Voices from the Field: Sometimes an Offbeat Grant Request Is Right on Target

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“Attention must be paid,” laments Willy Loman’s widow in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. That advice should be heeded by those who control the purse strings of foundations. In particular, it should apply to seemingly offbeat requests for grants. For proof, I draw on two episodes that took place during my tenure as president of a small foundation, the Edward W. Hazen Foundation.

When I took over the reins of the foundation, its focus was on youth development, having ranged in its forty-year history over such fields as Asian studies and theology. Our interests now included education, juvenile justice, and delinquency prevention. I was the sole program officer, so I rummaged through dozens of applications weekly.

Curiosity as much as strict criteria drew my attention, so one day I paused at a one-page request—on what was virtually scrap paper—from a parochial school in Newark, New Jersey. The author sought a few hundred dollars for instruction books for a program called “Teach the Teachers.” The program was run by pupils, who were largely Hispanic—several pupils had volunteered to come to school before regular hours to coach their English-speaking teachers in Spanish!

I could have routinely turned down the request, but curiosity prevailed, so I arranged to visit the school one morning. Journeying from New Haven, where the foundation was then located, to a rundown Newark neighborhood at daybreak was a real test of motivation. It was worth it. Witnessing teen and preteen young women deferentially guiding adult teachers through a foreign language was charming as well as instructive. I approved the grant, and went further, trying to get Newark public schools to introduce similar programs. After a year of prodding the administration and the teachers union, a pilot program was adopted. (I do not know if the pilot ever turned into a full-fledged program.)

As a small foundation, Hazen almost reflexively turned down applications from large, established institutions. Thus, I was about to discard an application from Washington, DC’s Arena Stage—one of the country’s renowned regional nonprofit theaters—but paused when I read the cover letter’s first and last sentences. The letter began, “We assume you are the same Richard Magat who attended performances at the Arena . . .” (there followed six dates from previous years). The letter concluded with warm wishes to my children, Claudia and Gordon! The mystery of this pre-Google information was further accented by the name of the signer of the letter, a perfect stranger to me: a fundraiser named Elspeth Udvarhelyi.

Ms. Udvarhelyi mentioned that she was coming to New Haven and would be pleased to describe her program further. I replied that we did not fund large organizations, but she responded with the explanation that she was seeking funds for a youth-oriented offshoot of the theater. In due course, she arrived in New Haven to present her case.

At the time, one of my trustees was a social worker who lived in Washington, and I arranged for her to come with me to visit the Arena Stage the next time I traveled there. We were shown a very convincing example of how this professional company was training young people from run-down Washington neighborhoods. The grant was approved.

During my visit, Ms. Udvarhelyi cleared up the mystery of how she had obtained my personal information. The theater handed out chits to patrons who needed taxis, the records of which were retained for years. As to knowledge of my children—that came from a press release announcing my appointment to the Hazen Foundation. The theater had held on to that, too. They had paid attention.

Richard Magat is former president of the Edward W. Hazen Foundation.

  • Richard Lacey

    Hi, Dick!

    Two illuminating stories…well do I recall sifting through piles of routine proposals, hoping to find that proverbial diamond in the rough, but don’t recall stumbling over any…same thing with an avalanche of proposals during Sophie Sa’s first six months, leading (in mutual frustration) to a board meeting resulting eventually in the respected, innovative model of systemic school reform, the Panasonic (then Matsushita) partnership program, which is now more than 20 years old!