A Visionary Organization: From Donor Intent to New Horizons of Race and Gender Equity
Carolyn Chernoff, Ph.D., Moore College of Art and Design, and V Varun Chaudhry, M.A., Northwestern University
The Leeway Foundation is a unique American philanthropic organization focused on funding women and trans artists working for social justice in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the surrounding five counties. The organization began as a family foundation some 25 years ago, when the founder and donor used her sizable inheritance to establish a fund to support women artists in the Philadelphia area. What is particularly notable about Leeway is the way the foundation has changed and transitioned along with — and in some cases, ahead of — mainstream understandings of gender and racial equity.
While it is a tautology to say that mission-driven organizations are shaped by the founder’s perception of the mission, it’s also a fact. Founder and donor intent, along with founder’s syndrome, often shape organizations in ways that can impede or limit positive change and growth, raising the following set of questions: How do mission-driven organizations adapt to changing social and political circumstances? How does the founder’s original vision shape the organization in years to come, particularly after the founder exits decision-making capacity? We address these questions in this article using the Leeway Foundation as a case study.
After addressing the concepts of diversity and inclusion, particularly as they pertain to the field of philanthropy, we establish a framework for how organizations grow and change past the founding phase, considering questions of donor intent. This is particularly relevant in the case of Leeway, because the founder and donor are the same person, Linda Lee Alter. By walking away from her substantial inheritance and decision-making power regarding these funds, Alter allowed Leeway to grow and change in new and previously unforeseen directions beyond her original vision, which was to fund woman-identified artists in Philadelphia. After establishing our use of terms like “diversity” and “inclusion,” we document these changes based on archival documents and in-depth interviews. Finally, we present our findings on what other foundations and philanthropic organizations can learn from this unique case study, particularly with regard to gender and racial equity in changing times.