The Hagedorn Foundation: a small philanthropy with a big heart.
In just a dozen years, among its many contributions, the Hagedorn Foundation has worked to strengthen the voice of immigrants and help them organize; commissioned insightful studies of the positive impact of immigrants on Long Island and the negative effects of hate crimes directed against them; elevated awareness at state, national and local levels of the crucial role of early childhood education; helped train parents to be effective advocates for children; and significantly increased voter registration in communities of color.
Since its inception, the foundation has given over $53 million in grants to 195 organizations. But this history is more than a straight dollars-and-cents accounting of its activity. Liz Axelrod, the foundation’s grants manager, wisely said this about its founder, Amy Hagedorn: “She was much more than what she gave.” The same can be said of the foundation that she created, thanks to the vision of a kinder world that she shared with her late husband, Horace Hagedorn. Beyond the spreadsheet numbers, it has exerted outsized influence in its short life, using its power to convene, to connect, and to lead.
This is the story of how the foundation began, what it has accomplished, and how it has exerted influence well above its size and beyond its Long Island base. The purpose of this history is not only to record those accomplishments, but to offer lessons learned to anyone who reads it—especially leaders of other foundations.
To understand the foundation’s work, you have to begin by understanding Amy Hagedorn, its passionate heart, who carried forward Horace’s generosity by creating the foundation in 2005.
The roots of Amy’s philanthropy lay deep in her gentle, lasting compassion. Her endless empathy for the needs of others grew out of a life filled with the gritty single-mother reality of struggling to raise four children, then with an unexpected, life-transforming transition from pinching pennies to the ability to give away millions of dollars.
The arc of her biography was truly cinematic: from the classroom to the board room, from necessary frugality to soft-spoken but wide-ranging generosity, from a small apartment in Astoria to a foundation housed in the historic estate of America’s first great poet, William Cullen Bryant.
She was not born to wealth, but when it came her way, through marriage to a marketing genius named Horace Hagedorn, she knew what to do with it: She chose to give it away through a foundation with a limited life span, making grants of meaningful size, to bring about real change on Long Island—change that she could witness in her lifetime.
Sadly, Amy did not live to see the foundation’s final act. She died on September 8, 2016, just a few days short of her 80th birthday. But her passion and her courage made the foundation unafraid to take risks in tackling serious issues: immigration advocacy, in a time of poisonous nativism; better early childhood education and empowerment of families to fight for their children; civic engagement, in an era of voter suppression; and government efficiency and accountability.
As a local funder, the foundation was able to have strong ongoing relationships with its grantees, communicating with them freely and often. It was able to act as a connector, a convener, adviser, and supporter. In addition, as a valued member of national coalitions, it was able to punch above its weight, to exert influence on issues beyond its Long Island base. That combination of traits made the foundation unusual in many ways.
“I would have to say that on Long Island we certainly have done philanthropy differently,” said Darren Sandow, the foundation’s executive director from its first day to its last. One key to that different style was Amy’s decision to make it a spend-down foundation, rather than one designed to last many decades into the future. The spend-down approach enabled the foundation to make larger, difference-making grants, to forge real progress toward clear, focused goals. Beyond that, the biggest difference in its philanthropy has been the willingness to take risks, to bring about real change in a difficult environment. At the core of that risk-taking was Amy.
“She let us do it fearlessly,” Sandow said. “She didn’t care who we took on, how we took them on. If she understood the strategy, and she saw it wasn’t us just operating in a vacuum, she would get behind us 100 percent—and not just get behind us, but stand in front of us and kind of lead the drive.”
“Operating in a vacuum” was not the foundation’s way. By reaching out to national funders who shared its concerns, by meeting regularly with consortia such as Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, the Four Freedoms Fund, and Grantmakers for Children, Youth, and Families, it broadened its scope and influence.
“I think, by working at the national level, we were able to bring the best learnings, best teachings, best resources onto Long Island, and that helped strengthen our work tremendously,” Sandow said. Repeatedly, national connections led to local progress.
It also led to national recognition. In the world of philanthropy, the Hagedorn Foundation is tiny, compared with the big-name perpetual foundations such as Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller. But in 2013, the Council on Foundations awarded Sandow the Robert W. Scrivner Award for Creative Grantmaking. That constituted a powerful seal of approval of the foundation’s risk-taking and national outreach.
“Darren is one of those rare people who combine hard work with true innovation and a willingness to push aside boundaries and take risks in the pursuit of creative ways to tackle two of today’s thorniest problems: immigration and voter engagement,” said Geri Mannion, director of the U.S. Democracy Program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, who chaired the selection process for the award. “He also is a true collaborator, reaching out to work with a wide range of partners from the public, private, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors.”
Of course, operating at a national level entailed travel and other expenses that might have intimidated other small foundations. But, says Sandow, “Amy never questioned it.” Her single-parent years had accustomed Amy to frugality. Even in the years after she had met and married Horace Hagedorn and went from penny-pinching to wealth, she still clung to habits such as taking home any unused bread from a restaurant meal. But personal scrimping never impeded Amy’s openhanded, risk-taking, generous approach to philanthropy. She helped shape Horace’s approach to giving money away, but it was Horace who had figured out how to accumulate that wealth in the first place.