13 min read

Michael E. Hartmann talks to the cousins leading a family group protesting the Surdna Foundation’s violation of Andrus’ donor intent.

Carolyn Jones and Kelly Cote Jasper brought some items with them. For a conversation in Minneapolis at the end of March 2019, they brought a framed portrait of their great great great grandfather John Emory Andrus, who created the Surdna Foundation in New York in 1917 and died in 1934. (In typically non-aggrandizing fashion, Andrus named the foundation by spelling his name backward.) The cousins have courageously led a group of Andrus’ descendants in aggressively objecting to Surdna’s violation of his donor intent—first privately and then publicly, including in both The Chronicle of Philanthropy and on the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal in January.

The portrait of him is the same one they brought to a lunch in Bloomington, Minn., in February with current Surdna Foundation chairman and fellow extended-family member Peter Benedict II. The approximately $1 billion, progressive, “social-justice” grantmaker’s new president, former Ford Foundation official Don Chen, was there, too. Jones and Jasper placed Andrus’ portrait near the table at which the four lunched.

It was almost as if Andrus himself were there, as well.

Jones and Jasper also brought a copy of George P. Morrill’s The Multimillionaire Straphanger: A Life of John Emory Andrus, published in 1971 by Wesleyan University Press. Morrill’s biography tells how the unassuming and hard-working son of a devout but impoverished Methodist minister who rode the subway built his massive wealth, including through the successful Arlington Chemical Company and investments in real estate, railroads, utilities, and the Standard Oil Company. Always civically active, the Republican Andrus became mayor of Yonkers, N.Y., in 1902 and was a U.S. Congressman from 1905 to 1913, when he returned to business.

He was a proud, hard-working, community-minded capitalist.

Jones and Jasper brought a large-layout family tree, too, showing the hundreds of descendants of Andrus and his wife Julia Dyckman Andrus, who had nine children. Jones and Jasper are part of the branch headed by the Andrus’ fourth child, Margaret Palmer Andrus; Benedict is part of the branch headed by the Andrus’ ninth child, Helen Whittier Andrus Benedict.

And Jones and Jasper brought a book celebrating the 90th anniversary in 2018 of the formal opening of the Julia Dyckman Andrus Memorial orphanage at the childhood home of Julia, an orphan herself.

Historically, Surdna has substantially supported the Memorial, and still supports it. Helen Whittier Andrus Benedict actively managed growth of the Memorial and its activities until her death in 1969.

Below is an edited transcript of the discussion that Jones and Jasper were kind enough to have with Michael E. Hartmann, co-editor of The Giving Review and a senior fellow and director of the Center for Strategic Giving at the Capital Research Center.

After the discussion, Jones applied for an upcoming open position on the Surdna Foundation’s board, but was then informed that she would not even be among those interviewed for the role.


Concinnities and concerns

Hartmann: Thanks so much for doing this. It’s good to talk with both of you, especially in person, again. That’s quite a family tree.

Jones: Yeah, if you look at the family tree, there are descendants who live everywhere, including as far away as Australia. We've all sort of grown up in different areas and, like all families, we have different philosophies, too. We used to get together more and do what we called concinnities, or family reunions. We haven't done that recently, but for a long period of time, the family tried to stay very close.

Hartmann: When and why did you first have concerns about what was going on with the foundation's grantmaking?

Jones: Well, I remember my mother, who passed away almost four years ago now, had expressed some concerns. She had been very active in the foundations arising out the family-tree branches of which we’re a part, the Thorpe Foundation and the Cote Foundation. She expressed some concerns with certain things at the Surdna Foundation, but I really didn't pay much attention to it. In seeing what they published and what they send out to us, though, I could see change happening.

I decided to go to the 100th-anniversary dinner Surdna held in Minneapolis in 2017, just to kind of see what it was about. My husband and I attended, and it just really was obvious how much they had strayed from what John Andrus had intended for the foundation, from some of the speakers before and during

that dinner. We actually left. My husband, who wasn't really prepared for going into that situation, was so shocked that I think he was about to cause a scene and it wouldn't have been good.

Hartmann: Do you remember who was speaking at the time?

Jones: No, but it was during the salad. We missed the actual meal.

