A new image for Weinberg Foundation

December 16, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

The man whose name seems to grace every other building in Baltimore enjoyed his anonymity. A born businessman with movie star good looks, Harry Weinberg built a billion-dollar empire on a sixth-grade education.

Some people knew he owned a lot of property in Baltimore, but they didn't know much else.

Now, 17 years after his death, the foundation he formed in 1959 has embarked on what the image-driven business world of today would call a major rebranding.

Under its current president, Shale D. Stiller, the Weinberg Foundation strives for something akin to transparency.

The new Weinberg wants to make it easier for worthy organizations to be successful in their applications for Weinberg money. And it wants to be a leader in the overall effort to solve the problems of poverty.

With assets of $2.25 billion and growing, the foundation believes it must take on a more active role in the community of foundations. Recognizing that its programs can reach only a relative few of those in need, the Weinberg leadership now adds its voice to calls for more governmental involvement.

Before Mr. Stiller's arrival, says Rachel Monroe, the Weinberg's chief operating officer, the foundation operated as if a certain mystery were part of the founder's mandate. Bernard Siegel, the foundation's former president, ran things as if those marching orders were carved in stone.

"Leadership didn't feel it was part of the job to let anyone know what we were doing," Ms. Monroe says.

She and others have high praise for the stewardship of Mr. Siegel, but under Mr. Stiller, much has changed.

When he took control in 2005, the foundation had no Web site. Now its niche on the Internet covers 100 pages and gets 100,000 hits a year. For the first time in its 48-year history, the foundation distributed an annual report, explaining its mission as if it had been founded the day before.

In a sense, that was true. And under Mr. Stiller and Ms. Monroe, the foundation bids for a transformation. In addition to the ubiquitous "Harry and Jeanette Weinberg" signage, the foundation is poised to claim publicly a status it has held privately for some years.

Its special role in the world of foundations - aid to the elderly in the U.S., Israel and Russia - is more and more important. Mr. Stiller says the Weinberg mission must adjust.

"With better medications, large numbers of people and increasing volume of dementia and Alzheimer's, the problems of the elderly will increase exponentially," he said in a speech to other grant makers.

At a recent reception in Baltimore, Mr. Stiller spoke of challenges faced by the society as a whole and grant-making institutions in particular. Contrary to the ribbing he gets from friends, he says, it's not easy to give away money - if you do it right.

"There are a lot of soup kitchens around," he observes, offering an example. "The Weinberg Foundation has funded a lot of them because we do direct service work."

But it's not that simple. The idea is to feed people, so you ask yourself: "Do you give to soup kitchens or food banks? What if you decide to give money only to soup kitchens? One of them has a $2 million endowment; the others have no endowments. Do you penalize the wealthy one because it already has money? Or do you favor the wealthy one because it has been so well run?"

When he was a lawyer working on complicated cases, he says, he was expected to know 95 percent of the available facts. As a grant-maker, he wonders if he can know as much as 50 percent.

Why use your money to help people who can't really help society - the elderly and mentally impaired kids? He quoted a caregiver: "Mr. Stiller, God created these children to give me and others the opportunity to help them and to make us better people."

Still functioning within the parameters established by Harry Weinberg, the foundation operates on a "common sense" model, not an ideological one. Along with its searching evaluation of the programs it supports, the foundation has streamlined its application process.

The Weinberg Foundation's new approach apparently includes more than a transforming transparency. It represents a determination to lead. There's too much need, Mr. Stiller says, to be satisfied with your own generosity.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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