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‘Shy Midas’ No More, Rita Allen Makes Its Mark

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‘Shy Midas’ No More, Rita Allen Makes Its Mark
Elizabeth Christopherson

Compared with many other independent foundations, the Rita Allen Foundation has been tiny. For the first 50 years it was governed from a kitchen table in an apartment on Park Avenue in Manhattan. Then it moved to Princeton, where it bunked in with Princeton Project 55 at 12 Stockton Street. Last year it moved to its own place, on the third floor of 92 Nassau Street, the half-timbered Pyne building on the corner of Nassau and Witherspoon streets.

The more significant expansion occurred in 2008, when the last person with a connection to the family died. After the Park Avenue apartment was sold, and its world-class collection of impressionist art was auctioned in London at Christie’s, the foundation’s assets jumped from about $20 million to more than $140 million. (To put that in perspective, the 20-year-old Princeton Area Community Foundation, which aggregates assets of hundreds of area philanthropists, has half that sum).

Now the Rita Allen Foundation is an important institution with the capability to effect significant change through its philanthropic activity. Managing this transition is Elizabeth Good Christopherson, president and CEO. After 20 years in the arts advocacy trenches as a volunteer, she made her mark in the public broadcasting world as the executive director of New Jersey Network. She held that position for nearly 15 years, leaving in 2008 and joining the foundation in 2009. “I cared about creating programs that benefit people, and I am still involved in creating programs that matter to people’s lives,” says Christopherson. “Leadership is not necessarily derived from a title or a salary check, but by seeing a need and engaging to solve it.”

Interviewed in the board room that overlooks the university’s FitzRandolph Gate, Christopherson revealed that — despite her genteel women’s club demeanor — she is going hell-bent-for-leather on effecting transformative change in three areas:

Community Building. For the Rita Allen Foundation (RAF) change can come with building communities. For instance, Chicago-based Peace TXT (funded for $250,000) can reduce urban violence by sending strategically timed text messages to potential troublemakers. “They can predict when violence will occur,” says Christopherson. “It has been a tremendous success, and they are working on how to replicate it with fewer resources.”

The RAF is also funding projects closer to home, such as the urban fresh food project devised by Isles Inc. (with a grant of $150,000), and a new wastewater management method devised by the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association (with a grant of $325,000).

Civic Engagement. The Rita Allen Foundation funds change-making projects such as the Sunlight Foundation ($300,000) for Open State/OpenGovernment.org, and the Center for Public Integrity, which received a total of $700,000 for a healthcare investigative reporting project and a state integrity investigation. For the latter, a team of investigative reporters gave each state an anticorruption grade, unleashing a firestorm of media coverage and some pledges of reform. “Governors are now looking at how their states rate,” says Christopherson.

Young Leaders. For most of its six decades, the Rita Allen Foundation focused on encouraging young scientists, future stars who had not yet gained tenure. There have been some great picks, including Arnold Levine, the noted molecular biologist and cancer researcher (now at the Institute for Advanced Study) and Sam Wang, the Princeton University neuroscientist and author who is now an RAF board member. To the scientist scholars, Christopherson has added leaders in social innovations by supporting PopTech Social Innovations Fellows such as Chicago-based Amanda Geppert. Geppert helped pioneer CeaseFire, an evidence-based public health approach to reducing shootings and killings.

Giving money away, surprisingly, can be difficult, especially when the bank account suddenly swells. That’s because the Internal Revenue Service requires a private independent foundation (as opposed to a public charity or community foundation that solicits funds) to spend, annually, five percent of its total holdings. Those holdings had suddenly multiplied nearly 10-fold, and the foundation was sitting on a short fuse.

Nevertheless, Christopherson kept a sharp focus on getting everything organized; the term “best practices” comes up often during her interview. Among her first moves — to set up meetings with other independent foundations on what governance an independent foundation needed to put in place. She and the board made the rounds to visit those who had formerly funded her work at NJN. “One of our great pleasures has been to talk to people leading philanthropic efforts and note what the opportunities are and what the differences are,” says Christopherson.

She also added board members, including one with impressive foundation credentials: Robert E. Campbell, a long-time Johnson & Johnson executive, had been chairman of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation board, known for its “best practices.”

William Gadsden, the Rita Allen Foundation board chairman, says he is in awe of how quickly Christopherson moved to get the house in order. “I have never met anyone with as much energy and focus as Elizabeth,” says Gadsden “She had the ability to very quickly speak with leaders in the field. In a very short time, she has done an amazing job, transforming an organization that was run off a kitchen table with a limited amount of assets to an organization that gives a great deal more.”

No specific guidelines were listed in the bequest. Until 2008 the RA Foundation had focused its more limited resources on young scholars doing biomedical research (terminal pain, cancer, and multiple sclerosis) with some grants to the arts, Brandeis University, and the United Jewish Appeal.

The only guidance from the bequest was an admonishment to “serve the common good and use your best judgment.”

