A Conversation with Jay Sandak

Story in: Among Peers

A Conversation with Jay Sandak

It sits quietly in the recesses of the philanthropist’s psyche. That voice. Always there. Questioning. Sometimes doubting. Occasionally the voice gains resonance; often just before a large grant is made. That voice which shouts with contemplative doggedness: “Am I making a difference?”

For Jay H. Sandak, President of the Stamford, CT-based Herbert and Nell Singer Foundation, “Am I making a difference?” is the question that has inspired his philanthropic journey. Jay, who is also a Partner with the CT law firm, Carmody Torrance Sandak & Hennessey, LLP, assumed leadership of the Foundation in 2009, upon the passing of his aunt and uncle who had been very active supporters of a diverse set of causes and organizations. Jay’s challenge has been to continue honoring their legacy and philanthropic work, even as he brings a layer of strategy and measured discipline to the foundation’s grantmaking. He’ll be the first to admit that it’s not easy.

By anyone’s account, 2013 was a prolific year for Jay’s philanthropy. The Foundation built three schools in Haiti; funded the planning stage for a country wide Community Court system for the State of Israel; sponsored an International economic conference in Israel; provided funds to launch an expansion of a Charter School in Dorchester, MA; and funded a new learning program to be initiated as part of a mini Central Park being constructed in Stamford, CT. In addition it funded numerous local social service agencies. Yet despite all of these wonderful efforts, Jay concedes “there is no single grant that ‘solves’ a problem. At best, a grant helps move the ball in a forward direction.” Maybe the question shouldn’t be “am I making a difference,” but “could I be better at making a difference?”

Jay clearly puts great thought into his philanthropy. Here are his responses to some questions we recently posed to him.

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

We always strive to bring greater focus to our mission, but the most important issues at this time relate to the medical, social, and educational well-being of children.

2. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO LAUNCH A PRIVATE FOUNDATION?

The Foundation was initially created by my aunt and uncle who were philanthropists during their lives. Upon their passing, I assumed the leadership position of the foundation. 

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

There is no single grant that “solves” a problem. At best, a grant helps move the ball in a forward direction.

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

Articulating the mission. There are a great number of worthy organizations doing really important work in a variety of cause areas. The challenge is to identify and spell out an overarching theme that encompasses a broad range of grant recipients, while allowing us to measure the impact of grants against our core mission.

5. WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING?

If the proper due diligence is done in advance so that you know how the money is going to be spent, there is great satisfaction in knowing that the funds which have been granted will have a long term effect upon the recipients.  For example, building a school in Haiti or an environmental learning center in a public park here in the States can make an everlasting impact. That is an awesome feeling. 

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

Unfortunately, I do not know his/her name, but this person is the philanthropist who operates in a comfortable groove having defined the mission of their foundation, established grant criteria and how to measure the outcomes while still being flexible to address other concerns that arise without feeling that they are being disloyal to the basic mission.

7. WHAT IS A BURNING QUESTION THAT YOU HAVE FOR YOUR COMMUNITY OF PHILANTHROPIC PEERS?

At what point in the development of a foundation, do you open yourself up to receiving unsolicited grant applications as opposed to doing your own due diligence, identifying potential grantees, and then inviting the submission of grant proposals?

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

Make a difference in the lives of the next generation so that more youngsters are playing on an even playing field.

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

QUESTION: How important is Foundation Source to you?  ANSWER: I am fortunate to have accidently learned about Foundation Source when I first started running our foundation.  Foundation Source has provided me with the confidence to know that I can focus on what is really important, knowing that the back office “stuff” is all under control.