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At a Glance
This collection is arranged in three series.
Scope and Content
The Boehm Foundation Records consist overwhelmingly of files pertaining to the grants that the Foundation administered. While the subject matter of these files varies somewhat, almost all of the files contain correspondence between the Foundation and the grantee organization. Many of them include supplemental information from the grantee organization such as annual reports, brochures, flyers, publications, etc., which in most cases indicate the ways in which the Foundation's grant was spent.
In addition to material related to specific grant projects, there is also a small but significant amount of the Boehm Foundation's administrative files. These include financial reports, internal memos, board meeting agendas, letter templates, grant application forms, and brochures, among other material.
Using the Collection
Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Restrictions on Access
Thuis collection has no restrictions.
Terms Governing Use and Reproduction
Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. Permission to publish material from the collection must be requested from the Curator of Manuscripts, Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML). The RBML approves permission to publish that which it physically owns; the responsibility to secure copyright permission rests with the patron.
Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Boehm Foundation records; Box and Folder; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.
An oral history of Robert and Frances Boehm has been conducted by the Columbia University Oral History Research Office and is being processed. Please contact OHRO regarding its availability.
About the Finding Aid / Processing Information
Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library
This collection was processed by Nicholas Patrick Osborne (GSAS 2012). Finding aid written by Nicholas Patrick Osborne in February 2008.
Finding aid written by Nicholas Patrick Osborne in February 2008.
Collection is processed to folder level.
2008-11-07 File created.
2009/01/15 xml document instange created by Patrick Lawlor
2019-05-20 EAD was imported spring 2019 as part of the ArchivesSpace Phase II migration.
History / Biographical Note
Biographical / Historical
The Boehm Foundation was born in 1962 when Louis Boehm, a successful lawyer and real estate investor from New York City, died and set aside one million dollars of his estate to aid future "deserving scholars." Boehm's son, Robert, and several family friends used the bequest to start the Louis Boehm Foundation in 1963, the same year that Robert and his wife Frances organized the Lillian Boehm Foundation. Named after and funded in part by Robert's mother, the Lillian Boehm Foundation was established, according to an early mission statement, in order "to assist in efforts to bring about important and meaningful social change... in the interest of a more democratic society." The Louis and Lillian Boehm Foundations merged in 1978 to become simply the "Boehm Foundation" and the goals of aiding young scholars and activists as well as promoting social change and democracy continued to guide the Foundation's business through 2004 when it distributed its last grants.
The progressive nature of the Boehm Foundation was somewhat ironic considering that Louis Boehm was relatively conservative in comparison to his son. At one point in the 1930s, for example, he even helped Robert travel to the Soviet Union in the hopes of "disillusioning" him about the potential of radical politics. Yet despite Louis' best efforts, Robert became ever more committed to the political left. After graduating first from Dartmouth and then Columbia University Law School, Robert went to work in his father's law firm. While there he met his future wife, Frances, who was as a secretary in the firm. Their first date was at a 1938 rally held in Madison Square Garden where the featured speaker was Earl Browder, the head of the American Communist Party. Known by acquaintances as Bob and Fran throughout their lives, they married in 1939.
Not only did 1938 see Bob and Fran Boehm meet, it also saw Bob join the National Lawyers' Guild (NLG), an interracial coalition of progressive lawyers that was founded in 1937 in order to defend civil liberties. Boehm remained a member of the NLG throughout his life, but his role as a legal activist was most prominent in his close association with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), an advocacy group that was founded to aid the United States Civil Rights Movement. (It later defended rioters at Attica prison in 1971, protested United States intervention in Central America, and supported prisoners held by the US at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, among other causes.) Active with CCR from its founding in 1966, Boehm was its chairperson of the board for most of the 1990s and until his death in 2006. Though not a lawyer herself, Fran Boehm became a fixture at many of the trials, conferences, and protests in which these and other groups were involved, and her legacy of activism developed along with Bob Boehm's through the US civil rights, women's rights, and peace movements of the second half of the twentieth century.
Bob and Fran started the Boehm Foundation within this context of political, legal, and social activism. Because the Foundation remained a small organization to the end, the Boehm's backgrounds and contemporaneous activities proved highly influential in determining the course of its development. Throughout the Boehm Foundation's life, it often gave far more substantial grants to groups like the NLG and CCR than to its other projects. As one brochure from the 1990s put it, the Boehm Foundation "provided substantial and on-going support to several organizations with which it has special historical relationships" while its regular grants were evaluated on an annual basis and were generally for considerably lower dollar amounts. Such "special historical relationships" were ensured by the fact that in the early years of the Louis Boehm Foundation, Bob Boehm looked to friends like Bernie Fischman--his one-time law partner--to serve as trustees and help identify worthy projects for the Foundation's attention. Frances had been a trustee of the Lillian Boehm Foundation from its beginning, and she remained a trustee of the newly-formed Boehm Foundation in 1978. In part to ensure the familial nature of the Foundation, the Boehms' three daughters, Diane Boehm, Nancy Boehm (later Boehm-Coster), and Wendy Olesker were all named replacement trustees in 1978 on the contingency that one of the current trustees died.
