Foundation empties coffers to fund Black paper in Baltimore

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In a rare move for philanthropy, Adam Holofcener and his family emptied their foundation’s coffers and gave $1 million — nearly all the money it had left to give — to support Lisa Snowden-McCray’s dream: a free newspaper staffed by Black editors and writers in Baltimore to provide news primarily for the city’s Black residents.

Snowden-McCray, a journalist who worked at the city’s major daily, the Sun, and the now-shuttered alternative weekly, the Baltimore City Paper, knew Holofcener, a lawyer-activist who represented artists, from the progressive orbit they both inhabited.

She and Brandon Soderberg, a former Baltimore City paper editor, had tried to launch a new paper, the Baltimore Beat, but the publishing company that supported it pulled the plug. In 2020, Holofcener casually asked the two if they had any plans to resuscitate the publication.

After some more conversation, he surprised the two with an offer. The foundation, which he says had been making a “hodge-podge” of unfocused grants for decades, would essentially go out of business after giving the Beat $1 million.

“I knew he was a nice guy,” Snowden-McCray says. “I didn’t know he had access to a million dollars. The money was a complete shock to me.”

This photo provided by Chronicle of Philanthropy shows co-founder of Baltimore Beat Lisa Snowden-McCray, left, and Adam Holofcener of the Lillian Holofcener Charitable Foundation, photographed in Baltimore, in October 2022. (Michael Theis/Chronicle of Philanthropy via AP)

His family’s Lillian Holofcener Charitable Foundation joins a growing number of grantmakers that have put time limits on their existence so they can direct more money immediately to charities.

Not only did the Holofcener foundation decide to give away just about every cent it had but Adam Holofcener, 36, and the other relatives on the board did something even more rare by dedicating almost all of its remaining assets to a single project.

For Holofcener, the bold move was both an attempt to directly respond to the calls for racial justice after the murder of George Floyd by police in 2020 and an attempt to purge the family of gains it had made, which, as Holofcener sees it, came at the expense of Baltimore’s Black residents.

Holofcener’s grandfather amassed his wealth first through his insurance businesses and then through a successful chain of skiing and golfing equipment stores. Decades ago, the Holofceners left Baltimore for the suburbs, like thousands of other white families, leaving the city with a depleted tax base.

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The large grant is an attempt to counter the idea that “any giving is good giving,” Holofcener says. A better way to give, he says, was for the foundation to give up control of how the money was used and leave those decisions to the Baltimore Beat staff.

“It was very important that not only were we giving all the money away but that we were losing the money,” he says. “It’s as important to disempower ourselves as it is to empower them.”

In 2020, Holofcener wasn’t even in a position to decide how to spend the family’s remaining philanthropic assets. The sole board member, his uncle Rick, a serial entrepreneur, was halfway around the world, living with his family in Thailand. Adam brought up the idea with his sister Ashley, who lives in Florida, and with Rick’s daughter Sydney, who lives in Tennessee.

Ashley says those discussions encouraged her to make a big bet.

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“Why can’t we strike while the iron is hot,” she says her family members told her. “There’s a real opportunity for us to engage.”

The problem was that none of the cousins actually had any say over how the family foundation doled out money. Rick had accepted that job years before, but he was not a hands-on philanthropist.

“I was not in that business,” he says.

The younger Holofceners found that their uncle was receptive to having them join the board. Upon joining, Adam wanted to push the family to take chances. He introduced them to a book, “Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance,” by Edgar Villanueva, that advocates that philanthropists respond to the needs of grantees rather than dictate how they operate.

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The reading, Rick says, was useful. Coming from a business background, the idea that a nonprofit could get a lump sum with no strings attached seemed counterintuitive. Steering the Holofceners’ limited remaining assets toward a single nonprofit, rather than a group of organizations, seemed to go against the grain of basic business advice: Spread your resources out in a portfolio of investments.

“It was a little bit scary for me,” Rick Holofcener says.

They did consider another option: creating a community-led fund that would have spread out grants to a number of nonprofits each year. But by making a single, eyebrow-raising grant, the Holofceners thought they might draw the attention of other donors and encourage them to give. The Beat reports that it has raised an additional $250,000 since the Holofcener gift.

Coming to the decision meant the Holofceners had to reorient their notion of success, Ashley says. She hopes the Baltimore Beat publishes for many years to come. But if it doesn’t, the grant will have accomplished something important if it spurs other foundations to act boldly.

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“A win in our minds is breaking the cycle of how foundations and philanthropic organizations are typically managed today,” she says.

More family foundations are considering whether to give more — or even all — of their assets, says Nicholas Tedesco, president of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.

As new generations of family members increasingly populate foundation boards, Tedesco predicts more grantmakers will begin to take a second look at how they give. Typically, he says, people who make a lot of money view it as a hard-earned asset and might resist giving up control over how charities use their grants. Their sons and daughters, however, are more likely to see their family’s money as a gift to pass along to others.

“Among the next generation of family philanthropy, we see more of a willingness to embrace risk and to move away from a posture of waiting for guaranteed results,” he says.

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In a letter from the editor published in the relaunched Beat’s inaugural edition in August, Snowden-McCray outlined the paper’s goals.

“We wanted to give Black writers the opportunities to tell their own stories,” she wrote. “We wanted to help add depth to the stories that are told about Baltimore. We wanted to make a paper that reflected the joys — the art created here, the celebrations held here, the lives lived here — and sadness of the city.”

But before the Holofceners agreed to cede control over their assets and help Snowden-McCray with her mission, they wanted a sense of confidence that the paper would be managed well, say both the family members and Snowden-McCray

Working for several months with Snowden-McCray and Soderberg, the paper’s co-founder, the family and the journalists fine-tuned their vision. The process, Soderberg says, was stress-free because they knew the money was coming; the time-out was simply to make sure the nonprofit paper would have a smooth rollout.

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The foundation wasn’t laying out preconditions or must-dos. Instead, the pause gave the paper and the family time to thoroughly nail down their plans.

The paper developed a comprehensive strategy for where it should deploy newspaper boxes so they would reach people who would benefit the most.

To keep operating costs in line, the refined business plan also called for a biweekly paper instead of a weekly, as originally planned. As a result of the extended planning, Snowden-McCray is optimistic about the paper’s future.

“Everybody wants everything fast,” she says. “But I think slow cooking it will ultimately help us last.”

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