New York’s “Maverick” Philanthropist
Laurie Tisch says she grew up in a “family of generosity” where charitable giving was the norm. Strategic philanthropy, however, was neither mentioned nor practiced.
She jokes that if her father, Preston Robert Tisch, who died in 2005, were to hear that she’d started a foundation, he would wonder why. “What are you talking about?” she imagines him saying. “Just write the check.”
“My father and uncle were successful and gave where they wanted,” she says. I’m doing it in a little different way.” She pauses for a moment and adds with a smile in her voice, “Much more time-consuming.”
Ms. Tisch, who describes herself as “a bit of a maverick,” has forged a reputation as an innovative funder of social change in New York City as well the co-owner of a rather well-known football team—the New York Giants, Super Bowl champions in 2008 and 2012.
Early on in her career, she provided leadership for nonprofit arts and education organizations she strongly believed in—chairing the board at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan and then leading the board of the Center for Arts Education. (She’s still on the board of the Whitney Museum, as well as that of Lincoln Center and The Aspen Institute.)
After years of success in growing these organizations, she decided to take on a new role in 2007—going from part-time volunteer leader to full-time philanthropist. That’s when she founded the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund.
“Basically, money makes stuff happen,” she says. “My family is quite male-dominated. I had a father, an uncle, two brothers and four male cousins. This is my way to be in the business world, not just to write checks, but to work with a budget and metrics and success. It’s not the same success as the bottom line in a company, but there are some parallels.”
The Tisch family is well-known in New York City for its business acumen (the multi-billion dollar Loews Corporation with significant holdings in property, insurance, hotels, oil drilling and natural gas pipelines) and for its generosity (New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, the NYU Medical Center’s Tisch Hospital and the Tisch Children’s Zoo in Central Park).
Inspired by her parents’ giving, Laurie Tisch sought to make her own mark on the city by improving access and opportunity for all New Yorkers.
She spent time considering what to call her foundation and, like some other women philanthropists, felt comfortable with a low profile foundation name, one which did not have her own name in its title. “The Illumination Fund” seemed appropriate because she wanted to “spark opportunity” by funding “new ideas and fresh approaches.”
Then one of her daughters reminded her of something important. “She said, ‘Mom, you’ve worked so hard to have your own identity, why give it up now?'”
It was a point that Ms. Tisch, who grew up with feminism in the 1960s, found persuasive.
The Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund, as it was christened in 2007, supports projects in education, the arts, health and public service. However, it’s perhaps best known for the Green Carts campaign, a multi-level strategy to respond to food “deserts” in New York City. Social scientists define these “deserts” as areas where fresh produce is hard to find and where the incidence of obesity and diabetes is very high.
Starting with a $1.5 million seed grant, Ms. Tisch worked with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and city staff to create the Green Carts program, which sells fruit and vegetables in areas that are underserved. By 2012, there were 524 active cart permits, translating to employment for 900 people. According to Ms. Tisch, the project also encourages “entrepreneurship, with each vendor owning and operating their individual carts.”
In the second stage of the project, Ms. Tisch funded a new cookbook with recipes from chefs around the city. The idea, she says, is to make recipes and information about fresh produce just as accessible as the fruits and vegetables themselves. The Green Cart vendors distribute the cookbooks for free (10,000 have been printed) while on their rounds.
In a third stage of the project, a new documentary called The Apple Pushers had its premiere in 2011. The film, which looked at the Green Carts project in detail, was also backed by Ms. Tisch. She wanted to build public knowledge and support for the project, broadening impact by encouraging other communities to consider their own versions of the Green Cart model. So far, Ms. Tisch says, eight other cities have shown interest and the U.S.D.A. has screened the documentary for policy leaders and heads of federal agencies in Washington DC.
The evolution of this multi-level strategy for social change has been anything but straightforward. Ms. Tisch freely admits that the public/private project has been challenging and complex, but she says it’s taught her about an important philanthropic virtue: patience.
Here are just a few lessons learned from the ongoing project:1
A philanthropic solution may run into opposition from the same community it seeks to serve. In spite of her funding, the City of New York’s backing and a new law supporting the project, some people fought the Green Carts, saying they would threaten existing businesses.
Sometimes a well-thought out strategy must be adjusted for unexpected circumstances. A quarter of the budget for the Green Carts project was set aside for low-interest loans so vendors could buy their carts. But in practice, most of them did not use this facility, financing the purchase of the carts with money from family members or in other ways. In addition, vendors needed more training and preparation than was called for in the original plan.
Impact measurement is not always straightforward. It was easy to measure impact in terms of the number of vendors and the amount of fresh produce sold, but harder to measure in terms of the effects on the people living in the “food desert” areas.
Relationships must be built at all levels. Evaluation of the program depended on participation of city staff. This required extra outreach and trust-building.
Spending on communications can have big benefits. Ms. Tisch initially had misgivings about spending to make sure the story of the Green Carts had a high profile, but she became a believer. “It’s because we do the communications that it has spread. The film has been an incredible vehicle for people to think about the food desert problem in their own areas.”
Ms. Tisch says her first years as a full-time philanthropist confirmed the effectiveness of a practice she started out doing intuitively; that is, going to see the problem—and the potential solution—for herself.
“I really like going on site visits,” she says. “I’m so visual. I need to see it, to get it. Sometimes you get a little jaded because everyone is pitching you ideas. Unless you get out there, it’s easy to get turned off … No matter where I’ve gone, it’s always been a positive eye-opener.”
She tells the story of going out to the South Bronx to talk to an immigrant couple who operate two Green Carts there. The income from selling fresh produce has helped the couple support the education of their children. “They have three kids in college, and they’re making a living, sending kids through college. Green Carts are a big part of it.”
Ms. Tisch plans to expand her work to encourage access to healthy food—devoting about a third of foundation resources to the effort. Together with staff and advisers, she says she’ll be looking for public partners in order to “do on-the-ground good”as well as “move the needle” in terms of advocacy for healthy eating. There is even a chance that philanthropy and pro football—two, mostly separate, spheres of her life—may come together. The 2014 Super Bowl will be held at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, and the NFL wants philanthropy to play a significant role in the event. The league has recruited Ms. Tisch to help in the effort. Her goal: unite two long-standing American traditions—the forward pass and passing it forward.
In regard to the legacy of her philanthropy, Ms. Tisch has not decided about whether to spend down the resources of her foundation during her lifetime. “When you’re young and you think you’re going to be here forever, you can’t imagine anything but a spend-down,” she says. “The older you get, the more you’re not in favor.”
And though her daughters have an advisory role on the foundation’s board, she doesn’t want to burden them with expectations that they will have to “take over” the foundation. Both have “consuming and thriving” careers as professionals, according to Ms. Tisch. For now, philanthropy is an avocation for them and a full-time job for their mother.
Ms. Tisch approaches her philanthropy in a business-like manner. She devotes a great deal of time not just to her foundation, but to understanding her grantees and the wider issues they address. Still, the serious purpose comes with a sense of humor.
“Someone asked me why I’m doing this,” she recounts. “I said, “Because I looked in the closet and saw enough black shoes.”