The J.M. Kaplan Fund was established in 1945 by Jacob Merrill Kaplan after he sold his business, The Welch’s Grape Juice Company, to the growers, creating an agricultural co-op that still thrives today. Since then, the Fund has remained a strong, effective philanthropic organization over three generations—with a fourth generation beginning their journey of charitable giving. The Fund has benefited from unwavering family support, talented and devoted staff, and creative leadership over its 75-year history.
TODAY AT THE FUND
Under the leadership of Peter Davidson as chairman (2000 to present), the Fund has three established program areas: Environment, focused on slowing the pace of climate change and mitigating climate impacts; Heritage Conservation, focused on preserving and conserving cultural heritage; and Social Justice, focused on strengthening democracy and reforming the criminal justice and immigration systems. Continuing its legacy as a nimble and creative foundation, the Fund launched the J.M.K. Innovation Prize in 2015 to support social entrepreneurs who are spearheading solutions to society’s most urgent challenges.
From 1993 to 2000, the Fund broadened its scope while buttressing programs and institutions reflecting traditional resources. Under the two-generation co-chairmanship of Richard D. Kaplan and Betsy Davidson, the trustees worked both on grantmaking and on new systems of governance, program-building, and evaluation. The emphasis on human rights was expanded. Historic preservation was taken out of a New York-only context and applied effectively in places as diverse as Turkey and Maryland. There were notable grants in support of research on the role of volunteerism and the private sector in addressing social problems. Individual artist and hard-pressed arts companies were supported. And through it all, the board supported a New York City portfolio of grassroots projects for parks and libraries. Heritage Trails New York—launched under Richard Kaplan’s leadership and later becoming an independent organization—advanced the cause of history, urban design, and economic development in Lower Manhattan.
HISTORY OF THE FUND
Joan K. Davidson
From 1997 thru 1993 the Fund was led by J.M.’s eldest daughter, Joan K. Davidson. Ms. Davidson carried forward her father’s style of responsive, determined, and non-bureaucratic management of the Fund’s affairs. She assembled a small, gifted, and creative professional staff; established a clear, consistent point of view and grants program based largely on her own deeply held convictions in regard to the natural and built environment, the arts, civil liberties, and human rights – and her belief in the excellence of New York City and State.
In Ms. Davidson’s years, the Fund acquired standing as a forceful presence in the City’s civic life, a reputation it maintains in the present through its enduring commitment to New York City in all of its funding areas.
The Fund’s values and aspirations were succinctly expressed each year in Ms. Davidson’s brief paragraph in the annual report:
We believe that private foundations best serve the general interest when they act with a clear point of view on public policy issues, including cultural matters; remain steadfast in defense of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; and are willing to take chances so that fresh ideas in both the private and public realms can be safely tried out. To these ends we are loyal to proven efforts and grantees with a track record, and at the same time take pleasure in helping new undertakings get off the ground. As our founder did, we trust our instincts, and make grants and Program Related Investments with a minimum of red tape, in the belief that a lesser amount readily supplied can often be as helpful as a larger amount long delayed.
We seek to reinforce New York State’s honorable tradition of progressive social policy and enable talented people to make wonderful things happen – at the landmarked building, in City streets and neighborhoods, farm country, wilderness and parks, on the printed page, and at the official hearing.
The Davidson presidency saw the early advocacy – and mostly sustained support for Westbeth, Greenmarkets, South Street Seaport, Urban Center Books at the Municipal Art Society, programs of Natural Resource Defense Council, Human Rights Watch; The Nature Conservancy, parks and land conservancies, Sacred Sites and Properties Fund of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, Preservation League of New York State, renovation of the Mayor’s House Gracie Mansion; Clothing Bank/New Clothes for the Homeless, the New York Cares Annual Coat Drive; Rural New York. The Fund provided a range of assistance to rural, small-town undertakings, and to branch libraries, an inner-city greening program, one campaign to save the City’s pristine water supply and another to bring public toilets to the streets of New York.
Ms. Davidson served on numerous New York City, New York State, and national boards and held several public positions including Democratic candidate for State Senate from the Upper East Side (1970s), Chair of New York State Council on the Arts (1970s), Founding Chair of Gracie Mansion Conservancy (1980s), Commissioner of New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation (1990s), and Chair of Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial (2009).
Ms. Davidson remained a trustee, became president emeritus, and sponsored a new Fund program, Furthermore grants in publishing, after taking a leave from the Fund to serve as Commissioner of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation in the 1990s.
Jacob Merrill Kaplan
J.M. Kaplan’s long leadership of the Fund (1945 to 1977) was marked by determined advocacy—both organizational and personal—for chosen projects. These included Carnegie Hall, where Mr. Kaplan worked in close partnership with Isaac Stern to save the Hall from destruction, with the essential, steady support from the Fund.
J.M. Kaplan’s years were marked also by steadfast interest in and support for chosen institutions, principally The New School for Social Research, where Mr. Kaplan served as Chairman for 20 years; the South Street Seaport Museum; the cause of union democracy, and of the co-operative movement.
In 1967, at the behest of the National Endowment on the Arts, J.M. Kaplan and the Fund took on the challenge of providing, for the first time in America, living/working space for painters, sculptors, composers, choreographers, poets, photographers, and others, and created Westbeth Artists Housing in New York City, which was one of the earliest examples of the remaking of industrial buildings into housing. At the urging of J.M.’s wife, Alice, the Fund supported cultural groups, mainly in the visual arts and music.
J.M. Kaplan was a man of imagination and courage; he managed the Fund in an individualistic, entrepreneurial way, contributing to (and often guiding) the projects that appealed to him, as he saw fit. He had the help of a part time assistant and a secretary—and a great deal of pleasure in the work.
FUTURE OF THE FUND
The Concord Group
In 2019, the trustees of the J.M. Kaplan Fund approved a three-year pilot to explore the interest of the sixteen great-grandchildren of Jacob Merrill Kaplan in the work of the family’s foundation. This pilot formally launched in January 2020 and concluded in December 2022.
Over the course of this educational pilot, the fourth generation read foundational writings and engaged in discussion with nonprofit leaders and colleague funders. All members of the fourth generation participated in some parts of the pilot, demonstrating a commitment to one another and to continuing the family’s philanthropic tradition.
In January 2023, upon successful completion of the educational pilot, the fourth generation adopted the Concord Group name and, going forward, their collaborative grantmaking is an established program of the Fund. This group of cousins determine an annual grantmaking theme and endeavor to learn, together, about the nuance of that topic. They then distribute funds to organizations and collaborative efforts that aim to bring a new perspective to these persistent and systemic issues. Ranging in ages, geographic locations, and professional backgrounds, the fourth generation believes in justice, equality, freedom, and a sustainable future for all people, and seek to be leaders who focus on grantmaking that builds opportunity and creates lasting impact.