It all began back in 1917 when philanthropist John Emory Andrus established what would later become one of the 100 largest U.S. grantmaking organizations: The Surdna Foundation.

With nearly $930 million in assets, the foundation marks three main philanthropic causes to which it gives: sustainable environments, strong local economies and thriving cultures. Surdna grantmakers seek to improve energy efficiency, water management, availability of local food and equitable development in cities to reduce socioeconomic divisions. Support is also given to local business in an effort to promote, in particular, those that are owned by historically marginalized groups such as women, immigrants and minorities. Recognizing the value of cultural diversity, the Surdna Foundation makes additional grants to architects and designers as well as artists committed to sparking social change.

Surdna’s board of directors is comprised of a mix between family and others, who support the original values of Andrus: loyalty, modesty, charity and excellence.

These values are intrinsic to the work of the foundation, which also values civic engagement. In a past interview, Surdna’s President, Phillip Henderson, underlined the foundation’s commitment to policy involvement, stating, “By cultivating relationships with key policymakers across the country through network development, sharing of best practices, and other kinds of support, foundations can see a steady accumulation of positive change that amounts to a great deal of overall impact on the issues we care about.”

In March 2015, Surdna reported that one of its grantees, Corbin Hill Food Project, or CHFP, had been presented with the Sylvia Harris Citizen Design Award in recognition of its social impact on urban communities. Through its collaboration with Upstate NY farmers and NYC community groups, CHFP makes it possible for residents of Washington Heights, Harlem and the Bronx to receive fresh produce. Not only does this initiative promote eco-friendly consumption, it also supports farmers in the state by widening their market.

In its most recent available annual report, the Surdna Foundation totaled its 2013 grants at more than $33 million to numerous causes centered on social justice, environmental consciousness and artistic endeavors.

As further evidence of its successes in effectively making a difference, four grantees of the foundation were named among the top urban innovators under 40. Projects organized by these four include an affordable LA housing program, a Philadelphia emergency center, a Detroit-based urban design firm and a Memphis neighborhood revitalization initiative.

With its dedicated staff and remarkably generous charity, it seems that the work of the Surdna Foundation is far from finished. “We need to commit time, build expertise, share, and promote our stories in order to tap into their ancient and future power for transformational change,” says Henderson.

Amy Russo

Sources: Community Lift, Enterprise, Foundation Center 1, Foundation Center 2, Surdna Foundation 1, Surdna Foundation 2
Photo: AIGA