On August 1st, it was announced that Simon Greer would be the incoming president of the Nathan Cummings Foundation after six years at Jewish Funds for Justice. I took the rare opportunity to interview a foundation leader before starting the job. I wanted to learn about his plans, and then come back a year later to see how reality interfered. This is the first of these two interviews.
Aaron Hurst: We are commemorating the 10th Anniversary of 9/11 this weekend. How did that day impact you?
Simon Greer: I had this epiphany. Up until 1989, the world had been defined by two poles. And now the world was going to be defined by two new polls: rising fundamentalist Christianity in this country and extreme Islam around the world. And I thought: What’s a Jew to do?
I decided to own my faith identity and to focus on the role local spiritually based organizations would play in social change.
How did that differ from what you were doing before?
I was trained that justice is at the intersection of love and power. I was way into the power part of it, but only glimpsing how much was missing without the love component. I knew something was missing but didn’t know how to bring it. I saw all these organizations driven by anger. The fast burn of anger and the demonization of the opposition was not the depth of transformation I was interested in.
You can clearly see your commitment to love over anger in your work over the last decade at Jewish Funds for Justice. Where do you want to take that now as the head of Nathan Cummings Foundation?
One of the things I’m excited about is the intersection of spirituality and social justice. I would call it the intersection of inner transformation and social transformation. What drew me to this job is that the Nathan Cummings Foundation describes itself as grounded in Jewish values, committed to social justice.
It is a big change—moving from a grant seeker to a grant maker. How do you plan to approach it?
I know a lot of work that I and my friends and peers have done is really solid, really good work. At the same time, I think we’re all pretty aware that all the good things we’re doing won’t get us where we want to be. If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’re not going to solve the big problems—hunger, homelessness. I would like to find the space to answer those questions.
You are also becoming a leader in the broader philanthropic community. How would you like to use your seat at the foundation to impact how philanthropy works in this country?
You hear a lot about conservative funders, and how they are ideologically aligned, and developing and implementing best practices in movement philanthropy. What do the conservative foundations stand for? Lower taxes, the military, getting the government off your back, unbridled free market capitalism. It is easy to answer.
I don’t even know who would count themselves as progressive foundations. What do the progressive foundations believe in? There is no real obvious answer.
It would be such a blessing to work with other funding partners who we trust, and we could follow each other’s lead in programmatic areas, working together. There could be an aligned group of funders, I don’t know if we would call ourselves progressive, but we would share a similar analysis and worldview. And when opportunities come up for breakthroughs in how our grantees function—say, a shift in the political landscape or a new cultural opening we could step through—there could be a group of people who move lockstep, in the best sense of the word.
You hear that criticism in general of the progressive movement, that there’s a lack of alignment.
Businesses are organized around chambers of commerce; you don’t shut down the chamber at the end of a legislative session. There’s no place on the progressive side of social change work where people come together with such consistency. Instead, we build narrow coalitions, not something permanent.
So, what can we expect to see you do to this end during your first year?
My focus at first has to be building trust and rapport with employees and trustees. The level of trust and rapport guides the pace of change so much.
Read more stories by Aaron Hurst.