Altman Foundation (2007)

By Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, Victoria Chang
2007 | Case No. SI84 | Length 16 pgs.

In 1913, Benjamin Altman made a capital stock investment (the stock was from his department store B. Altman & Co.) to create the Altman Foundation. Since that time, the foundation has both honored Mr. Altman’s vision of serving New York City’s economically disadvantaged and has transformed into a focused, strategic philanthropic organization.

From 1913 to 1985, the Altman Foundation owned and operated seven B. Altman & Co. stores, using the profits for grantmaking. During its first 70 years, the foundation had no staff members, but the board made grants totaling $800,000 a year. Grantmaking in this era was thoughtful but followed no particular structure or strategy.

Tax law changes in the early 1980s necessitated that the foundation sell off B. Altman & Co., which resulted in the endowment growing by $86 million. Rather than maintain its current grantmaking strategy, the foundation seized upon the opportunity to transform its organization. The board brought in a consultant who proposed diversifying the board, dividing the financial portfolio among several investment advisors and publishing an annual report and guidelines for grant applicants. In 1985, the board hired the foundation’s first director.

In 1995, the foundation elected a new board president who had two primary goals: 1) practicing strategic philanthropy; and 2) focusing more attention on asset management. This led to the foundation creating a new strategic plan in 2001. The board implemented its plan by discussing policy and strategy during meetings rather than using meetings to focus on individual grant applications, and staff members frequently referred to the plan to guide their decision-making. By 2005, the Altman Foundation was poised to take its strategic philanthropy to the next level by implementing a broader system of research and evaluation that would improve all aspects of its work in and for New York City.

Learning Objective

Family foundation, geographic-based grantmaking, strategic evolution, and foundation governance.

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