Looking To The Future, Honoring the Past

In 1996, the Nathan Cummings Foundation hired historian Deborah Gardner to write a short book about the foundation: A FAMILY FOUNDATION: Looking To The Future, Honoring the Past. According to Charles R. Halpern, the president and chief executive officer at the time:

This report describes the challenges the Cummings family faced in making the initial decisions about foundation goals and program agendas, and then in shaping these as the direction and control of the foundation was shared by two generations – Nathan Cummings’ children and grandchildren. Believing that others who have recently formed a family foundation, or who are considering forming one, might benefit from our experience, the Nathan Cummings Foundation commissioned a history of the process by which the Cummings family learned to carry out the mission of the foundation while leadership changed and the family grew, not only in size, but in strength and unity.

Written histories are a common way to remember a donor, foundation, or family. Many of these histories are very good. They can help celebrate, inspire, and provide guidance. Examples of a number of these are listed in Appendix A on page XXX. Care should be taken, however, since some histories can be outlandishly and uncritically positive. Such a hagiographic approach will limit their value to succeeding generations.

The Nathan Cummings story is particularly valuable for anyone interested in donor legacy. It provides both a history of the foundation and a description of how a particular family “perseveres in its work of honoring the past and looking to the future.” The following excerpts are from the Preface (written by then Chair James K. Cummings) and the concluding section of the book. Perhaps they will inspire.

From “The Preface” (by James K. Cummings)

This is the hundredth anniversary of Nathan Cummings’ birth. His descendants collaborated to make this foundation a living, vibrant institution. It is a memorial which embodies his commitment to service and draws together the efforts of his children and grandchildren. For us, it has been a profound challenge and opportunity…

In our experience, we have had the joy of helping many people to better their lives, and assisting many institutions to strengthen their capacity to serve the public interest. The financial support we have provided, the lessons we have learned, and the satisfaction we have taken justifies the many hundreds of hours that our family has devoted to this enterprise. We have built a significant program, evaluated its effectiveness, and continue to modify it as appropriate. We have dealt with tensions among family members and emerged from the process with a stronger and more unified foundation and family…

We offer this progress report to others in family foundations who are facing the same challenges we are, and to other families who are considering the creation of a new family foundation. Each one will be special; some will be smaller and others larger, some local in their reach, some national. We can support each others’ efforts and learn from one another as we endeavor to sustain the independent sector and strength democratic values.


From “Looking to the future” (by Deborah S. Gardner)

The survival and success of the Nathan Cummings Foundation demonstrate more eloquently than words that Nathan Cummings’ descendants have found an exceptional way to come together. After a decade, the family is remarkably in accord in its vision for the future. They want the legacy of Nathan Cummings –“the aggressive, creative, willing-to-take-reasonable-risks approach” – to continue to energize its activities. They want to retain flexibility, “one of our best hidden assets.” They want to remain open to issues and concerns that may inspire a new generation to action. They want to say “Come in. Participate. Make it yours.”


At the same time, they want family members to maintain the same standards of commitment – of time and creativity – that have brought the foundation to its current eminence and that will perpetuate it as a family foundation. In partnership with a strong, professional staff, they want to retain the “camaraderie and mutual respect” they have for each other. They will continue to ask: “What is it we want to do? How do we want to do it?” They will remain open to improvement and change so that they can get into “arenas that we can’t even imagine right now.” They want the foundation to use its strength to gain visibility “for points of view that we think ought to be heard, for standing up and saying, ‘We believe in something.’” Nathan Cummings’ wish has come true. The foundation he inspired serves as a vehicle for the entire family to come together, even while it continue to evolve in directions that differ from his style of philanthropy. After a decade of making a difference, the Cummings family perseveres in its work of honoring the past and looking to the future.

Every foundation is different and each family foundation history will have its unique elements. The Table of Contents to A Family Foundation is given below as a good example of how one family has chosen to organize and capture the key moments in its history.


Part 1. Nathan Cummings, The Donor and His Interests

  • Making a name in business
  • Becoming a philanthropist
  • Providing for family and foundation

Part II. Organizing the Foundation: Basic Decisions

  • Learning about foundations
  • Choosing the type of foundation
  • Family values
  • Working together
  • Mission and programs
  • Location

Part III. The Foundation Begins Its Work

  • Hiring the senior staff
  • Grantmaking
  • Community grants
  • Growing pains
  • Evolution of the board
  • New offices

Part IV. The Foundation Comes Into its Own

  • Evaluation
  • Organizational culture
  • Communications
  • Changing role of the family
  • Planning for the next generation