Simon Greer has been reveling in the serenity of the Nathan Cummings Foundation’s Manhattan offices, a world apart from the raucous, David-and-Goliath battles he waged during his two decades as a social-justice organizer.
“They take a lot out of you,” Mr. Greer, 45, says of campaigns he led before he took over the leadership of the foundation last year. “If you do them all the time, you’ll lose your soul.”
But now he’s ready to put his stamp on the foundation by focusing grant making on two of the toughest problems facing America. This week he persuaded the philanthropy’s board to focus nearly all of the foundation’s grants on reducing income inequality and fighting climate change.
To tackle such large and complex problems, Mr. Greer is still very much the community organizer: His approach, he says, is to cultivate what he calls “radical empathy” among a wide range of thinkers and activists to craft solutions.
“In the next 20 years, the United States will go through a huge transformation in demographics, the environment, our economy, and in religion,” he says. “Can we get people to agree on what we know to be true and then create the future of America?”
Seeking a Leading Role
In recent years, Cummings, a midsize foundation with $440-million in assets, has granted about $25-million each year for arts and culture, the environment, health care, and new approaches to social justice, focusing on the poor.
With the foundation’s new focus, some arts, health, and Jewish groups may feel the pinch, but not until after they have been given transition grants to use while they seek other donors.
Mr. Greer has bold ambitions to reboot social-change philanthropy. He recalls the history of foundation-backed movements that changed how Americans think. He sees a looming challenge there for Cummings, which was created by the founder of the Sara Lee Corporation.
“When you look at how many Americans now view things, you see how small family foundations that didn’t have all that much money shaped our current culture,” Mr. Greer says. For example, he notes, the John M. Olin Foundation and the Scaife Foundations helped create strong public support for the idea that government functions should be supplanted by free-market forces.
If Cummings were to have a similar impact on, say, income inequality, it could play a leading role in shaping the national debate, Mr. Greer says. And it is making a big statement by stepping into the climate-change debate, which some foundations have stepped away from after encountering gridlock in getting any policy changes made.
Mr. Greer says he is deliberately trying to counter what he sees as a growing trend: foundations getting too distant from the biggest problems in society.
Take, for instance, the epidemic of youth homelessness in New York. He laments how grant makers often support one pat solution rather than recognizing the issue’s complexity. What’s more, he decries foundations’ lack of urgency.
“You look at homelessness here and think there should be some kind of emergency, but there isn’t,” he says. (Cummings made a recent $20,000 grant to the Coalition for the Homeless, he adds, in part to study ways to help get people on the street.)
He says foundations should become more engaged with grantees and those they serve. “Philanthropy can’t become some kind of secret society,” he says. “We need to connect ourselves to people in need.”
Though Cummings bases its giving on Jewish values, as its founder wished, it doesn’t limit its grants to Jewish organizations.
Nevertheless, Mr. Greer, who describes himself as “a not particularly observant Jew,” often invokes the Bible to describe the foundation’s work.
“The Exodus narrative of strangers trying to survive in a strange land is the most Jewish thing about us,” he says.
He could just as easily limn himself—a grass-roots organizer who landed in a foundation’s corner office—in the same terms.
Mr. Greer was raised in Manhattan by parents who backed progressive political causes. His father, Colin Greer, now head of the New World Foundation, was fired from a teaching position at Columbia University before Simon’s birth for protesting the Vietnam War. His late mother, a high-tech worker, grew up in Dickensian poverty in London, something that shaped her outlook and, eventually, her son’s.
“The public safety net here allowed us to go from working class to middle class,” he says.
At Vassar College, Simon Greer first dreamed of becoming a sports lawyer but spent much of his time on campus organizing campaigns for environmental and racial-justice causes.
“He was a very social leader,” says a schoolmate, Ilyse Hogue, now executive director of the Naral Pro-Choice America. “He cultivated a community around him. He perfected that space in which people feel comfortable.”
A B student, he worried he wasn’t brainy enough for the movement-organizing work he was increasingly drawn to. But during a trip to the former Soviet Union during his senior year, he felt energized talking to people in the wake of the Communist government’s fall.
“Their stories of how they lived and what their hopes were set my brain on fire,” he says. “I felt so alive. I came to the conclusion that my problem wasn’t that I wasn’t all that smart but that I learned differently. I had to meet people where they lived to see the whole picture.”
Fighting Glenn Beck
After graduation, he took a $93-a-month job with Solidarity, the pro-labor movement that had taken power in Poland. Back in the States by 1992, he helped organize unions in South Carolina.
