Advising funders

New York grantmakers’ first senior fellow aims to give back.

By Jennifer Whytock

As a teen volunteer for the Human Rights Youth Commission, Hildy Simmons met with other Los Angeles teens, black and white, to better understand one another and suggest ideas for seminars and programs to improve race relations in the wake of the 1965 Watts riots.

“They took white kids like me from the valley to meet inner-city kids from L.A.,” she says. “It was eye opening, because I knew about this area, but had never been there before.”

That volunteer work sparked Simmons’ interest in public service, politics and government.

She left California for Lake Erie College in 1968, and has lived in Brooklyn since the early ‘70s.

As the first senior fellow at the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers, Simmons will help set up a one-to-two year fellowship program for up to three nonprofit veterans, such as retired professionals, those between jobs, or loaned senior executives.

In this part-time, unpaid position, fellows will create or improve a NYRAG project in their fields of expertise, act as mentors to staff at member nonprofits and promote NYRAG and its 270 members.

Simmons also will chair an advisory committee of NYRAG members, professional advisors and others to determine if the organization should expand its membership to include professional advisors, accountants and financial professionals.

For 18 years, Simmons worked at JP Morgan in corporate philanthropy, most recently as head of its Global Foundations Group, where she and her staff helped establish foundations and run their grantmaking, administration and operations.

Hildy Simmons

Job: Senior fellow, New York Regional Association of Grantmakers

Born: 1950, Los Angeles

Education: Undergraduate, Lake Erie College; master’s, public administration, Harvard University

Family: Husband, David Sprafkin; daughters, 24, 20

Hobbies: Pilates, book club with friends

Reading: “Elizabeth Costello” by J.M. Coetzee

Favorite travels: Paris, Rome, China, Greece

“I faced the challenge of making people at JP Morgan believe that it was important to give away money, which was counterintuitive to some there because the bank’s goal was to make money for shareholders, not give it away,” she says.

Now retired from JP Morgan, Simmons is a paid consultant for the New York City-based Freeman Foundation and the international Stavros Niarchos Foundation, where she helps review proposals, identify funding opportunities and develop grantmaking strategies.

She started her career in 1971 as an Urban Fellow for the mayor of New York City.

She later worked as director of community relations and assistant deputy commissioner at the state Department of Correctional Services before joining the city’s Department of Juvenile Justice as assistant commissioner.

Working with inmates as a young woman was her hardest job, and she found it difficult to operate in the “paramilitary” atmosphere of corrections, she says.

After having her first daughter, she left government because the Norman Foundation offered her a part-time position as program director.

Her previous jobs, especially in corrections, helped prepare her for the nonprofit world and for doing work that sometimes is publicly unpopular, she says.

“I had to convince people to set up prisons in their communities, and I soon realized that it’s not you they don’t like but what you represent,” says Simmons. “Just like when I gave away money at foundations, everyone likes you, but it’s not really you they like.”

She says it was hard to cause change while working in a big, bureaucratic government system with procedures and competing interests, compared to the small Norman Foundation, where she could move forward quickly with ideas since she was the sole staff member and needed only board approval.

Though Simmons is filling her semi-retirement with the fellowship, foundation advising, and serving on three foundation boards, she also wants to travel to Asia, Africa and Italy and return to China, she says.

As a fellow, Simmons wants to use her career experiences to help guide NYRAG members’ younger staff and give back to NYRAG, which helped guide her when she was new to grantmaking and knew no one, she says.

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