“The big challenge for the directors at the time, and Elizabeth, was to decide what our domains and focus would be,” says Gadsden.

In Christopherson’s first year the board established seven “guiding principles” (Innovation, Focus, Lasting Outcomes, Collaboration, Core Values, Leadership, and Learning). By 2010 Christopherson revised the mission statement (“to invest in transformative ideas in their earliest stages to leverage their growth and promote breakthrough solutions to significant problems”). Then she set up the three general areas of giving, and devised an operating plan. Things began to pop.

Illuminating all this activity was the character of the original funder, Rita Friedman Allen. Her father, Nathan Friedman, was a physician. During her lifetime she would earmark much of her giving to the advancement of medicine. The fund’s biggest grant category still goes to the Rita Allen Scholars who pursue medical research. Each year seven Rita Allen fellows receive up to $110,000. To encourage them to tackle risky, big projects, the funding continues for five years. This year the program will pay out $1.8 million. Since 1976, more than 100 scientists, including one who later won the Nobel Prize, have been Rita Allen Foundation Scholars.

Rita’s first husband was Charles Allen Jr., a high school dropout known as “the shy Midas of Wall Street.” The boutique firm he founded in 1922, Allen & Company, focused on the media and entertainment areas. Though it was and is famously shy of publicity, it stages an annual extravagant Sun Valley conference that draws Hollywood and Broadway luminaries, and it currently employs a former CIA head, a former president of Coca Cola, and Bill Bradley, the former basketball star and U.S. Senator. The founder died in 1991, but the firm is still actively operated by family members; it participated in the IPO of Google and has also invested in Pandora.

While married to Allen in the 1950s, Rita Allen was known as a Broadway producer. She produced such Broadway plays as Truman Capote’s “The Grass Harp” and an adaptation of “My 3 Angels.” Abroad, she produced or co-produced “The Teahouse of the August Moon,” “Wonderful Town,” and “Kismet.” Though Broadway producers get lots of insider glamour perks, they don’t necessarily expect to get their money back.

By 1956 Rita Allen had remarried, this time to Milton Cassell, a woodwind player who had graduated from Juilliard in 1929 and was a passionate supporter of the arts. (The foundation’s second largest grant is a $1 million Woodwind Endowment Fund at Juilliard). The Cassells collaborated on plays at the Rita Allen Theater (on Madison Avenue in a building now occupied by the American Academy for Dramatic Arts).

When Rita Allen died in the late 1960s, Milton Cassell administered the foundation in her memory, along with Moore Gates, a Princeton resident who was with U.S. Trust Company. Cassell, Gates, and Harry Hitch (a Connecticut-based investment advisor) constituted the three-person foundation board. When Cassell died in 2003, two people joined the board: Aristides Georgantas, a New Jersey banker, and Gadsden, a portfolio manager who had worked with Hitch at Scudder Stevens & Clark and is now with Jamison Eaton & Wood in Bedminster.

Cassell married again and died in 2004 at age 95. His second wife, Lucette, survived him by three years. There were no natural heirs; all of the estate was passed on to the foundation.

The Park Avenue apartment was sold. Also sold was the spectacular collection of impressionist paintings, including Monet’s “Les arceaux des roses,” which went for nearly $18 million.

“As a board, we needed to put in place the necessary infrastructure –– an office and staff to prepare ourselves for what would be a much larger task,” says Gadsden. First the board hired Christopherson. Then it moved the office to a Stockton Street-based Princeton nonprofit organization, Princeton Project 55. It hired a financial executive and expanded the board.

The new board members included Landon Jones (Princeton, Class of ’66, former editor of People magazine), Campbell, Jon Cummings (a partner at McKinsey), and Samuel S.-H. Wang (the Princeton neuroscientist and author, see sidebar page 30).

Jones is enthusiastic about Christopherson. “She is an impressive person — bright, poised, organized, and hard-working. She is well networked within the foundation world and is a great public representative of the foundation,” he says.

“For a foundation such as RAF to be located in a thriving academic community like Princeton is a fantastic asset,” says Jones. “I think we do a good job of drawing on Princeton’s resources but without being ‘captured’ by it or parochial in our grant-making.” Currently the foundation taps the expertise of the Princeton Alumni Corps (the outgrowth of Princeton Project 55) to fund a new Emerging Leaders mentoring program. This program, not limited to Princeton graduates, is for future nonprofit and public executives.

Jones says he takes a parochial interest in the civic engagement grants. “Many of them are aimed at fostering better journalism at a time when the whole field is under siege.” For instance, the Education News Network will train experienced journalists to run digital education news sites in their home towns. On the other side of the experience spectrum, the Hyperlocal News Project trains rank amateurs in the basics of how to report municipal and school board news.

Just announced: a new board member, Sivan Nemovicher (a social media expert from Bridgespan, a nonprofit strategy consulting firm). Nemovicher and Christopherson recently co-authored a paper on how non profits should use Twitter.

