Newman's Own CEO Shares: What Paul Newman Would Tell Small Foundations in the Pandemic: Don’t Shift Course

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Newman's Own CEO Shares: What Paul Newman Would Tell Small Foundations in the Pandemic: Don’t Shift Course

By: Miriam E. Nelson, acting CEO, Newman's Own Foundation

The late actor and philanthropist Paul Newman often spoke about luck: “I want to acknowledge luck; the chance and benevolence of it in my life, and the brutality of it in the lives of others.”

While Covid-19, the thousand-headed Hydra, levels towns, cities, institutions, and lives across the country and the world, it feels that no one has been lucky. Then I think back to Paul’s quote: Even though the Hydra can strike anyone, none will feel the brutality of its impact as much as those who are already disadvantaged or facing uncontrollable adverse circumstances. The least fortunate among us suffer the most.

Since Covid-19 took control of our lives, I awake every morning to the same profound question I take to bed: Should we redirect our resources to frontline responders and other efforts addressing the impact of Covid-19?

My instincts tell me “yes.” But then I think again. Here’s why:

Our foundation doesn’t have enough money to fund the vaccine hunters. (The Gates Foundation has fortunately taken on that challenge. Thank you, Bill and Melinda.) We can’t make a dent in unemployment. (But thanks to Congress, the CARES Act may help with that.) We lack the resources to build MASH units in New York’s Central Park. (Thank goodness for the Army Corps of Engineers.)

But we can make a difference in the same places we always have — vulnerable kids, food insecurity and nutrition, and independent media — and in our local communities. In times like these, the needs grow: vulnerable kids become even more vulnerable; those who lack nutritious food go hungry; and small, independent media shutter their doors. This virus deepens chasms in our society.

America’s foundations direct $75 billion annually in giving to causes as diverse as the needs of our nation. Places like the Graustein Memorial Fund know that racial inequity is more present and egregious than ever. The Melville Charitable Trust realizes that black and brown people will likely be disproportionately affected by homelessness and housing insecurity.

I picked up the phone last week to call a colleague at a large foundation in New York City, since I needed to check my thinking. Should we keep doing what we’ve always done or redirect our giving to the front lines of Covid-19? Her response was the same as Graustein and the Trust, the same as I imagine Paul’s would be: Stay the course.

We will continue to support vulnerable children, nutrition programs, and independent media while also giving at the local level through our Community Partners Program, which allows the foundation to respond to crises in our own backyard and in communities around the country, through grants recommended by our employees and others close to the foundation.

Our people see the scourge of Covid-19 every day, and they will determine the shifts needed to make us more responsive to our communities. In past years, our employees and colleagues have directed funds to hundreds of organizations, including Bridgeport Rescue Mission to fight poverty, Dorot to end social isolation of the aged, Father Bill’s & MainSpring to help homeless veterans and their families, and countless organizations around the country that depend on support from donors. All of these organizations will need us now more than ever.

So, I say to my fellow heads of small and medium foundations: Let’s stay the course. Paul Newman was a smart man. He knew that some would always be luckier, more privileged, than others. Let’s follow his advice and create opportunities for those who are unlucky. Stay the course, with some modest shifts, allowing our grantees flexibility in how to use funds in the face of the virus. Doing so will enable us to attack the socioeconomic effects this Hydra has created, from every angle and with every weapon in our arsenal.

Miriam Nelson is acting CEO of Newman’s Own Foundation.

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