Person

James K. Cummings

Nationality:

American

Occupation:

Foundation Executive

James K. Cummings is the grandson of Nathan Cummings, the founder of Sara Lee Corporation and the Nathan Cummings Foundation (NCF). Cummings has worked as the board chairman at NCF and was described as “instrumental in pushing NCF’s philosophy of giving ever-further toward the political left.” [1]

Cummings’ left-of-center ideology guided the foundation’s grant making towards environmental causes because he feared “there wouldn’t be any breathable air left; our planet would be in crisis.” [2]

Cummings also geared the foundation to use shareholder proposals to “advance catalytic solutions to climate change and inequality.” [3] Inside Philanthropy named him as a “steward” in its article, “The Most Powerful Heirs in Philanthropy,” which commented, “the way these heirs exercise power—choosing which nonprofits thrive and shaping policy arenas—feels at odd with the ideals of democracy.” [4]

Background

James K. Cummings is the eldest grandson of family patriarch Nathan Cummings, who founded the Sara Lee Corporation and the Nathan Cummings Foundation. James was the board chairman at NCF and is considered “instrumental in pushing NCF’s philosophy of giving ever-further toward the political left.” [5]

Environmentalism

Two years after Nathan Cummings passed away, the family met to shape the future of the foundation. James Cummings asserted that “No matter what else we did, if we didn’t address what was happening to our environment, somewhere down the line—maybe not this generation but perhaps by the time of our great-grandchildren—there wouldn’t be any breathable air left; our planet would be in crisis.” [6]

The Cummings family agreed to make environmentalist causes one of the foundation’s four grantmaking focus areas. As a champion of this direction, James “mobilized several funders to work in collaboration on a new environmental agenda to change the ways in which Americans traveled.” Ultimately, Nathan Cummings Foundation advocated “for improving and expanding mass transit” and forced debate about what it called “the detrimental impact of the automobile and its infrastructure, and their drain on energy resources.” [7]

Shareholder Proposals

In 2019, James K. Cummings co-authored an op-ed in the Chronicle of Philanthropy opposing proposed rules by the Securities and Exchange Commission to reduce the power of shareholder proposals. He claimed, “it can seem as if corporations have virtually unlimited power. Regulations are being dismantled. Our political system is awash in corporate contributions. And some states have criminalized protest against the fossil-fuel industry.” He further argued that shareholder proposals are “successful in holding corporations to account on issues such as racial equity, renewable-energy commitments, sexual-harassment protections and much more.” Cummings pointed out that “for years, the Nathan Cummings Foundation has successfully used shareholder proposals to further its mission and advance catalytic solutions to climate change and inequality.” [8]

Cummings further explained the effectiveness of shareholder proposals in the instance of 7,500 Amazon employees proposing a corporate climate policy, which ultimately caused the company to embrace a zero-net-carbon goal. Cummings also defended the shareholder proposal process by highlighting his collaboration with the left-wing Action Center on Race & the Economy Institute towards Amazon’s selling products that allegedly promoted hate speech. [9]

Inside Philanthropy Coverage

James K. Cummings was listed as a steward by Inside Philanthropy in 2022. Stewards were defined as “heirs who act as engaged practitioners carrying out multi-generation family philanthropy that follows historical form and function.” Cummings inherited a philanthropic tradition and philosophy of “focusing on trending issues.” Inside Philanthropy commented that “the fact that so many heirs are wielding power through philanthropy tells us something disturbing about our nation’s deepening inequality. It’s not just that much more wealth is concentrated at the top of the income ladder; much more influence is, too.” It also described the inheritor’s impact “the way these heirs exercise power—choosing which nonprofits thrive and shaping policy arenas—feels at odd with the ideals of democracy,” and “it’s not ok that a small elite has so much wealth and power.” [10]

References

  1.  “Nathan Cummings Foundation.” Discover the Networks. 2017 https://www.discoverthenetworks.org/organizations/nathan-cummings-foundation ^
  2. Deborah S. Gardner. A Family Foundation: Looking to the Future, Honoring the Past. Nathan Cummings Foundation. 1996. https://www.ncfp.org/knowledge/looking-to-the-future-honoring-the-past/ ^
  3. James K. Cummings and Laura S. Campos.” A Critical Tool for Holding Corporations Accountable Is Under Attack. Philanthropy Must Speak Up.” Chronicle of Philanthropy. December 4, 2019. https://www.philanthropy.com/article/a-critical-tool-for-holding-corporations-accountable-is-under-attack-philanthropy-must-speak-up?cid2=gen_login_refresh&cid=gen_sign_in ^
  4. Callahan, David. “The Most Powerful Heirs in Philanthropy.” Inside Philanthropy. January 31, 2022. https://www.insidephilanthropy.com/home/2022/1/19/the-most-powerful-heirs-in-philanthropy ^
  5. “Nathan Cummings Foundation.” Discover the Networks. 2017 https://www.discoverthenetworks.org/organizations/nathan-cummings-foundation ^
  6. [1] Deborah S. Gardner. A Family Foundation: Looking to the Future, Honoring the Past. Nathan Cummings Foundation. 1996. https://www.ncfp.org/knowledge/looking-to-the-future-honoring-the-past/ ^
  7. Deborah S. Gardner. A Family Foundation: Looking to the Future, Honoring the Past. Nathan Cummings Foundation. 1996. https://www.ncfp.org/knowledge/looking-to-the-future-honoring-the-past/ ^
  8. James K. Cummings and Laura S. Campos.” A Critical Tool for Holding Corporations Accountable Is Under Attack. Philanthropy Must Speak Up.” Chronicle of Philanthropy. December 4, 2019. https://www.philanthropy.com/article/a-critical-tool-for-holding-corporations-accountable-is-under-attack-philanthropy-must-speak-up?cid2=gen_login_refresh&cid=gen_sign_in ^
  9.  James K. Cummings and Laura S. Campos.” A Critical Tool for Holding Corporations Accountable Is Under Attack. Philanthropy Must Speak Up.” Chronicle of Philanthropy. December 4, 2019. https://www.philanthropy.com/article/a-critical-tool-for-holding-corporations-accountable-is-under-attack-philanthropy-must-speak-up?cid2=gen_login_refresh&cid=gen_sign_in ^
  10. Callahan, David. “The Most Powerful Heirs in Philanthropy.” Inside Philanthropy. January 31, 2022. https://www.insidephilanthropy.com/home/2022/1/19/the-most-powerful-heirs-in-philanthropy ^
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