Year in Review

By Phillip Henderson & Josephine Lowman

Putting the year 2012 into context is no easy feat. We’ve designed and launched new and vital program strategies. We saw the death of one of the most influential and important figures in Surdna’s history. Super storm Sandy slammed into our hometown, disrupting our lives in the short term and people’s thinking in the long term. And we saw the homestretch of one of the most all-consuming presidential elections in recent times. So much has happened that we did not imagine when we began the year, but our work at Surdna has left us sharply focused and energized for the challenges that lie ahead.

In late December, we were saddened to learn of the passing of Surdna’s Chairman Emeritus John E. Andrus III, the grandson of Surdna’s founder. John Andrus III lived to be 103, leaving behind a profound legacy at Surdna and across the 450+ members of the Andrus clan. He was the living embodiment of the values of this vast family, a link to the past but a true visionary. His focus on excellence and joy in fulfilling our mission redefined the impact of the array of Andrus institutions working to improve people’s lives. The Andrus Children’s Center, the Andrus-on-Hudson home for seniors, the Helen Andrus Benedict Foundation, and the Surdna Foundation were all significantly shaped by John Andrus III’s ideas, energy, and commitment. Indeed, the work Surdna did in 2012 simply would not have been possible were it not for the strong leadership of John Andrus III in the late 1980s to transform this sleepy, low-profile family foundation into the modern, strategic philanthropy it was to become. One of the catalysts for this change was a 1985 critique by Waldemar Nielson in his book Golden Donors. He wrote of Surdna, then one of the 36 largest foundations in the United States, that it was “persistently sluggish” and that “imaginative leadership” was needed to “... finally correct the impression that not the only thing backwards about Surdna is the spelling of its name.” John Andrus III took up this challenge and led the reimagining of the Foundation into one that would be noted for its accomplishments, leadership, and dynamic philanthropy.

John Andrus III’s work speaks to how powerful and important great leadership can be. His legacy has caused us to reflect on our own work as the leaders of Surdna during this era, and what our work will mean to future generations of this great and long-lived family foundation. As Surdna approaches its 100th anniversary in 2017, we have been working hard to build the program strategies, systems of learning, and excellent staff and board to ensure that we really are making progress toward our goal for communities in the United States to become more just and sustainable. This is hard and fulfilling work. Seeing the ripple effects today of John Andrus III’s leadership more than 25 years ago helps us to take the long view of the positive impact the changes we have overseen at Surdna might have on our work five, ten, and twenty years from now—a time when a new president and a new board chairperson will have long since taken the reins to lead Surdna’s work.

As you will read in the program sections of this annual report, 2012 was for Surdna a year of refining and focusing our grantmaking strategies across the Foundation. We ended 2012 with the announcement of new grantmaking guidelines, though we had been transitioning towards these new strategies throughout the year.

We are so excited about the way these sharpened strategies both build for the future and take advantage of the decades of investments made by Surdna since the time that John Andrus III was actively involved. A great example is the full pivot of our longstanding work in the arts, a subject near and dear to John Andrus III’s heart, into the robust Thriving Cultures Program. This program goes beyond arts training to invest in the critical role that art, artists, and culture play in the way our communities are designed, how they achieve economic success, and how effectively these communities express the diverse cultural layering of their populations. Likewise, our Strong Local Economies Program has been retooled and now directs staff attention and our grant dollars to the central economic challenges faced by low-income and historically marginalized populations across America’s urban areas. This work now includes focus on building career pathways for low income workers; helping accelerate the growth of businesses owned by immigrants, women, and people of color; and working to make the economic development processes undertaken by our cities and states more inclusive and effective than they’ve ever been.

The exclamation point of Superstorm Sandy was a stark reminder to those of us here in the “big city” of New York, many of whom had spent the past five years working to assist in the recovery of New Orleans post-Katrina, that we are all vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Surdna’s Sustainable Environments Program had been hard at work throughout 2012 to produce smart, focused strategies around rebuilding our nation’s urban infrastructure. This “next generation” infrastructure frame took on new relevance and a sense of urgency as we watched beachside communities literally washed away out on the barrier islands near New York City and down the coast of New Jersey. And we watched with a mixture of awe and horror as the vast network of tunnels that connect New York City were flooded with seawater that seemed to blithely overrun the decades old barriers that were constructed to keep the water out. Surdna continues to focus on the long-term infrastructure issues that cities face, but we are also seeing the importance once more of the necessity of marrying our long view of deep systems change with the short term urgency and opportunity brought on by Sandy’s devastating punch.

As we look towards 2013, we are pleased to say goodbye to the never ending presidential election, and looking forward to a year of focused national discussion on so many of the issues that affect American communities where Surdna is hard at work—jobs and economic advancement for the poorest among us; building new and visionary urban infrastructure; making real changes at the local, state and national level that forthrightly respond to the reality of our exposure to new risks as the result of climate change; a chance at real reform of our patchwork, dysfunctional approach to immigration; and a fundamental embrace of the fact that diversity—be it cultural, racial, sexual, professional or otherwise—is with us to stay in America and is a strength to be built-on not a weakness to be minimized.

image description

Phillip Henderson


image description

Josephine Lowman


Keep Reading:
about the surdna foundation