06: The Hagedorn Foundation: Getting Started

Launching a foundation can be complicated. But some aspects of this launch were easy.

For one thing, the new foundation didn’t have to search far and wide for office space. ScottsMiracle-Gro had its headquarters at 800 Port Washington Boulevard in Port Washington, New York, and it had some space that the foundation was able to use, for free. It was, after all, the merger of Scotts with Miracle-Gro a decade earlier that had generated the millions of dollars that first made it possible for Horace and Amy to get into serious philanthropy, through their fund at the Long Island Community Foundation.

It was also relatively easy for the foundation to decide how to spend the millions that Horace had left Amy to continue their philanthropy. “Obviously, early childhood was going to be one of the issues,” Sandow said. Amy had spent 23 years working in a pre-kindergarten setting, and helping young children to learn was her passion.

“The bigger question for me at the beginning was there’s a world of issues that need to be worked on,” Sandow said. “I knew a few things. One, we couldn’t work on many issues. It had to just be a few. And then, more importantly, what is it that the Hagedorns, living on Long Island, want to see done? And so, early childhood, yes. But then I said to Amy—you know, she had been working with me on immigration—and I said, ‘Listen, it’s an issue I’d like to see worked on. It’s an issue that Long Island needs to grapple with. But it’s your money.’ ”

Amy didn’t hesitate. “Her mom was a first-generation immigrant, and she identifies with immigration, and she knows it’s a big issue on Long Island, and she thought it was one that needed to be addressed,” Sandow said. “Then, when I said, ‘Well, there’d have to be a national component to it, because locally we’re only going to get so far; nationally we’re going to have to work on this, too,’ she did not hesitate in saying yes.”

Amy’s mother, Angela, came from a town in southern Italy, just north of the arch of the boot, called Accettura, a name derived from its dense forest and the men who made a living chopping those trees. Not long before World War I, Angela arrived in the United States as an infant, along with her mother, sister and stepbrother. The father of that growing family, Matteo Marchisella, was there to welcome them. He had already come to New York and gravitated to Astoria, which had a large contingent of other immigrants from Accettura.

“My mother remembered being hungry as a child,” Amy said. “She also remembered garbage picking. If they found an orange peel that had a little bit of the fruit left from the garbage, she and her siblings, they would eat it. They looked for food that they didn’t have at home. Even as a teenager, I remember that my grandmother went to Astoria Park and she picked dandelions, the tender shoots of dandelions, and cooked those greens with beans. It was very healthy, but it was the food of poor people.”

Those tales of her mother’s life as a new immigrant stayed with Amy.

“The topic of immigration was very much on everybody’s mind, including mine,” Amy said. “My mother was an immigrant. I identified with them. I identified with refugees. We say immigrant, but so many of them are refugees. So that was easy. And then the idea of early childhood and families was an abiding interest of both Horace and me.” So, the foundation had no need of extensive consultations or an out-of-office retreat to settle the question of what issues would be the core concerns. “No, we didn’t have to debate,” Amy said. “And it was just me. I didn’t have to confer with anybody else.” Sometimes, she would simply tell Sandow what to do. “Or ‘Darren, what should we do?’ I really leaned on him a lot.”

In fact, though it was Amy’s idea to make hers a spend-down foundation, it fell to Darren to explore the ramifications of that decision. As Amy recalled it, she had first heard of the spend-down idea from David Hunter, a legendary adviser to philanthropists eager to give money to bring about social change. Hunter was a pioneer in spend-down foundations and discussed that approach with Amy.

“I liked the idea of making significant grants, to really address a problem, rather than a little bit at a time, releasing small amounts,” Amy said. “ I thought we could be more effective with larger grants.”

At the time, spend-down foundations were still a comparatively rare phenomenon. Sandow did some research on how they worked and spent some time talking with Anita Nager, a consultant with deep experience in a spend-down foundation. They met when Sandow was working at the Long Island Community Foundation, a division of the New York Community Trust, where Nager was working. Later, she ran the Beldon Fund, an environmental foundation based in Michigan, as it spent down.

“So she was a very valuable resource,” Sandow said. He needed some advice on questions such as how many program areas the foundation could realistically address and do good work. “What are the things we need to be thinking about? How did they determine how they wanted to spend out the resources? So, at least I had a few people that I could reach out to.”

Without even needing outside advice, Sandow adopted one principle from the start: The foundation had to be absolutely clear with the grantees that it was going to spend down. That meant that the time would come in a few years when they would not be able to depend on Hagedorn Foundation funding. Not every spend-down foundation took that honest-from-the-start approach. “There were some foundations that waited until the last year, when they were going out of business, to let their grantees know,” Sandow said. “You can imagine how well that went over with the community and the pushback they got.”

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