Not much was expected of Sheila Lubetsky Birnbaum. Born in the Bronx, her parents owned a modest grocery store and later, a candy shop. They weren’t rich, socially connected, or college-educated, but they always emphasized the value of education and hard work. In her sixth-grade yearbook, Sheila noted “lawyer” as her future profession. Against all odds, Sheila accomplished her dream. Not only did she become the first person in her family to go to college, but then she went to law school. At a time when female attorneys were virtually unheard of, she was one of the first to practice in the product liability space. She has achieved incredible success, arguing several cases in the Supreme Court and has become known fondly as the “Queen of Torts.”
As her nieces Lauren and Sara Lubetsky explain, their aunt has always dedicated herself to helping others. “Sheila has been extremely philanthropic for her entire life and career,” says Lauren. “She was incredibly honored when she was appointed by Attorney General Eric Holder to serve as Special Master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. She designed the Fund and distributed nearly $2 billion to claimants.” It was always a given that Sheila would establish a charitable vehicle, but she originally planned to have it established as part of her estate plan. “She knew for a long time that she wanted to have her own foundation, and Lauren and I were really excited about it,” says Sara. “But we encouraged her to start it sooner rather than later.”
Because both nieces shared Sheila’s passion for giving and had valuable skills to contribute (Sara’s work for the Mount Sinai Health System involves grants management, and Lauren’s work at Deloitte includes strategy consulting in the social sector), Sheila decided to endow a private foundation and make giving a family endeavor. Founded in 2019, the Lubetsky Family Foundation reflects the passion and commitment of all three women. Its mission, a fitting tribute to Sheila, is to help the underserved children and young adults of New York City unlock their full potential by supporting educational opportunity and career readiness programs.
“The driving force behind all of her success and action is the idea that she was born underserved,” says Lauren. “She believes it is important to give back to the underserved residents of New York City. She wants to give them the same opportunity to realize their full potential, which enabled her to pursue her career at a time in which female lawyers, judges, and professors were few and not treated equitably.”
With the foundation established and the mission defined, Sheila and her nieces began to develop a plan of action. “We knew we wanted to do grantmaking in the education space,” says Sara. “We’ve now expanded our definition of education to also include career readiness. And we knew that there were certain groups that we wanted to focus on. For example, Sheila is very active in supporting women’s education, and we wanted to include refugees, immigrants, and communities of color.” Lauren adds, “We wanted to keep it broad enough that we could identify an array of groups and organizations where we can move the needle, but we focus it enough that we could actually realize impact in our community.”
The Lubetsky Family Foundation recently identified an organization that could put their philanthropy in motion. “Avenues for Justice is a small organization in New York that offers an alternative to incarceration for kids in the criminal justice system,” explains Lauren. “They keep youth out of prison in a program that provides court advocacy, tutoring, mentorship, and provides treatment, job training, and other services to help youth thrive. And over 90% of the kids who graduate from their programs never commit another crime.”
Of course, like every other fledgling enterprise, the Foundation had to reassess its strategy in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, unlike every other entity, Lauren and Sara had the skillset to quickly adapt. In fact, Lauren regularly consults around how organizations should respond to the challenges imposed by COVID and how to seek out potential opportunities. For the Foundation, mounting an effective response meant taking a second look at their first-ever grant decision.
“Interestingly, in the case of Avenues for Justice, what we found is that in the new, remote environment, they were actually able to have a broader reach because they weren’t limited to their geographical footprint,” Lauren reports. “That being said, COVID definitely did affect the programming that we’re working on with them. Digital literacy suddenly becomes an even more critical foundational element because, without a computer, kids can’t participate in classes, career readiness programming, or get certifications. And what they were finding is that a lot of kids in the program didn’t even know the basics about how to use a computer. So we decided to start there.”
Although the Foundation is just getting started, the three women are learning how they can best work together: “Sheila is the person with the most high-level oversight of the foundation,” explains Sara, “I’ve become our director of grant programs, and Lauren’s become our director of outreach.” It’s a winning combination of talent and expertise. “You have a strong female lawyer, a woman with grant experience, and a woman with business consulting and strategy expertise,” says Lauren. “I think down the line, this will certainly shape up into a really powerful expression of all of our skills.”
“In the past, we all individually had our own volunteer work or causes that we gave money to,” Lauren says, “but the power of bringing three very different women with unique skills together to drive change multiplies the difference we can make. And working on the Foundation has been a really meaningful way for us to all be connected in a time where we’re not together physically.” And how does Sheila feel about helming the Lubetsky Family Foundation? “Working with two generations of women to help others in need reach their potential and making philanthropic decisions as a family is as good as it gets.”