How a Connecticut family foundation evolved to support youth-led social change


Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series on the multiple forms of family philanthropy, in partnership with the National Center for Family Philanthropyand produced by the editorial team at Inside Philanthropy.

The origins of the Perrin Family Foundation are similar to those of many other funders rooted in the wealth of successful American executives. Charles Perrin began his career at General Foods in the late 1960s. The Trinity College and Columbia Business School alumnus went on to become President and CEO of Duracell and then Avon Products. His wife Sheila Perrin, meanwhile, is a former educator.

In 1994, the couple established the Perrin Family Foundation (PFF) in Ridgefield, Connecticut, to provide opportunities for young people around Fairfield County. Ridgefield is one of the wealthiest communities in the state, and like many other family foundations, it has engaged in traditional types of giving, supporting causes close to home.

The foundation, however, has taken an interesting turn – one we’ve seen in many family foundations as younger generations become more involved and seek to address modern issues. Today, grantmaking is quite different, and the foundation itself is now headquartered in New Haven in order to be closer to the underprivileged communities it serves. PFF partners with organizations in disadvantaged communities with the goal of creating young leaders of social change.

How did the foundation come to this? It’s the story of how second-generation family members became increasingly involved in a family foundation, taking new approaches that put power directly in the hands of young leaders of social change.

The first days

When Sheila and Charles Perrin started their family foundation, they had long been involved in their community, serving on boards and donating, including supporting their local Jewish community. But when Charles Perrin was named CEO of Duracell International, the couple decided to formalize their gift with a family foundation.

“We knew we were very lucky. My husband was very successful in the business world and basically wanted to give back. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell,” says Sheila Perrin, who chairs the foundation’s board of directors.

Sheila served as the foundation’s first president and primary driver in those early days, operating from the family’s home in Ridgefield. Having worked as a public school teacher and youth counselor, the foundation initially focused on supporting after-school, mental health, and family programs for youth. Grantmaking has primarily focused on the greater Fairfield County, Connecticut area.

“It was an evolution, from me making all the decisions when the foundation was established, to something more. The family ended up going along with whatever I suggested we do,” says Sheila.

PFF eventually moved from the family home to a suitable office and hired a staff member to handle the administrative work. The foundation has also hired a program officer to help Sheila manage the grantmaking work.

Bring in the second generation

When the foundation was launched, David, who was only 20 at the time, and his younger brother Jeff joined as trustees of the foundation. David says many of the early lessons he learned from his family about philanthropy were rooted in Jewish tradition.

“We belonged to a local Reform Jewish synagogue. And there was a kind of weekly donation that was part of the education there,” David says.

Barely out of boarding school, David remembers not really understanding what a family foundation really was. The family had annual meetings around the kitchen table, where David tried to soak up everything his mother said to him.

“I was getting stories about what my mum was involved in. I knew she had a passion for after-school programs, the arts, health care and social services. A lot of stuff around the school day,” he says, noting that this work was extremely local.

David was struck by Sheila’s hands-on approach, which involved getting out of the office and making connections in the field. “She always made herself available,” he says.

In addition to getting his philanthropic feet wet with the Perrin Family Foundation, David was also engaged in social justice work. Living in Boston in the early 2000s, he interned with the Haymarket People’s Fund, which supports grassroots organizations doing anti-racism work. He was also an early member of Resource Generation, which helps 18-35 year olds in the top 10% of wealth holders or those with access to wealth redistribute their money and power.

Resource Generation co-founder Tracey Hewat’s family tree includes Mayflower passengers, landowners of what would become LA’s glitzy Bel Air neighborhood, and CalTech co-founders who helped bring Einstein to the United States – at least, the family tradition. From within the walls of Hewat’s home, David and other predominantly white privileged people learned to better align their philanthropic giving with their progressive values.

David cherishes the space and community he has found with people struggling with these same tensions. But he also appreciated that Resource Generation brought in a council of non-class-privileged community members to hold his cohort to account. These experiences made David what he calls a donor/activist.

“It kind of took me sowing my oats, into the world of philanthropy. And getting a window into a different approach to grantmaking versus strictly family-run grantmaking and broadcast by family. That’s all I knew at the time. But I got to see a different perspective of those places outside of Boston,” David says.

From youth development to youth organization

Building on these experiences in Boston, in 2003 David began pushing his family to create a small grantmaking portfolio around youth activism.

“David wondered why we weren’t approaching young people about their needs,” says Sheila, adding that she didn’t immediately appreciate the idea of ​​change.

But in a series of conversations, David made the case for expanding grantmaking and seeing young people as advocates for change in their own communities. “I’ve always been a believer that we’re not dealing with a single issue or even a set of issues, but that we should actually be supporting a model of engagement that could relate to any area,” says David.

The foundation moved its office to New Haven — closer to more low- and middle-income families in Connecticut — and expanded grantmaking statewide. Then, just as Sheila had done for the past decade, David hit the road to Bridgeport, Hartford and other cities to learn about young leaders and groups on the ground.

Along with a new site, PFF has also hired new employees. Laura McCargar started as a program officer in 2012 and is now president of the foundation with a small staff and board. David first met McCargar when she was the founding executive director of Youth Rights Media, a grantee foundation.

Laura believes that Charles and Sheila Perrin ultimately couldn’t deny the energy and momentum coming from the second generation. She also thinks that as a smaller foundation (PFF has assets under $30 million), youth organizing was a niche where they could really dig in and make an impact.

“The family also realized that the foundation had been funding youth programs here and there for many years, but the underlying conditions were not changing. Thus, moving to a process focused on social change would position the foundation for greater impact,” she explains.

Today, the foundation supports organizations such as Serving All Vessels Equally, Citywide Youth Coalition, and Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice, with offices in Hartford and Brooklyn. Generally, the foundation is interested in organizations that directly challenge power in areas such as LGBTQ justice, food justice, the school-to-prison pipeline, and education equity.

Building the Council and Integrating Racial Justice

The current leadership of the PFF has also evolved since those early years. In 2018, at the request of Jeff Perrin, the foundation launched a Strategy Council to serve alongside the Board of Trustees. The five-member team includes community leaders like Jahnice Cajigas, Kerry Ellington and Twy Greaves, a youth leader with one of PFF’s grantee partners, Hearing Youth Voices.

The foundation’s eight-member board now also includes three non-family members. In addition to Charles, Sheila, David and his wife Anne Kenan, Cajigas, Ellington and Greaves round out the board. “I secretly think, [Jeff] and I shared that vision that there would be sort of a shared power on the board,” says David.

Over the past year or so, the foundation has refined the language around its vision and mission to more accurately reflect its racial justice core, which David says has long existed in practice.

David Perrin recalls his early days in Boston with the Haymarket People’s Fund, part of a nationwide network of social justice foundations called The Funding Exchange, established in the late 1970s by young activists with rich heritage and whose motto was “change, not charity”. .”

This response to institutional philanthropy, David argues, sometimes involved wealthy people handing over the corpus and shutting it down. But David wonders if wealthy people sometimes just tried to absolve their guilt and wipe their hands.

From his experience, he believes that community stakeholders actually want members of family foundations to stay at the table. “Don’t just leave. Keep being in conversations. There is a cultural restoration that needs to happen among stakeholders from all points of view. But that doesn’t mean the rich just leave the room.


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