Geeta Pradhan

Portrait by TheEditorial

Portrait by TheEditorial

President of the Cambridge Community Foundation

“Our endowment is $42 million which is actually shockingly small for a community like Cambridge with the level of wealth. I think this is something that people need to think about : What resources does a community have on hand to be able to do what it means to do?”

By Heidi Legg

In this gilded-age over the past two decades, we’ve watched reporters, authors, and economists chronicle the decline of the middle-class, the gaping income inequality, and the rise of massive fortunes for the few. Technology founders, global multi-national CEOs, best-selling authors, celebrity bloggers and reality stars, athletes, and even politicians amass great fortunes in a winner takes all setting. It is as though the exponential power of AI, social media and machine learning has propelled everything to a state of all or nothing. There is one best-seller, one big box store, one unicorn of the year recognized around the globe, not only across the country… So how in this environment do communities concerned for the local welfare of their residents and neighbors have an impact in a global world?

While we have seen the exponential growth of donor-advised funds in the wealthier class, as well as family foundations and nonprofits, proliferate, how has this affected the century-old community foundations? Community foundations are a tool for civil societies to pool their giving and donations into a single investment vehicle, where grant making is facilitated in a city or town for the social improvement of a given place. While private foundations like the Ford Foundation, Gates Foundation, or MacArthur Foundation, with billions under management, are typically endowed by a single family or individual, community foundations are created by those who live together in a physical location with a variety of giving patterns and levels, often in a City.

The first community foundation in America was set up in Cleveland, Ohio in 1914 by Frederick Goff. Today the Cleveland Foundation has assets of $2.5 billion, annual grants of more than $100 million spun from that billion dollar asset made up of over 800 funds representing families, individuals, corporations and organizations. The board of community foundations ensures that the handling of the assets and the donation of grants are done in a spirit that stewards the original goal of making that distinct region and community, often geographically, stronger and healthier.

After the Cleveland Foundation began, other earlier community foundations followed with the California Community Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust and even our tinier Cambridge Foundation. Today, Silicon Valley has the largest Community Foundation with total giving of near $1 billion and over $6 billion under management. Other major U.S. community foundations with billions in assets that then spin off the grant funds include the Tulsa Community Foundation, The New York Community Trust, The Greater Kansas Community Foundation, and the Chicago Community Trust. Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Boston also have thriving community foundations. The Boston Foundation alone, founded a year earlier in 1915, is now one of the largest community foundations in the nation, with net assets of some $1.2 billion.

Cambridge, even though it began in 1916, pales in comparison. Today, the Cambridge Community Foundation manages $42 million in assets and is able to then give away a little over one million dollars a year. It is a surprisingly small community foundation given the vast wealth in the town, both held by individuals and corporations, especially given it has been around for over 100 years. It would be interesting to know what percentage of the Boston Foundation assets came originally from Cambridge residents and companies.

I sat down with Geeta Pradhan, who was formerly at the Boston Foundation where she oversaw the development of the Foundation’s strategic initiatives. She left the Boston Foundation to lead the charge to renew the Cambridge community’s focus. She has a deep love for urban design having studied architecture in India and with an MA in Urban Design from Harvard Graduate School of Design.

What does Cambridge Foundation do? Where are things today?

The movement of community foundations started in the early 1900s, and in some ways, it was actually a very similar time to today. There was growing income inequality. There were these waves of immigration. There were all kinds of public health concerns. Maybe now it's climate change, but the environment was very similar. They had the industrial revolution, and now we have the information revolution. The First World War had come to an end and people were moving into cities. It was an urbanization era and with industrialization, there were a lot of jobs in cities. I know this because my background is in urban design and planning. It was a period of great strife in American cities with this resurgence of people moving into cities. In that environment, the first community foundation was created to try and solve community problems by generating community resources.

It’s very interesting that we live in similar times. The idea was to pool the resources of the community to resolve the problems of a community. Today, there are over 750 community foundations across the country and there are now international community foundations as well. It's a beautiful concept.

Would you define the concept of the Community Foundation?

Community Foundations take on a community's challenges and pool resources to try to solve them.

