Funder’s Forum: The John Ben Snow Foundation, Inc.

The mission of the John Ben Snow Foundation is to enhance the quality of life in Central and Northern New York State. Historically, the foundation has made grants in the areas of arts and culture, community development, education, environment, historic preservation, and journalism. We asked Jonathan L. Snow, the foundation's president:

Q: What are some of the ways in which grantmaking by the foundation honors the legacy of John Ben Snow while continuing to evolve to meet the needs of the communities you serve?

“Our foundation had the benefit of a deeply engaged donor in its first 25 years of operation (1948 to 1973). John Ben Snow left an indelible imprint, shaping the mission, grantmaking strategy, and programmatic priorities. Since 1973, the board has worked diligently to preserve our history and donor legacy while also creating a vibrant organizational culture for the future that is consistent with our donor's belief and value system. To preserve more of who John Ben Snow was, our board embarked on an oral history of the foundation, including personal memories of our donor and accounts of meetings from all past and present board members. This was captured in a written document that has proven invaluable in immersing new board members in the organization.

“John Ben Snow's history informs our work. He was raised in the small northern New York town of Pulaski, graduated at the top of his class, and enrolled at New York University (NYU). When my father, who was a historian, was writing John Ben Snow's biography, he couldn't account for how John Ben managed to support himself and pay for his education at NYU until he made the connection that John Ben had regularly attended a bible study hosted by John D. Rockefeller, Sr., on Sunday evenings. Through this connection, John Ben grew to be well acquainted with both JDR, Sr., and JDR, Jr., and we believe that Rockefeller may have helped with his education and also impressed upon John Ben the importance of stewardship and philanthropy. Years later, in 1948, the very first grant that the John Ben Snow Foundation made was to NYU for a scholarship.

“John Ben worked his way up at Woolworth's, eventually becoming a director of Woolworth Ltd. in England. While living in London, he had the local Pulaski newspaper delivered to him. During the Great Depression, when he read stories about families experiencing hardship in the area, he would send anonymous monetary gifts via his personal banker in New York. The "Good Samaritan," as he affectionately became known, believed that you don't forget where you came from and those who helped you along the way.

“At the same time that we maintain this sense of history, we appreciate that the communities we serve face many core issues that were not part of the social fabric in 1948 or even 1973. As a board, we continuously strive to find a healthy balance between our donor's intent and today's challenges and opportunities. The foundation's mission is to improve the quality of life in Central New York, balancing responsive, proactive, and collaborative grant making programs within specific targeted initiative areas while responding to the ever-changing needs of various segments of the population, especially the needs of youth and people who are disadvantaged either physically or economically. So we regularly attend civic planning and other community events with a commitment to being a good listener, asking good questions, and really seeking to understand before we seek to be understood.

“Just as we ask our grantees to work collaboratively, we feel that as funders we need to work together to understand each other's efforts and collectively fill in the puzzle. Within Central New York, we work frequently with a group of six large foundations to discuss everything from strategy to grant applications, where we are working, and where we see opportunities. Our desire is to be a relevant community funder with a lasting and meaningful impact on the people and communities that we serve.”

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