The Nathan Cummings Foundation (NCF) was established in 1949 as the Cummings Foundation and took its current name twenty years later. Its creator was the businessman Nathan Cummings, born in 1896 to Jewish parents who had immigrated from Lithuania to Canada. In 1939 Mr. Cummings purchased the C.D. Kenny Company – a Baltimore-based wholesale distributor of canned foods, coffee, tea, and spices – which later evolved into the Sara Lee Corporation. Committed to the idea that “we must contribute to worthy causes [and share] our good fortune with those less fortunate than we are,” Cummings used NCF as a vehicle for: (a) assisting mainstream American and Jewish groups; (b) supporting the nascent state of Israel through gifts to organizations like United Jewish Appeal; and (c) making grants to various universities, medical centers, and hospitals. His donations were generally non-political in nature.
Cummings set up his Foundation not only as an outlet for his philanthropic spirit, but also as a vehicle through which his children and grandchildren might work together creatively and altruistically when he himself was no longer alive. Cummings’ children became actively involved in the Foundation only after their father’s death in 1985, when he bequeathed the majority of his $200 million estate to the charity. His children, along with a lawyer and an accountant who been Nathan’s longtime confidantes and advisers, became trustees of the Foundation. But the late Mr. Cummings had left them no specific instructions regarding how he wanted the Foundation’s money to be spent; he stipulated only in general terms that it should be used for “charitable, eleemosynary, educational, scientific, literary, religious, and artistic purposes.”
Thus the trustees hired a consultant to help them define a philathropic mission. After several months of negotiations and squabbling, they finally settled on the same three major areas of giving that the founder had focused on: Health Care, Jewish Life, and The Arts. Over time, Nathan Cummings’ grandchildren also began to play a role in shaping the Foundation’s grant-making policies, which they expanded to include Environmentalism — on the theory that “somewhere down the line … there [won’t] be any breathable air left.” The environmentalist groups funded by NCF have been predominantly those that espouse radical perspectives that are hostile to free-market capitalism and industrial civilization. Cummings’ eldest grandson, James K. Cummings, served as the Foundation’s board chairman for a number of years and was instrumental in pushing NCF’s philosophy of giving ever-further toward the political left.Viewing the United States as a nation rife with racial inequities and a callous disregard for the natural environment, NCF’s mission today is to use its philanthropic dollars “to build a socially and economically just society that values nature and protects the ecological balance for future generations; promotes humane health care; and fosters arts and culture that enriches communities.” In pursuing these objectives, the Foundation places special emphasis on “concern for the poor, disadvantaged, and underserved; respect for diversity; promotion of understanding across cultures; and empowerment of communities in need.”
Above all else, NCF is committed to: (a) “finding solutions to the two most challenging problems of our time – the climate crisis and growing inequality,” and (b) “transform[ing] the systems and mindsets that hinder progress toward a more sustainable and equitable future for all people, particularly women and people of color.”
NCF’s Climate Change Program warns that “the climate crisis” – in the form of global warming trends purportedly caused by greenhouse-gas emissions associated with human industrial activity – constitutes “one of the greatest challenges in mankind’s history.” The Foundation seeks to address this problem “from an equity perspective,” meaning that it favors “a just transition to an inclusive clean economy” whose hallmarks include reductions in the carbon emissions that are allegedly having “adverse effects” on countless innocent victims. By NCF’s telling, in the United States those victims disproportionately consist of poor urban minorities, while across the globe they are mostly residents of impoverished nations where there is little industrial activity and thus, by logical extension, little or no culpability for greenhouse gases and climate change. Through grants awarded to organizations and activists that aim to hold corporations and politicians “accountable for their part in perpetuating inequality and delaying action on climate change,” the Foundation strives to promote wholesale wealth redistribution on two levels: (a) within the U.S., from affluent individuals and communities to their poorer counterparts; and (b) globally, from rich and industrialized countries to poorer, less-developed nations. Such a course of action, says NCF, would help bring about the “economic transformation we need.”
NCF’s Inequality Program likewise contends that a “more equitable economy” is necessary to help the “millions of Americans [who] face overwhelming obstacles shaped by social hierarchies of race, ethnicity, gender, income, education level or zip code, which restrict their opportunities.” The focus of this program is on “people whose options have historically been limited, including low-income people, people of color, women, and those disproportionately affected by [a] criminal justice system” that limits “the ability of formerly incarcerated people to connect with their families and participate in our democracy and economy.” To counter “the influence of implicit bias and discrimination that purportedly exist” in almost every aspect of American life, NCF provides funding for groups that “challenge ideas, policies, practices and systems that perpetuate racial and ethnic stereotypes, criminalize people in poverty, and make it possible for a few to hold a vastly disproportionate share of the nation’s income, wealth and assets.” The Inequality program also seeks to “advance business ownership models” that expand “wealth and asset opportunities” through which “traditionally under-resourced groups of people” are given preference in training and hiring initiatives related to “climate jobs” in the new “green energy economy.”
To complement the efforts of the two aforementioned NCF programs, the Foundation also administers a Voice, Creativity & Culture initiative founded on the premise that the arts – through the “transformative power” of “discourse” about subjects like “equality, justice, and … climate change” – can “move people to act for social change” by affecting their “hearts and minds” on a deeply emotional level.In March 2012, NCF funded the production of “The Invisible Helping Hand of Government,” a video depicting big, centralized government as indispensable to society’s overall well-being and economic prosperity. To buttress its case, the video cited the role that government has played in the funding of such things as: scientific research-and-development programs, broadband and wireless infrastructure development, public job-training programs, public education systems, and a national transportation infrastructure. Meanwhile, NCF’s then-president and chief executive officer, Simon Greer, added to the video’s claims by writing a passionate defense of big-government initiatives like the New Deal, the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and Social Security, the implementation of unemployment insurance, the passage of minimum-wage laws, and the funding of Defense Department research. Greer exhorted his readers to “recognize the myriad ways in which government protects the quality of life in America and provides the foundation for economic growth.”
NCF has funded a large number of left-wing organizations over the years. Among its grantees are such notables as: ACORN; the Alliance for Justice; the American Civil Liberties Union; the American Institute for Social Justice, Inc.; the Brookings Institution; the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; the Center for Community Change; the Council on Foundations; Demos; the Earth Island Institute; the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund; the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights; the Environmental Defense Fund; Environmental Media Services; the Environmental Working Group; Environmentalism Through Inspiration and Non-Violent Action (a.k.a. Code Pink);Friends of the Earth; Global Green USA; Green for All; the Institute for America’s Future; the Jewish Fund for Justice; the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; the League of Conservation Voters; the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy; the National Religious Partnership for the Environment; the National Wildlife Federation; the National Women’s Law Center; the Natural Resources Defense Council; the New America Foundation; the New World Foundation; People for the American Way; Physicians for Social Responsibility; Planned Parenthood; the Proteus Fund; the Public Citizen Foundation; the Rainforest Action Network; the Rainforest Alliance; the SEIU Education and Support Fund; the Shefa Fund; the Sierra Club; State Voices; the Tides Foundation and Tides Center; the Union of Concerned Scientists; the Trust for Public Land; the Urban Institute; the U.S. Public Interest Research Group; the Waterkeeper Alliance; the Wilderness Society; the William J. Brennan Center for Justice; and the World Resources Institute.
To view a list of additional noteworthy grantees of NCF, click here.
For additional information on the Nathan Cummings Foundation, click here.