Jacob Merrill Kaplan (1891-1987) established
The J. M. Kaplan Fund in 1945 and was its president until 1977, his eighty-fifth
year. The Fund was capitalized by profits from Mr. Kaplan's business operations,
most notably the sale of the Welch Grape Company to the National Grape
Co-operative Association in Westfield, New York. This growers' organization,
which Mr. Kaplan had sponsored and encouraged, became and remains one
of the nation's most successful agricultural cooperatives. The newly established
Fund won recognition for major commitments to the New School (where Mr.
Kaplan served as board chairman for twenty years), Carnegie Hall (which
he helped save), and the movement for union democracy. The Fund also became
known for small grants given quickly for emergencies or as seed money
to attract other funding.
Joan K. Davidson, a daughter of the founder,
was named president of the Fund in 1977 and served in that capacity until
1993, when she was appointed by Governor Mario Cuomo as Commissioner of
New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. She rejoined
the Fund in 1995 as Trustee and President Emeritus and now heads its Furthermore
program of grants for publications.
In the years of Ms. Davidson's leadership,
the Fund was known for its support of both established institutions and
fledgling projects, mostly concerning civil liberties and human rights,
the arts, and enhancement of the built and natural environments. The major
focus was on New York City and New York State. Among major undertakings that came into being
or took long strides forward
with Fund assistance were: Human Rights Watch and the Natural Resources
Defense Council; Westbeth Artists and the South Street Seaport Museum; the
Rural New York program and the New York Greenmarket; and the New York
Preservation League, the Sacred Sites program of the Landmarks Conservancy,
and the renovation of Gracie Mansion. The Fund also sponsored efforts
to protect the city's water supply, supply winter coats to the homeless,
and bring public toilets to New York streets.
From 1993 through 2000, the Fund established
a governance system that involved both the children and grandchildren
of Jacob Kaplan. Under the co-chairmanship of Richard D. Kaplan and
Betsy Davidson, the Fund maintained and expanded its support for the arts,
the environment, human rights, and a robust civil society. New interests
emerged in programs to support New York City neighborhood parks and libraries
as well as historic preservation and municipal design work in Lower Manhattan.
The most recent chapter in Fund history
opened in mid-2000. Day-to-day management of the Fund and responsibility
for the non-discretionary portions of the annual grants budget were entrusted
to an Operating Board consisting of the seven Kaplan grandchildren (now
in their forties). A new Chairman, Peter Davidson, was elected and a new
Executive Director, Conn Nugent, was hired. In March 2001, the Operating Board announced a new set of three Kaplan programs, each with three geographic focuses. The programs were Environment, Historic Preservation, and Migrations. The focuses were New York City; cross-border regions of North America; and worldwide sites of special importance. The Fund emphasized places and phenomena either too local or too international to be addressed adequately by national governments. Thus the Environment Program, for example, supported waterfront parks and mass transit in New York City; cross-border ecosystem programs with Americans, Mexicans, Canadians, and Cubans; and a new global effort to advocate legal protections for the High Seas.
In March 2009, the Operating Board approved a new set of Grant
Programs incorporating many of the features of the 2001 - 2008 intitatives.