Benjamin Altman - his life, his approach to his business, his generosity - has always been the inspiration for how the foundation he established in 1913 conducts its work. He was among a handful of emerging philanthropic leaders who founded significant foundations in New York City between 1907 and 1913. Altman, whose department store was a household word for most of the 20th-century, left a legacy beyond his store -- his two gifts to the people of New York: one to the Metropolitan Museum that honored his love of art; the other, the creation of the Altman Foundation, fulfilling his desire to improve the lives of the underserved in the City. His personal giving offers a roadmap in the areas of education, health, strengthening communities and the arts that continue to be the Foundation’s focus today.
New York City is very different from the early 20th-century city that Altman knew and loved. He might find the philanthropic world of 2018 puzzling and perhaps troubling. His philanthropy was from the heart and driven by his personal interest in New Yorkers in need. Outcomes, evaluations and metrics were not concepts that entered into philanthropic decisions in 1913. Government support and regulation of the organizations he supported were not factors in their financial sustainability. Although a different city, New York’s vibrancy and energy is similar and the needs of many of its citizens are at least as urgent.
The profound societal disruption that has occurred in the United States since 2016 that affects the people and the organizations the Foundation serve makes carrying out Altman’s legacy especially challenging. The implications of the present political situation in Washington, budget cutbacks, and policy changes will eventually impact the work of many of our grantees. It is clear that there will be major changes in public funding for many organizations. At the same time foundations who have traditionally supported New York City’s not-for-profits will not necessarily have increased dollars available to cover the losses due to government funding or policies.
Inclusion, diversity, and access have always been central to our mission. Leveraging dollars, looking at program-related investments, collaborating with other philanthropic organizations and the public sector, providing capacity building grants, making multi-year grants and taking risks are some of the creative ways to support grantees in a volatile financial and political environment. Our outcomes approach reflects the high standards of excellence that were a hallmark of Benjamin Altman’s personal philosophy. Our grantees are our partners. Hard-to-measure aspects of a program are important considerations. These include governance, and the ability to deliver quality services, as well as the wisdom to change approaches and ways of delivery as times and conditions warrant.
Our modern, mission-driven grantmaking cannot be accomplished without the incredible dedication of trustees and staff. We honor our peers and partners, the philanthropic and not-for-profit organizations that help make our city with its constantly evolving and changing population compassionate, effective and vital. With their courage and creativity we know the organizations and people we serve will weather the present storm. Altman trustees and staff continue to lead this work with foresight and determination to honor Benjamin Altman’s vision and our 105-year history of enriching the quality of life for all New Yorkers.
Jane B. O'Connell