Profile: Surdna Foundation

October 16, 2018

Key Statistics

Founding Date: 1917
Location: New York, NY
Assets (2016): $947.5 million
Total Grantmaking (2016): $36.9 million
Number of staff: 23

Background

Founded in 1917, the New York City based Surdna Foundation seeks to foster sustainable communities in the United States, guided by principles of social justice and distinguished by healthy environments, strong local economies, and thriving cultures.

The son of a Methodist minister, founder John Emory Andrus was a lay leader in the church, the mayor of the city of Yonkers, New York, and served four terms in the United States Congress. Andrus also founded an orphanage as a tribute to his wife, an orphan herself, at the site of her adoptive family’s farm in Westchester County New York and later a retirement home which was located adjacent to the orphanage. These institutions fulfilled Mr. Andrus’ wish that his legacy provide communities with “opportunity for youth and rest for old age.” Today, the Surdna Foundation continues to be informed by Andrus’ values of thrift, practicality, loyalty, excellence, and an appreciation for direct service to those in need.

The Foundation has become increasingly professionalized over time; developing its current mission statement approximately nine years ago, and its current focus areas approximately five years ago.

Core Framework

The Surdna Foundation’s core framework is defined by a stewarded charter with a social compact that holds the Foundation accountable to advancing the issues it seeks to support as well as the Andrus family legacy. The Foundation has historically taken a quiet and collaborative approach to its work, with social justice and systems change at the core.

Charter

“…the value that John Andrus had around caring for the aged and helping those who were not as well off. At some broad level, we still reflect on that, but we really have reinterpreted it for the modern age, and there’s not a lot of effort 99 years in to try to imagine what John Andrus would do today.”

The Surdna Foundation operates based on a stewarded charter. While there are no longer family members involved who knew John Andrus, his legacy and values continue to inform the work of the Foundation. Staff and board members have the freedom to interpret the vision and goals of the Foundation considering current realities. Foundation leadership looked back to John Andrus’ life and donor intent, which was to “do good works,” to inspire the values of the Foundation (thrift, practicality, modesty, loyalty, excellence, and an appreciation for direct service to those in need). Though not explicitly stated in a charter document, those values inform the Foundation’s social justice mission and guiding principles. The Foundation is transparent about its guiding principles, which are published on its website, discussed regularly by staff, and printed in every board book.

The Foundation’s name (Andrus spelled backwards) and low public profile are examples of how the value of modesty has permeated the Foundation’s operations. Leadership and staff have historically used the Foundation’s public platform to elevate the work of the grantees rather than to highlight the work of the Foundation itself. As the Foundation celebrates its centennial, it is beginning to think about how it might do both.

Social Compact

Accountability

The Surdna Foundation is wholly committed to its social justice mission of fostering sustainable communities, and as such, feels primarily accountable to the communities and issues it seeks to impact. The Foundation makes long-term and sustained commitments, taking a systems change approach. Staff members partner with grantees in a variety of ways, being supportive and learning from them in an effort to advance the work.

The Foundation is also accountable to the Andrus family legacy. Board members feel a deep sense of obligation and honor for the opportunity to serve on the board. Now in its fifth generation, the family includes nearly 500 people. The Foundation serves as a connection for family members from different branches and generations.

Role of Government

“At times we are validators and supporters [of government], in other times we’re critics and organizers to force better decisions or to surface inequities and issues.”

The Surdna Foundation recognizes that social change must be underpinned by policy change, and, ultimately, government policies and programs have a profound impact on the lives of people and the communities the Foundation seeks to support. Thus, it sees its role as both a collaborator and agitator of government, with the goal of moving government in the direction of favorable policies. Policy advocacy at the local, state, and federal level is a component of what the Foundation supports, in addition to direct services. For example, the Foundation has supported campaigns to raise the minimum wage and paid sick leave through its Strong Local Economies program.

Risk

The Surdna Foundation can be characterized as being comfortable with a moderate amount of risk. The Foundation recognizes that risk is inherent when systemic behavior change is the goal. It is willing to be the first funder behind a new idea or project, which always involves some level of risk. However, its own reputation, standards of success, and the legacy of the family keep the Foundation from pursuing opportunities that would be deemed high risk. In the past, the Foundation has provided seed funding for projects that have failed, and it will continue to do so, viewing these “failures” as learning opportunities.

Communications

The communications philosophy of the Surdna Foundation is squarely focused on elevating the issues and grantees, and not about elevating the profile of the Foundation itself. It has historically had a very low public profile, borne of the values of modesty and humility, rather than an attempt to be secretive or opaque. However, we do share lessons learned in the field, and our thinking about current events as they relate to our areas of work. The Foundation believes every staff member has a role to play in terms of this mission to elevate the issues, and it builds communications into each program area’s strategy in order to equip program officers to communicate effectively. In recent years, the Foundation has hired a Director of Communications to help professionalize its approach.

