Photo: LEE SNIDER PHOTO IMAGES/shutterstock
Photo: LEE SNIDER PHOTO IMAGES/shutterstock

Betty Wold Johnson, renowned philanthropist and matriarch of the Johnson Family, which founded Johnson & Johnson over 130 years ago, passed away on May 5, 2020 at the age of 99. Prior to her passing, Johnson’s family alerted John Schreiber, president and CEO of Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center, that the organization would be receiving a bequest.

A few months after Johnson died, her son Christopher called Schreiber and gave him the details—$20 million to NJPAC’s Endowment Fund, earmarked for supporting capital maintenance of NJPAC’s theaters and campus.

“We anticipated that she was going to make a bequest to the arts center, but I had no idea the size of the bequest,” Schreiber said in recent coverage at NJ.com. This gift, which is part of the center’s $175 million capital campaign, is the largest bequest in NJPAC’s history and the largest individual gift made to the endowment fund. “That gift is going to work for years to come for the arts center,” Schreiber told me. “It’s as simple as that.”

But any experienced fundraiser knows that there’s nothing simple about cultivating these kinds of gifts. Johnson’s bequest was the culmination of over a dozen years of engagement with a unique donor who didn’t want her name on buildings, roamed the center’s hallways chatting up staff in her mid-90s, and asked Schreiber and his team pointed questions about the center’s long-term financial sustainability.

Schreiber says the bequest suggests that while “the lived experience of donors is not the lived experience of certain constituents, there’s a desire on part of donors to learn and to be useful and be helpful.” And so a big part of his job—and that of other fundraisers and arts leaders—is “making a match between an aspect of our mission and the passion of a donor.”

Johnson family matriarch

Raised in Minnesota, Betty Wold Johnson was married to Robert Wood Johnson III. His grandfather was Robert Wood Johnson I, the co-founder of Johnson & Johnson, and his father was Robert Wood Johnson II, the company’s former president and chair. Robert Wood Johnson II established the foundation that bears his name in 1968.

Robert Wood Johnson III worked for the company from 1941 to 1965 and was president from 1961 to 1965. He also served for 10 years on the board of directors of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as president and vice president. He and Betty had five children. One son, Christopher Johnson, is the owner, CEO and chair of the New York Jets; another, Woody, co-owns the Jets and served as United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 2017 to 2021. Robert Wood Johnson III died in 1970. Eight years later, Betty married Douglas Bushnell; he died in 2007.

Betty Wold Johnson supported numerous Princeton and New York arts and science institutions, including the McCarter Theatre, the Nature Conservancy in New Jersey, the Arts Council of Princeton, the Princeton Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In September, the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City announced that Johnson bequeathed $5 million to renovate its tower, which will be renamed the Robert Wood Johnson III Tower.

Prelude to the big one

Major bequests in the tens of millions are often preceded by smaller gifts. Johnson’s first major gift to NJPAC started with a simple question over a dozen years ago. She asked Larry Goldman, NJPAC’s then-president and CEO, which aspects of the Arts Center’s operations were the hardest to fundraise for.

“I told her the truth,” Goldman said, “which is that everybody wants to name a theater, but nobody wants to pay for maintenance.” His answer resonated with Johnson. “She said to me, ‘I’m a housekeeper at heart. That’s exactly what I’d like to support, the maintenance of NJPAC.’”

And so, in 2008, Johnson gave NJPAC what was then the largest individual gift in the center’s history—$11 million earmarked for ongoing campus maintenance. She did not request naming rights. She did, however, ask Goldman that a plaque with her name on it be placed outside a janitor’s closet. “That’s a true story,” Schreiber told me.

Schreiber became NJPAC’s president in 2011. He spent his first few years in regular communication with donors like Johnson, who continued to support the center. “I visited her on her farm,” Schreiber said. “She came to the center and spent time with us. She got to know the leadership, got to observe the ways in which we were evolving, and she allowed for an open dialogue over a period of years, and I was grateful for that.”

The capital campaign beckons

In 2018, NJPAC launched its $175 million capital campaign. “Mrs. Johnson was someone we wanted to engage with, and so we did,” Schreiber said. With the help of Goldman, who remained an important partner and colleague, Schreiber spoke with Johnson on multiple occasions during the late spring of 2019 about the center’s community engagement work, financial needs and plans for the future.

“We’d sit in my office and she’d say, ‘I want to see what’s happening,’ so we’d take a stroll through the theater and she’s saying hello and talking to staff,” Schreiber told me. “It was remarkable.”

And make no mistake: There was a lot happening. NJPAC hosted over 600,000 people in its 2018 season and was putting on around 250 free events on an annual basis before the pandemic.

Johnson believed in the center’s engagement work, Schreiber recalls. “But as important as that was, she also wanted to understand how we were doing as a business, and where we were in terms of sustainability,” he said. In response, Schreiber gave her “tremendous detail on the evolution of the business and where we thought we were headed.”

