Mrs. Elizabeth Benjamin was a remarkable woman – strong, independent, and ahead of her time in many ways. Born in 1901, she was an athlete who graduated from Vassar College and received a Masters of Social Work from Columbia University. She was humble and respectful of everyone who crossed her path. Above all, she believed in empowering people to help themselves, stand up on their own, and fulfill their potential in life.
Mrs. Benjamin passed at age 101 with instructions to create a family foundation with the bulk of her estate. She asked her niece, grand-nephew and attorney to serve as the initial trustees of the Elizabeth and Barets O. Benjamin Foundation, and left them complete freedom to choose where to donate. The trustees found some wonderful organizations to support, but as Andy Stamelman, Mrs. Benjamin’s attorney and the only non-family trustee, reports,” the process itself was not particularly satisfying.”
In 2005, Andy suggested hiring The Philanthropic Initiative to help the Foundation find ways to achieve greater impact and steward the resources in a more fulfilling way.
In the early planning sessions, the trustees talked about what an amazing woman Elizabeth was. They wondered if there was a way to use at least some of the Foundation’s resources to support programs that would honor Elizabeth’s spirit and legacy.
Andy explains, “We wanted to find impactful programs that would enable young women to become independent leaders, as Mrs. Benjamin was. We were looking for organizations that impact and promote leadership, particularly among disadvantaged populations where leadership may not be fostered in the community or in the home. We also wanted to foster programs that would help older women stay active and vibrant.”
Building on the excitement around these ideas, the trustees asked TPI to help them design a strategy that would support both adolescent girls and older women. The result was a grants program focusing on Women of Independence, Strength and Education: The WISE Initiative. Implementation began in 2006 when TPI designed the initiative and requested the first proposals for the grant. Since then, the Foundation has dispensed over $2 million in multi-year WISE grants.
In addition to supporting women and girls, the Foundation wanted to honor Mrs. Benjamin by supporting the part of New Jersey where she lived the majority of her life – Monmouth County – and decided to expand their focus to include youth development and college access. We started by researching programs in the area and found the organization Interfaith Neighbors, which was starting a new youth training program called Kula Café. Kula Café, one of the first new businesses in Asbury Park’s downtrodden West side in 40 years, is a hands-on community program that provides job training in the hospitality industry for young adults from low-income and gang-active neighborhoods.
Though modest in size, the Benjamin Foundation has found creative ways to leverage its financial resources as well as the intelligence and experience of its trustees. Going beyond the larger grants, the Foundation has offered tailored support to WISE grantees including mini-grants to support staff development or build organizational capacity.
WISE is helping to transform lives in several of New Jersey’s low-income communities. Older women are staying more active, healthy and independent, through nutrition and fitness programs. Young women are developing leadership skills that will serve them in all their endeavors. And WISE grants are helping to strengthen and build a number of small but highly effective nonprofits.
One such organization is the Institute of Music for Children in Elizabeth, New Jersey, which aims to prepare low-income youth for success and endow them with life skills and self-confidence through high quality arts education that enhances artistic appreciation and expression. When the Benjamin Foundation trustees first visited the Institute, it was a volunteer-led organization with minimal resources. The Foundation’s grant enabled the Institute to hire a talented and passionate Executive Director and expand its programming and reach. Since then, the Institute has grown from serving 60 to 600 children and youth per year, ages 2-21 and has gained recognition throughout New Jersey and beyond as a model for using music and the arts to engage youth and build community.
According to Alysia Souder, Executive Director of the Institute, “The impact of the Benjamin Foundation on our organization has been tremendous. They have been a transformative funder, not only because of the money. The money is great, but it’s really the level of support. When I met with them, I talked about wanting to eventually have a performing arts and music center. They asked how I would get there and I said, ‘I don’t know.” They said, ‘Well, let us help you,’ and they funded a strategic consultant that took us from 2011-2013 and just funded another consultant to help us in the next three-year phase. So few organizations ever get the opportunity to have someone come in and help guide the process. I’ve told other funders who asked what to do to support organizations, ‘Do what the Benjamin Foundation does.’”
The Benjamin Foundation also provided seed funding to help the Kula Café Youth Training Program get off the ground. They started with a small grant of $10,000. After visiting the Café and meeting some of the trainees, the trustees awarded an additional $35,000, and will likely provide ongoing support if the program continues to be successful.
In its first year, the Café trained 23 youth for work in the area’s burgeoning restaurant industry. Of these 2013 graduates, 39% found employment in high-end restaurants and retail jobs in Asbury Park’s tourist area. Other participants enrolled in community college. Kula Café director Heather Schulze reports, “With the support of forward-thinking funders like the Benjamin Foundation, the Kula Café Training Program will be able to change the manner in which job training is delivered by matching the needs of participants with the needs of employers.”