As someone who was most recently at a foundation that closed its doors due to the Madoff Ponzi scheme, I approached the “Investing in Uncertain Times” session with a heightened level of interest. Jeffrey Solomon (Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies) set the stage by providing context: due to Madoff, 51 foundations died, 143 were affected. With such a provocative beginning, he shared the warning sign that kept one foundation from investing and noted that “social prominence did not trump due diligence.”
Melissa Berman (Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors) underscored how many Ponzi schemes are built on relationships and trust, oftentimes exploiting those “built in the sacred, not secular, world that does not have to do with data and facts.” But in the face of broken trust in established relationships and vehicles, she highlighted this as an opportunity to explore strategies like mission-related investments, which offer the opportunity to expand the capacity of foundations, especially when assets may be down.
Mark Charendoff, President of the Jewish Funders Network, shared the response from the Jewish funding community in the aftermath of the news. During Christmas week, 30 funders gathered together to figure out how to react, willing to work with funders they never met before in order to help grantees. The group offered interest-free loans of up to $300,000/year to groups, used existing relationships with lawyers and other professionals to provide pro-bono services for grantee organizations, and tapped existing networks to help connect those affected to potential new grants and opportunities.
Earlier in the morning, in reference to working with grantees, Bloomberg had quipped: “In God we trust; everybody else, bring data.”
In this session, funders took that lesson to heart. The session took a moment of tragedy for the philanthropic community and turned it into a teachable moment.
Kaberi Banerjee-Murthy is a board member of Resource Generation.