The Surdna Foundation is an advocacy and endowment management foundation funded by a contribution from capitalist businessman turned U.S. Representative John Andrus (R-N.Y.) in 1917. The Foundation has moved away from its founding donor’s capitalist sentiments and currently focuses on funding organizations to advocate for left-of-center public policy.
Surdna’s advocacy efforts generally support left-of-center organizations and also focus on three left-of-center issue areas: environmentalism, economic redistribution, and political advocacy through the arts.
The Surdna Foundation has become a major player among left-of-center advocacy funders. Surdna is reportedly an institutional member of the Democracy Alliance and co-hosted events at a Democracy Alliance post-2016 election strategy conference alongside countless other left-of-center power players to prepare to fight the Trump administration “on health care, immigration, taxes and the economy, climate, LGBT rights, the Supreme Court, and so much more.”
While the organization purports to pursue a left-of-center agenda through impact investing a review of their investments demonstrates that Surdna is invested in a number of companies that are completely antithetical to its purported mission, including major agricultural conglomerates, short-term lenders, and private prison companies.
Former U.S. Representative and Mayor of Yonkers, New York John Emory Andrus founded the Surdna Foundation in New York City during 1917 to pursue a range of philanthropic efforts to provide direct service to those in need.
In 1989, The Surdna Foundation established “programs in environment and community revitalization and decided to enlarge the professional staff.” In 1994, the foundation added programs in “effective citizenry” and the arts.
The Surdna Foundation has moved away from Andrus’ personal political philosophy. Andrus’s biographer, George P. Morrill, wrote that Andrus was “the complete laissez-faire businessman. He believed in simple capitalism all his life.” However, many of the organizations that Surdna now funds are anti-free market, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, the left-wing community organizing group Center for Popular Democracy, and the Clean Energy Group, to prop up green energy companies.
The Surdna Foundation has consistently backed major liberal movements. Surdna directly donated to a Black Lives Matter chapter in Minneapolis, and has also given to other leftist organizations such as People Organized to Win Employment Rights, National Domestic Workers Alliance, and the Movement Strategy Center.
Surdna provides environmental grants to numerous left-wing environmental organizations to promote green infrastructure and building requirements, and to use energy systems to shift power to low-income and minority communities.
The foundation has also given at least $1.4 million to the environmentalist Natural Resources Defense Council to address climate change and inequitable development practices; nearly $500,000 to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, $500,000 to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, about $1.2 million to Clean Energy Group for federal/state green energy policy support, about $2 million to the labor union-affiliated BlueGreen Alliance, and about $1.2 million to Climate Interactive to expand their social, environmental, and climate costs simulator nationwide.
Surdna provides grants to advance social left-wing policies that seek to improve the “quality and availability of jobs for low-income people, communities of color, immigrants, and women.”
From 2012-2017, the Surdna Foundation gave about $1.7 million to Good Jobs First to advance left-wing economic development policies and practices.
Surdna Foundation has provided $600,000 to the Alliance for a Just Society; $350,000 to Asian Americans for Equality; about $400,000 to the Aspen Institute; about $100,000 to the Center for American Progress; about $1.2 million to Emerald Cities Collaborative; $1.3 million to PolicyLink; $2.4 million to Brookings Institution; and about $1.2 million to Race Forward.
Advocacy Arts Funding
The Surdna Foundation supports advancing the arts to become “economic engines and agents for social change.”
From 2013 through 2018, the Surdna Foundation has given about $1.7 million to the Center for Cultural Innovation intending to support artists and provide resources and gifts to artists to increase production.
Other grants include: about $800,000 to Efforts of Grace; $1.3 million to First Peoples Fund; about $300,000 to Global Action Project, Inc.; about $900,000 to National Association of Latino Arts and Culture; and about $500,000 to the Sundance Institute.
Also see Democracy Alliance (Other Group)
In November 2016, the Surdna Foundation co-hosted an environmental caucus meeting with billionaire Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate organization at the Democracy Alliance’s 2016 post-election conference. The panel focused on the effects of climate change on low-income communities.
In 2016, the Foundation gave the Democracy Alliance a $30,000 grant. From 2014 through 2017, the Foundation gave at least $1.145 million to organizations recommended by the Democracy Alliance.