As the community foundation movement changed, adding ‘collective giving’ or the philanthropic pooling of resources and then the giving out of resources in the form of grant making, a new element has been added – the role of civic leadership. An example of something we have done recently is the United Legal Defense Fund for Immigrants. When Mayor McGovern reached out to ask if we would be willing to do this with him last year, we had already been thinking about it. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)issue had been raised in a big way and all institutional leaders and businesses were writing open letters to the media expressing their concerns about the future of young people who had grown up here, arguing that they deserved opportunity and they were a large part of the workforce. For us, it was really a humanitarian issue. The mayor reached out to the city government and the city agreed that we're a sanctuary city. But there was concern about providing funding because the federal government had expressed strong opinions about the issue. They came out and said, “we cannot directly contribute to this one.” Interestingly, that's the response that we also got from businesses and institutions: “We can't put money into it because of a concern about losing federal funding. So because of this threat, it, in a sense, fell to an organization like a community foundation, which is a neutral entity, to rally engagement through a grassroots campaign.

Our endowment is not huge which is one of the things that I'm hoping we will change. Someone said to me, “you're like the Switzerland of Cambridge.” We don't have a vested interest in anything more than the well-being of the community. Our members are people who have given money to the foundation over the years, which is what created the endowment.

How big is the Cambridge Community Foundation endowment?

Our endowment is $42 million right now which is actually shockingly small for a community like Cambridge with the level of wealth. I think this is something that people in the community need to think about when you think about the future of a community: What resources does a community have on hand to be able to do what it means to do?

Does that give you about $1.5 million to spend per year?

Yes. It's not huge but it is a very important independent pool of funds that allows you to step in and say, “O.K., we're going to save this fund with some resources that we have and we will do something about it and that sets in motion something else. We set up the Legal Defense Fund for immigrants for Cambridge last March and in five months, we had raised $250,000 which we then gave out. What I loved about it was that the smallest gift was five dollars and our biggest was $50,000. There were Republicans who gave to this fund and it was really about humanity. People were upset about families being torn apart. The Community Foundation has the ability to take on these kinds of issues and call them out and step forward and do something which allows others to join in.

We did an interview with the Lowell Putnam, the Grandnephew of, Percival Lowell who was a huge philanthropist and gifted us all the Lowell Observatory. In that interview, we discussed the difference of noblesse oblige where people who have a lot of wealth take an active role to give back to their communities as one mindset and another mindset we see in more socialist countries is that everyone should just pay their taxes and the government takes care of these social nets. Do you have a view on this? it is a very interesting conversation in cities like Boston and Cambridge that do have a great deal of foundation money that may be paid in taxes in other Western countries.

I think that there are things that government can do and there are things that government cannot do. This was a great example of that. In addition, the attitude of the government is that everyone is equal. I have this really interesting picture of equity and so it has these different animals from a mouse to a camel and an elephant and a few others in between and everyone is given the same amount of food. That is equality because you're treating everyone equally and that is what governments will do. They will treat everyone equally no matter what your appetite or what you need. Foundations, and I think particularly community foundations, will focus on the issue of equity. This one needs a little more. I think it's very similar to what a parent might do. This child needs more support and I'm going to support this child some more as opposed to this child who is much more independent and whom I can let go. I think that's the difference, really.

I think the other difference is that a great deal of social innovation comes out of the social sector. It is seeded by foundations and I think there are examples of that from private foundations to community foundations, whether you look at the Rockefeller or Gates or those kinds of family foundations. The social innovations really come out of the philanthropic and the nonprofit sector and government will scale it up.

Have donor-advised funds changed the landscape? If so, how?

I think it's fantastic that there's a vehicle for people to be able to give and donor-advised funds have actually become the most powerful vehicle. However, I think when people are looking at investing in donor-advised funds, they look at the Fidelity’s and the Schwab’s and places that give you great financial returns. But they don't have access, they don't have the reach that's deep in a community to tell you where to spend it.

