Stephen Viederman

Steve lives in New York and has four grandchildren - Will and Hannah in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Romy and Charlie in London, UK. He now realises that he has been a Grandparent his whole career.

Stephen Viederman

Personal story

Just after I retired from the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation in 2000, I was introduced at a seminar on race and philanthropy at Columbia University as 'a recovering white male.' I had learned to listen more and to understand that clear questions were necessary to come up with successful interventions (I had admittedly suffered from the white man's burden of providing answers often without considering the question).

From my experiences at the foundation, issues of social, economic and environmental justice and equity - always an intellectual and macro-political concern - became real, concrete and personal. The focus of the foundation's and my personal efforts to work with poor communities and communities of colour in the United States also led to the realisation that philanthropy has a unique responsibility to use its scarce resources for transformative change over the long-term rather than amelioration of conditions that should be the responsibility of democratic governments.

In a democracy foundations should not absolve governments and other institutions, including and especially corporations, of their responsibilities and obligations to the commonweal. Rather foundations should hold these institutions accountable.

Furthermore it became clear that a foundation's financial assets should not and cannot be perceived as passive pools of capital, the sole purpose of which is to provide funds for grant-making. Used wisely, especially through exercising shareowner's rights and obligations, community development investing, and mission-related venture capital, the "dissonance between creed and deed" (Gandhi) is reduced, and in many cases value is added to grants. In the early 1990s the foundation's shareowner resolution against Intel on behalf of a community organisation in New Mexico on their right to know, changed Intel's policies and the power dynamic of the group within the State.

I had admittedly suffered from the white man's burden of providing answers often without considering the question

Reflecting on my work over the decades I realise that my vocation, what drives my private and public life, is Grandparenting. This includes (but is not limited to) the physical proximity and interaction with my grandchildren, as well as listening, learning, helping them to learn - I hope without pedantry - and, most of all, loving. It also means doing what I can do to secure a decent future for them. It relates to the inheritance that all Grandparents through their actions as individuals and through their institutional settings can leave to them, and, the ultimate hubris, all grandchildren around the world.


A global view of Grandparenting is a necessity because my grandchildren's heritage cannot be secure unless all grandchildren's heritages are secure. There is no moat that can separate them from the world. And my reflection led to the further realisation that we are all Grandparents because of our moral and ethical obligations to future generations: not to tell them what they must do, but to leave them options to create their own worlds. This is the fundamental obligation toward sustainability that we all must accept as a part of being a member of the commonweal.

For example, my Grandparenting now focuses on ensuring that issues of equity and justice are integral to the theory and practice of sustainability. To keep grounded I work with a number of communities of colour in the Southwest U.S., and am involved with a number of change-oriented foundations and non-profits.

Unfortunately efforts to act as Grandparents are circumscribed by the silos that we create and within which we work. A recent example is the Gates Foundation's decision not to examine the ways that their asset management would add value to their grants. Most foundations act as if they had only one hand, failing as a result to be whole and to achieve to the fullest extent the philanthropic goals that they allegedly seek. Too bad, but not too late to change. Bill and Melinda, you are Grandparents too.

(Philanthropy UK Newsletter, March 2007)

This personal story is tagged under

  • Children & young people
  • Causes