In the late 90s, he returned to New York to work at several social-justice groups, eventually landing the top spot at Jewish Funds for Justice (now called Bend the Arc). There he helped lead a campaign against the Fox News personality Glenn Beck.
“Around that time, we saw [the environmental activist] Van Jones, Acorn, and others get attacked mercilessly by Glenn Beck,” recalls Mr. Greer. “He encouraged people to turn in pastors who were advocating for improvements in their communities. The whole idea of social justice was being attacked. I don’t like bullies. We decided to stomp on the bully’s toe to get his attention.”
Jewish Funds for Justice started a Twitter campaign inviting people to write their (mostly negative) opinions of Mr. Beck in haiku form.
Tens of thousands of haikus poured in; comedians read some of them on TV and YouTube. Despite regular death threats, Mr. Greer wrote an op-ed piece for The Washington Post, organized rallies outside the offices of News Corp, which owns Fox News, and arranged meetings with Fox News president Roger Ailes.
In early 2011, Fox forced Mr. Beck from his position.
Those who work in Jewish philanthropy noted Mr. Greer’s efforts. “He is fearless,” says Jaimie Mayer Phinney, a Cummings trustee, great-granddaughter of the founder, and program director of the Slingshot Fund, which works to advance new Jewish organizations. “He says he has sharp elbows. And he knows when to use them.”
'A No-Nonsense Guy’
Those elbows, Mr. Greer acknowledges, have sometimes gotten him into squabbles.
While leading Jewish Funds for Justice, he expanded the organization in part by merging with other Jewish groups. Some leaders within the Jewish advocacy field wondered if all the merging would hurt their fundraising or kill their jobs.
“Some people thought he was empire-building,” says Vic Rosenthal, executive director of Jewish Community Action, a social-justice organizing group in St. Paul.
“Simon is very smart and insightful, but he is sometimes overly aggressive. He’s a no-nonsense guy who wants to get things done, sometimes without letting everyone know what he’s up to.”
Mr. Greer, as Cummings’s founder did, sees Jewish traditions—and faith—as a guide for getting that work done.
“People forget that there hasn’t been a successful social-justice fight that didn’t have a moral center, including the civil-rights movement,” says Mr. Greer. “Progressives have vacated that space. Maybe they’re hoping that religion will go away.”
In October, he invited several dozen religious leaders to a retreat to discuss what should be done to make American democracy stronger by waging a moral war against income inequality, homelessness, and other social ills.
That desire to hear from unusual or unlikely voices shaped the process Mr. Greer used to map out a new grant-making approach.
To keep the foundation’s conference room from becoming an echo chamber, Mr. Greer invited a scholar from the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute as well as gay and lesbian activists and artists to explain their visions for the country.
“Our goal isn’t to build a philanthropic left to counter the philanthropic right—that would be Armageddon,” says Mr. Greer. “I’m curious to hear what makes all kinds of people tick. We should get climate [change] deniers in here to speak.”
All Points of View
Observers wonder if Mr. Greer might sometimes be too welcoming to groups on the fringe.
“I’ve always thought a 'big tent’ belongs in the circus,” says Michael Edwards, a former director at Ford and now a distinguished senior fellow at Demos, a public-policy group that works to strengthen democracy.
“Foundations have been convening groups for generations with little or no effect. The idea that foundations or anyone can create consensus from above in deeply divided societies is daft. But it will raise Simon’s profile, which I imagine is very important to him.”
Still, Mr. Greer believes that such broad inclusion will ultimately lead to a stronger country.
“One thing I learned in Poland is that everyone was in Solidarity,” Mr. Greer says. “That thought of doing something historic together really grabbed me. When people recognize that their problems aren’t limited to their own families and see that creating change can make them part of history, that can be transformative. I’d love to be part of that here.
This article has been corrected from a previous version to indicate that the Cummings foundation gave a grant to the Coalition for the Homeless.
Simon Greer, President, Nathan Cummings Foundation
Education: B.A. in American culture, Vassar College
A family of grant makers: Mr. Greer’s wife, Sharna Goldseker, is vice president at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies; his father, Colin Greer, heads the New World Foundation, which supports grass-roots organizing groups.
Career highlights: Before he joined Cummings in 2011, Mr. Greer headed Jewish Funds for Justice and New York Jobs with Justice. He also founded a volunteer group, Jews United for Justice. He has served as an organizer for Solidarity in Poland and for labor unions in South Carolina.
Salary: Cummings declined to disclose.
Books he’s reading: Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Inheritance, by Samuel Freedman, and The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
Values he says guide his actions: “Lead effortlessly, love openly, serve quietly, listen patiently, and walk humbly.”