A community foundation knows the nonprofits. We work with residents. We are involved with the city. We bring donors together to pool their resources towards a cause and understand skilled interventions. We are not there yet as a foundation, but that's where I hope we will get to. This morning, for instance, we were meeting on the issue of housing. As you know, housing is a major in Cambridge. From our vantage point as a foundation which has about forty million in resources, there's nothing we can really do about the housing issue. We know people are losing their housing for nonpayment of rent and sometimes it is a couple of thousand that they owe in rent arrears and they're so stressed out. If you look at the low-income families, they are paying about (thirty percent is supposed to be the standard you are supposed to pay for housing) fifty percent of their income towards housing and in a low-income family that earns below $40,000. That means of $20,000 is going into housing and, even then, they're vulnerable because every day rents escalate. At this point, I don't think you can find a two-bedroom in Cambridge for less than $2,500 per month in rent. You can see that annually, $30,000 of your income goes towards housing. How can you educate your children, pay for medical expenses, transportation, basic needs, and food? And so we are seeing the escalation of this impact. Cambridge is a wonderful city with great services, fairly good public schools and people have to make choices about living here.

I think there is not enough of a deep understanding of the fact that Cambridge is a city that has poverty. I worked in the field of community development for thirty years and I have done this work in Boston for the Boston Foundation before I came here. I was at the Boston Foundation for fifteen years and I lived in Cambridge for nine years while I was going to school and my husband was at MIT and I did not realize that poverty in Cambridge is hidden. I did not realize that there was fifteen percent general poverty, which means one in every seventh child that you're seeing, below the age of eighteen, is likely to be poor. That's shocking.

What's your role in solving the housing crisis?

We are trying to raise resources and bring donors together to look at the issue of eviction for nonpayment of rent because people are that close to becoming homeless and frankly the housing stress is very difficult. We co-funded a needs assessment study with the city of Cambridge that was released in early 2017. The top three needs in Cambridge were housing affordability, economic insecurity, and mental health. They are very related issues. From a health perspective, Cambridge is in pretty good shape. Cambridge has lots of resources but when you're stressed about your housing situation, it has huge impacts and if someone becomes homeless, then it's a downward spiral from there that is very difficult to reverse.

What about all the developers gaining on this moment? Developers are building McMansions and selling them for huge profits, some cutting large tree canopies to build. How can a community foundation help with that challenge?

I am aware of that. Some of these things are actually a role for the city because they are related to issues of zoning and permitting and subsidies and those kinds of things.

Yet politicians can be influenced by developer donations. If your role is civic leadership, how do you draw the line?

In Cambridge, we have a mayor and a city council that is elected but a city administration that is appointed. The city administration is quite independent of that because they're not elected.

That was not my experience (writing to the city administrator and speaking with the historic commission) when we had developers making huge profits with no guardrails on clear-cutting trees and tearing down buildings.

I think that was really an unfortunate thing because Cambridge is such an intense city of activity. We are a quirky, wonderful, lovely, adorable community. We are a central city that provides services for many people. The homeless that we see on the streets are not always the homeless from Cambridge. They're people who come from all over because Cambridge provides such wonderful services. We have twenty food pantries, and probably have more than that because they're at churches. They're at shelters like Y2Y. People come from all over because Cambridge provides such great services and we have are a global city.

Cambridge is the epicenter of the innovation economy because of our universities; because of the companies we have and all the startups that happen here. We’re benefitting from that economic growth that has been generated in Cambridge is actually now flowing to Waltham, to Boston, to Somerville, and to Lexington.

I think we're increasingly feeling that we need to be the civic voice or we need to create that civic power in this community that can speak up against issues. I think that's been missing.

Many cities across the U.S. today are without a local newspaper or substantial newsroom. While we have WBUR, WGBH and The Boston Globe covering greater Boston and the state, we are without a substantial Cambridge newsroom. TheEditorial hoped to become that a launch pad for hyper-local coverage around topics that have national appeal (deep dive on a topic that needs a solution). In a city that is as progressive and intelligent as Cambridge, our hope was to build enough revenue to hire more journalists to do deep reporting on City Hall, transportation, housing, business, and culture. Unfortunately, we could not figure out the funding, outside of events revenue. Where does the community foundation see the role of journalists in communities?

