Laurie Tisch, whose Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund is gearing up for its tenth anniversary and will have given $100 million to support access and opportunity for New Yorkers by year's end, describes philanthropy as something that's in her DNA. Foundation Center's Jen Bokoff, a former employee of the foundation, spoke with Tisch about her recent donation to a new fund, her investment philosophy, and how philanthropy creates impact.
Jen Bokoff: Your family is known for funding major institutions, but your foundation was set up in part to help you make new, innovative gifts. What's a gift you're particularly proud of that defines your philanthropy?
Laurie Tisch: The New York City Green Cart Initiative, which was a $1.5 million public-private partnership. Initially, it was a city government initiative that created new permits for street vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables in food deserts in New York, and we signed on to it soon after I started the foundation. It was a large amount of money for us, which some might call risky, but I prefer to think of it as following one's instincts. The data was clear: there are tremendous disparities in the rates of diabetes and heart disease among neighborhoods, with epidemic levels in certain low-income communities. Street vending was a way to increase access to healthy foods, and the program would also create hundreds of jobs for entrepreneurs. With our mission of increasing access and opportunity, the idea was just too interesting not to try; we pretty much went all in! For us, it was big on so many levels, from the number of organization involved to the number of vendors we hoped would be involved.
There were a lot of unknowns, though. No city had ever tried a program like this. How would we measure success? How would we let people know about it? I had a lot of questions, but the answers weren't always there. If we were too rigid, we might not have made the grant. But we're lucky to be a small foundation with the flexibility to see something like this through, which is a philosophy that has really defined our grantmaking. If an organization or initiative decides to change course, it's okay with us so long as the course correction is in dialogue with us.
JB: I read about your recent gift of $500,000 to a new fund established by Agnes Gund with the proceeds of the sale of a famous painting from her collection. Had you ever sold a painting with a philanthropic cause in mind? And why do so now?
LT: I've donated paintings to the Tang and to the Whitney, but I've never sold one with a cause in mind. I was invited to lunch at Aggie's about a month ago by Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. The purpose was to meet Ava DuVernay, who directed the film 13th about racial inequity in the prison system. Aggie got up to speak about how the film and over-incarceration made a strong impression on her, and then she announced she was going to make criminal justice her major focus.
When she revealed she had sold her Lichtenstein to establish a new fund focused on criminal justice, it was remarkable. She had a real personal connection to that painting, and seeing her commit so deeply to a cause really showed how serious she was. When Darren later called me to talk about the initiative, I remembered that I had sold a painting a month earlier, and I thought to myself, "This fits perfectly." Max Weber, who painted the painting I had sold, was known for his passion for social justice causes, so it just was bashert! I donated most of the proceeds to Aggie’' fund, because when she and Darren are backing something, trust is not an issue. And the more I think about it, the more I realize there are so many collectors and wealthy people who could do this. It will be interesting to see whether people look at Aggie as a model and start to sell some of the art they've acquired for social justice causes; it really could add up to something significant pretty quickly.
JB: Criminal justice is different from the other work you've backed in the past. How do you get your toes wet in a new cause or issue?
LT: I loosen up! When something doesn't fit into a box, I'm okay with that. While the foundation and my personal giving are driven by my core values, the things I support don't have to fit into rigid categories. I've always said if I were a painting, I'd be a Jackson Pollock as opposed to a Mondrian as I often tend to go in many directions at the same time rather than move in a strictly linear manner. It's nice to have the flexibility to experiment with new issues and partners — and to know that I have a great sounding board in Rick [Tisch Illumination Fund executive director Rick Luftglass]. In this case, I knew a bit about the issue already. Plus, when people you trust are deeply committed to something, it's hard not to want to be a part of it. As I said, it's about following your instincts and being comfortable that they'll lead you in the right direction.
JB: You're not a passive donor, and many of your grants often involve serious engagement with the grantee. Why?
LT: There's nothing quite like getting involved and seeing a program unfold. On paper, things sound good and so you might decide to fund it. But it can't, or shouldn't, stop there. I'm a visual person and need to see something in action to fully understand it. Engaging with grantees also helps me learn a lot more than I could from whatever is presented to us in a proposal, or even in a meeting with staff. For example, a few years ago we did a site visit to a City Harvest program at a NYCHA development in Washington Heights where a part of the class was about the affordability of healthy food and how to budget your money. I remember a line labeled "clothing" on the budget template that was given to attendees, and several people in the class commented, "I very rarely buy clothing." That's when I realized that for many people, the margin between having enough and not having enough is razor thin. If, for example, a relative in another state gets sick, there's no extra money in the budget for a plane ticket. That's something you don't learn from a proposal. In a proposal, you'll read something like, "We offer financial literacy training," which sounds great but doesn't give you anything like the complete picture. The world that many of us in philanthropy live in is very different from the world that people without enough money live in, and if we are to empathize with others who aren't so fortunate, we need to get out of our bubbles and actually connect with people. When you understand that people have to decide between visiting a sick relative or paying rent, it makes things real.
JB: If you were to sum it up, what guides your grantmaking philosophy?
LT: It's about leveling the playing field. It's not about a specific program area, even though now we're leaning toward the arts. There's the old cliché, "He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple." I hit a triple with my parents; I'm really lucky. For me, though, it's not just enough to say I'm lucky; I have to do something with that luck. Money can build a museum, it can feed people, it can bring attention to an issue. I can't say other fortunate people have a responsibility or obligation to do something with their good fortune, but for me it's a core value. Using my resources to make things happen is just something I have to do.
— Jen Bokoff