Three Ways the Russell Berrie Foundation Invests in Local New Jersey Communities

Diabetes prevention is among the Berrie Foundation’s local priorities. photo: Pixeljoy/shutterstock

Diabetes prevention is among the Berrie Foundation’s local priorities. photo: Pixeljoy/shutterstock

The Russell Berrie Foundation has six clear funding priorities: New Jersey, diabetes care and research, the “Making a Difference” awards, interfaith bridge-building, Israel, and the sales profession.

While metropolitan New York and Israel’s northern region are important areas for this funder, we’ll focus here on three initiatives that highlight the foundation’s commitment to New Jersey, where grantmaking focuses on partnering with and strengthening local communities.

New Jersey was the home state of the late Russell Berrie of Russ Berrie & Company, which sold gifts and greeting cards. Berrie, the Bronx-born son of a jewelry salesman, grew the company from a garage into a $300 million business. He started the foundation in 1985, and it now has more than $205 million in assets. According to CEO Ruth Salzman, grantmaking expanded in 2017 to almost 200 awards.

This private funder’s giving has some interesting connections to larger trends in philanthropy, like a deepening respect for the knowledge of grassroots, community-based groups, and the embrace of an upstream approach to health care.

Treatment is not enough

“We cannot end diabetes through treatment alone,” said Angelica Berrie, president of the board of trustees, of the foundation’s creation of two new diabetes prevention initiatives in Bergen County. Two $200,000, three-year grants are funding collaborations between medical centers and local groups, which are developing programs to help people live healthier lives. The two grantees are the Hackensack University Medical Center Foundation and the Bergen Volunteer Medical Initiative (BVMI) in the cities of Hackensack and Garfield.

The foundation awarded a third grant of the same amount and duration to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, which will provide technical and strategic assistance to the other grantees. The medical experts will be teaming up with local groups, including the City of Garfield Health Department and America’s Grow-a-Row, which provides free produce to those in need.

“Nutrition and exercise are essential to preventing and successfully managing type 2 diabetes, and with these initiatives, we are trying to ensure that local residents have access to affordable healthy food, physical activity opportunities, and other proven measures,” Salzman has said. This is where we see the funder embracing an upstream approach to healthcare that includes social and economic determinants of health such as diet and community spaces, among other factors. The shift upstream is commonplace among public health funders these days. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation started the trend more than a decade ago, and funders big and small are now taking this broader-minded approach.

Go out there and make a difference

The Russ Berrie Making a Difference awards recognize New Jersey’s “most exceptional unsung heroes” in community service, giving annual prizes of $50,000, $35,000 and $25,000 for the top three winners and $5,000 for runners-up.

In 2018, Pino Rodriguez won the top award for working with other community members in Camden to transform blighted neighborhoods through the Block Supporter Initiative. This program engages residents to clean, beautify, take ownership of, and generally enhance the blocks where they live, which in turn leads to a decline in crime and a boost in quality of life, according to the foundation. Rodriguez started the initiative as an unfunded volunteer effort. It grew into an extensive endeavor—he has now engaged hundreds of households and is partnered with Camden Lutheran Housing.

“If you want to make a difference, then go out there and make a difference,” Rodrigues has said. Similarly, Berrie, who created the prizes two decades ago, once said, “It’s another way of looking at philanthropy—inspiring people to look at themselves and what they can do for the community.”

Jewish engagement and identity

Another ongoing Russell Berrie Foundation project that has deep local New Jersey roots is its Berrie Fellows Leadership Program. It’s an 18-month fellowship for seasoned lay leaders in the northern New Jersey Jewish community that offers organizational skill development and immersive Jewish learning. It’s a partnership of the Russell Berrie Foundation, the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

“Diverse individuals serving in executive volunteer leadership positions at Jewish organizations, agencies, synagogues and schools in the northern New Jersey community are invited to participate,” according to the Shalom Hartman Institute. Program features include evening learning sessions, immersive overnight retreats, and a 10-day trip to Israel during which the Fellows study at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

The foundation also recently funded the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, which increases “Jewish engagement and identity, provides supportive services to those in need and forges deep connections between northern New Jersey and Israel.”

Other Russell Berrie programs

In Israel, this foundation is backing the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Be’eri Program, which supports the study of Israeli culture through curriculum creation, professional development, and other support for secondary school teachers and community leaders.

The Russell Berrie Foundation also funds interfaith bridge-building. A recent recipient is the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue, to enable it to host visiting faculty, lectures, and conferences on interfaith dialogue at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, in Rome (the Angelicum), and to support a yearly cadre of up to 10 Russell Berrie fellows pursuing postgraduate degrees in interreligious studies.

Finally, this foundation, whose founder was an exemplary entrepreneur, funds programs relating to the sales profession. One example is the Russ Berrie Institute National Sales Challenge, which brings college students from around the U.S. to a three-day competition consisting of sales simulations, speed selling, and executive networking opportunities. A reputed brilliant salesman, Berrie possessed an understanding of people and a drive to fund passionate leaders and innovators, according to the foundation’s website site.

“Russ had an amazing capacity to both envision the world as it could be, and figure out how to collaborate with others to make it so,” Angelica Berrie, his wife and foundation president, has said.