PRINCETON: Rita Allen Foundation passionate about funding breakthrough solutions to significant problems

By Mike Morsch, Packet Media Group
The view from the third-floor corner office at 92 Nassau St. is one of the best that Princeton has to offer. Through the window one can see the pastoral and historic grounds of Princeton University, as well as hustle and bustle of one of the busiest main streets in town.
From where she sits, at a virtually pristine desk devoid of clutter, it’s a sight that Elizabeth Good Christopherson enjoys every day.
“I love this view, it’s extraordinary. And I love the fact that there is activity on the street and we can go down and walk around and that there are students here and tour buses here,” said Ms. Christopherson. “There is a lot of energy here. Many people come here not only because they want to learn something at one of our great institutions, but also because I think Princeton is a very engaged community. So they care about what happens, they care about downtown, they care about many of the organizations that are working and thriving here.”
Ms. Christopherson is president and chief executive officer of the Rita Allen Foundation, which, according to its website, “… invests in transformative ideas in their earliest stages to leverage their growth and promote breakthrough solutions to significant problems. It enables early career biomedical scholars to pursue pioneering research, seeds innovative approaches to fostering informed civic engagement and develops knowledge and networks to build the effectiveness of the philanthropic sector. Through its work, the Foundation embraces collaboration, creativity, learning and leadership.”
That’s quite a mouthful of a mission station. What it means is that the foundation gives away money to research scientists to pursue philanthropic issues that benefit mankind.
Impeccably dressed and extremely focused, Ms. Christopherson has a long and distinguished resume. Before joining the foundation in 2009, she was the first female executive director of New Jersey’s public broadcasting network (NJN); served on the PBS board; chaired the New Jersey State Council on the Arts; served as president of the New Jersey Women’s Forum; is a community fellow of Mathey College at Princeton University; and recently retired after serving 15 years on the McCarter Theatre Board.
Ms. Christopherson looks visitors straight in the eye when she speaks. It is clear through her voice and her desire to get one to understand every nuance of the foundation’s work that there is a passion for what she does.
“We have thought about our approach to philanthropy, which is distinctive in the sense that we’re a little bit like a venture philanthropist. We try to invest — as our scientists do at their early stages — in ideas when they are relatively untested, when they’re taking some smart risks,” said Ms. Christopherson. “Our young scientists walk into their labs and they’re extremely creative. They’re also highly distinguished in their careers already, they’re on the track to become tenured at their institutions. But we provide them with risk capital, basically to take bolder steps and to do research they might not be able to do without this money.”
And there’s a lot of money to distribute. Since 1976, the foundation has awarded millions of dollars in grants to biomedical scholars. Today, foundation scholars receive up to $110,000 per year for a maximum of five years to pursue basic biomedical research in cancer, immunology, neuroscience and pain. The foundation’s total assets are currently at more than $165 million.
Although it is a foundation that operates on the big stage, several members of its board of directors are Princeton residents, including current board members Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the Institute for Advanced Study and Leon Levy Professor; former People and Money Magazine editor Lanny Jones; Sam Wang, professor of molecular biology at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute; as well as emeritus members Moore Gates Jr. and Aristides Georgantas.
The other board members include chairman William F. Gadsden, an investment advisor; Gov. Thomas H. Kean, the 48th governor of New Jersey who served for two terms from 1982 to 1990; Geneva Overholser, former editor of the Des Moines Register, former professor and director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, former columnist and ombudsman for the Washington Post and former member and chair of the Pulitzer Prizes board; and Sivan Nemovicher, a social sector and philanthropy advisor; Robert E. Campbell and Henry H. Hitch are also emeritus directors.
It’s a leadership group that also values collaboration as one of its guiding principles, something that was reaffirmed by Ms. Christopherson recently while listening to National Public Radio.
There, she heard an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, do it together.”
“What that means to me is that sometimes it’s more complicated to work collaboratively. But we have an approach to philanthropy that says, let’s research the problem we’re interested in — and it’s oftentimes because it’s in uncrowded spaces or new spaces — do some deep listening and have deep conversations with people early on and then shaping something, co-designing some pilot projects to test, and then assessing and probably sharing what we’re learning from that, too,” said Ms. Christopherson.
