News and analysis
September 25, 2015

New Leader at Cummings Brings Experience With Family Boards

Nathan Cummings Foundation
Sharon Alpert, new President of Nathan Cummings Foundation.
More than a year after it ousted its previous leader, the Nathan Cummings Foundation has picked Sharon Alpert to serve as its next president.

Ms. Alpert brings to Cummings experience working in a family-led foundation. She spent 11 years at the Surdna Foundation, where she rose through the ranks from associate program officer to her current position as vice president of programs and strategic initiatives. She will begin the new position in late November.

The Cummings Foundation, based in New York, controls about $457 million in assets and made $18 million in grants last year. It steers most of its support toward reducing income inequality and responding to climate change.

"I can’t think of more important issues to be working on," Ms. Alpert said. "It’s an incredible fit."

Cultural Differences

In June 2014, the board of Cummings fired Simon Greer, a prominent social-justice organizer who had designed the foundation’s dual focus on inequality and climate change. Since Mr. Greer’s departure, the foundation has been run by Ernest Tollerson, the interim president and a longtime board member.

After his removal, Mr. Greer asserted that his departure stemmed from a disagreement he and the board had about how to carry out the new plans.

"I was ready to continue my work on these and other foundations priorities, but the board wanted new leadership," he wrote in a statement.

Mr. Greer took heat from members of the Jewish community for eliminating Jewish life and values as one of the foundation’s core program areas. Nonprofit leaders said Mr. Greer, known as a forceful leader, was not a good fit for what one observer called a "sleepy family foundation."

While the foundation views inequality and climate change as chief priorities, it is rooted in the Jewish tradition and has consistently supported programs focused on Jewish issues, said Adam Cummings, chairman of the board at Cummings and the grandson of Nathan Cummings, who founded the Sara Lee Corp. and provided the foundation with its wealth. He chalked up Mr. Greer’s departure to cultural differences.

Ms. Alpert, he said, is "very familiar and committed to the importance of family foundations," where decisions are often the result of much deliberation.

"There’s a lot of diversity of perspective and orientation to the work" on the Cummings board, on which 10 of the 14 members are from within the family, he said. "That requires deeply listening and having a respect for such a broad range of perspectives."

‘Duality’ on Family Boards

Ms. Alpert said that at a family foundation, professional staff must clearly define all goals to the board, communicate often, and be prepared to adapt quickly.

"That’s the hallmark of how you stay together," she said.

Often, a major challenge at family foundations is that board members aren’t experts in the fields they support, said Phillip Henderson, president of the Surdna Foundation.

At Surdna, Ms. Alpert understood how to make a family board a "learning body" while giving its members space to exercise the discipline needed make decisions, he said.

Mr. Henderson said Ms. Alpert not only took a lead role in developing two strategic plans for Surdna but also made sure those road maps were "living tools" that helped inform board actions.

"There’s a duality with a family foundation," he said. "You need to give information to help the board learn but also realize their role is to govern and set strategy. There’s a real art to doing both things at the same time."