Effective Family Philanthropy: The Perrin Family Foundation

Leadership of the Perrin Family Foundation. From left to right: Laura McCargar (President) Clifton Watson (Strategy Council), Kia Levey Burden (Strategy Council), Amarilis Pullen (Program Officer), Kerry Ellington (Strategy Council and Board Member), Sheila Perrin (Board Chair and Co-founder), Charlie Perrin (Co-founder), Jahnice Cajigas (Strategy Council and Board Member)

Five Practices the Perrin Family Foundation Has Embraced to Achieve Its Goals

  1. Changing location. Once based in their hometown of Ridgefield, the Perrin Family Foundation moved to New Haven, Connecticut so that it could be closer to the communities it now serves.
  2. Bringing in the younger generation from the start. When Sheila and Charles Perrin established their foundation, they immediately brought in their children, David and Jeff. David was just 20 at the time but would hear stories about what his mother was involved with, sewing a philanthropic seed in him too.
  3. Making incremental changes to grantmaking. David pushed his parents to adopt a new grantmaking portfolio. But he didn’t do it all at once. He started by pitching the idea of creating a small grant portfolio around youth activism.
  4. Bringing in the community. In addition to moving foundation headquarters closer to the communities they serve, PFF also launched a strategy council of community leaders, and includes non-family members on the board.
  5. Refining language. As the foundation’s mission has been revamped, so too has the language relating to its values and mission. PFF firmly stands behind its social justice mission.

How a Connecticut Family Foundation Evolved to Support Youth-Led Social Change

The origins of the Perrin Family Foundation are similar to many other grantmakers rooted in the wealth of successful American executives. Charles Perrin started his career at General Foods in the late 1960s. The Trinity College and Columbia Business School alumnus went on to become president and CEO of Duracell and then Avon Products. His wife Sheila Perrin, meanwhile, is a former educator.

In 1994, the couple established the Perrin Family Foundation (PFF) in Ridgefield, Connecticut, to provide opportunities for youth in surrounding Fairfield County. Ridgefield is one of the wealthiest communities in the state, and like a lot of other family foundations, it engaged in traditional kinds of giving, supporting causes close to home.

The foundation, however, took an interesting turn — one that we’ve been seeing in many family foundations as younger generations become more involved and seek to contend with modern issues. Today, grantmaking looks quite different, and the foundation itself is now headquartered in New Haven so that it can be closer to the underprivileged communities that it serves. PFF partners with organizations in under-resourced communities with the aim of creating youth leaders of social change.

How did the foundation get to this place? This is the story about how second-generation family members became increasingly involved with a family foundation, adopting new approaches that placed power directly in the hands of youth leaders of social change.

The early days

When Sheila and Charles Perrin launched their family foundation, they had long been engaged in their community, serving on boards and making donations, including support for their local Jewish community. But when Charles Perrin was named CEO of Duracell International, the couple decided to formalize their giving with a family foundation.

“We knew we were very fortunate. My husband did very well in the business world and basically wanted to give back. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell,” says Sheila Perrin, who serves as foundation board chair.

Sheila served as the foundation’s first president and primary driver in these early days, operating out of the family’s den in Ridgefield. Having worked as a public school teacher and youth counselor, the foundation’s early focus was on supporting after-school programs, mental health, and family programs for youth. Grantmaking primarily homed in on the greater Fairfield County, Connecticut area.

“It was an evolution, from basically me making all the decisions when the foundation was set up, to something more. The family ended up rubber stamping whatever I suggested we do,” Sheila says.

PFF eventually moved from the family’s home to a proper office and hired a staffer to take on administrative work. The foundation also hired a program officer to help Sheila deal with grantmaking work.

Bringing in the second generation

When the foundation was launched, David, just 20 years old at the time, and his younger brother Jeff joined as trustees of the foundation. David says a lot of the early lessons he learned from his family about philanthropy were rooted in Jewish tradition.

“We belonged to a local reformed Jewish synagogue. And there was kind of a weekly giving that was part of the education there,” David says.

Barely out of boarding school, David recalls not really understanding what a family foundation actually was. The family would have annual meetings around the kitchen table, where David would try to soak up everything his mother told him.

“I would get stories of what my mom was involved with. I knew she had a passion for after-school programming, arts, healthcare and social services. A lot of the stuff around the school day,” he says, emphasizing that this work was extremely local.

David was struck by Sheila’s hands-on approach, which involved getting out of the office and making connections on the ground. “She always made herself available,” he says.

Besides getting his philanthropic feet wet with the Perrin Family Foundation, David was also engaging with social justice work. Living in Boston in the early 2000s, he did an internship with the Haymarket People’s Fund, which supports grassroots organizations doing anti-racism work. He was also an early member of Resource Generation, which helps 18- to 35-year-olds in the top 10% of wealth holders or those with access to wealth redistribute their money and power.

