05: The Birth of the Foundation

Not quite a decade after the deal with Scotts that launched Horace Hagedorn’s philanthropy, he died of pulmonary fibrosis in early 2005, a few weeks before he would have turned 90. His estate had continued to grow, and he left behind nearly $60 million for Amy to continue their charitable giving. He entrusted to her the decision whether to use that money to increase the size of their fund at the Long Island Community Foundation, or to start a foundation.

Amy decided to start a foundation, with the help of Darren Sandow. There was some thought that Sandow and Suzy Sonenberg might come to the new foundation together, but Sonenberg decided to remain at the Long Island Community Foundation. “So, it was a no-brainer for me,” Sandow said. “At that point, I was working a lot with the Hagedorns, and there was no way I was not going to do it, if they offered me the chance.”

So Amy hired Sandow to become the new foundation’s executive director. At the start, the core of the foundation was small. “I had the services of the lawyers who did the trust, and I had Darren,” Amy said. “I trusted Darren.”

Sandow’s journey to that position of total trust began in Holland, a conservative city in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, just east of Lake Michigan and not far from Grand Rapids. “I grew up very poor and very conservative,” he said. Like Amy, his mother was a single mom. She worked two waitressing jobs to support him and his sister, Alexandria. “We were free-lunch kids,” he said. “I grew up on food stamps.”

It was at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor that Sandow began to rethink his conservatism. The pivotal moment happened in Detroit, where he awaited the arrival of his girlfriend’s bus. “At that time, I wanted to be an accountant, and I had my economics book with me and some accounting books,” he said. This was in the mid-1980s, in the era of Ronald Reagan and trickle-down economics. “I was a believer.”

As Sandow waited for his girlfriend’s bus, an elderly African-American man struck up a conversation with him, and it quickly turned to economics. “Then he started asking me what I knew about the black community in Detroit and what they’re going through, and just basically asking me a lot of questions that we struggle with here now,” he recalled. The old man found Sandow’s Reagan-influenced answers unsatisfactory. “He said, ‘Young man, if you continue on with that indoctrination and you ever get into political office, I’m going to take you out.’ ”

This encounter happened at about the time Sandow had to pick courses for the next semester, and he turned away from accounting, toward studying the economic development of Third World countries. Suddenly, he wasn’t the cocksure conservative. “I began questioning a lot of things.”

That questioning and interest in the Third World led quickly to the Peace Corps when Sandow graduated from Michigan in 1988. It was on the Ann Arbor campus, in the closing days of the 1960 presidential election, that Sen. John Fitzgerald Kennedy issued a challenge to the students to use their talents to serve abroad. That challenge later became the Peace Corps, and a plaque on campus recalls that middle-of-the-night speech with a glimmer of a great idea. “So, our peace corps presence was very pronounced,” Sandow recalled. “Also, being a poor kid, it was a way for me to get out of the country and see things with my new eyes.”

The country where Sandow got to see things with new eyes was Costa Rica. There, he worked on a program called farm management, though he had zero farming experience. “That was the crazy part,” he said. “They wanted me to become an agronomist in a language that I didn’t speak.” It would have been an insult to local farmers for a fresh-faced college graduate to try to teach them how to farm. Instead, he showed them what his accounting experience had taught him: spreadsheets. That enabled farmers and their wives to manage the farms more efficiently.

After two years with the Peace Corps in Costa Rica, Sandow worked briefly there as a rain forest tour guide and traveled through Latin America with a friend for a few months. When he returned to the United States, he saw friends he had known in Costa Rica overstaying their visas and getting into trouble with the immigration authorities. “One of them got caught and then got deported,” he said. “So, it had a very personal effect on my position on immigration.”

Though he was now bilingual and wiser in the ways of the world, his assumption that he’d find a job easily collided unhappily with the reality of a recessionary economy.

He lived briefly with his mother in Michigan, with his father in New York, with Peace Corps friends in Massachusetts, doing odd jobs. Back in New York, he worked in a bookstore. Later, he found work with the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, doing Supplemental Security Income outreach. When the council lost that program to another agency, Sandow thought seriously about leaving nonprofit work behind. But he worked briefly for a nonprofit in Brooklyn called People’s Firehouse.

Sandow soon left the People’s Firehouse but continued studying at The New School in Manhattan toward his master’s degree in nonprofit management. It was then that he got a call from a consultant to the Long Island Community Foundation, who was helping Suzy Sonenberg sort out resumes. Sandow had applied for a job as program officer for the Long Island Unitarian Universalist Fund, which LICF managed. “I went through five interviews and landed that job.” He started at LICF in late 1996.

Initially, Sandow worked solely with the Long Island Unitarian Universalist Fund, but Sonenberg later promoted him to program officer for the LICF itself. That meant he started going to board meetings and got to know the Hagedorns. When Horace died in 2005 and left Amy money to continue her philanthropy, Sandow—who had almost left nonprofit work a few years earlier—found himself at the helm of a fledgling foundation.

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