Jasper: They had actors and actresses talk about how repressed they were, and how it was because of “white privilege” and that sort of thing. They actually did scenes. They weren’t at a podium. They went in the middle of the room and did acting scenes for like maybe three to five minutes each. They would cry. There were tears. It was a big drama. It was from some arts organization that Surdna funded.

Jones: It was like [John Emory Andrus] wasn't even represented. I don't know if there was even a mention of him.

It was almost more like a political type of situation to me. The mayor was there, and I think there were other officials from around the country. I kept looking around the room and I’d say to myself, yep, there's a relative, so I must be in the right place. But it was mostly a “who's who” of the Minneapolis political scene and the philanthropy scene. There were organizations I'm familiar with, and they are very active in pushing certain agendas. I saw many representatives from those types of groups at that dinner.

They had one in New York, too. This was for Minneapolis. I would say there were about 80 to 100 people there.

I had read the biography of John Emory Andrus, and I admire him and knew that people respected him. I respect him. At the dinner, I thought, this does not seem right. This doesn't align with who he is.

Re-reading and researching

Hartmann: When did you first read the biography?

Jasper: I did a book report on it in eighth grade.

Jones: I do not remember exactly. When I was young, I received it as a Christmas gift from my grandmother and remember reading it. I also have a vague memory of when I used to go down to the ranch and stay with my grandmother and reading it while I was there on vacation.

After that dinner, I went home and re-read the book again. I re-read it to reacquaint myself with who he was. After what I just heard at the dinner, I wanted to go back and make sure: What did he really stand for? Do I remember correctly? How far have they strayed?

Hartmann: So what did you do?

Jones: After reading the book, we did additional research online. What is Surdna funding? What are they doing? We came across a couple articles that your group had done and we got in touch with you.

Hartmann: Was there anybody else to whom you thought you could turn to discuss these concerns?

Jasper: Well, my whole family and your whole family, Carolyn. I mean we all see the donor intent is completely obliviated. So we discussed it, yes. But then Carolyn and I were like, oh boy, we got to do something. What can we do here?

Jones: We reached out to you because it seemed like you had a good grasp of donor intent and how foundations like Surdna were straying, like Ford and Rockefeller. We were trying to see what we could do as family members to draw attention to how the foundation has strayed.

The family, the foundation, and the future

Hartmann: Over time, what’s been the nature and level of the contact or engagement, among the extended family and between the family and the foundation?

Jones: The last concinnity was probably around 20 or 25 years ago. I always thought that our family was very proud of being our family. Growing up, there was always a lot of contact. There were these family reunions. It was more of a focus back then.

Jasper: And they would focus more on John Emory Andrus at that time. We are the descendants of John Emory Andrus, we’d all say, and that’s kind of what united us, I think. We’re all going to get together and say we’re here because of him. Look how many of us there are.

Jones: I remember we had t-shirts and we had a contest among the kids to design the t-shirts. I participated in that.

With the foundation, even to this day, there is communication, but I think it’s strayed more from actually wanting us to get together and be together to “we're going to tell you what we're doing.”

Hartmann: Is it ever consultative? Do they inform or consult?

Jones: It's more informative. There are requests to consider joining the board or the [Board Experiential Training (BETs) program for family members between the ages of 18 and 24], but I really see that as their way of basically indoctrinating the younger generations. I think they reach out to the younger kids, but I think there's an agenda behind it. There’s definitely an agenda.

Hartmann: Well, what is that agenda?

Jasper: My kids are all involved in the BETS program. As the foundation describes it, it’s a year-long leadership program that connects descendants of John Emory Andrus through the lens of philanthropy and social-justice advocacy. It’s really about social justice as they understand it and the kids are just brought right into that, to make some grants. It's about systemic oppression and there are readings about white privilege, structural racism, equity, and things like that. Nothing about John Emory Andrus.

They meet monthly talking on the phone about different topics and they're finally now into the grantmaking. My kids keep saying, what about John Emory Andrus? Let's learn more about him. He's kind of not brought up much. He started this foundation. What does he want? What are we here to do?

An internal interchange

Hartmann: What then led up to the memo you sent to the board?

Jones: So just in the middle of us talking with you, in November 2017, they announced Phil Henderson was leaving as the foundation’s president and they were looking for a new leader. The job description for the search was in line with leading further grantmaking against John Emory Andrus’ intent.

