When Joseph P. Benincasa joined the staff of The Actors Fund 25 years ago, the venerable human services organization was mired in debt, its survival in doubt. Today, the Fund offers emergency financial assistance and help with housing, health care and employment to more than 17,000 entertainment professionals a year. For his lifetime commitment to charitable causes, Benincasa—now President and CEO of the Actors Fund—will receive one of three 2014 Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre.
“The Tony is the highest award in live theatre, and I was thrilled and surprised to be recognized,” says Benincasa, taking time for an interview in his office just north of Times Square amid the pinging of incoming e-mails and texts. “It was like an out-of-body experience.”
A native of New Brunswick, NJ, Benincasa vividly recalls the excitement of seeing his first Broadway show as an eighth grader in 1964 after winning a school award. The coveted prize? “Dinner at the Tower Suite and tickets to Fiddler on the Roof,” he says with a smile. “When the lights dimmed and the show started, I was overwhelmed.” Young Joe grew up near the campus of Rutgers University, where his father was president of the employees’ union. “My parents weren’t performers or producers, but they were ‘appreciators’ of the arts, as I am.”
After graduating from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and Rutgers grad school, Benincasa began his career as a congressional aide. He moved into the nonprofit world with positions at the United Way and New York Blood Center, then found the perfect fit for his skills and ambitions at The Actors Fund.
“I saw how nonprofits could help people by combining philanthropy with government support,” he explains. In the case of The Actors Fund, Benincasa heads a housing development corporation that builds and operates affordable, supportive and senior care residences on both coasts, as well as the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, NJ. “Twenty-five years ago, we were known for the retirement home and financial assistance, but the AIDS crisis inspired us to move into special needs housing.”
Under Benincasa’s leadership, The Actors Fund forged a partnership with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which donates more than $4 million a year to support the Fund’s programs including the HIV/AIDS Initiative, Al Hirschfeld Free Health Care Center, the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative and other health services. With help from government and foundation grants, “We built the best website for [guiding] the creative community in how to get affordable health insurance,” he says. “Fast forward 16 years, and we’re a navigator for the Affordable Care Act in New York State and California.”
Unlike charities that pack their boards with corporate bigwigs, The Actors Fund looks to the arts community for expertise in meeting its far-flung mission. The 50-member board of trustees includes actors, producers, theatre owners, real estate developers, heads of theatrical unions, as well as respected business leaders. “This is a complex, mission-driven organization,” Benincasa says with satisfaction.
A variety of events help the Fund meet its $30 million annual budget. Disney Theatrical Productions recently celebrated its 20th anniversary with a gala that raised $1.6 million, and special Actors Fund performances of Broadway shows are a highlight for all involved. “It’s the ninth performance of the week, usually on a Sunday night, and actors from other shows come out to support their colleagues,” Benincasa says. “The curtain speeches are so special—cast members talk about how they were helped by The Actors Fund at some point in their career.”
Although he deflects praise for his role in the growth of The Actors Fund, calling himself “the chief steward of the resources people are so generous to provide,” Benincasa is excited by a new Board-approved six-year strategic plan. He laughingly says that his wife, a retired teacher, approved of the ambitious plan. They are the parents of two grown sons.
In addition to his day job, Benincasa finds time to serve on the boards of BC/EFA, Career Transition For Dancers, Learning Ally, The Human Services Council, National Executive Service Corps, Times Square Alliance, Bio-Reference Laboratories and the Somerset Patriots minor league baseball team, as well continuing to support the New York Blood Center, which sparked his interest in the fight against HIV and AIDS back in the 1980s.
Reflecting on a quarter century at The Actors Fund, Benincasa says, “This is an easy job to love. I’m very proud of the organization, our board and all of our volunteer groups. And I love every aspect of the creative arts. I’m in awe of the courage it takes to go on stage—the dedication and collaboration from the front of the house to the back of the house. Everything about the theatre is miraculous to me.”Revised June 2, 2014