Funder’s Forum: The Heckscher Foundation

The Heckscher Foundation was founded in 1921 to promote the welfare of children in New York and elsewhere throughout the United States. Today, it provides grants to youth-serving organizations in the fields of education, family services, child welfare, health, arts, and recreation. Foundation Center asked the foundation's chairman and CEO, Peter Sloane:

Q: How have the foundation's strategies around making a difference for children evolved over the years?

“The Heckscher Foundation was founded in 1921 by August Heckscher and Arthur and Ruth Smadbeck. In the earliest years my grandmother, Ruth Smadbeck, ran many programs herself, everything from arts to recreation to a kindergarten. She also broadcast two radio programs each week offering advice and guidance on child care. When I became chair in 2007, we restructured and re-capitalized the foundation, which has enabled us to significantly increase our efforts to level the playing field for underserved youth by making large gifts to promising education and workforce development programs, with an emphasis on college access and retention.

“When we identify a promising opportunity or a problem that we think we can design a program to address, we work to build strategic partnerships that will allow us to take it on at a meaningful scale. For example, we conceived of and are funding the design of a mobile application intended to enable middle school students to make better informed high school choices that are matched with their abilities, geographic preferences, and course offerings or extracurricular interests. The app, which can be used by kids on their own, also provides guidance to families, mentors, and education staff. To reach every student who can benefit from this innovation, we are hoping to make the app available through the New York City Department of Education, creating a meaningful solution to barriers most middle school students encounter around high school choice in New York City.

“We look for ways to leverage our funding to reach youth for whom we can make a definitive difference. For example, our Single Stop USA-Community College Initiative was designed to expand opportunities for low-income, high-need community college students by connecting them to the government funds and services for which they are eligible, from child care and tax credits to health care. We first funded a model program at Kingsborough Community College, which reduced dropout rates among participants by 50 percent. Leveraging our founding support and these results, the program is now available to every eligible student across the City University of New York (CUNY) system.

“We are currently investing in a pilot to train and place underserved youth in Certified Pharmacy Technician jobs in partnership with CVS Pharmacy. CVS fills approximately 800 Certified Pharmacy Technician jobs in the New York City area every year. These positions, which include benefits and advancement potential, present a tremendous career opportunity for youth. The pilot will provide comprehensive training to a cohort aged 18 to 24. Participants who complete the program will receive the nationally recognized Certified Pharmacy Tech credential, at least three transferable college credits from Lehman College, and preferential hiring by CVS.

“We have been able to increase our impact through instigating public-private partnerships. For example we initiated a collaboration with New York City, Richard Kahan, the late Bob Tisch, and the Greve Foundation to create Take The Field, which developed the concept of providing naming rights for New York sports fields, inspiring the city to match every $1 in private donations with $3 in government funding. Our initial grant led other funders to support the concept and eventually raised $36 million in private sector funding and $97 million in public sector funds to rebuild 43 state-of-the-art outdoor athletic facilities.

“The foundation also identifies opportunities where it can bolster existing public programs, as was the case with our New York Summer Meals Outreach Project. The New York City Department of Education's Summer Meals Program provides free breakfast and lunch to all public school students, but it had historically served many fewer children over the summer than during the regular school year, despite universal eligibility and high need. Initiated and funded by the Heckscher Foundation, the pilot involved distributing refrigeration units and conducting outreach that resulted in a 31 percent increase in participation in the first year. This has led to key partnerships with the New York City Housing Authority, the Parks Department, and Brooklyn and Queens public libraries and soup kitchens. The Office of School Food is now well positioned to maintain and increase participation in coming years.”

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