A Look Back, Part 1: The Community Comes Together

Just what is a community foundation?

CFNJ 35 YearsIs it an effort to build local philanthropy? Is it a unifying force for diverse communities? Do community foundations confront community challenges by driving solutions through their own grantmaking? Or do they drive change in accordance with their donors’ or fundholders’ unique wishes?

In fact, community foundations do all of these things and frequently in concert with each other. And since the first community foundation opened in Cleveland more than 100 years ago, community foundations have been addressing the spectrum of social needs in small towns and large states, across the country, and around the world.

The Community Comes Together

Sparked by a simple idea – that members of a community could come together, pool their talents and resources, and effect positive change in the neighborhoods around them – the concept of a community foundation was catching on across the United States and made its way to New Jersey in the late 1970’s.

At that time, several distinguished charitable organizations were serving New Jersey, notably the Victoria Foundation, The Fund for New Jersey, the Schumann Foundation, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. These organizations and others like them made targeted grants to nonprofits in New Jersey supporting numerous worthwhile programs.

What several business and nonprofit leaders realized, however, was that New Jersey’s philanthropic sector had room to grow. By building on the success of these existing nonprofit organizations and leveraging the charitable impulses of even more New Jerseyans, there was a tremendous opportunity to bring the community together for even greater social change.


The idea struck a nerve with Robert Corman. Not yet a year in his role as executive director of The Fund for New Jersey, an organization that promotes effective democracy through education, advocacy, and public policy analysis, Corman began exploring ways to utilize the Fund’s dollars more effectively, which at the time were principally targeted to citizen engagement and advocacy across New Jersey on critical public issues.

“As someone new to the foundation world, I was very interested in what a community foundation was designed to do, and how it might work here in New Jersey,” said Corman.

His curiosity was shared by Mary Strong, a friend of the family who founded The Fund for New Jersey, later a board member of the Fund, and the organizer of the Summit Area Community Foundation.

Together, Corman and Strong conducted the necessary research on the community foundation model and why it was becoming increasingly popular across the country. They reviewed the existing literature on the topic, met with area business leaders to gauge interest, and even traveled to Ohio to gain a better understanding of the design and operations of the first-ever community foundation, The Cleveland Foundation.

But before the idea could be pitched to wider and larger audiences, several important questions required answers, chief among them the scope of the new endeavor. According to Corman:

“Early on in this, I was interested in what the geography should be. There were not enough people in Newark who could provide financial contributions to the community foundation to have this thing be oriented by name exclusively to Newark. The suburbs were critical to any community foundation. So we decided then that ‘The Greater Essex Community Foundation’ was probably as far as we could conceive taking this with the funds available at the time. It also lent itself to a good argument in terms of how community foundations work, in that you really do need a penumbra around your target area. In this case, it was around Newark and the urban areas of North Jersey.”

Now with a defined target area, a clear understanding of how a community foundation could benefit New Jersey, and a proposed organizational structure that was thought out, but still flexible enough for others’ input, Corman pitched the idea to his own board at The Fund for New Jersey. The meeting was a success, and gave Corman and Strong the momentum to go outside the philanthropic sector. Their next conversations were with Bob O’Brien, Chairman of Carteret Savings Bank, and Woody English, Senior Partner at McCarter & English.

Sadly, Bob O’Brien passed away in 2014. As he recalled in a 2011 interview, “I was sitting in my office in Newark when an old friend called to introduce me to Mary Strong. She thought we should have a community foundation in the state, and it sounded like a pretty good idea.”

Strong and Corman asked O’Brien for his help in putting together a meeting of the top business leaders in the state, and before long the “Broad Street Bobs” were assembled at Prudential to hear about the new idea.

Representing Newark’s five largest companies were, coincidentally, Bob Beck of Prudential, Bob Ferguson of First National State Bank, Bob O’Brien of Carteret Savings Bank, Bob Van Buren of Midlantic National Bank, and Bob Van Fossan of Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company.

“Bob [O’Brien] was always fun and exceedingly thoughtful,” said Corman. “Sitting at the helm of the board, his ease created confidence in the promise of the Foundation and he elicited the best from others around the table. He was one of the few leaders of his generation that was quite willing to express his affection and admiration for others, and in so doing was a distinctive model of strong, intelligent, and healthy leadership.”

Corman walked the executives through his presentation, explaining how a community foundation would work and how it would collaborate with other foundations and nonprofit organizations throughout the state. He explained that their next steps would be to reach out to corporations and foundations for funding with an eye toward rolling out important community programming. The meeting was another success, and the “Broad Street Bobs” enthusiastically signed on to the project.

“Within months of that meeting, we had the organizational design and a proposal I put together that went to these different foundations and corporations,” said Corman. “Before long we had $100,000 in assets.”


Members of the Greater Essex Community Foundation Board of Trustees. Standing, left to right: Alfred Clapp, Harold Helm, Dillard Robinson, Gladys Taylor, Hilda Hildago, Tilly-Jo Emerson, and William Page. Seated, left to right: S. Jervis Brinton, Robert O’Brien, Joan Bate, and Robert Corman.
Members of the Greater Essex Community Foundation Board of Trustees. Standing, left to right: Alfred Clapp, Harold Helm, Dillard Robinson, Gladys Taylor, Hilda Hildago, Tilly-Jo Emerson, and William Page. Seated, left to right: S. Jervis Brinton, Robert O’Brien, Joan Bate, and Robert Corman.

The Greater Essex Community Foundation was formally incorporated on November 26, 1979. One of its first priorities was to build its board and a capable staff.

Bob O’Brien started with his fellow Broad Street Bobs, most of whom would join the board. He also sought out business leaders whose professional reputations went beyond New Jersey, as well as philanthropic leaders who had experience working with the state’s nonprofit organizations.

“One very good man I was able to convince to join the board was Harold Helm, who was recently retired as chairman of Chemical Bank in NYC,” said O’Brien. “He lived in Montclair, and was a well-known national figure. Harold coming on board showed that this new organization was serious and could really do great things.”

Another significant addition to the board was Bernard “Bernie” Berkowitz, who at the time was chairman of United Way in New Jersey. Berkowitz was accustomed to raising money to support different charities, but sought a way to make more of an impact with those dollars.

“We often discussed the possibility of United Way building an endowment which would be used for things other than the annual needs of these agencies,” said Berkowitz. “When Robert Corman came along with this idea for the Community Foundation, we decided that helping to found it was a great way to achieve our broader goals. It was great timing, so I came on board.”

Another new board member, Tilly-Jo Emerson of the Junior League of the Oranges and Short Hills, quickly went to work with Corman on the search committee to hire staff. Working out of temporary offices at Carteret Savings on Broad Street, Corman and Emerson interviewed several promising candidates for the executive director position.

One of those candidates stood out: Sheila Williamson.

At the time, Williamson was doing community outreach in the Oranges. She also served on the board of the United Way where she had worked with Bernie Berkowitz.

“Bringing Sheila on staff really set the foundation on a good course,” remembers Emerson. “I thought that was one of my more successful moments.”

“Sheila Williamson picked up the reins and did a magnificent job of organizing,” added Bob O’Brien. “She had a couple of friends who came on board as part-time workers. She knew of a small office in one of the Oranges, which became the foundation’s first office. We took off wonderfully.”