Story LiliAnn Paras
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
– Eli Broad
Jay and Linda Grunin and their son, Jeremy, are the epitome of this adage and are bringing exciting change to Monmouth County through The Jay and Linda Grunin Foundation (the “Foundation”). Although based in Toms River, the Grunins realized during the last four years that Monmouth and Ocean Counties together are “the footprint of the Central Jersey Shore area” and have recently expanded their philanthropic endeavors into Monmouth County. Jeremy, the Foundation’s President, is the first chairman of the newly combined United Way of Monmouth and Ocean Counties. He is also the first person from Ocean County to sit on the Board of the Count Basie Theatre. As part of its expansion into Monmouth County, the Foundation recently made a $2 million transformative gift to the Basie to fund The Jay and Linda Grunin Arts and Education Building which will provide studios, classrooms, performance space and a base for the theater’s educational outreach and public programming. Their goal is to make the arts and arts education accessible to all ages and incomes. One of the most compelling initiatives is mindAligned, already underway as a pilot program
for creative teaching in three school districts in each of the two counties. These schools are testing teaching methods that integrate fine and performing arts into daily lessons. Creative teaching has been shown to enhance attendance and learning for the students and also to inspire and retain teachers. Once perfected, the program will serve as a model for the entire state.
Jay and Linda Grunin have supported various causes anonymously since the 1990s, believing anonymous giving was the highest form of philanthropy. Jay is often asked if there is a self-interest component associated with their philanthropy. As Jay explains it, “There are gratifying feelings of pride and satisfaction in knowing that we have done some good with the blessings that God has bestowed on us.” The Grunins did not consider “going public” until consultants explained the benefits of having name recognition. “We reevaluated and came to believe the best way to have an impact is to let people know that you are supportive of a project.” It may inspire others to lend their support, financial or otherwise. We laughed about the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, “Anonymous,” which was based on the premise that anonymous gifts are great, as long as everyone knows who “anonymous” is.
It was not until 2013 when the Foundation was formed and Jeremy came on board that a strategy for giving was developed. It all started with a $3.5 million gift to Community Medical Center in Toms River. Not surprisingly, the Grunins quickly became very popular, receiving interest from area nonprofits. Jeremy recalls a nonprofit consultant, Tara Cunningham, corralling him after a meeting and cautioning him to build a giving strategy. She said that in the next six months everyone was going to be asking for money and that the Foundation wouldn’t know how to say no. “Whether you say yes or no, you will run into challenges.” At the time, Jeremy did not see it that way. But six months later, he called her and said, “We have a problem!”
The first task was to narrow the giving focus. Jay, Linda, Jeremy, Laura (Jeremy’s wife) and their three children, Josh, Rebecca, and Emma, met for a week to determine where they could make the largest impact on the community. The consensus was to focus on three areas – Arts, Education and Healthcare, with a special emphasis on making arts and education accessible to all ages and incomes. Jay described the impetus for this focus. “We believe a vibrant arts culture is what distinguishes towns and cities from the sameness that permeates so much of our national landscape.” The Foundation recognizes that art brings about change, in minds and in attitudes, eventually transforming areas into destinations, benefiting not only the arts but the local economy too. The Foundation accomplished this through The Jay and Linda Grunin Center for the Arts at Ocean County College, a theater attracting top performers from around the world. Jeremy explained, “We see the arts as ‘creative placemaking.’ If we create areas of interest, people will want to visit for more than just the beach. We also are trying to make art accessible to everyone, it is not just an elitist endeavor, it is not just visits to museums. It is creative expression, even in the form of YouTube and Snapchat.”
Another task was to devise a plan to measure the effects of their giving. Jeremy explained, “One of the biggest issues facing the arts community [in raising funds] is the ability to quantify the effect of arts on society. We need to talk about data and deliverables. We are trying to get arts organizations to assess the impact of their initiatives. The Foundation looks for projects that are sustainable, replicable and scalable, and that are doing things in a different way. The hope is that with enough data, others will say ‘this is a pretty cool idea, let’s do it.’”
There was a lot of laughter at our interview. This is a foundation that has resisted becoming “corporate” and is run by the amiable Grunins and a small, tight- knit staff in a fairly casual, but always professional way. They do not have a formal grant process and do not believe in extensive paperwork. Instead they are a proactive grantmaker, identifying organizations and partnerships to implement projects designed to help them attain their goals. Jay noted, “Because we are small, we are spry and very nimble. Some of the decisions for a seven figure gift were made in under 30 days.” Jeremy gave examples of many smaller donations that started as seed money and were so successful that the organizations themselves decided to fund the projects moving forward. It quickly becomes evident that the Foundation has struck a good balance between involvement and facilitation. Jay explained, “We don’t just drop money into a project and walk away. We look for permanent sustaining results and that has always been very important to us. We do get involved, but in a collaborative way, not with conditions attached but rather ‘how can we help you’?”
Many Monmouth County based nonprofits have already been the beneficiaries of the Grunins’ generosity over the years. One fun way of deciding where to donate was through Jeremy’s recent talk radio show on WOBM-AM. He invited local nonprofits and small businesses to discuss their businesses and missions on the show and Jeremy donated his quarterly radio salary to the one nonprofit selected by the fans. The Ashley Lauren Foundation, a Monmouth County-based non-profit, was one of the many recipients.
The collaboration with these organizations has brought the Grunins full circle back to Monmouth County. Linda grew up in Long Branch and met Jay at the NYU School of Law, where she was one of only 10 women in the class of 300. After leaving a position on Wall Street, Jay lived in Red Bank for a year while serving an appellate clerkship with a judge who had chambers in the borough. Eventually, he and Linda started their own law firm in Toms River. In the 1970s, Ocean County was one of the fastest growing counties in the United States.
Their largesse is felt at their alma mater through the Grunin Center for Law and Social Entrepreneurship, the first of its kind at a law school. It is a future goal of the Grunins to bring some of the Center’s programs to the Central Jersey Shore area to teach “impact investing”, that is, making it easier for businesses to make a profit while still being socially conscious.
It is easy to see that the Grunins enjoy the work of the Foundation. Jeremy put it into a great perspective. “It is so rewarding. There is an incredible amount of satisfaction. But the reality is that everything we do starts with an issue. There are huge problems, like poverty – and I can’t tell you how many friends I know who have lost loved ones to opiates. The issues are always at the core of everything. It’s great to be able to make a difference and know we are making an impact.”
Be sure to visit jayandlindagruninfoundation.org.
New Mission: The Foundation announced a One Million Dollar Challenge Matching Grant for the United Way of Monmouth and Ocean Counties.