GIVING BACK

Perspectives in Philanthropy: In Pursuit of Philanthropy and Family Leadership

Jaimie Mayer

Jaimie Mayer, 37, was appointed chair of the Nathan Cummings Foundation (NCF) in 2019, having previously served for 18 years as a member of the board of trustees.

Jaimie speaks here with Morgan Stanley’s Philanthropy Management team about her path to leadership, and the challenges and opportunities that come with helming a family-run foundation.

Q: When did your interest in philanthropy start?

A: My great-grandfather, for whom the foundation is named, Nate Cummings, passed away when I was 2, and my father chaired the foundation for many years. I grew up marinated in social justice and in philanthropy as a way of life. Some kids want to be astronauts. Others want to be ballerinas. I wanted to chair my family’s foundation from a very young age. Also, my father started a philanthropy club at my high school, and there I first got my hands dirty in terms of making really difficult grant-making decisions. Do you buy five new mattresses for the homeless shelter, or do you buy food for 25 people at the soup kitchen? No matter how much money you have, you’re never able to save everyone and make all of the change that you want to see in the world. This was a valuable training.

Q: How did you prove yourself and become the first fourth-generation leader of the family’s foundation?

A: I approached it strategically. I looked at the performance of past chairs and their paths to that role through other executive positions. I figured out which committees would give me the full skill set that I would need to succeed as chair. And I’m always very clear whenever I talk about this: I applied for the chair position three times before I got it. It’s not as if there was a huge groundswell of support for me from the get-go—I had to prove myself. I had to show everyone that I was serious and that I was adult enough to handle the dynamics at the board table, and to be the public face for the foundation.

Q: Do you have advice for a young leader who is interested in winning their family’s trust?

A: You should understand it’s not about swaying anyone, which is how I went wrong the first time—simply trying to get votes instead of listening to people and asking: What would you need to see from me to believe that I could lead this foundation successfully? I had to spend years gaining people’s trust—people who had known me from the time I was born. I had to be as serious about this as I was about my career, because this is part of my career. Above all else, timing matters when you come into any leadership position. And while I believed the timing was great all three times that I applied, it wasn’t. The second time was two weeks before I got divorced and my dad had died and I was moving across the country. That was not a good time to chair a foundation. And yet I was really disappointed and took it personally. It’s very easy, when you want something so badly, to think other board members are missing the point, or don’t understand, or aren’t seeing this or that. But it’s necessary to have the utmost respect for every member who sits at the board table, because they have a valid opinion and a valid view, especially those who are past board chairs and know what it takes to be successful. Everyone’s not out to get you just because you are young and need to prove yourself!

Q: A family foundation can be challenging to lead. At a board meeting, how do you avoid arguing about private issues, such as which cousin got access to the family compound?

A: I call those “who stole my teddy bear” moments. We make time for the family matters separate from the board meeting. Often there’s a family dinner the night before, so by the time we get to the boardroom, whatever needed to get hashed out has been hashed out. And we have a family retreat every other year, a working retreat, to really dig deeper into those relationships separate from the work we do. We know we set the tone of every board meeting, and we are so privileged to sit at the table, so we cannot waste the time of these incredible professionals who have come to help us make a difference. I’m very happy to say that we’re probably the strongest we’ve ever been as a board now in terms of seeing eye-to-eye, not just generationally, but as a family, and in letting bygones be bygones as much as possible.

Q: How have recent events, including COVID-19 and the subsequent social unrest, impacted your leadership of the foundation and the foundation’s work more broadly?

A: We are not a rapid-response foundation and it’s important for us to keep reminding ourselves of that. Because how can you not want to be a rapid-response funder in this moment?! Being completely candid, we have money set aside to address COVID, which we will be getting out the door. And we’ve started a conversation about the new kind of social uprising that we’re living in right now, which does reinforce that we’re on the right path with the work that we have done in addressing incarceration in this country, racial inequity, implicit bias and systemic racism. But we are still figuring out exactly what our next steps will be because, again, we’re much more interested in systems change than the immediate. I will say for me personally as a leader—and it’s the same for everyone who sits around the board at our foundation, and for our staff as well—I am immensely grateful for the role that I have right now. I feel like I’m doing something in a moment when there’s no excuse to not do anything.

Q: In terms of taking that systems approach, how do you explore partnerships or leverage partners in the work that you do?

A: We have always stressed the importance of bringing the voice of those most affected to the table. It’s vital to sit side-by-side with them to really understand the issues and the reality of whatever the situation is, and to listen to discover what communities and people actually need. That’s No. 1. And then once we have a vision or an idea, or we have discovered an organization that we want to help gain further support, we then convene symposiums, write white papers and op-eds, and look for other smart brains to invite to the table. You don’t want to make your table too big, but the more perspective you have, the stronger and more successful your work will be.

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