So far as we know, Elisabeth Achelis and George and Louise Bodman never formally met. These mainstays of New York philanthropy are intimately connected, however, through a shared concern for society that infuses their respective charities: the Achelis Foundation and Bodman Foundation. Through an informal association over the past six decades, the Achelis and Bodman Foundations have fostered a philanthropic friendship that has blossomed into one of the most ambitious and fruitful collaborations in New York and beyond.
The Beginnings of Kindred Strangers
Elisabeth Achelis was born in 1880 in Brooklyn Heights, her father being Fritz Achelis, the immensely successful president of the American Hard Rubber Company (some of whose products sold under the famed “Ace” trademark). A life of idleness and indulgence was hers if she desired it, but she stoutly refused. As she would later write, “An inheritance was left me by my father which I felt I would like to give in service for my fellow men. I did not wish to use this wealth for myself alone by acquiring more possessions and devoting it to selfish means or personal ends.”
For Achelis, privilege always entailed duty, and that duty, as she understood it, was to relieve the moral, physical and civic scourges that afflicted her fellow New Yorkers. And so, she established her own foundation in 1940, one which contributed to such philanthropic causes as the arts and culture, education and civic projects—all for the “well-being and progress of mankind,” which she championed through her foundation until her death in 1973.
George M. Bodman was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1882, and his wife, Louise, in Chicago in 1893, but both would eventually settle for most of their lives in New York and Red Bank, New Jersey. Mr. Bodman, no stranger to privilege himself, was educated at the Hill School in Pennsylvania and later Yale University, from which he would settle into investment banking, eventually rising to senior partner of Cyrus J. Lawrence & Sons.
Bodman was also inspired to take up public service, first as chief of intelligence service of the War Trade Board during the First World War, and later, during the Second World War, as executive assistant to the Red Cross Commissioner for Great Britain and regional director of American Red Cross Club operations in England, Scotland and Ireland. By the end of that war, Mr. and Mrs. Bodman established their own charitable foundation, which, very much like Achelis, serves mostly in New York and New Jersey, in areas such as the arts and culture (of which they were particularly fond) to education and civic projects. The Bodmans dedicated much of their remaining years to these works until the death of Mr. Bodman in 1950 and his wife five years later.
A Friendship in Philanthropy
The strong similarities between the two foundations in their origins and character, particularly their deep roots in New York City, led eventually to an informal marriage of the two. Guy G. Rutherfurd, the family lawyer to both Achelis and the Bodmans, forged the philanthropic friendship and would later serve as chairman for both. Today the foundations remain technically distinct creatures under the law, but each now holds nearly everything in common—trustees, staff, office space. Most importantly, each strives to achieve the same kind of good: to better the cultural and civic life of the city which Achelis and the Bodmans called home.
The Achelis Foundation, since its founding, has given some $33 million in grants to charitable ventures in New York City, and the Bodman Foundation nearly $80 million, spread across the city and into New Jersey. The emphasis of their labors still remains with those causes dearest to Achelis and the Bodmans: the artistic and cultural life in New York; relieving poverty and chronic unemployment through responsible, effectual measures of welfare reform; aiding disadvantaged youth and troubled families with education, recreation, and mentoring; grants for medical research; and strengthening K-12 education through freedom of choice and access to opportunity.
What truly distinguishes the Achelis and Bodman Foundations has always been the approaches the foundations have used rather than the issues they have chosen. Their work with roubled youth and broken families, for instance, has consistently stressed the often neglected centrality of fatherhood and marriage to cultivating stable, healthy families. This emphasis first brought Achelis and Bodman to support both the Rutgers University National Marriage Project and the National Fatherhood Initiative. They are also aggressively pursuing intellectual diversity through their grantmaking, including work with The Philanthropy Roundtable’s higher education breakthrough group. Other significant contributions include research and scholarship in the problem of black underachievement, assimilating New York’s burgeoning immigrant population, support for parental school choice, and welfare reform.
Both foundations are committed to helping people help themselves. The Achelis Foundation has supported ACCION New York’s microenterprise lending program for low-income New Yorkers trying to start their own businesses, as well as the Vocational Foundation’s Moving Up program, a job-placement and retention program for disadvantaged young people in Brooklyn. The Bodman Foundation has given grants to Per Scholas’s computer technician training program and Workshop in Business Opportunities, which expands entrepreneurship training opportunities for low-income minorities and immigrants.
The foundations’ most substantial effort in recent years has been their contribution to the charter school movement, which has gained impressive ground, largely due to foundations like Achelis and Bodman. Direct grants from the two foundations alone have already amounted to $2.5 million since 1999, which launched 26 charter schools in New York City principally, but also several in Albany, New York, and northern New Jersey. Total contributions to the movement overall, including research, technical assistance and public education, are nearly $4.4 million, with more contemplated for the years ahead.
The reason for embracing the charter school movement, as the foundations’ secretary and executive director Joseph Dolan explains, is that charter schools “are held to very high standards, unlike traditional public schools, and are closed if they fail.” One of the schools that
Achelis and Bodman funded (Reisenbach Charter School) did, in fact, close. “Performance and test scores have to be transparent and monitored closely,” Dolan adds cautiously, but nonetheless “charter schools promise to become the new public schools of the future with higher standards, rigorous testing, little bureaucracy, and full accountability for student results.”
Such private cures for public ills, in the promise of responsibility through freedom, and in the generosity of spirit which has always been the heart of these kindred foundations, no doubt would have pleased Elisabeth Achelis and George and Louise Bodman—strangers in life with a joint legacy of philanthropy.