Sara L. Engelhardt, longtime president of the Foundation Center, has died after a battle with a form of dementia. She was 73. She is survived by her two daughters and grandchildren.
Engelhardt retired from the Foundation Center in 2008. She had initially joined the Foundation Center in New York City as executive vice president in 1987 after three years on the center’s board of trustees. She elevated to the position of president in 1991, where she remained until her retirement.
Engelhardt was prominent in the nonprofit sector. She was featured in The NonProfit Times’ Power & Influence Top 50 list for 10 consecutive years, from 1998 through 2007.
Brad Smith, current president of the center, credited Engelhardt with transforming the Foundation Center from a publisher of directories into the digital resource it has become. Smith, in an email, stated that few in the sector have been able to accomplish more than Engelhardt, adding that she brought grace and good humor to her work while recruiting a talented staff to the center — empowering them to do their work.
“Legacy organizations are not start-ups and Sara knew exactly what do to do in her term as president of Foundation Center,” Smith wrote. “She steadily guided a venerable publisher of foundation directories into the digital age, recruited a talented team, and created a sound financial base for the future before passing the baton to me. She taught me that the job of those fortunate to lead Foundation Center is to build on the past while creating for the future.”
Mitch Nauffts, editorial director and publisher of Philanthropy News Digest – a Foundation Center service, described Engelhardt as a representative of a wave of first-generation, well-educated feminists that integrated into a good number of organizations, breaking glass ceilings along the way. She did her work with a smile and sense of ease, but behind that smile and elegance was a woman of fierce competitiveness, Nauffts said, adding that she was also an avid runner and skier.
“As I think about her, I think about that old Ginger Rogers saying — she did everything men did, only backwards and in heels,” said Nauffts.
Prior to her years at the Foundation Center, she spent 21 years at Carnegie Corporation of New York, working her way to corporate secretary and grants manager, according to Geri Mannion, program director, U.S. Democracy and Special Opportunities Fund. Mannion started at Carnegie the year after Engelhardt left, but knew her as a very good writer and analytical person. “She was somebody who made sure that the trains ran on time,” Mannion said. “She was a very astute person, an intelligent person.”
A graduate of Wellesley College, Engelhardt climbed up the ranks from administration to corporate secretary and grants management, Mannion said, and it was fitting that her next career move was to hop over to the Foundation Center — which had been created by funding from Carnegie and the Russell Sage Foundation — to bring transparency to the sector.
“She was pretty much, as [executive vice president] of the Foundation Center — and understanding technology in the new age, really helped bring the Foundation Center to where it is,” Mannion said. “She was one of the original kind of explorers of the new technologies and the internet that would allow a whole world to know the role philanthropy plays in the market and the sector. She was really kind of a pioneer.”
This story has been updated to correct a previous error in title attribution.