I think that actually really does speak to the fact that every community needs to have that powerful entity that is speaking up. While I think Cambridge city government is in general really compassionate, really caring, very thoughtful, I think there are some things that they're not thinking about. For instance, let's go back to that housing issue and the fact that we're the eco-center of the innovation economy. Sixty-five or seventy percent share of the city's tax base comes from these large companies, who are calling out anyone in that space? When I look at it, a lot of these companies are expanding. Facebook is expanding. Google is expanding. Some of the companies are actually moving their people out to Lexington and Waltham because of the high-cost high rents. But the fact is that we're bringing in people and we're creating more jobs but we're not thinking about where these people are going to live.

If you were to literally create a data visualization of it, I think it is very illustrative. All of this area in blue is MIT, all the red is Harvard and some of Leslie over here. If I were to fill in the blocks, practically all of this is Kendall Square where there are also a lot of companies. All of these are growing and then you have these small residential areas left, you can understand why there is housing stress. It's a no-brainer. There are new people coming in and buying homes. People are feeling very, very vulnerable about their housing situation, tenants in particular, and Cambridge is two-thirds tenants.

By permission from Cambridge Community Foundation

By permission from Cambridge Community Foundation

What is the solution?

The solution in my mind is not a local solution. It is a regional solution.

Is it transportation?

It’s transportation and housing. With the power that we have in Cambridge, the wealth that we have in Cambridge, the companies that we have in Cambridge, the universities… we have an immensely powerful community.

What's the solution?

It could be zoning. It could be working with other communities around the greater Boston area that could do with more development. If we were to really strengthen our transportation system and spread out housing, we wouldn't have this kind of stress.

How can our public transport be so antiquated? How do we move this forward?

It’s very much about how much we pay for our transportation costs. It's very heavily subsidized. A lot of other cities pay a lot more and so it becomes an equity issue. The burden falls on those who use the train, which tends to be the lowest income commuter, but this is where I wonder what role companies can play. Recently, I was moderating a forum on housing and there was this person from San Francisco and Mark Draisen from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. This gentleman from San Francisco was talking about what companies in San Francisco did for the housing issue because it became such a problem. It's crazy and we may get there too if we don't watch out.

Google, Facebook are literally building these neighborhoods of housing. Microsoft just gave a $500 million gift to Seattle for housing. I think we have to not just be satisfied with the fact that companies are paying taxes. They wouldn't be paying those taxes if they weren't benefitting. They're benefitting from this amazing innovation system that is producing tremendous talent. There's the whole startup culture and the VC culture in Cambridge. There are a lot of reasons why companies are coming here.

Where do you want to take the Cambridge Foundation?

I came here three years ago and we really shifted from being this well-loved charity to a change maker. We're still building our capacity and, frankly, I need some pretty serious resources to have the staff and the capacity to scale up the efforts and impact around these issues.

What issue would you tackle first?

I think housing is the biggest issue. It is the biggest issue.

What would you do with the money?

I would create some sort of a pool fund. I've done that kind of work when I was at the Boston Foundation. You pool funds. It can be public, private, non-profit, individual donors. You pool funds and you work with government – the government is the big subsidizer of housing – to see how you can build housing for the middle. I think that is very critical.

It wouldn't necessarily have to be in Cambridge, but Cambridge could partner with other communities and say, “how are we going to solve these problems?” Maybe we build around transit nodes. You can build up around transit nodes and if you were to look at Lechmere, for instance, you could actually build much more densely there.

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council did a study a while ago to say that if you were to build up around every major MBTA node you would actually solve the housing problem. We wouldn't have the traffic on the streets. It has to actually be a very integrated strategy. It can't be that you build housing and you don't think about all of these other factors.

On this map, we're seeing apartments being built - did you have a role in this?

No. At this point no, we haven' t had a role.

Who's doing it?

The Greater Boston Area has some of the best housing and community development experts in the country, really impressive. I've been in that field and I know that if you were to look at some of our quasi-government entities like Mass Housing Partnership or Mass Housing Investment Corporation, there are some tremendous minds from a housing perspective in this housing and community development perspective and people are coming up with wonderful ideas and doing that.

If you had the funding would you replicate what they are doing in Boston?

