Surdna Foundation in Dispute Over Founder's Intent

Surdna Foundation in Dispute Over Founder's Intent

The board of the New York City-based Surdna Foundation and some of its founder's descendants are at loggerheads over the direction in which the foundation is headed, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reports. 

After a yearlong process, Surdna trustees finalized a plan in the summer of 2018 to focus the foundation's grantmaking on racial and social justice and announced the appointment of Don Chen — who had directed the Ford Foundation's Just Cities and Regions program — as the foundation's new president. Months earlier, however, nearly two dozen of the approximately four hundred adult descendants of Surdna founder John E. Andrus had signed a letter entreating the board to choose a president who would steer the foundation in the direction they believe its founder had charted before he died in 1934. Led by cousins Carolyn Jones and Kelly Jasper, the dissatisfied contingent believes the foundation's new focus on building and supporting social justice movements is a political "hijacking" of Andrus's desire to support hospitals, schools, churches, and orphanages. 

Peter Benedict II, chair of the foundation's thirteen-member board — ten of whom are Andrus family members or their spouses — responded to the challenge with a legal review of the foundation's articles of incorporation which found that Andrus had given future managers of the foundation great latitude in guiding it after he was gone, citing documents indicating the foundation was intended to support "religious, charitable, scientific, educational, and eleemosynary purposes or any one or more of such purposes." The lack of restrictions, said Benedict in a letter, shows that Andrus "intended to give future managers of the foundation flexibility, instead of restricting them to donate only to causes he personally supported."

Jones and Jasper remain convinced that Andrus, a Republican mayor of Yonkers and U.S. congressman, chemical manufacturer, and investor, was a capitalist to the hilt who believed in providing direct assistance to people in need but would not have approved of supporting groups working to advance a progressive agenda. In particular, they object to grants to organizations such as the Democracy Collaborative, which works to build wealth in communities where investment capital is scarce and whose Next System Project initiative explores economic alternatives to capitalism, and the Neighborhood Funders Group, a grantmaking collaborative that works to promote social justice, with an intersectional and place-based focus. 

After a December conference call in which the foundation seemed unresponsive to their grievances, Jones and Jasper sent a letter to Andrus descendants urging them to insist that the board change course. The letter also cited specific grants with which they took issue, including awards to the Movement for Black Lives, the Vera Institute of Justice, and the Center for Popular Democracy — accusing the latter of stirring up "mob politics" against Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings — and said the foundation had "aligned itself" with billionaire financier George Soros, "who is thought by some to be the driving force behind the attempt to weaken America in favor of a new world global governance." 

Chen told the Chronicle that the foundation's new strategy had been developed over several years and resulted from a thorough planning process led by the family. "The interpretation of what John Andrus might do a hundred years after the establishment of the foundation is really speculative," he added. "The foundation and family members over a century have really tried to interpret the intent faithfully."

According to Benedict, the foundation began to focus on social justice more than a decade ago and has been communicating with family members for years about the need to include diversity, equity, and inclusion as key pillars of its work. In certain respects, the family feud is an unintended consequence of Surdna's attempts to keep Andrus's philanthropic legacy fresh in the minds of his descendants, said Virginia Esposito, president of the National Center for Family Philanthropy (whose board includes a Surdna board member), in that the frequent updates from the board gave family members a sense they could help direct the foundation's work.

Benedict told the Chronicle he remained confident that the foundation's work enjoys strong support from family members, and the board is preparing a communication to the entire family to address the issues raised in the cousins' most recent letter.

"Situations evolve and circumstances evolve," said Benedict. "When John Andrus was interested in supporting orphans, he was supporting people who didn't have a voice or people who may not have been captured in the safety nets that were present at the time. One hundred years later, Surdna continues to support folks who don't necessarily have a voice and where the various social structures and safety nets of our society may not capture them as well. There's a tremendous continuum."

Alex Daniels. "Family Feud Erupts Over Direction of $1 Billion-Plus Grant Maker." Chronicle of Philanthropy 01/09/2019.