OLD TOOLS, REVOLUTIONARY RESULTS – A Retrospective of the Revson Foundation’s work with NYC Libraries

DUKE UNIVERSITY, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC PHILANTHROPY & CIVIL SOCIETY—  February 7, 2017  — written by Tony Proscio — With all the trendy talk in philanthropy focused on “innovation,” “disruption,” and “impact investing,” it’s helpful to pay attention, now and then, to some smart foundation projects that follow the plain, old, dusty canon of established practice, using old-fashioned grants to support cherished and longstanding institutions — and yet ending up with big results worthy of Page One headlines. Exhibit A: The Charles H. Revson Foundation’s support for neighborhood libraries in New York City.

Followers of philanthropy at Duke may remember Revson President Julie Sandorf’s presentation on this topic at the Sanford School in January 2016. I’ve just completed a retrospective summary of the whole Revson libraries oeuvre, which adds a little more detail to the story Ms. Sandorf sketched out in that talk. To put the whole saga into one sentence: Revson helped a fragmented, under-appreciated, largely unfashionable segment of New York City life — its threadbare branch libraries — escape from years of budget cuts and neglect and start reclaiming their stature as a prime portal of opportunity for low-income, minority, and immigrant families all over the city.

When seen in its totality, what stands out in this tale is how familiar, even traditional, was every single element of the process. First of all: libraries. Thanks to philanthropic pioneer Andrew Carnegie, who created some 1,700 American libraries at the turn of the 20th century, these surely rank among the most venerable of all foundation causes. Second, Revson broke no revolutionary new ground with its tactics. It used small grants and personal diplomacy to win the loyalty of the disparate key players (New York City’s libraries are segmented into three different, fiercely independent nonprofit systems, based on geography). The foundation gradually brokered alliances among those players, made larger grants for research to document their needs and the role they play in the lives of ordinary New Yorkers, and then funded consultants who would help them pull together and present a forceful and effective message to the purse-string-holders at City Hall. Each of these strands of work was artfully executed, but none of them lay far outside what foundations have been doing for a century or more…

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