FUNDING NEW IDEAS
An Edited Transcript of a Conversation with
Boston Foundation Donor Jennifer Gilbert for the
2017 Boston Foundation Annual Report:
The Problem Solvers
How a Group of Unusually Creative Philanthropists
Are Helping to Solve Some of Boston’s Big Problems
TBF: I understand that you introduced Madeleine Steczynski to the concept of New Market Tax Credits when you were on the board of ZUMIX—and that played a fundamental role in the ability of ZUMIX to purchase the firehouse. [Note: Madeleine Steczynski is the Executive Director of ZUMIX. The New Market Tax Credit was designed to increase the flow of capital to businesses and low-income communities by providing a modest tax incentive to private investors. It has proven to be an effective, targeted and cost-efficient financing tool valued by businesses, communities and investors across the country.]
JG: Yes, let me back up and tell you the story of how I encountered ZUMIX, because it’s such a great story. I was doing work in East Boston around the around the redevelopment of public housing and I got this idea that I wanted to do a project to memorialize Maverick [public housing development], as it was, before it was torn down. I wanted to work with some of the kids there and teach them photography so they could document it themselves. And that led me to ZUMIX. I found some people who said they would give me grant money to do the project, but I needed an organization to be the fiscal agent and I needed someone to help me with outreach. And a lot of people kept saying, “You should go talk to ZUMIX; they’re such a great place in Boston and they’re right down the street.”
So, I came over to talk to Madeleine. This was at their old building, a very funky place… She was so great and she was so excited because they hadn’t been able to offer photography to the youth they serve. She immediately agreed to be the fiscal agent and she connected me with another East Boston artist who co-taught the course with me (someone who has become a life-long friend). And she helped publicize it. But the thing that was so ‘Madeleine’ about it was that she said she didn’t need to take a fee for helping me in this way. And I said, “I’m going to give you a fee.” But it was so reflective of the spirit of generosity here—the idea that if you do good things, they will come back to you. And so, that was my introduction, and it made me feel so great about ZUMIX and her and everything about this organization. And eventually I ended up on the board.
I was on the board when the opportunity to get the firehouse came along. I had a background of working in real estate with nonprofits, so I had some particular expertise and brought along another friend who had experience as well.
But a lot of things came together to make it happen and, in retrospect, I’m always amazed that it did happen—for a lot of reasons. I actually teach the building sometimes. I taught a class at the BAC (Boston Architectural Center) on historic preservation and feasibility. And one of the things I teach architects is how you finance a building like this. They all want to do preservation and they love the ‘building’ part and they recognize that it takes a lot—so my course was an introduction for them.
I have called it, “The best infeasible project that ever happened in Boston!” It took a lot of people being very resolved to make it happen—and a lot of early things fell into place. After I left the board, I remained a supporter of ZUMIX.
TBF: I know you also support the Swim Park Project on the Charles. [NOTE: The Swim Park Project is a project of the Charles River Conservancy].
JG: Yes, that’s another infeasible project that will happen! I love to swim, and I think that if the river is clean enough to swim in—which is such an accomplishment—it’s a real indication that things can get better if we all care about them. I treasure it and one of the reasons that I feel so strongly about it is that I feel it will be a place to bring together all kinds of people, doing something that’s completely joyful. Which is also how you could describe ZUMIX.
People ask, “Why do we need to do this in downtown Boston?” The Conservancy is looking at North Point, which is on the border of Cambridge and Boston. It’s because you can get there on the T! You can’t get to Walden Pond on the T.
TBF: That leads me to ask you about your interest in the Boston Foundation’s Open Door Grants program. As you know, the Foundation has been “there at the beginning” for more than 100 great ideas and new nonprofits, including ZUMIX and the Charles River Conservancy. And when we reached out to our donors to let them know about Open Door Grants, you responded and were interested. What is it about that program that appeals to you?
JG: I love the idea. A couple of things attract me to it. One is that, as a donor, I tend to like things that are in the early stages and emerging… And I feel that one of the real added values of being part of the Boston Foundation is that someone else can go and turn up those opportunities. I do work in the neighborhoods of Boston, but what I see is limited. And so the opportunity to have a partner that I trust to be out there and find new projects really works for me. Why wouldn’t you want to see what the Foundation is finding and see if it fits with what you want to do?