Christopherson is not active on Twitter herself, but she does not flinch from the challenge of social media. At the dawn of the computer age, she remembers assembling one of the first Apple computers for her daughter. “There were engineers in my family, and I was always interested in technology, but I always wanted to understand technology for how it could be used to solve problems for the social good, such as for more access to education.” She is particularly happy about instituting a literacy program at NJN that became a national model for online education.

Last year the Rita Allen Foundation gave away $4.8 million. Giving away money might seem easy, but Christopherson and her board can tell you otherwise. In New Jersey alone there are 44,000 nonprofits and only 80 foundations with budgets over $25 million. “There are not enough funds, and we try to be as strategic as we can be,” says Christopherson. “It is very difficult to say no when you care — and we do care.”

From Arts Volunteer

To Public Broadcasting

To Private Fundation CEO

Elizabeth Christopherson’s big coup in her public broadcasting career was New Jersey Network’s partnership with the Sarnoff Corporation. The network lacked the necessary money to “go digital,” but without that equipment it would lose its license. Christopherson built a relationship with Sarnoff’s CEO, Jim Carnes, and NJN was designated as the test site of one of the largest public private partnerships to test digital equipment. “Following that, I negotiated having them leave behind a half million dollar piece of equipment, which we used as collateral to win one of seven prestigious national grants,” she says.

Christopherson forged her career on building diverse communities, and on always doing her best, whether working for pay or for the common good. “I was always organizing something, whether in Girl Scouts or for UNICEF or my younger brother and sister,” she says. When she saw a need, she figured out how to solve it.

Elizabeth Good Christopherson grew up in Summit, where her parents had migrated from the Midwest. Both her mother and her grandmother were social workers, and her mother was an arts activist and organizer. Her father, an investment banker, tried to instill a spirit of curiosity and respect for others’ values, and the family frequently hosted international Fulbright scholars.

At Wellesley she worked to make the college more diverse, advocating for an African American studies program. Though multidisciplinary majors were unusual then, she created a composite history major, incorporating Chinese language, literature, and sociology.

Of the more than 20 years Christopherson devoted to advocating for the arts in New Jersey; some of that time, while she was raising her daughter, was spent as a volunteer. (Her daughter lives in Connecticut now and is married with three children.) Among the numerous regional and national boards on which she served: Girl Scouts USA and the Business Leadership Council of Wellesley College. She was president of the Leadership America Association and of the state chapter of the International Women’s Forum

“Many important causes need our help, and it is extremely fulfilling to see how our efforts contribute to positive change. So the first reason to volunteer,” says Christopherson, “is because you care about a cause and want to help that cause. Along the way, however — if you are working on something with your best efforts, people see you are doing it extremely well, which can open up new opportunities. That might mean moving from working in a volunteer capacity to working in a salaried position.”

From 1982 to 1991 she served on the New Jersey Arts Council. “It was a period of great growth and transformation. We moved from a time when the New Jersey arts community was not recognized nationally to being recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts and other experts as having best practices,” she says. As elected chair from 1989 to 1991, she led the first-of-its-kind ArtsPlan New Jersey. More than 2,000 people participated in a collaborative strategic process to plan for community revitalization, educational initiatives, social services, and economic development.

In 1994 she was appointed to a full-time job as the first woman executive director of New Jersey Network. She had 90-minute commute each way. The network was broadcasting only from 3 p.m. to midnight and there was talk of a sale. She rallied forces to broadcast 24/7 on both television and radio. She obtained new federal dollars for an adult literacy program that developed into a national model. She designed a broadband planning initiative that culminated in creating a national toolkit used as an example for other states. In partnership with the Dodge Foundation, she set up a program to recruit top young journalists.

After the triumph with Sarnoff and HDTV, she was the first NJN executive director elected to the Public Broadcasting Service board, where she worked on a task force developing the policy of editorial integrity. Elected to the board a second time, she served as the first chair of the PBS diversity task force and currently serves as vice chair of the national board of the Association of Public Television Stations.

Her views on digital media’s influence on education attracted international attention, and NHK, the Japan broadcasting network, gave her several prestigious honors. In addition to five honorary degrees, she has awards from the Women’s Political Caucus of New Jersey, the Philadelphia chapter of Women in Communications, and the International Women’s Forum.

“I gave it my all,” she says of her time at NJN. The attrition rate for NJN directors was high; the longest had lasted less than five years. “They used to say I would never make it, but I went through many different governors, and it was a long good run, nearly 15 years. At the end of the Corzine administration I left them with increased audiences and the potential for endowment.”

One of her success secrets was to enlarge the community of stakeholders by creating multiple boards, including fundraising boards and advisory boards. “I have always believed in bringing people together to care about the mission and the purpose of the work. Success is very much a team.”

Whatever she did throughout her career, says Christopherson, “It was all the same job — solving complex problems — working to create partnerships and create programs of value.”

Rita Allen Foundation, 92 Nassau Street, Third Floor, Princeton 08540; 609-683-8010; fax, 609-683-8025. Elizabeth Christopherson, president and CEO. www.ritaallen.org.

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