In the late 1990s, the Eisner Foundation began by focusing on nonprofits aiding children, a natural fit for a philanthropy headed by a family-oriented entertainment mogul and the parents of three young children. At first, the foundation gave in a somewhat casual way, as the Dammann Foundation had. There was a single, part-time employee. “Our goal had been low cost, very little money spent on the foundation, all of it spent giving it away. My dad was obsessed with that,” said Breck Eisner, speaking by Zoom from his L.A. office (where movie posters were visible on the wall behind him).
But the new Eisner Foundation had a lot more money to give than the old Dammann Foundation, and through wise investing, more all the time. That’s a big responsibility, said Breck. They realized they could have more impact if they professionalized what they were doing. “It’s a business, right? In order to best manage your ‘product,’ which is giving, you need to spend enough to get the best people and to best deploy the money you have. It’s taken us a full decade to figure that piece out,” Breck said.
The elder Eisners consulted with Joel Fleishman at Duke, who Michael described as “the most learned educator in philanthropy in the country.” In 2008, partly through Fleishman’s guidance, the foundation hired Trent Stamp as CEO. Stamp had been a program fellow at the Social Security Administration, a teacher and VP of communications for Teach for America, and the president of the then-fledgling nonprofit rating service Charity Navigator. He brought with him experience with older adults and with children, and a deep knowledge of organizational efficiency.
Stamp also brought a new clarity of focus. “I asked the question: ‘Why are we giving to kids? Is it because kids are cute, or because they often lack access and power?’ If the answer is the latter, maybe we should add seniors, too, because they are also vulnerable people.”
The Eisners agreed. Jane and Michael were growing older themselves and seeing the challenges facing our aging nation all around them. With Stamp on board, the Eisner Foundation began routing about 20% of its annual funding to aging-focused groups.
The most effective programs for older adults, it turns out, are intergenerational ones — activities that bring older and younger people together, often to solve problems that affect each, such as combating isolation of older folks by having them help kids improve their reading skills. Intergenerational programs allow a funder to serve two populations with every dollar, as we’ve written before when covering the Eisner-funded Heart of Los Angeles Intergenerational Orchestra. The economic crisis of 2008 meant the Eisner Foundation had less money to spend, which made the two-for-one nature of intergenerational funding particularly appealing.
Bringing people of different generations together for creative, positive interaction is also a great workaround in an era of intensifying polarization. Many divides today seem impossible to overcome. The generation gap? It’s relatively easy to bridge. Carving out a niche also allowed the relatively small foundation to take a leadership role, to “punch above our weight,” said Stamp.
In 2015, the foundation refined its focus to specifically fund intergenerational programs. Today, the Eisner Foundation is the leader in this space and the only major philanthropy dedicated to intergenerational funding. Like so many decisions before, this pivot is aligned with the family itself, now living a close, intergenerational reality itself.
“It’s a union between two populations who are isolated and do not have a lot of people advocating for them. We have an aging country. It really is important,” said Michael Eisner, who hopes his foundation’s intergenerational focus will lead other foundations to follow suit.
While the majority of the foundation’s grantmaking is in Los Angeles County, it expanded to New York City at the end of 2021, giving more than $1.5 million to NYC organizations doing intergenerational work that year. Grants typically range from $25,000 to $300,000. Recipients include organizations such as CoGenerate (formerly Encore.org), Generations United, the Los Angeles LGBT Center, Heart of Los Angeles, Bet Tzedek, L.A. Works, and ONEgeneration.
Marc Freedman is co-founder of CoGenerate, a longtime Eisner Foundation grantee. He said that the foundation’s ongoing support through unrestricted and program-specific grants, as well as thought leadership and partnership, has helped the nonprofit flourish. “They are really good at seeing and supporting us and nudging us to go further, to move to the next challenge and be adventurous in doing so. In the grants they’ve given us, they’ve asked us to put a special emphasis on what generations can do together. That led us to reinvent ourselves as an organization to CoGenerate. We were interested in this and then Eisner’s funding gave it more legitimacy and impetus.”
One of the foundation’s signature projects, the Eisner Prize for Intergenerational Excellence, is an example of the fund’s savvy. By creating this prize, the foundation not only generates more excitement and activity around intergenerational programming, but also expands its own knowledge of what’s happening throughout the country. “That was the strategy,” said Michael Eisner. “By doing the prize, we’ve now seen what happens in Illinois or Ohio. Occasionally, there are really good things, and then we bring them here.”
The Eisner Foundation board meets quarterly to go over their giving, much as the earlier generations of the family did in Vermont, though not necessarily during holidays. Breck’s wife, Georgia, Eric’s wife, Stacey, and Anders’ wife, Terena, play key roles as advisors. While board members theoretically have an equal say, Breck said that he and his siblings defer to their parents. “My parents are strong heads-of-company. We all meet and have votes, but we are very respectful of what my parents want. At some point, when they’re gone and we’re the heads, the hope is to keep the foundation together.”
To this aim, the five Eisners worked with Stamp during COVID to create a comprehensive mission statement detailing the kinds of organizations they fund and don’t fund, the intergenerational focus, and the best use of finances. Family members also have discretionary funds to spend as they see fit without board approval. This eliminates the need for time-wasting conversations about smaller gifts and allows everyone to feel free to give as they wish, another way to prevent friction and maintain commitment.
Read the full article about intergenerational philanthropy by Ade Adeniji at the National Center for Family Philanthropy.