No. It doesn't make sense to replicate. I'm a real believer in partnerships and if there is one of the cultures that I want to bring to this foundation and this community is that it's not about us. It's about the community and it's about solving problems and if there's any community that has the capacity to solve problems, it's Cambridge. We have the intellectual capacity.

If you had a really good transportation system instead of being stuck in traffic… there was an interesting article on Kendall Square last fall and I loved this one quote, “you can't cure cancer while you're waiting in traffic.”

Transportation and housing sound like your main focus?

I think it's both. It's both of those things. It's an integrated strategy.

On a small scale, are you're helping residents avoid evictions?

Yes. From a housing perspective, that's what we're doing. We're funding a lot of services for the homeless, but I feel like we’ve already lost it when you do that. I'd much rather that we were moving much more upstream where you're preventing homelessness rather than serving people who are homeless.

San Francisco has the same problem and yet we don't yet see big names, like Marc Benioff from SalesForce and now the owner of Time Magazine, trying to change things like they have in San Francisco. Why is that?

I think for the same reasons you probably didn't get funded for your paper in that there are very few companies that are headquartered in Cambridge. Even when I talk to the companies here, they say the decisions of funding and philanthropic funding are made in California and Seattle and other places. The offices here can come up with a big idea - a nice idea - and put it forward but the decisions are made where the headquarters are.

What will it take for you to grow your asset base?

Look at the Boston Foundation or look at the New York Trust or the Chicago Trust or the Cleveland Foundation or the San Francisco Foundation or the Silicon Valley Foundation – they're all billion dollars and above. I have to say I was really fascinated by the Cambridge problem.

That's why I took this job. I felt like this is a city that's small enough – 115,000 people at this point. The biggest it's ever been is 120,000 residents, which was in the 1950s. People come here to solve world problems and world peace. We can't solve the problems for 15% of our population that's in poverty? I think that's a shame and I think this is something that this city really needs to think about.

I think there's a tremendous amount of wealth in Cambridge and I think people need to think about giving to their own community. People are solving problems all over the world and that's wonderful because the world really does need a lot of help. I would just like people to think a little bit about their own community and contribute because Cambridge is very successful right now but we cannot take our success for granted. Whoever in the 1960s, would have ever thought Detroit was going to be the mess that it is today? If tomorrow all these companies up and leave and we will have lost our tax base.

What are your biggest goals?

We’ve repositioned ourselves from a community foundation that looked out for the wellbeing and made sure there was an opportunity for all to a local giving platform supporting social equity, shared prosperity and cultural richness. These are our three big goals: social equity, share prosperity and cultural richness. There is a rationale for each of these that is very specific to Cambridge.

The social equity is because of the issue of income inequality and the fact that in a city that is as wealthy as this and as powerful as Cambridge, I think it's very sad that we have that level of poverty. The shared prosperity: there's a lot of wealth in this city. What can we do to share and give back to the community? In my mind, it is a two-way thing. There are the wealthy who can give of their resources. There are those who don't have that kind of wealth who give of themselves and contribute to the cultural vitality of the community and that too is a piece of the prosperity that they're sharing back with the community. Cultural richness is to me the fact that I really believe that Cambridge has always been a place of poets, writers, thinkers, artists, entrepreneurs, and creators. We have really interesting people and it's a function that we get people from all over the world who come here with different pasts, different cultures, different mindsets. That is the breeding ground for innovation.

Do you get money from local companies and universities?

The universities have been supportive of the foundation. For example, Harvard gave $1 million for the Harvard Agassiz fund, and we have a growing connection with the University.

Can you accept funds from local corporates and universities?

Of course, we can.

[Its past donor list from 2017 to 2019 annual reports includes MIT, Google, the Biogen Foundation, Cambridge Trust, Tufts Health Plan Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts in the $10,000 to $50,000 range of giving.]

Can you receive gifts and endowments from another non-profit?

Yes, and we can take checks from individuals. We're a public charity. That's actually one of the great things about community foundations is that we're public charities. We can accept donations from anyone.

Many are supporting our annual event at $5,000 and $7,500 but if I look at what the Silicon Valley Foundation has built, which started in the 1990s, it is a $13 billion foundation. It is huge. It's companies. It's individuals.