“What that means is that it’s going to take a lot of people to help solve problems. It’s never going to be the Rita Allen Foundation alone. If the problem is big enough and important enough, it’s never going to be one scientist alone. Some of our best scientists are pulling in people from outside of their fields and bringing them into their lab because they understand they need data scientists, they need physicists, they need other people than say, biologists. They’re looking at really solving problems, whether it’s in their labs or in other areas.”
The Rita Allen Foundation was established in 1953 by Charles and Rita Allen. A well-known theatrical producer in the 1950s and 1960s, Rita Allen produced “The Grass Harp” by Truman Capote as well as an adaptation of the play “My 3 Angels.” She and Charles eventually divorced, and Rita married her second husband, Milton Cassel. They collaborated on five plays at the Rita Allen Theater in New York City, a 187-seat venue on Madison Avenue, which is now the location of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
During their lifetimes, Rita and Milton gave generously to a number of worthy causes, including to the foundation.
“We’re very grateful to Charlie and Rita Allen for starting the foundation, but there were other family members, by virtue of marriage, who actually left sometimes more money when they died and provided a more open framework to invest,” said Ms. Christopherson.
In addition to its efforts in the philanthropic world, the foundation also supports nonprofit organizations, focusing on new ideas with the potential for civic engagement throughout the United States.
“With this board, we had our first strategic planning retreat, which is where we decided, ‘What do we care about?’ ‘What would be important to do as well as continue what we have been doing all along?’ We thought about what truly helps strengthen democracy and what we could do with our sized assets that would matter,” said Ms. Christopherson.
“We thought how could we create in a sense, a philanthropic lab that would look at some areas — particularly knowing the decline of media and the importance of media in informing our citizens — and getting them trusted sources of information. And engaging them so that we have communities that are healthy communities that solve problems together,” she said. “That’s a very large area and we certainly couldn’t expect to do that comprehensively or totally, so we had to pick our spots.”
Among those spots was having the foundation join the Pew Charitable Trust because it has a strong portfolio in the area of voting.
“For example, we are interested in using new tools, using mobile technology to connect voters with election officials,” said Ms. Christopherson.
The foundation’s vision, in keeping with the Princeton spirit, also extends to the big ideas and innovations that could affect life for not only our local community, but also people around the country.
Examples of Princeton-based projects the foundation has supported include Princeton AlumniCorps’ Emerging Leaders program, the Institute for Advanced Study’s Simons Center for Systems Biology, and a soon-to-be-announced project with Climate Central. Seven Rita Allen Foundation Scholars have also been based at Princeton University at the time of their awards.
In New Jersey, the foundation has supported many more projects, including the Citizens Campaign, Kiva City Newark, Isles, and the Disaster Handbook, a recent collaboration between the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy to draw on lessons from past recovery efforts (including from Hurricane Sandy) to help make future responses more effective.
And the foundation is continuing to explore and develop programs that help scientists be more effective communicators with their communities.
“I think it’s very important that we learn better tools and better ways to engage the public on things it needs to know without being advocates,” said Ms. Christopherson.
Among the many Rita Allen Foundation Scholars over the years include Robert A. Weinberg, who discovered the first tumor-causing human gene and the first tumor suppressor gene. In the 2015 documentary “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” he spoke about the “curiosity and optimism” that drives scientific research; Kathleen M. Foley, chair of the Rita Allen Foundation Scientific Advisory Committee; and Andrew Z. Fire, who did Nobel Prize-winning research on the mechanisms of RNA interference, which regulates gene expression and participates in defending the genome.
For now, Ms. Christopherson isn’t worried that the foundation’s money will run out. She and the board are taking steps to make sure that doesn’t happen anytime soon.
“Of course money is something you never have enough of. Because the problems are so great, it depends how you spend your money.,” said Ms. Christopherson. “We have a very strong commitment to try and grow our investments, to try to grow the amount of money, so we can give money away. There are many more compelling and important ideas than we’re able to fund, or anyone is able to fund.”
For more information about the Rita Allen Foundation and its scholars, go to the organization’s website at http://www.ritaallen.org/. 