Sound finances inspired confidence

When Schreiber arrived in 2011, NJPAC had a structural deficit of about $3 million. But the center turned its finances around and has been in the black for the last five years. “Up until the pandemic, we were showing balanced budgets and slight surpluses,” he said. Johnson “appreciated that and the seriousness in which we operated the business, and I think that, combined with authentic engagement and community, it gave her confidence that a second gift was something that made sense.”

Thomas Kean, the former New Jersey governor who co-founded the center and was a longtime friend of Johnson, picked up on this theme. “She came to the Arts Center, she questioned us deeply, she wanted to know what we would use the money for,” he said in NJPAC’s press release. “She had to be convinced that the money would be well spent, and you didn’t get a cent from her until you showed her that.”

Johnson’s attention to financial detail echoes the experiences of other arts professionals who have been engaging deep-pocketed donors during the pandemic.

Suzanne Appel, managing director of New York’s Vineyard Theater, told me that donors would often ask her general questions like, “How are you going to continue to fulfill your mission?” before reaching for their checkbooks. Now, however, she’s fielding detailed requests that are “usually reserved for my finance committee or board of directors.” And Heather Hitchens, who heads American Theatre Wing, said, “Donors need resources to get a more sophisticated decision. They want a safe bet.”

Johnson’s gift came as the pandemic forced NJPAC to cut its annual operating budget from around $45-50 million to $20 million. In previous years, two-thirds of the arts center’s income came from earned sources. But this year, 93% will stem from unearned sources like donations and endowment earnings, Schreiber told NJ.com. “At times like this, philanthropy becomes indispensable,” he said.

Community value and stewardship

In his talks with donors, Schreiber stresses the community value of a performing arts center that defines itself as a cultural anchor institution. “It’s about the next 20 years,” he said, “and we’ve articulated enough of a vision, and have enough ways to offer engagement, that if somebody is interested in having a conversation, we can have it.”

Schreiber pointed to another way these conversations can play out in practice. Before the pandemic, NJPAC engaged over 100,000 students, families and educators through its after-school and summer arts training programs, performances for schools, in-school residencies and professional development for teachers.

In a way, the center had become too popular—its antiquated infrastructure couldn’t scale to surging community demand. As Schreiber told the New York Times back in 2019, NJPAC had “a robust arts training program that’s operating now in a building that’s not a 21st-century facility.”

In April of that year, billionaire investor and hedge fund manager Leon Cooperman and his wife Toby stepped up with a $20 million gift earmarked for a major upgrade, in the form of a 35,000- to 45,000-square-foot space, to be named the Cooperman Family Education and Community Center.

Schreiber said the center plans to break ground in 15 months. “It’s a community resource that’s going to be around for a generation or more, so coming up with programming that is meaningful for the community, creating an endowment for programming plus the cost of construction—these are things I can point a donor to and say, ‘We want you to be part of our future.’”

Capital campaign update

Like many other arts leaders I’ve spoken with, Schreiber said he halted major asks in the early days of the pandemic. “In March, April and May, my goal was to get them to renew,” he said. “I wasn’t asking for new gifts. I was just saying, ‘Please stick with us.’” Schreiber spent most of his time encouraging supporters to donate to smaller nonprofits and those on the front lines of pandemic response, and rolling out the center’s virtual presence.

Schreiber said he reactivated the capital campaign last fall and “put out $12 million worth of asks between September and January.” The center has raised $125 million toward its $175 million goal.

The other big piece of the fundraising puzzle is stewardship, Schreiber said—the idea of “remaining in good contact with folks simply because, so when it comes time to make an ask, it doesn’t feel forced.”

Every two weeks, Schreiber sends out an e-newsletter to 10,000 people in the center’s community that shines a light on organizations like New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund, the Community Food Bank of New Jersey and the New Jersey Symphony. “Being a good community partner is important as anything else,” he said. “When the time comes for us to ask, there’s an understanding we’re not only in it for ourselves.”

Again, Schreiber is on the same page as other fundraising experts who’ve encouraged their colleagues to highlight the work of other local organizations in need of support throughout the pandemic.

“Giving is a virtuous cycle”

There’s still one final twist to the Betty Wold Johnson bequest.

In many ways, Johnson was the quintessential quiet philanthropist. Ken Farber, president of the Lupus Research Alliance, recalls meeting Johnson in the mid-1980s. “The Johnson family got us going with multi-million dollar gifts,” he said. “Then quietly, Betty made an additional personal gift of over $50 million.”

Nor did Johnson ask for naming rights in her 2008 gift or her last bequest. “She never wanted anything named for her,” Schreiber said. However, given the magnitude of Johnson’s bequest, Schreiber asked her family if they’d be comfortable with the center naming the stage of its largest theater, Prudential Hall, after her. The family agreed.

“The ability for her name to be associated with the performing arts center for perpetuity is something I’m proud of,” Schreiber said. “Giving is a virtuous cycle. When we talk to other donors, the fact that Mrs. Johnson is now part of our legacy—I think that’s meaningful to people.”

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