We're blips on the horizon of this foundation, which has been around for 100 years and will likely be there for another 100 years. People have to think about what is it that they're leaving behind for our community. It’s really interesting, when I came here, within a couple of months I received a call from a gentleman named Joe Bain. He and his wife used to live in Cambridge and they had a wonderful time. He's in his eighties or nineties now and lives in New Hampshire but he and his wife brought up their children here and they have some of the happiest memories of their life in Cambridge. They've left us a huge bequest. When I look at other foundations and how they grew, they've actually grown through bequests or the creation of funds.

We are now actually getting up to the point of creating a fund for the arts. We're working very closely with the Central Square Business Association. It's a very unusual partnership but we want to make sure that Central Square which is sort of the home to many phenomenal arts and cultural entities from improv to the dance complex to the Central Square Theater and Green Street Studios and all these music venues like the Middle East, is able to retain its presence because it is very local. It's such a rich vibrant cultural center that attracts many people where once everything was locally owned but that is changing as developers arrive and the nature of ownership is changing where people are buying larger parcels. The moment something big comes up, it's going to change and we've had that big development of Mass and Main which is now mostly luxury housing with I think 20 percent affordable units but it will still change the nature of Central Square. Central Square, in my mind, is the essence of Cambridge. It has diversity. It has a cultural richness. You can stand there and in ten minutes hear ten different languages. It has young people. It has families. It has people from the corporate world and students. It's really wonderful.

It's hard to preserve that.

We’re trying to figure out how one can use cultural vitality and have people recognize that it's that cultural vitality that is making this very special and then supporting the ability of arts and culture organizations to stay. As you know, one of the first things that happen when gentrification arrives is the arts and culture goes out. There are about the 300 musicians from the EMF Building where musicians would rent spaces for half an hour.

How do you suggest we preserve some space for artists?

That's exactly my point. Given where we are right now in the life of this community and seeing what has happened to the communities like San Francisco, we actually have to lead with our values. We have to say, “these are the things that we care about. This is what we want to preserve in our community and this is what we're willing to do.” We'll always care about the most vulnerable because that's Cambridge and we will always do that but we need to make a concerted effort to make sure that we're retaining the working population of Cambridge and families in Cambridge because they're the glue. They're the middle. They're the connective tissue. They're the ones who put together the little leagues and the festivals.

Do you have a competitor?

Our biggest competitor is the Boston Foundation because a lot of the donors in Cambridge go to them. I can understand that. We were really a very small entity when I came here. We had 1.5 staff trying to do everything. I've had to build the infrastructure and the last three years we've been building the infrastructure, the visibility and the operations of the foundation that can inspire people's confidence. People need to know that if they send a check to this place, they will get acknowledgment for their tax-deductible donation. The money will be put to good use and hear back about how their money was used.

Do you think your time at the Boston Foundation helps instill this trust?

Yes, very helpful. Both from everything that I've learned, from the good and the bad to the things that I don't want this foundation to become and the things that I want this foundation to become. I've learned about from the Boston Foundation and my fifteen years there was a wonderful opportunity and I was able to do some really, really powerful things with them. I had a great opportunity and I'm grateful for that.

Editor’s note:

Following our interview, the Cambridge Foundation announced the recipients of its first-ever Social Innovation Award during its Cambridge Community Foundation Salutes 150 Cambridge Nonprofits event. They awarded Sisters Unchained, a program supporting teenage daughters of incarcerated parents, as the first place winner. The program, founded by three young women, two of whom are Cambridge Rindge and Latin School graduates, was awarded $5,000, and joined by four runners-up—The Black Student Union at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School; Cambridge Trades Task Force; the Good Bank; and the South Asian Worker’s Center— each receiving $1,000. The five award-winners offer innovative solutions to big social problems such as mass incarceration, systemic racism, lack of post-high school job training, high-interest payday loans, and barriers to economic mobility for low-income immigrant women.

The Cambridge Community Foundation created the Social Innovation Award to uncover young innovators trying to solve some of our most intractable social problems. The Foundation and Award judges sought out innovators with creative, light-touch ideas that inspire new models for improving the quality of life for people in Cambridge and hopefully the broader world.