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Richard Boone and the Field Foundation: Beacons of Leadership for Social Justice Philanthropy

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

On a mellow California afternoon earlier this month, I drove a few hours up the coast from Los Angeles, where I’d been on a panel at the annual meeting of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, to spend some time with one of the most influential figures in philanthropy, Dick Boone, the last director of the Field Foundation. We talked over tea in his Santa Barbara garden.

I’d never met Dick Boone, but I’d long heard of the work of the Field Foundation, which twenty years ago spent down its assets, much as Atlantic is now doing on a larger scale. When it closed its doors, The New York Times ran a kind of obituary, under the headline, “Field Foundation, Civil Rights Pioneer, to Die at 49; Survivors Will Be Legion.” Established in 1940 by the Chicago banker, publisher and department store heir Marshall Field, the foundation, though never spending more than $4 million annually, had an outsized impact that is felt to this day.

Field was an early funder of racial integration in the United States, paving the way for larger foundations to follow. A report on hunger, funded by Field, played a key role in expanding government programmes to feed poor children at school and enable poor families to buy food at stores with vouchers. Field helped launch the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the Food Research and Action Center and the Children’s Defense Fund, all current Atlantic grantees. Each of them worked to hold the line in support of meeting human needs during the tough years of the Reagan and Bush presidencies, and they are now working to make gains for low-income Americans in the more promising time of the Obama Administration. All social justice organisations and movements in the U.S., and all the foundations, large and small, that support them, stand in the shadow of The Field Foundation.

But rather than view Field’s legacy as a shadow that dwarfs current efforts, it is best to think of it as a beacon for all of us. For that reason and others, I wanted to meet Dick, who remains actively engaged in advising a host of nonprofit and philanthropic efforts. I had felt for years that I knew him through his legions of protégés, whom he carefully mentored and promoted and who now occupy leadership positions. These include Bob Greenstein, longtime director of CBPP; and Margery Tabankin, philanthropic adviser to Steven Spielberg, Barbara Streisand and other entertainment industry figures. Also among them was Colin Greer, President of The New World Foundation, which, along with the Field, Norman, Taconic, and Ottinger foundations, Stern Family Fund, and others, fueled the engines of social movements with funding in the 1960s and ’70s. Finally, his protégés include Lisa Goldberg, the late President of the Charles H. Revson Foundation.

Lisa has recently been on my mind because a few days after I visited with Dick, of whom she often spoke fondly, I spent an afternoon on the selection committee for a fellowship in her name at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, where I am also an adjunct faculty member. Lisa, who was a good friend and cherished mentor to me and many others left her mark on public life in many ways. She led efforts to fund progressive television programming, including those of Bill Moyers, a prominent progressive American journalist, and Eyes on the Prize, the documentary series on the U.S. civil rights movement. But most of Lisa’s considerable influence was subtle and barely noticed, hence all the more effective. She was a central figure in empowering women, strengthening progressive ideas and politics, and fostering leadership for the next generation. She was farsighted and strategic, always keeping an eye on the larger picture. Lisa’s cruel and sudden death two years ago from a massive brain aneurysm still leaves a gaping hole in progressive philanthropy. That a promising young person on a path to public service will be able to go to NYU on a fellowship bearing her name is the most fitting monument she could have.

Dick Boone, now in his eighties, told me how much he learned from key figures throughout his amazing career beginning in his student days at the University of Chicago. Among them were: Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago; Saul Alinsky, one of the pioneers of modern community organising in the U.S. with whom Dick worked; and Robert Kennedy, with whom Dick and others created the Office of Economic Opportunity during the New Frontier. Dick told me that Kennedy taught him that not all problems come in shades of gray, indicating that some are black and white, and require taking a stand. Racial injustice, economic deprivation, hunger: these are issues where you must side with those in historically marginalised communities as they lead the way for the change they urgently need. For philanthropy to be truly effective, for it to have lasting impact in the lives of those who most need it, it must strengthen their voices and build their capacity, and take its cue from their leadership.

If, when Atlantic is finished spending our vastly larger assets in seven countries, it can be said that our “survivors are legion,” and that we chose well, we will owe much to the path forged by Dick Boone and The Field Foundation.


In this more personal column than most, I’ve tried to get across the tremendous importance of individual leadership in social change philanthropy. Contemporary examples abound, but two I want to call out are being recognised with awards at the upcoming Council on Foundations meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, in a few weeks. For their work to advance immigrant rights, Geri Mannion of The Carnegie Corporation and Taryn Higashi of Unbound Philanthropy, two close colleagues and friends, will receive the Robert W. Scrivener Award for Creative Grantmaking. They have chosen to use their award funds to create their own prize, The Freedom from Fear Award, to honour “ordinary people who demonstrate extraordinary acts of courage in defence of immigrant and refugee rights” – another salutary example of paying it forward. And the Association of Black Foundation Executives has chosen to honour Atlantic’s own Programme Executive Rahsaan Harris with its Emerging Leader in Philanthropy Award. Congratulations, Rahsaan!

Gara LaMarche

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