About the Fund

The J.M. Kaplan Fund has remained a strong, effective philanthropic organization over three generations—by no means a common success story among family foundations.  The Fund has profited from unwavering family support, talented and devoted staff, and creative leadership in each of the three generations.  And now, as the hundredth anniversary rises on the horizon, a fourth generation stands ready!

The Fund was established in 1945 by Jacob M. Kaplan.  Much of its asset base came from the sale in the 1950s of the Welch Grape Juice Company, long headed by Mr. Kaplan, to a grape growers’ cooperative in New York State and Pennsylvania that quickly became one of the most successful American agricultural co-ops of its time, and flourishes still.

Jack 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.

Jack 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, Jack 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 Jack’s wife, Alice, the Fund supported cultural groups, mainly in the visual arts and music.

Jack 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.

In 1977, he asked his oldest child, Joan Davidson, who had been serving as one of its vice-presidents, to assume the Fund’s presidency; she was then completing a term as Chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts.

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: 

Democratic candidate for State Senate from the Upper East Side, 1970s

Chair, New York State Council on the Arts, 1970s

Founding chair, GRACIE MANSION Conservancy, 1980s

Commissioner, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, 1990s

Chair, Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial, 2009

In 1995, the Founder’s seven grandchildren – four the children of Joan Davidson and three of Elizabeth Fonseca – were entrusted with the leadership of the Fund and a new Executive Director was appointed.  They have continued many of the Fund’s traditional concerns, having to do with the natural and built environment, human rights, and enhancement of city neighborhoods; and they have embraced new ventures, including ways to secure and protect New York’s waterways, and to improve the nation’s approach to immigration.

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.

Under the leadership of the grandchildren, 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 (1993 to 2000), the trustees worked both on grant making 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. 

Under the leadership of Peter Davidson as chair (2000 to present), the Fund established four program areas: Environment, focused on protecting the deep ocean and combatting climate change; Heritage Conservation, focused on preserving and conserving cultural heritage; Social Justice, focused on mitigating the impact of the criminal justice system on youth, people of color, and immigrant communities; and NYC-Brownsville, focused on supporting community leaders in Brownsville to advance economic mobility, improve public health, and preserve the cultural resources of the Brooklyn neighborhood. Continuing its legacy as a nimble and creative foundation, The Fund launched the J.M.K. Innovation Prize in 2015 to support social entrepreneurs that are spearheading solutions to society’s most urgent challenges.