We thought it would be an appropriate time to weigh in and say we think Surdna has strayed from the original intent and that the presidential search presented a good opportunity to get back to that original intent and to represent John Emory Andrus better and more honestly. We took our time to prepare the memo and then sent it to the board in May 2018.

Hartmann: And “we” there includes you and some co-signers, right? How did the process of getting them go? Was their receptivity to your request to join in on it?

Jones: We mostly stayed within our lineage, mostly due to time restraints. Remember, we wanted to get the memo to the board in time for it to have a meaningful impact. Plus, we didn't have a lot of access to the larger family beyond our immediate families. Among those we were able get in touch with, they were very receptive and we got a total of 22 co-signers, including us, really with very little effort to expand beyond that.

Hartmann: How did the board react?

Jones: The chairman, Peter Benedict, sent a letter back in, I think, July of that year thanking us for our input and just going back to the legal. We are doing things by the book, it said, and we are legally within the constraints of the original charter. The foundation’s original filing documents were very broad, it said, and they interpret that as his desire to keep it broad and to evolve over time. I wouldn't agree with that, but … They clearly had the lawyers help draft the response and basically gave a “we are within the letter of the law of what we can do.”

Hartmann: Then, in August of 2018, a new president was announced—Don Chen from the Ford Foundation, which has had its own donor-intent issues, of course. And in September, Chen announced Surdna’s new “refined program strategies,” continuing and expanding the emphasis on “social justice.” Were you surprised by the timing of the hiring, where he came from, and the “refined program strategies”?

Jones: No. I truly think that the foundation has been hijacked and they have their own mission. They had their own goals. The family now is something that they have to put up with. They have their own agenda, and nothing is going to get in the way of that agenda. So I wasn't surprised. I was disappointed, but I wouldn't say that I was surprised.

Jasper: And they’ve hand-picked the people from the family that go with their agenda, so it's like a blocker. You can't penetrate it.

Hartmann: What was the reception of your fellow extended family members, those who aren’t co-signers, to the memo?

Jones: Most people have been supportive, quietly supportive. They don't want to really stick their noses out too much. One of my more-liberal cousins responded negatively, but I think for the most part, we’ve had a positive response. Kelly has talked to wonderful people from New York who have had concerns with Surdna and gave up many years ago. They were happy to see that this issue had resurfaced.

It's hard because our access to the whole extended family is limited. We asked for a copy of the e-mails on their list. We have not received that from Surdna. Right now, we’re simply limited. I have some addresses, but they're from 2001. When we tried to distribute the memo, we got more bounce-backs than we got sent.

Wider awareness

Hartmann: So you were willing to speak to The Chronicle of Philanthropy for the January 2019 article?

Jones: We felt it was a story that needed to be heard. We were happy to try to get that message out there. We were hoping that some of the family members would hear about it and try to get more involved.

Hartmann: Why do you think The Chronicle of Philanthropy would be interested in a matter like this?

Jasper: Well, maybe because of donor intent. I mean, it is fascinating that a person can set up a foundation and have it set and then pass away, and it's hijacked. It's not at all what he wanted. I think that is just interesting. I mean, so much plays into that, right, like integrity and boldness. How does that happen? It's just fascinating.

Hartmann: And then The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed on the situation, at the end of January 2019. Were you surprised by that level of attention?

Jasper: Oh, it was so encouraging to read. This is what was encouraging: all the comments that readers wrote, over 50 comments of people who took the time to write a comment and say, go get ’em. This is so wrong.

It was so encouraging, and I think it was kind of just a validation that donor intent matters and that people can see that this is wrong, people that aren't even involved. It's just so black and white and obvious that this is not okay.

Hartmann: How did the foundation and/or your fellow extended family members react to the publicity, both in the Chronicle and The Wall Street Journal op-ed?

Jones: They were concerned about it and worried about it, I think. The chairman did do a short little response to The Wall Street Journal. It was basically the legal response. Even when we met with them, it was, what we are doing is legal and to the letter of the law. Maybe so, but it may not be moral and it may not really represent what and who they should be representing.