The late 1970s were an important turning point for the Boehm Foundation, and not simply because of the 1978 merger. It was in these years that Nancy Boehm-Coster started to take an interest in the operations of the Foundation, eventually becoming a trustee in 1980. Bob Boehm later said that it was Nancy's insistence around this time that the organization should become "more formal" that really spurred the development of the Foundation from an ad hoc family institution to a professional philanthropic group.
As Bob Boehm described it, Nancy felt that "the people who... [ran the Foundation] should be changed every few years, and there shouldn't be a monopoly of just those particular people, and we should have regular elections, and that women should be included on the board, not just men." In addition to these changes, Nancy Boehm-Coster became the first Executive Director of the Boehm Foundation in 1984. In this role, she was responsible for processing grant applications, organizing and running board meetings, and corresponding with grantees, among other tasks. She held the role until her death from cancer in 1991. Upon her death, Judy Austermiller--a Boehm Foundation trustee since 1984--took over as the only other Executive Director the Foundation ever had, serving (except for a one-year sabbatical during which June Makela was the acting Executive Director) until its dissolution in 2004.
As part of the Boehm Foundation's formalization during this period, it began to more actively seek new applicants and organizations to aid. An important aspect of this project was the Foundation's efforts to better define its mission. As one call for grants from the early 1990s explained, the Boehm Foundation's two main principles are that "the educational, spiritual and creative aspects of humankind can only be developed when the full range of human rights are protected and respected" and that "the best interests of a society are advanced in an atmosphere which encourages the free flow of ideas and information and which discourages secrecy and censorship." Fueled by a belief that "it is organized and collective efforts" as opposed to individual action "that will most effectively and meaningfully fulfill these aims" the Boehm Foundation prioritized projects which were "advancing democracy and human rights in the U.S." and "advancing peace and international human rights." Insistent throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s--as it had been from its origin--that the Foundation should focus on helping multiple emerging and often small groups that could find funding from few other sources, the brochure further explained that the Foundation's grants ranged from "$500 to $15,000" and that "the average grant is $3,500.".
By the 1990s, the Boehm Foundation was giving out sixty-five to eighty grants per year (not including its "special projects"). But by mid-1999, Austermiller sensed that a reevaluation of the Boehm Foundation's priorities might be in order. As she noted in an internal memo from August of that year, two changes had begun to shape the Foundation: as more groups applied for funding each year, the backlog of unevaluated applications was growing larger and larger; at the same time, the Boehms were increasingly giving out larger grants, both through the Boehm Foundation and in their private gifts. With these observations, a series of board meetings and retreats were held to discuss the future of the Boehm Foundation.
Out of this evaluative process came the last incarnation of the Boehm Foundation. In early 2001, the Foundation sent out a letter to grant applicants explaining that the Foundation was now channeling its gifts to two types of groups: "grassroots organizations that are developing new leadership through work on specific public/private policy campaigns" and "statewide, regional or national organizations that provide support to progressive grassroots public policy campaigns." The first of these two grant categories were known as "New Leaders Grants" and were intended to be "two-year general support grants ranging in size from $7,500 to $10,000 per year." Grants falling into the second category were called "Capacity Building Grants" and were designed as "two- or three-year grants ranging in size from $25,000 to $50,000 per year." The Foundation committed to making approximately twelve New Leaders grants and two Capacity Building grants annually.
In a sense, the creation of the New Leaders and Capacity Building programs represented a formalization of past practices rather than a distinct change in the mission of the Boehm Foundation. After all, it had often given large multi-year grants to a few organizations in the past while focusing the bulk of its resources on an assortment of smaller groups. In retrospect, however, the creation of these two programs--and the much larger amounts of their grants--suggests that the trustees of the Boehm Foundation recognized at least the possibility that the Foundation might be nearing the end of its life. Indeed, it was at about the same time that the Foundation was formally instituting these guidelines that the Boehms and Judy Austermiller also began to discuss the long-term future of the organization.
Bob Boehm turned 86 in 2000, and in that year the Foundation commissioned an independent study to suggest ways for the final disposition of its holdings. Though several plans that would have enabled the continuation of the Boehm Foundation in the event of its founders' deaths (including the establishment of a permanent endowment) were proposed, the Boehms had settled by 2003 on dismantling the Boehm Foundation. The final installments of its multi-year grants were disbursed in 2004, more than forty years after the Louis Boehm and Lillian Boehm Foundations were established.
Even without the Boehm Foundation, Bob and Fran continued to give large gifts to favored organizations and stayed active in many of their other pursuits, especially the Center for Constitutional Rights. Indeed, Bob remained the chairperson of the board of CCR until just a few months before his death. After a lifetime devoted to progressive causes, Frances Boehm died in February 2006; Robert Boehm followed in December of that year.