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Laurie M. Tisch:
President, Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund

What has inspired your current career path?

Laurie TischI’m very lucky to come from a strong family tradition of philanthropy. I was brought up in a house where philanthropy was part of the fabric and where my parents were incredibly generous, both financially and with their time. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t think about how to use my time and resources to help others. Later on, I got involved in specific organizations and really began to dive in. That gave me the opportunity to work with nonprofits, as a Board and community leader at institutions like the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, the Center for Arts Education, and Teachers College.

Those were formative experiences as I thought about philanthropy. One thing that I learned from those organizations is that sometimes traditional program boundaries are too limiting. The Children’s Museum combines the arts, early childhood education and health. The Center for Arts Education, obviously, champions the arts as fundamental to learning. And TC is a leader in many cross-cutting fields, all grounded in research and learning.

When I started the Illumination Fund, I wasn’t exactly sure which issues I wanted to focus on, but I knew it was about what I call “access and opportunity.” Living in New York, you see massive disparities. I wanted to help level the playing field. I didn’t want to create an arts foundation, or an education foundation, or a health foundation so that who you are and what neighborhood you live in doesn’t determine what you can become. I wanted to think more holistically. The foundation’s interest areas are multifaceted, and many programs cross over traditional categories. For example, the NYC Green Cart Initiative advances health and economic development, and it even led to educational and cultural programs such as a photography commission and the Moveable Feast exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York.

The organizations I’ve been involved in are also extremely committed to measurement and impact. That, too, was a learning for me. I am most interested in action and measuring results, because strategy and impact are essential. Fundamentally, I need to understand whether our programs can actually change lives and help move the needle, regardless of which area or discipline they are in.

What are some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced?

There’s no shortage of important causes and good organizations. One of the biggest challenges has been to determine out where we can have a real impact.

Every foundation faces the question of how to measure the overall impact of its work, both in terms of the success of individual grants and the cumulative effect of its grants programs and initiatives. We all want to know if our money is making a difference.

But evaluating effectiveness is not just a matter of “did it work?” It’s essential to be realistic about the size of your grant relative to the size of the problem. You can’t demand that City Harvest explain how your $15,000 grant has changed hunger levels in New York City, or ask a community environmental group how the green roof you funded has changed the trajectory of global warming.

At the Illumination Fund, evaluation is part of our dialogue with the grantee or prospective grantee from the very beginning. They need to be able to explain what’s important to measure, and what’s realistic.

Sometimes, it’s purely quantitative: How many workshops did the organization present, and how many people did they train? Other times, we want to dig into what was learned, and how it changed the participants. That’s another level. Evaluation can get much more complex, and much, much more expensive, but at the very least we want some metrics that tell you what was accomplished.

For our major grants, we work with our grantees to identify metrics they will use to assess their programs.

What are some of the accomplishments you are most proud of?

I’m especially proud of an initiative we helped launch called the NYC Green Cart Initiative. It was one of the foundation’s first big grants. When I started the foundation, I honestly didn’t know a lot about issues of food access and health, and about what people now talk about as “food deserts.” The research showed extreme health disparities across neighborhoods — including diabetes, heart disease, and obesity rates — and wide gaps in access to healthy foods. In 2008, the NYC Department of Health was in the process of developing a number of programs to increase access to healthy foods in underserved neighborhoods. The City came up with an idea to use street vending as a strategy to reach neighborhoods where diet-related diseases are high and there’s limited availability of healthy foods, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables. No city had ever thought to use street vending as a targeted strategy like this.

The results have been extraordinary. Now there are about 500 Green Carts in neighborhoods across the City, and the program has created about 900 new jobs. Other major cities like Philadelphia, Chicago and even London have expressed interest in modeling local initiatives after the Green Carts program.

It was a great accomplishment for the Fund to be present at every step along the way, from collaborating with partnership organizations to visiting the carts to working collaboratively with the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to ensure that together we were doing the best that we can for the program.

The Green Cart Initiative was also the beginning of what is now a growing web of partnerships between the Illumination Fund and other non-profit organizations. Recently we launched an even broader, more comprehensive strategy to create access and opportunity around healthy food in New York City.

So, when I think about what I’m proudest of, it’s both a program and a progression – starting with check writing, then creating the foundation, developing a strategy, seeding new initiatives, expanding and augmenting those initiatives, and then using those initiatives to go deeper and broader.

Who have been the most influential mentors in your life?

My parents, Bob and Joan Tisch, and my uncle and aunt, Larry and Billie, have been hugely important influences. It’s not that philanthropy formed a part of every conversation we had but from the time I can remember, they were generous financially and with their time. They played a big role in their communities, and also in Israel, which was very important in the early days, especially.

Another influence in my life is Melinda Gates. I heard Melinda speak several years ago and I was struck not only by her passion but also by her deep understanding of key societal issues and the effectiveness of her funding in areas such as malaria prevention. Melinda had a deep knowledge of the issue areas she was giving to and emphasized the importance of measuring results.

What would you describe as a turning point in your life?

Philanthropically, I think a turning point happened through my work with the Children’s Museum of Manhattan and the Center for Arts Education. With these organizations, I realized you didn’t need to be an iconic, big name like Ford, Rockefeller, Annenberg or Carnegie to have a foundation. I learned about many smaller foundations that were also making an impact. I also realized through this work that building a foundation effectively was actually the business I had always wanted to run and be a part of.

What are your goals for the future?

On February 14th, the Illumination Fund made a commitment of $15 million over next five years to healthy food initiatives that aim to inspire healthier communities through partnership and community engagement. The new Healthy Food and Community Change initiative will support novel strategies in New York City to increase access to healthy foods and promote healthy choices. It’s the largest program commitment my foundation has made, and my goal is to have a significant impact on one of the greatest needs in New York City. There are tremendous health disparities between wealthy and low-income communities. Healthy food is part of the picture, and my goal is to use healthy food as a catalyst for individual, family and community improvement. #



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