Change Management

The Surdna Foundation approaches changes to its strategy and work in heavy consultation with its board of directors. Over the past decade, the Foundation has worked to sharpen its mission and focus, beginning with a rewrite of the mission statement nine years ago. Through a yearlong process, the President worked closely with the board to craft the Foundation’s current mission statement—which was not a wholesale change for the Foundation from what it had been doing, but made explicit some of the values and unwritten rules it had been operating under—and created three priority program areas: sustainable environments, strong local economies, and thriving cultures. For example, the phrase “social justice” became a centerpiece of the mission statement, where it hadn’t been before. With the new mission, the Foundation developed new programs and new operational structures to support those programs, building out teams for each of the three program areas. Staff members support the learning and development of the Foundation by networking with philanthropic colleagues and leaders in their respective fields and learning from the communities it supports.

Operating Capabilities

The Surdna Foundation’s core capabilities are grounded in an approach that values the decentralization of decision making, a creative style of implementing strategy; a broad approach to systems change grantmaking; both a proactive and responsive, collaborative style of program execution; and a strongly networked style of building relationships.

The Surdna Foundation employs a decentralized decision-making model, wherein the board and executive management play a broad strategy-setting role, but the power to generate ideas for individual grants lies with the program staff. The board takes an active role in setting the strategy of the Foundation through its program committees (one for each of the Foundation’s three program areas). Board members serve on the committees on a rotating basis so they have an opportunity to learn about and contribute to each of the Foundation’s areas of work. Program committees set broad strategy (in heavy consultation with staff who are issue area experts) and are ultimately responsible for approving large grants, but staff are given the latitude and flexibility to implement and develop grant opportunities creatively in ways that align with the strategy. The leadership team plays a role in shaping—but not dictating—what to pursue, and by the time grant opportunities are presented for consideration they are almost always approved.

This creative, decentralized approach is further demonstrated by the Foundation’s Flexible Grantmaking Fund, through which it can fund opportunities outside of its designated strategies that advance the overall mission. Oftentimes, grants awarded through this fund touch several program areas and are co-created collaboratively across programs by program officers.

Collaboration is a key element of the Foundation’s work, especially when it comes to working with grantees. The Foundation describes itself as both proactive and reactive in terms of generating grant opportunities, and in both circumstances, collaboration is central. The Foundation proactively launches new ideas and ways of addressing problems, often in conjunction with other funders, recognizing that its resources are limited. Recently, the Foundation partnered with the Kellogg Foundation and the City of New York to support the growth of worker-owned cooperatives after it identified an opportunity to convert retiring baby boomer-owned businesses to worker co-ops. In this circumstance, the Foundation proactively sought to create an opportunity for workers and relied on the collaboration of partners to execute at greater scale. At the same time, the Foundation partners deeply with its grantees and listens to those in the field to generate ideas.

The Foundation’s social justice mission is in pursuit of broad systems change. This mission necessitates a broad approach to programming, wherein the Foundation has the latitude to experiment with opportunities across its focus areas to see what might work. This broad approach gives the Foundation a platform for learning, which can facilitate connections in its fields of interest. “We’re much more likely to want to touch a few hundred organizations or processes and help them mix.”

This broad approach requires the Foundation’s staff to maintain connections to many organizations and other funders. Networking is embraced and encouraged as a means for deeper learning and, ultimately, deeper impact. Staff are not only encouraged to join affinity groups, but to take leadership roles within those groups to shape and improve their direction. Maintaining networks with other funders is crucial to leveraging the Foundation’s assets, which are small relative to the scale of the issues in which it is involved.

“We recognize that being present, being in the field and being active players in the networks is what gives us power to be able to make change.”

Theory of the Foundation in Action

Nearly a decade ago, the Surdna Foundation created its current mission statement: “To foster sustainable communities in the United States — communities guided by principles of social justice and distinguished by healthy environments, strong local economies, and thriving cultures.” The creation of this statement, which centers on social justice and community, had implications that rippled throughout the Foundation, resulting in the operating capabilities and approaches that exist today.

When Phillip Henderson joined the Surdna Foundation as President in 2007, its board was struggling with prioritizing a growing number of program areas. Board members knew they wanted a more intentional focus, and, through a process of assessment and data collection, were in the process of attempting to determine in which direction to go. Mr. Henderson instead helped the board approach the process from a values standpoint, noting that data was not going to be able to make a value judgement about whether it was more important to the family to support the arts or climate change. Through this yearlong process, the board agreed that communities, sustainability, and social justice were core to the work of the Foundation and it created cultural, environmental, and economic program areas.

The new mission statement became the organizing principle for the Foundation, which meant exiting from some existing program areas, hiring staff with different capabilities, and framing decisions based on the social justice mission. The social justice framework transformed the way the Foundation operates, from with whom it chooses to partner, to new hires. For example, the Foundation is intentional about its social justice lens when hiring consultants or researchers, opting for firms owned and operated by people of color with diverse staff when possible.

Without a detailed charter prescribed from its founder, the Surdna Foundation created its own guide via this mission statement. The influence of that mission is obvious throughout the Foundation’s activities and operations, which is a testament to its strength and the Foundation’s commitment to social justice.