A Conversation with Richard Abrons

Story in: Among Peers

A Conversation with Richard Abrons

In a recent Huffington Post blog, playwright Richard Abrons echoed the sentiment of an unnamed philanthropist saying, “I would rather reduce pain than spread joy.” It’s the kind of statement you would expect to hear from a pragmatist, someone who is extremely rational about his own capacity to affect change, yet persistent in the pursuit of giving. That’s Richard.

Richard is president of The Louis and Anne Abrons Foundation. He and his 14 fellow Board Members make around 200 grants per year, with a concentration on social services. “Every check our foundation writes is lifeblood for an organization, but when I’m personally involved with the grantee, the exchange is all the more satisfying.” In 2012, at the age of 85, Richard eloquently captured this feeling in another Huffington Post blog about the Bronx Children Museum, “Now along comes a startup that sets my heart afire, that sizzles with the joy and hope I know it will give to thousands of children and their parents. It is a winner. I only hope to see it in action.” Richard might be a pragmatist, but perhaps there is a romanticist in him as well.

With a clear penchant for the written word, Richard has published over twenty short stories and won the National Magazine Fiction Award for his short story, “Every Day A Visitor.” He has seen six of his plays performed on stage in Los Angeles and New York, and remains very active in his philanthropic work. Richard is clear about why he does what he does, “I write plays because I like to entertain people. I give because it makes me feel good.”

In the following interview, Richard elaborates on the causes that are important to him; the challenges of keeping an expanding foundation board engaged; and the people whom he admires.

1. WHAT CAUSE OR ISSUE IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU AND WHY?

I like to see things that should be up and running, be up and running. It is personally fulfilling when I am able to not only assist, but really help build a deserving organization through my philanthropy. These days I am focused on giving children in the Bronx their first interactive children’s museum facility. I am also very impressed with the Coalition for the Homeless.

2. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO LAUNCH A PRIVATE FOUNDATION?

My father started the foundation in 1950 and then left it to me and my two older siblings upon his death in 1977. My brother and sister have both since passed, so now I head up a board consisting of three generations from our three different families. Family members are eligible to join the board once they turn 30 years of age.

3. WHAT DO YOU KNOW NOW ABOUT BEING A GRANTMAKER THAT YOU WISH YOU KNEW STARTING OUT?

Nothing. For me, grantmaking is about feeling good, and I’ve always known what makes me feel good. This is not to say that I haven’t grown during my time as a philanthropist and foundation head. I’ve learned about causes, seen a great many things, and met so many dedicated people.

4. WHAT IS THE MOST SIGNIFICANT CHALLENGE YOU FACE IN RUNNING A PRIVATE FOUNDATION?

For the longest time, my challenge was keeping a growing board engaged in the process. Every year we were giving in large part to the same organizations. It had become rote. And with family members spread across the country (New York, California, Maine), I struggled to keep people interested in the process and coming to meetings three times per year. So after 32 years of the status quo, the 14-member board said. “Enough is enough. We want a collaborative foundation where we have a bigger voice.” At first I was miffed, “they don’t love me” I thought, but now I know it was the best possible thing for our foundation. Today we have a grantmaking committee, governance committee, finance committee, and family members that are interested in the work. I’ve become less important, and they’ve become more important, and I think it’s wonderful!

5. WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING?

I get a lot of pleasure. Every check our foundation writes is lifeblood for an organization, but when I’m personally involved with the grantee, the exchange is all the more satisfying. Henry Street Settlement, Bronx Children’s Museum, Coalition for the Homelessthese are more than simply grantees. These are collectives of people about whom I care a great deal. What do I get from giving? I get to know these people, learn about their organizations, and become their friends.

6. NAME ONE PHILANTHROPIST, PRESENT OR PAST, WHOM YOU WOULD LIKE TO HAVE COFFEE WITH, AND WHY?

I’d like to sit down with billionaire David Koch, an outspoken backer of the Republican Party and many conservative issues. We’re not going to see eye-to-eye on much; so frankly, I’d like to find out what makes this guy tick. Does a person like this have empathy for his fellow man?

7. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE INSPIRATIONAL SAYING?

A wise man who is now dead told me this years ago, “Don’t stifle a generous impulse.” Think about it. It applies to generous impulses in me towards others and generous impulses from others towards me.

8. NAME ONE INDIVIDUAL OR ORGANIZATION THAT HAS PARTICULARLY IMPRESSED YOU. WHY?

I am impressed by people who genuinely and fully care about the causes which they champion. They display a combination of competence, charm, charisma, an ability to raise money, and the willingness to take on increased responsibility in order to expand an organization. People like David Garza, Executive Director of the Henry Street Settlement; Michael Zisser, Ph.D., CEO of University Settlement; Mary Brosnahan, President & CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless; and Carla Precht, Ed Sullivan’s granddaughter and Founding Executive Director at the Bronx Children’s Museum. Should I continue? …

9. IF YOU CAN ACCOMPLISH ONE THING WITH YOUR PHILANTHROPY, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

With a foundation our size, we’re not going to change the world, and we can’t change New York City. However, we can support good people doing good things. To that end, I would like to see the Bronx Children’s Museum up and running.

10. WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH WE HAD ASKED, AND WHAT IS THE ANSWER?

QUESTION: How does it feel to be 87?

ANSWER: Old.