Stephen A. Foster, The Overbrook Foundation

TITLE: President and CEO

FUNDING AREAS: LGBT rights and marriage equality

CONTACT: sfoster@overbrook.org, 212-661-8710

IP TAKE: Foster awards a small number of grants each year to the same grantees. There is no indication he will change his strategy, and he specifically discourages cold calls and letters of inquiry from grantseekers.

PROFILE: Stephen A. Foster has been president and CEO of The Overbrook Foundation since 2002; in fact, he's the only one they've ever had. After earning his bachelor's degree in political science from Penn State University, Foster joined the Peace Corps, serving for two years in Sierra Leone. After returning home, he completed an master's in history with a specialization in African studies from Northwestern University. He has worked in private philanthropy since 1985, spending 12 years at the Charles A. Dana Foundation and eventually serving as president before working independently as a consultant to philanthropic organizations from 1997 to 2002.

The Overbrook Foundation was established in 1948 by Helen and Frank Altschul and started with an initial endowment of approximately $45 million. The foundation did not hire a full professional staff until 2001, including Foster's hiring soon thereafter. Overbrook defines itself as "a progressive family foundation that supports organizations advancing human rights and conserving the natural environment." The foundation's endowment has grown to more than $130 million, and Overbrook has awarded more than $160 million in grants since its founding.

Foster provides grants to organizations working on a wide array of human rights and environmental issues, but with respect to LGBT advocacy, his focus is clearly on marriage equality. He serves as cochair of Proteus Fund's Civil Marriage Collaborative (CMC), a network of funders working to achieve marriage equality on a state-by-state basis. The CMC was awarded a grant of $100,000 from Overbrook in 2013.

Foster's grants in this area are few and far between but also fairly large. Grants are never less than $25,000 and, in a typical year, only four will be rewarded. Between 2011 and 2013, only four organizations in total were awarded grants: the CTC, Freedom to Marry, Lambda Legal, and GLAD. Foster has found a strategy and stuck to it; the grantees are the same each year and the amounts vary only slightly.

Foster is clearly not the kind of funder that grantseekers would want to cold call. In fact, he explicitly warns against it:

The Foundation continues to discourage letters of inquiry although we remain interested in learning about organizations and projects that, at some future point, could be candidates for Foundation grantmaking. Unsolicited proposals will not be considered by the Foundation for funding in 2013. Foundation staff will invite proposals on a limited basis as opportunities that clearly match Foundation priorities are identified.

Foster has an unusually exclusive list of grantees, and he has shown no indication that he wants to expand his reach. He also has been very forthcoming about Overbrook's financial challenges since the recession hit — though its fiscal outlook stabilized in 2012 and 2013—and this only adds to the unlikelihood of a sudden change in strategy to include funding for more LGBT groups and a broader range of issues.

Apart from marriage equality, the only other issue in the LGBT sphere that Foster has shown an interest in pursuing involves the struggle for equality in Latin America. In 2012, a $25,000 grant was awarded to the Latin American and Caribbean Program Human Rights Institute, which is part of the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission. That's it, though, and the interest appears to be marginal. There may be an opening in this area at some point in the future, but until further notice, Foster is simply not a viable option for grantseekers.

VIDEO: