its integrated framework model.
While Nathan Cummings has never been one of the biggest grantmakers around, it’s often positioned itself as a leader in institutional philanthropy—a record that Mayer and the rest of the foundation’s leadership is clearly eager to build on.
A lot of people will be watching as the next generation steps up.