The other thing is—and this might come from my perspective as someone who has worked with nonprofits—that nonprofits have to do an awful lot of work to raise money. And it’s important to do that and build connections in and of itself… On the other hand, you don’t want that to take away from the work itself, from the program work. And so I ask myself, “What can I do as a donor to make it easier for nonprofits to do the work?” It’s funny, sometimes people will say, “I don’t understand why there are so many nonprofits.” Others will say, “I don’t understand why there are so many funders.” Well, the two things are interrelated!
So, Open Door Grants are a way that I can piggyback on other efforts. All of us can do more when we collaborate. So if people participate in the Open Door Grants program, it means that a lot of organizations that really would have to make a tremendous amount of effort to connect with all of these donors really have a much more simplified task. And that seems very positive to me. There’s so much ability to get information now; it’s overwhelming. So I think it’s great for the Foundation to be doing this.
To me, it’s the future. And it’s not like a Kickstarter campaign, where you just go online and don’t do much…. I do love those. We did a Kickstarter campaign for the Swim Park and that was great, but ultimately people aren’t going to feel very comfortable making very large donations if they don’t already have some reason to trust the organization. So I think Open Door Grants strike a good balance.
TBF: The Boston Foundation brings people and resources together to solve Boston’s big problems. And everyone sees a different problem. What do you see?
JG: There are many big problems that I could mention, but I see a huge dilemma for the whole region—not just Boston—which is that it has become so unaffordable in so many ways. And that means that a lot of things that I value about cities, such as diversity, including racial and economic diversity, is really threatened. So, as much as there are so many wonderful things that happen in Boston, I sometimes ask, “Who is this for?” A problem that is near and dear to me personally is creating and sustaining good buildings for smaller community nonprofits as this region becomes increasingly unaffordable.
And one of the ways that I see that with ZUMIX is that this building has become critical to keeping what ZUMIX is doing in this neighborhood. Earlier this year, I helped Madeleine out a little bit with some of the financing around this building and she said to me, “If we hadn’t moved to acquire this firehouse, ZUMIX might not be here today.” Literally, she couldn’t afford to rent in this neighborhood today. I was floored when she pointed that out, because, as a board, we weren’t thinking about that at all. We weren’t thinking that if we didn’t get this building, we’d be priced out of East Boston! I’d like to pretend that I know so much about real estate that I had been thinking in that way, but no! We just thought, “Get this building, because we can get it for virtually nothing.
But if we hadn’t done that, then ZUMIX might have had to leave East Boston. There are organizations that want to be in this neighborhood, because this is where the people are they want to work with, but it’s very hard to find sustainable good space. They’re priced out! Affordable housing will there forever, but there are so many other things that are important to making a community and so many institutions wanting to provide those things.
TBF: Would you say that your work has influenced your giving?
JG: Very much so! Many of the local groups I give to are ones that I encountered through my work. I focus my giving on interests and issues more than specific groups. And my work has frequently opened my eyes to issues I might not have otherwise understood: Early education is a huge one in that category; also youth homelessness.
TBF: I know you have a Master’s in City Planning from MIT and that your work with Viva Consulting has focused on supporting organizations planning for change within their facilities and programs—drawing on 20 years of practice managing large-scale real estate development projects. You have said that you’re transitioning in your work now. Tell me more about that.
JG: I have for 20 years consulted to nonprofits on their building projects—affordable housing, early education centers, multi-use buildings that included housing, arts, etc. My work has opened my eyes to many of the priorities in my giving: early education, youth and arts, and youth homelessness would be high on that list. I’m always learning about how to be better at giving, which is a different lens. In the past two years, I’ve also been part-time Executive Director at the Kuehn Charitable Foundation where my role includes overseeing the two-year Boston-based Kuehn Fellowship. We made part of the Fellowship an opportunity for young people at the start of careers in affordable housing to be philanthropic. The Fellows themselves conduct a research and vetting process to direct a grant from the Foundation to a local nonprofit of their choosing. It was inspiring for me to watch the 2015 Fellows collectively work their way to directing a grant toward Family Independence Initiative. And I’m pretty sure they were inspired too!