Bill Cummings thinks of himself as a serial entrepreneur. At the age of six, he would venture over to a construction site near his parents' house and sell bottles of soda. Decades later, after having worked in sales for a number of national consumer product firms, he bought his first "real" business, a century-old fruit juice syrup manufacturer, for $4,000. Five years later, he sold the company and used the seven-figure proceeds to establish Cummings Properties, which today manages more than ten million square feet of debt-free real estate in suburban Boston. Nearly all the properties are owned by and operated for the benefit of the Woburn-based Cummings Foundation, which was established by Cummings and his wife, Joyce, in 1986, with a focus on providing support for small nonprofits in the counties surrounding Boston. Much of the couple's giving over the years was done quietly and under the radar — a fact that changed when the couple decided to sign the Giving Pledge in 2011.
PND recently spoke with Cummings about his journey from entrepreneur to philanthropist, the evolution of the foundation's $100k for 100 program, and the impact of the Giving Pledge on his thinking about and approach to philanthropy.
Philanthropy News Digest: Your foundation launched the $100k for 100 initiative in 2012 with the aim of providing a hundred nonprofits in the Massachusetts counties of Essex, Middlesex, and Suffolk with grants of $100,000. Did you have any models in mind when you designed the program?
Bill Cummings: No, we had nothing in mind. We had operated independently for a long time, and we had a policy of reaching out to nonprofits that weren't high profile, groups that typically found it difficult to secure foundation support. I suspect it's that way wherever you go in the U.S, and it's a shame, because there are so many small, obscure nonprofits doing marvelous things in their communities. We try to give a few of them in our neck of the woods more visibility. That was our initial goal, at any rate, and it eventually evolved into what, for several years, was known as the $100k for 100 program.
We have since combined that program with our Sustaining Grant program to create what is now a $20 million annual grantmaking program. Separately, both were extremely successful, but we came to realize we were doing two sequential programs — to be included in our Sustaining Grants Program, organizations needed to have been included in one of the $100k for 100 cohorts — and so we decided it would be better to streamline them. By combining them, we also eliminated the gap year that had been programmed into the Sustaining Grants effort. Under the new model we're able to provide longer-term grants of up to ten years.
PND: What do smaller, local nonprofits need to do to prove to the foundation that they're able to handle what, in many cases, is likely to be the largest gift they've ever received?
BC: The $100,000 we awarded through the $100k for 100 program typically was awarded over a period of three to five years. Under the new model, if an organization has an annual budget of $50,000, we can make a big difference in their sustainability if we give them even $10,000 a year over ten years. We're talking about things like food pantries or afterschool day care. Once we know them a little better, we can then determine how much of the overall grant amount should go out at any one time. Initially, we committed to giving out $10 million a year, and it took a while for us to scale up. But now we're paying out considerably more than that.
PND: You and your wife signed the Giving Pledge in 2011. Did that have anything to do with your decision to scale up your philanthropy and be more public about it?
BC: Yes, but it didn't really change our approach or philosophy. Making one's philanthropy more public is one of the goals of the Giving Pledge, and when we joined it wasn't long before an editor at the Boston Globe called and said, "I've never heard of you. How can you be doing all this, and I never knew you existed?" Then she called the Boston Foundation to see what she could learn about us, and they hadn't heard of us, either. She was a little skeptical about us for a while, but we steered her to a few people who knew us, and she did her due diligence. At one point, I recall her saying that she was thinking of calling our foundation "The Billionaires Next Door."
By Giving Pledge standards, we're small. The Cummings Foundation has about $2 billion in assets, compared to, say, the more than $50 billion in assets held by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The first Giving Pledge meeting my wife and I attended was a strange experience for us. We looked around the room — and at the sixty or so other couples who were representing different foundations and organizations — and pretty quickly realized we were probably the least wealthy people there.
After we visited Africa for the first time, we decided we wanted to expand our philanthropic work beyond the three counties here in Massachusetts and decided to support some things in Rwanda. It was reassuring to be able to talk to other Giving Pledgers and be told that what we had seen and learned while we were in Rwanda was accurate, and that it was a good place in which to invest philanthropically. It's that kind of access to smart people, people who have done this and are happy to have us run ideas by them, that makes the Giving Pledge so valuable .
PND: Are you looking at other opportunities in Africa, or anywhere else, for that matter?
BC: For now, we're limiting our international giving to Rwanda. But we've learned about other organizations there through members of the Giving Pledge, and we've encouraged some of them to support organizations there that we're familiar with — organizations like University of Global Health Equity, which opened its new campus in January. We're also looking at expanding our activities in Rwanda in ways that better connect them to each other. The organizations we support there really could do more working together than alone, and we've encouraged them to apply to us for joint grants. The Kigali Genocide Memorial is one example.
PND: This is a moment of pretty intense political polarization in the United States. Do you have any thoughts about where we are as a country and how we got here? And are you optimistic about the future?
BC: I wish I were more optimistic than I actually am. In general, I'm an optimist, but I'm beside myself with some of the things I see going on in Washington these days. In our company and our foundation, we have always worked to build trust and accountability. Sadly, our country has a chief executive who openly talks about how one can profit from bankruptcy and how it's easy to cheat people. That's not good; that's discouraging. But I'm hopeful we will get beyond that.
I've been traveling a lot over the past year to promote my book. And that has led to some interesting opportunities. For instance, we worked with Harvard Business School recently on a Cummings Properties case study. I applied to the business school as a 21-year-old just out of Tufts and was effectively rejected and told to reapply in two years. So it's great fun, as you might imagine, to have a case being studied at Harvard.
Recently, I gave a book talk to a thousand people in Rwanda. I didn't sell a lot of books, but I was able to give audience members free access to a copy of it on the Internet. I also spoke at the Saïd School of Business at Oxford University and to another eight hundred people at the University of Alabama. Giving a talk like that is a lot of fun, and it helps to promote philanthropy. It's been an interesting sidebar to my career. Yes, the runway is getting shorter, but I don't see any reason to stop looking forward.
— Matt Sinclair