The Leo M. Bernstein Foundation was created by Leo M. Bernstein in 1952 as a vehicle to give back and direct funding towards issues that he was most passionate about – Jewish identity and American history. The Foundation was modeled after the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. Rockefeller and Ford had created a successful model for modern philanthropy – they were able to directly fund issues they were passionate about.
In the 1950s, philanthropy was nascent and old school check-writing once a year would constitute philanthropy. My grandfather loved handing out money to the orthodox Rabbis who showed up every December. He was a Jewish Santa handing out checks without any paperwork. He would also give to organizations that mattered to his loyal real estate and banking customers. He would consistently give $100,000 a year without any formal paper trail or transparency. He expected the leaders of the organizations and institutions to come to him when they were in need.
In the late 1990’s, new rules about governance and accountability changed our family’s approach to philanthropy. Foundations were required to give away 5%, but Leo believed in doing much more. He was fond of saying “give 17 ounces to the pound”. He would always give more than was required. The joy and investment was always about the people – whether orthodox rabbis or schools or community centers. Leo was always willing to help support those in need. Yet, in order to sustain family philanthropy, the mission and governance needed to shift.
Philanthropy was now recognized as an emerging field in which there were new protocols and opportunities to develop mission statements, funding guidelines, and good governance which would translate to a higher level of impact and best practices. Several national associations – The Council on Foundations (COF), National Center on Family Philanthropy (NCFP), Jewish Funders Network (JFN) and Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers (WRAG) – became valuable resources to help our family pivot and elevate a new architecture that would allow for transparency as well as efficiency.
The model of our family philanthropy shifted when our Founder was willing to change his will and by-laws to move from a dictatorship (one person making all the decisions) to a democracy (everyone had a vote). In addition, he changed the name to the Bernstein Family Foundation with the hope that the entire family would take ownership. It was not an easy adjustment, but the true value in our family philanthropy was recognizing that we were united in our collective values, but could preserve our individual differences of opinion as long as we stay focused on Jewish causes, American democracy and arts and culture. The key was agreeing to the new mission “investing in people and ideas” in the Greater Washington DC area. The family consciously created a new eco-system where everyone has a voice and vote. In the absence of our Founder who passed away seven years ago, we remain committed to honoring his legacy as well as imparting our own.