Resource Generation cofounder Tracey Hewat’s family tree includes Mayflower passengers, landowners of what would become the glitzy Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel Air, and cofounders of CalTech who helped bring Einstein to the United States — or so goes the family lore. From within the walls of Hewat’s home, David and other predominantly white folks of privilege learned to better align their philanthropic giving with their progressive values.

David cherishes the space and community he found with people wrestling with these same tensions. But he also appreciated that Resource Generation brought in a board of community members without class privilege so that his cohort would have accountability. These experiences shaped David into what he calls a donor/activist.

“It kind of took me sowing my oats, within the world of philanthropy. And getting a window on a different approach to grantmaking from the strictly family-governed, family-disseminated grantmaking. That’s all I knew at that point. But I got to see a different perspective from those places out of Boston,” David says.

Are next generation family members being enriched by multiple philanthropic voices? David doesn’t just talk about the model of philanthropy he learned from his parents, but about going out into the world and his formative experiences at Haymarket People’s Fund, which deeply influences his work today.

From youth development to youth organizing

Armed with these experiences in Boston, in 2003, David began pushing his family to create a small grant portfolio around youth activism.

“David questioned why we weren’t approaching young people about what their needs were,” Sheila says, adding that she didn’t immediately warm to the idea of change.

But over a series of conversations, David made his case for broadening grantmaking and seeing youth as advocates for change in their own communities. “I was always really a proponent that we weren’t single-issue or even a suite of issues, but that we should actually support a model of engagement that could cut across any area,” David says.

The foundation moved its office to New Haven — closer to more of Connecticut’s lower- and middle-income families — and expanded grantmaking across the entire state. Then, much like Sheila had been doing for the past decade, David went on the road to Bridgeport, Hartford and other cities to learn about youth leaders and groups on the ground.

With a new location, PFF also hired new staff. Laura McCargar started as a program officer back in 2012, and now serves as president of the foundation along with a small staff and board. David first connected with McCargar when she was the founding executive director of Youth Rights Media, a foundation grantee.

Laura believes that Charles and Sheila Perrin eventually could not deny the energy and momentum coming from the second generation. She also believes that as a smaller foundation (PFF has assets of less than $30 million), youth organizing was a niche where they could really dig in and make an impact.

“The family also realized that the foundation had been funding youth programs here and there for many years, but that the underlying conditions weren’t changing. So shifting to a process focused on social change would position the foundation to have a greater impact,” she explains.

Today, the foundation supports organizations like Serving All Vessels Equally, Citywide Youth Coalition, and Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice, with offices in both Hartford and Brooklyn. Generally, the foundation is interested in organizations that are directly challenging power in areas like LGBTQ justice, food justice, the school-to-prison pipeline, and educational equity.

Are you focused on where you can make the most impact? As a small foundation, PFF ultimately retooled to focus on youth organizing because it was an underfunded niche where they felt they could really make a difference.

Building out the board and embedding racial justice

Current PFF leadership has evolved from those early years, too. In 2018, at the urging of Jeff Perrin, the foundation launched a strategy council to serve alongside the board. The five-member team includes community leaders like Jahnice Cajigas, Kerry Ellington, and Twy Greaves, a youth leader with one of PFF’s grantee partners Hearing Youth Voices.

The foundation’s eight-member board of directors also now includes three non-family members. In addition to Charles, Sheila, David and his wife Anne Kenan, Cajigas, Ellington and Greaves round out the board. “I think secretly, [Jeff] and I shared this vision that there would kind of be shared power on the board,” David says.

Over the past year or so, the foundation has been refining the language around its vision and mission to more accurately reflect its racial justice core, which David believes has been around in practice for a long time.

David Perrin remembers his early days in Boston working with Haymarket People’s Fund, which was part of a national network of social justice foundations called The Funding Exchange, created in the late 1970s by young activists with inherited wealth and the motto of “change, not charity.”

That response to institutional philanthropy, David argues, sometimes involved people of means handing over the corpus and calling it a day. But David wonders if people of means were, at times, just trying to absolve their guilt and wipe their hands clean.

Are you handing over money and power and then just leaving the table? David Perrin argues that wealthy families shouldn’t just be trying to absolve guilt. They should continue sitting alongside community stakeholders to solve problems and share power.

In his experience, he believes that community stakeholders actually want people in family foundations to stay at the table. “Don’t just leave. Continue to be in the conversations. There’s a cultural restoration that needs to happen amongst stakeholders from all different perspectives. But that doesn’t mean that rich people just exit the room.”