Interviews & Profiles

Taking on a philanthropic legacy

Julia Bator leads The J.M. Kaplan Fund as its new executive director

Julie Bator has taken on the J.M. Kaplan Fund as its new executive director.

Julie Bator has taken on the J.M. Kaplan Fund as its new executive director. Image courtesy of The J.M.Kaplan Fund.

Following this year’s GivingTuesday results, donor giving dropped by 10% nationwide, marking another tight year for nonprofits. But while some face difficulties expanding their reach to a younger generation of donors, some established organizations have reaped the benefits of New York’s syndicated philanthropic legacies. 

One such member of the old-guard is The J.M. Kaplan Fund, whose 75-year history of “activist philanthropy” helped shape some of the city’s most poignant social developments. The Fund’s J.M.K. Innovation Prize awards $175,000 grants to 10 organizations who show exceptional potential in fields of climate change, heritage conservation and social justice. This year’s awardees contributed their efforts towards advocating for refugees and undocumented immigrants, reforming the criminal justice system and more. 

New York Nonprofit Media spoke to Julia Bator, former principal of Amazing Bone Advisory who will lead The J.M. Kaplan Fund as its new executive director. As the former head of the Robertson Foundation and the Fund for Public Schools, Bator brings her expertise leading New York City’s philanthropic education sector to aid the Kaplan Family’s fourth generation of nonprofit leaders.

How do you intend to honor The J.M. Kaplan Fund’s history through your leadership? 

When I first moved to New York, and I met Joan [Kaplan Davidson], I think she was on a panel at the National Arts Club, it was pretty clear that this foundation had a real role in New York. And since then, they've been good neighbors and partners. A convener with such a beautiful reputation for good work, and more importantly, being good people. There is a really strong belief in the power of convening, and then in terms of issues, historic preservation has been a legacy theme for them. And that's not super common. A lot of people in philanthropy are always looking for shiny new things, but historic preservation, really understanding how culture is carried forward through objects, buildings and places—and particularly open spaces, is extremely important. 

Some credit nonprofits with being the permanent government of New York City, regarding the sway they have towards the city's culture and politics. Why do you think the nonprofit sector and organizations like The J.M. Kaplan Fund, maintain and grow this influence year by year? 

If I have a superpower, as a professional, it's that I've sat on all sides of the table. I have been a fund giver, I have been a fundraiser, I have run nonprofits, and I have given money to nonprofits, and raised money for nonprofits. I have worked in government, the private sector and the public sector. And I think that that gives me a lot of empathy for what great people bring to the table. And I’ve really seen the power of private public partnership, particularly in New York. But thanks to my work at the Robertson foundation nationally, just seeing when you can innovate on the private side, when you can innovate in the nonprofit space, and then leverage that with government or with other foundations—it's super powerful. And it's what a small foundation can really lean into because that’s your ability to magnify your work. What the nonprofit sector can be is R&D. So often the public sector doesn't set aside money for R&D, you can't really raise tax levy for R&D, but what the nonprofit sector can do is to innovate and to experiment, and to pilot on things in a way that then the private sector and the government sector can look at and say, Oh, that's a great idea. And the Innovation Prize is such an amazing example of that. 

What are some of the biggest challenges faced by the nonprofit sector? 

The nonprofit sector writ large has no sort of market influences.  And I think that that can sometimes lead to a lot of competition for funding. And it can lead to an overlap of services and competition in a space where it should all be forward looking. I think that's a huge challenge for the nonprofit sector. So I think there’s interest in getting smarter in the nonprofit sector in terms of merging and sharing, sharing back office and doing more collaborative work. I do think there can be donor fatigue, I do think donors are always looking for a new shiny thing and that that can be very, very challenging for the nonprofit sector, especially for those who kind of hold up the “social safety network” in urban areas—people who do bedrock social services around foster care, food insecurity and mental health work. That work can look really old school sometimes, but it is the thing that actually keeps our cities vibrant and is so necessary, particularly for New Americans as they come to the US. And again, that's another really terrific thing about the Kaplan foundation. It's a loyal foundation. It's always looking for ways to do things smarter and better. But it also understands the value of bedrock services. 

What are some of the biggest leadership lessons that have stayed with you, regarding some of the projects that you might have stewarded in your past?

The most important thing when you are working in philanthropy is to remember that you are not the person doing the hard work. Your grantees are the people on the frontline. And they are the people enacting the change that you want to see. So being extremely cognizant of that at all times, whether it's from how to deal with people to how you fund them. These are the people actually doing the work, and they're innovating in that space. I think that funders working together and looking at new mechanisms, whether it's PRI or social impact bonds, or impact investing, I do think that that energizes the field and helps people to think of new ways of being supportive of grantees and helping them to sustain what they already do.

How do you intend to incorporate diversity and equity in your leadership structure at The J.M. Kaplan Fund?

This next generation, or fourth generation is extremely, extremely concerned with that, which will push us to do better. Again, we are not the people doing the work. I think it's less important who gives the money but how they give the money and who they give the money to. If you look at our Innovation Prize winners, our social justice grantees— so many of our grantees are working with indigenous populations, disadvantaged populations, people around the country in rural areas. The most important thing that we can do is to always be looking at diversity and inclusivity and equity in our grant making, and then also turning that eye on ourselves, and making sure that our grant making and our personnel are reflecting that value. 

You’ve mentioned that the Fund has historically given above its league, despite working with a more modest budget. What's the secret to pulling this off? 

It’s maybe corny to say it, but it really goes back to being great people. J.M. Kaplan himself, and then the next generation—they were extraordinary people. They created a network that brought people together, because they had such tremendous integrity, curiosity [which] attracted people to joining them. And this next generation has continued those incredible networks now around the country, not just in New York. And when you're a good neighbor, when you have this tremendous legacy of just honest dealing, people will come to the table with you. And so we fund both jointly, we're in a lot of different funding collaboratives. But we also fund in parallel with other folks. If other folks want to give to our grantees, that's the best possible thing. That's one of the reasons why the Innovation Prize tries to shed light on its grantees. And it's been very, very successful. And it really just is an extension of the fund’s reputation, and the fund’s legacy for good, solid, honest, and frankly, innovative philanthropy.