Celebrating 70 Years: APF Launches

by Lisa Straus on July 17, 2023

When I first learned about the position as director of the American Psychological Foundation, I remember saying, “It sounds interesting, but I know nothing about foundations or about fundraising.” Jack McKay, the APA Chief Financial Officer, who offered me the job, assured me I could learn and that if it didn’t work out, APA needed someone to oversee and write a policies and procedures manual.  I was too embarrassed to say that I wasn’t qualified to do that, either, and that possibility seemed dreadful. I needed a job and decided to focus on the Foundation.  It was a one-year temporary job.  No one had staffed the Foundation full-time in APF’s almost 40-year existence, and my position would be an experiment to see if the Foundation could grow into an independent organization.  

When I began in 1991, APF had just under one million dollars in assets, approximately 75% of which was the Esther Katz Rosen Fund for gifted children. The remaining 25% was a combination of ten or fifteen smaller funds.  APA’s CEO, Dr. Ray Fowler, asked his secretary to provide me with information on APF, and she handed me a large cardboard box. 

I looked through the box, which had information about APF’s funds as well as responses to a fundraising mailer that no one seemed to have answered (more on that later).  I also enrolled in fundraising courses at Georgetown and George Washington University and joined national organizations on fundraising and on managing association foundations.  I learned the following:   

  • An association foundation board should not be comprised entirely of past association presidents because most past association presidents had made their contributions and were not that invested.   
  • An association foundation should have vital programs that excite and motivate donors to contribute, and which move the profession forward. 
  • An association foundation should focus on larger gifts such as bequests that will make an impact and help build a substantial endowment.  

APF’s Board was comprised of past presidents; the signature program was honoring psychologists who were 65 and older, not younger psychologists to advance the field; there were no other programs to intrigue donors; and major gifts would take a long time to cultivate–my job was temporary. 

My anxiety mounted, but I got lucky.  The one person on the Board who was not a past president was Dr. Frances Degen Horowitz.  She was on the Board for her expertise in giftedness, and fortuitously, she also had extensive fundraising experience from serving on the Board at Antioch College and from serving as president of the City University of New York.  She advocated bequests and building an endowment.  With her leadership, the Board agreed to devote the time and resources to doing that.   

The next stroke of luck occurred when Dr. Evelyn Hooker approached an APA Board member, Dr. Steve Morin, about a bequest she had received from Wayne F. Placek, a research participant of hers, who entrusted her to use the money for research to increase the public’s understanding of LGBTQ individuals to alleviate the prejudice and suffering they experience.  Dr. Hooker did not know whether to give this money to UCLA, where she was a professor, or to APF.  Steve and I (mainly Steve) presented a case that APF was uniquely positioned to devote the most prestigious national scholars to work on LGBTQ issues.  Dr. Hooker agreed, and APF received the gift in 1992. This gift was pivotal on multiple levels: 

  • It demonstrated confidence in the Foundation and what APF could accomplish.   
  • The purpose was potentially transformational:  APF could make inroads through psychology to change the public’s thinking in order to improve the lives of the LGBTQ community. 
  • It could inspire others to make bequests. 

Dr. Gregory Herek, one of the most eminent LGBTQ scholars, agreed to design the grant program.  He advocated awarding both large grants to more eminent scholars and smaller grants to young researchers.   

The response to the funding was overwhelming.  Talented psychologists across the country applied—many of whom had not been able to receive support from anywhere else as   more established agencies like NIMH were not always willing to take the risk of supporting the topic and/or or the cutting-edge research these scientists proposed.   

The Placek Fund filled a crucial niche, awarding grants to scholars researching areas like gay marriage, adoption, trans civil rights, pay inequality, the image of LGBTQ individuals in the media, and hate crimes. Their work was cited in amicus briefs that shaped laws and policies on essential rights for the LGBTQ community. Those who won the small grants were able to leverage their funding for large NIMH grants, and obtained prestigious tenure track positions working in areas of their passion. APF was able to achieve the goal that Wayne Placek had envisioned:  the Fund’s research was increasing the public’s understanding and decreasing the discrimination and injustice that LGBTQ people suffer.  

In addition, because of wise investing, over time, the $550,000 gift from Wayne Placek grew—the fund awarded more than $1 million in grants over the next few decades. After this bequest, other psychologists made generous bequests for LGBTQ research, and APF became perhaps the preeminent organization for LGBTQ psychological research, awarding millions over the years, which it continues to do to this day. 

This fund also demonstrated the model of how to make an impact.  The Board quickly saw how a sometimes small but impactful grant on cutting-edge research could launch a career and turn into major funding at a major national granting agency. Further, grantees often secured tenure-track positions and inspired their students to work on equally innovative, socially impactful work. 

The next bit of good fortune turned out to be the big cardboard box I received when I started the job.  I had found a slip of paper in the box from Werner Koppitz, which said he was interested in making a bequest in honor of his wife, Elizabeth Munsterberg Koppitz, for graduate fellowship on child psychology.  I called Dr. Koppitz, and he said that he was still interested. Dr. Joseph Matarazzo and I visited him in the late 1990s.  Several years later, APF received Dr. Koppitz’s bequest of approximately $4 million.  This gift was significant because of the size, but also because of the purpose: scholarships.  APF had learned the lesson of awarding modest grants from the work of the Placek Fund, and APF could now adopt this model in awarding scholarships.   APF was well on the way to moving the profession forward.  

Dr. Camilla Benbow and others designed the Elizabeth Munsterberg Koppitz Fellowship program.  Talented students in child psychology received support often for their dissertation research, and as with the Placek scholars, these individuals were able to accomplish groundbreaking work, not just with their initial scholarships but with the larger grants they were then able to leverage, working on a myriad of issues affecting children, such as bullying, autism, ADHD, serious emotional disturbance, and childhood anxiety. These grantees often received tenure track positions, rose to levels of eminence in the field, and inspired their students to employ psychology to better understand children and improve their lives. 

My pivotal stroke of good luck for APF occurred on the day that I attended an APA Board of Directors meeting.  I noticed a Board member whose wisdom and grace blew the cobwebs out of the room.  I had heard that this Board member was running for APA president, and after she won, Jack McKay and I met with Dr. Dorothy Cantor to ask if she would be interested in being on the APF Board and possibly becoming president.  

At this point, APF had made progress, but the organization needed a leader who would want to develop APF into an organization that actively promoted programs on issues where psychology could make a difference, broadening and deepening its impact.  Jack McKay and I didn’t have to say very much when Dr. Cantor said she would not join the Board, much less become president, if APF did not do just that.  She joined the Board, and soon after, she became president.   

Every roadblock I had learned APF had to surmount, over the years, Dorothy Cantor and the APF Board overcame. 

The Board voted to include members who were not past presidents of the association, adopted programs such as violence prevention, helping communities in the wake of a disaster, and fighting discrimination and prejudice through psychology. The Board committed to fundraising, and Dorothy Cantor, in addition to serving as president, spearheaded APF’s first and second fundraising campaigns.  Both campaigns raised millions of dollars.   

In 2018, when I retired, APF was giving away more than $1 million, more money than APF had in total assets in 1991. So many people and some very fortunate events led to APF’s success.  I was so lucky to be a part of it.  I was most of all lucky to have met Jack McKay, who gave me a chance to do something for which I had no experience, and I was luckier still that I did not have to write APA’s Policies and Procedures Manual.   

Happy 70th Anniversary, APF!