I think some of the big foundations in general and Surdna in particular are becoming movements. They are becoming politicized, even though they say they are not. They do what they do under the auspices of education and other things that still can fall under a non-profit status. They clearly are moving away from things, too, like actually helping specific individual people. It's much more politicized. It's much more movement-building, and I guess that's what I object to. And then there’s more and more of this third-party “funding-the-funders” stuff, which seems to be an effort to hide where the funding ultimately goes and make it easy to avoid accountability.

Jasper: Which they need to do because they are so against the founder’s intent. He would never want this, ever.

Hartmann: How did the rest of the meeting go? Was there anything resolved?

Jasper: Don Chen, the president, and Peter flew out to meet with us. I think we had a two-hour meeting before they had to fly back out. We sat down and talked about how we want John Emory Andrus honored. It was nice of them to come out and sit down with us. I don't think we made much progress.

Hartmann: Are there other actions you think you could take with them or the foundation?

Jones: Well, there’s actually been a letter to the whole extended family about two board positions opening up in the next couple of years, so I'm considering applying for that position. I doubt that it will be well-received, and there's a whole lot of language in the letter that says only so many people from certain lineages can be represented, and that you must adhere to their “social-justice” platform—that they’ll only consider candidates who will adhere to what they’re doing.

So it will be interesting to see the reception that I get, but I intend to apply and to apply in the name of John Emory Andrus and what I believe he would have wanted a family board member to represent. [Again, after the discussion, Jones was informed that she would not even be interviewed for a board position.]

Specificity and sunsetting, socialism and self-reliance

Hartmann: What have you learned in this process that you might be willing to share with others, either in your same position with other foundations or people maybe wanting to consider creating a foundation?

What have you learned and what can you perhaps teach?

Jones: I think if you're creating a foundation, I think you need to be very, very specific. If you don't want your money spent on X, then outline that specifically. You have to be specific. I would consider possibly even putting a deadline on it.

I think morally and from the standpoint of integrity, we need to get that message out because it's wrong that all of these foundations have been hijacked, and I do use that word hijacked. I think they have been hijacked. They are stealing others’ money for their own purposes. It is very well-orchestrated, it is very organized, and it's a big machine out there that we're going against, but I would like to see more family members connected with all of these other large family foundations get involved and put pressure on them.

Jasper: I think for me, there's a lot I’ve learned through this, but first is that I have mad respect for John Emory Andrus. What a great man. I've also learned, sadly, that you should never assume you can trust your descendants to honor you. Bless his heart, I'm sure he would be absolutely dismayed at the betrayal. So, yeah: lock it up, get it firm. Not only say what you want, but what you don't want. I don't think he in his wildest dreams would have thought he had to say what he doesn't want.

I think also what I have learned is that there are a lot of great people out there, even though it's been disheartening to see family members and staff swerve away from this man's intent. There are people out there that care. You got to fight the good fight. You just have to fight the good fight and you can't back down, is what I'm learning. You have to stand firm on your convictions, just like John Emory Andrus would have so.

Jones: There's getting away from donor intent and then there's completely dishonoring the individual. John Emory Andrus wanted to fund things that helped the young and the old—provide for the orphans and those who were given a rough shot in the beginning, and then the very old.

An example of where Surdna, in maybe a less-malicious way, got away from donor intent would be the arts. He actually was against the arts. He felt people should be working. He thought arts and entertainment were a distraction from working and a waste of time. That's getting away from donor intent.

But where Surdna is today is promoting this victimhood society and turning against capitalism. Not only are they getting away from donor intent, but they are completely doing a 180 on who he was and what he stood for.

Jasper: The opposite of everything he stood for, and I mean to the tee. Carolyn's right: everything he stood for, they're doing the opposite.

Jones: There are quotes in the book that he very much against socialism and communism. That was stirring up during the end of his days, and he was very much against that. Surdna today is part of that movement.

And on victimhood, he felt everyone should be self-reliant and work and save, and now Surdna is all about victimhood. They don't support people being on their own and self-reliant. One of the things in the early children’s home is that they were given a 15-cent allowance for the week. This was during the war. They were required to save 10 cents of that. They bought bonds with their 10 cents a week. That was something that he really stood for. He felt that if you saved your money, anyone could get wealthy in America. That's in the book. They are completely 180 from his philosophical worldview. And that's where I think it gets so disheartening.

So we’re going to keep up our effort.


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