Opposition to the Trump Administration
In November 2016, following the election of President Donald Trump, the Surdna Foundation released a statement saying that the election “resulted in a president-elect who ran on policies and rhetoric that are at odds with the values of. . . Surdna.”
Surdna Foundation co-hosted events at a post-election Democracy Alliance conference that labeled the prospect of President Trump’s first 100 days in office as a “terrifying assault on president Obama’s achievements-and on our progressive vision for an equitable and just nation.”
Then-Surdna Foundation president Phil Henderson noted that under Trump’s administration, he expected to miss the “cooperative problem solving” that he received from the Obama administration.
Throughout the Trump presidency, the Surdna Foundation has actively circulated anti-Trump news stories and denounced Trump’s reversal of Obama-era policies like the Federal Transportation Jobs Program.
In an interview assessing the reasons for Trump’s victory, Surdna president Phil Henderson admitted that his organization “had made a mistake in its previous operations strategy.” Henderson acknowledged that the Surdna Foundation was “emblematic” of the geographic bias toward the coasts and bigger cities “where it’s easy to work” in left-wing philanthropy, avoiding places more skeptical of left-wing agendas and interests.
According to its 2015 annual report, the Surdna Foundation is an endowment management Foundation that is funded entirely by the investment income of the endowment.
From 2011-2015 the Surdna Foundation assets grew by 9.9 percent from $847 million to $1.007 billion. 
The Surdna Foundation invests its money in a number of organizations that are antithetical to the organization’s purported goals. This allows Surdna’s endowment to grow from the actions of companies that the Foundation or its grantees decry. This is all the more insidious given the foundation’s outward dedication to so-called “impact investing.” In 2015, the Foundation made $51 million in income from investment dividends and capital gains and $71 million in “partnership income.”
That investment income was generated by investments in numerous corporations that engage in business practices opposed to the Surdna Foundation’s and its grantees’ mission.
In 2015, Surdna invested $353,000 with agricultural conglomerate Monsanto. In 2016 Surdna grantee NRDC criticized Monsanto for seeking a merger with pesticide maker Bayer and another Surdna grantee (the Environmental Working Group) has been a major opponent of Monsanto.
Similarly in 2015, Surdna Foundation owned over a million dollars worth of stock in payday lenders First Cash Financial and Lending Club. These investments stand in stark contrast to their liberal economic development mission, specifically seeing how in 2016 Surdna funded four local financial institutions as a means to help individuals avoid payday lenders.
Also in 2015, Surdna owned almost $400,000 of Corrections Corporation of America stock while at the same time giving million-dollar grants to the Good Jobs First organization, which is a major opponent of private prisons.
In 2015, Surdna owned stock in a number of other companies whose industry or corporate policies run afoul of the Foundation’s purported mission, including approximately $1 million split between Las Vegas Sands, Southwestern Energy, and Chipotle and over $18 million sitting in Bain Capital funds.  The Bain Capital investments are of note because Surdna Foundation gave grants to Mother Jones,  the liberal magazine that first reported on former Bain consultant and Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remarks on the campaign trail in 2012.
Don Chen was appointed president of the Surdna Foundation in mid-2018. He is a career activist in left-of-center urban development politics, previously serving as founder and CEO of Smart Growth America (a Surdna grantee) and as leader of the “Just Cities and Regions” team at the Ford Foundation.
Phillip W. Henderson is vacating the presidency of the Surdna Foundation, having served since May 2007 . Prior to his work at the Surdna Foundation, Henderson worked at the German Marshall Fund of the United States since 1998 where he headed a multitude of projects and obtained the role of Vice President before leaving for The Surdna Foundation. Philanthropy observers have identified Henderson’s appointment to head Surdna as the point at which the Surdna Foundation became more explicitly interested in left-of-center political advocacy under the banner of “social justice.” Henderson was paid $576,164 in Surdna’s 2015 tax year, with an additional $110,422 in other compensation.
Board of Directors
The Surdna Foundation’s board consists of 13 members. Peter B. Benedict II is the chair and former President of the Andrus Family Fund. Additionally, Vice Chair Carra Cote-Ackah has been with the Surdna Foundation since 2009. Cote-Ackah also served on the Andrus Family Fund Board for six years prior to joining The Surdna Foundation. Surdna Foundation board member Judy Belk is president and CEO of The California Wellness Foundation and served 12 years as senior vice president of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.