History of Bernstein Family Foundation

Grant-making processes born from the vision and generosity of our Founder, and evolving through the influence of his descendants.

Meet Our Founder, Leo Bernstein

Leo M. Bernstein (1915-2008) was a Washington, D.C. real estate developer/investor, banker, and philanthropist, with a keen interest in American history and a deep devotion to democracy and to democratic institutions.

The son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, he believed fervently in the American Dream, and he lived it. He believed strongly in this country’s ideals, from the values embedded in the Constitution to the Bill of Rights, and he sought to put them into practice in his own life. He took great pride in his country, and he celebrated its presidents and the opportunities the United States had afforded him.

Mr. Bernstein’s legacy exists not in the things he collected, but in the democratic ideals he fought for and achieved for society at large: open housing, gender equality, and racial and social justice. Even today, there are lessons to be learned from the life of Leo M. Bernstein, as society continues to struggle with some of the same issues he encountered during his 93 years of life.

Leo Bernstein Signature - vector - large

Audio Interview with Leo Bernstein

by Jewish Historical Society Oral History Project

Our Foundation’s History

The Leo M. Bernstein Foundation was created by Leo M. Bernstein in 1952 as a vehicle to give back to the community. Modeled after the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations’ approach to modern philanthropy, the Leo M. Bernstein Foundation allowed Leo to direct funding towards the issues about which he was most passionate: Jewish identity and American history.

Emerging Philanthropy

In the 1950s, philanthropy was nascent, consisting solely of old-school check-writing. Leo loved handing out money to the Orthodox rabbis who showed up every December. He would also give to organizations that mattered to his loyal real estate and banking customers. He was a Jewish Santa, consistently handing out $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.

Evolving Governance

In the late 1990s, 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” – give more than is required. The joy of investment was always about the people: whether they came from synagogues, 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.

Developing Opportunities

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, elevating a new architecture that would allow for transparency as well as efficiency.

A Changing Model

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 of our family philanthropy was in learning the balance between our unity and our differences. We recognized that we were unified in our collective values, but could preserve our individual differences of opinion; we were free to think creatively while maintaining the Foundation’s historical focus on Jewish causes, American democracy, and arts and culture. The key was agreeing to the new mission: “investing in people and ideas to strengthen and celebrate the Greater Washington, D.C. area.”

The family consciously created a new ecosystem where everyone has a voice and a vote. In the absence of our Founder, who passed away in 2008, we remain committed to honoring his legacy while imparting our own.