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    Updated June 2, 2014

Joseph Benincasa Honored for 25 Years at Helm of The Actors Fund Receives Fund’s Medal of Honor and Special Tony Award
By Helaine Feldman

“Exciting, humbling, exhilarating, unexpected”: These are the words used by Joseph Benincasa, President and CEO of The Actors Fund, when describing his feelings about receiving The Fund’s highest award, the Medal of Honor. He’s also receiving a special 2014 Tony — both recognizing his 25 years of service to the entertainment community. 

Actors Fund Chairman Brian Stokes Mitchell and Mary Poppins original cast members Ashley Brown and Gavin Lee present Joseph Benincasa with The Fund's Medal of Honor. 
Photo: Heidi Gutman

The Medal of Honor was presented at a special sold-out gala on April 28, 2014, which celebrated 20 years of Disney on Broadway and raised $1.6 million for The Fund, setting a single night fundraising record for the organization.

“I am humbled and deeply grateful for these honors, but really they belong to everyone at The Actors Fund,” Benincasa said. “This recognition is wonderful and my hope is that it will shine a bright light on the vital services this organization has designed for Equity members and people in our creative community across the country.”

For the St. Joseph’s University and Rutgers University alum (he also attended the Graduate Business School at Fordham University), working at The Actors Fund was really only the tip of the iceberg.

Aside from The Fund, Benincasa has served on the board of various organizations, including Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, Career Transition for Dancers, the Human Services Council and the Times Square Alliance, among others. He’s garnered countless honors, including the first-ever Made in New York Award, which was presented by former New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg. And, in 2011, Benincasa was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters by Centenary College. 

Benincasa joined The Actors Fund in 1989, continuing a career in public service and the nonprofit sector. Founded in 1882 (initially to raise money to cover funeral and burial expenses for indigent actors), The Fund now has a $31 million operating budget, a staff of 250 in offices across the nation and numerous initiatives.

During Benincasa’s tenure, the Fund has expanded its services and outreach to include, among other programs, affordable housing options, an HIV/AIDS initiative, a health insurance resource center, employment counseling, addiction and recovery support, The Dancers’ Resource program, online services. In 2013, the program assisted 17,000 people.

Almost $1 million is raised through special performances (approved in Equity’s Production Contract agreement), bequests, donations from individuals, businesses and foundations. Government programs provide almost $30 million. The largest single contributor, however, is Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

“We are joined at the hip with BC/EFA,” said Benincasa, noting that Equity Fights AIDS started as a committee at AEA before merging with Broadway Cares in 1992. BC/EFA has granted over $68.5 million to The Fund over its 26 year partnership — almost matching Benincasa’s career with The Fund — and $4.5 million last year alone.

The Schermerhorn in downtown Brooklyn is one of the three Actors Fund affordable and supportive residences for people in entertainment developed under Benincasa’s leadership over the past 25 years.
Photo: Joann Coates

Under Benincasa’s quarter-century of leadership, The Actors Fund has established and expanded its offerings of affordable and supportive housing residences beginning with The Dorothy Ross Friedman Residence (formerly The Aurora) in midtown Manhattan, which has 178 units of affordable housing for low income working professionals, seniors and persons with AIDS, and is home to The Fund’s Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic.

In addition, The Fund has 40 low-cost garden apartments for people living with AIDS at the Palm View residence in West Hollywood, California and The Schermerhorn in Brooklyn, New York, a 216-unit “green” facility for single adults.

Not content with all this, however, Benincasa continues to explore new affordable housing prospects.

Other initiatives, expanded under Benincasa’s watch, include The Funds’ Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative and The Actors Fund Work Program, which, incidentally, also began as an Equity committee and was then a separate organization before coming under The Fund’s umbrella in 1998.

Clearly, it may be said that if The Fund is joined at the hip with BC/EFA, it is joined at the heart with Equity.

A BC/EFA donation funded a room at The Dorothy Ross Friedman Residence dedicated to former Equity President Colleen Dewhurst, who was an ardent supporter of The Fund and chair of its Human Services Committee. Plus, Nick Wyman, AEA President, serves on The Fund’s board of trustees, while many other members are on the national board of advisors.

The Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey, a state-of-the-art assisted living and skilled nursing care facility, run by The Fund since its original incarnation in 1902 on Staten Island, has been rated by U.S. News & World Report among the best in the country. Of the 16,000 nursing homes in the U.S., only 3,036 received a five-star rating from the federal government in 2014 and The Lillian Booth Home is one of them. 

Speaking of ratings, The Fund has received a four-star rating from Charity Navigator, which evaluates the nation’s charities on the basis of its commitment and proper oversight of donor dollars, assuring that all of the money raised goes where it’s supposed to be allocated.

“I believe so deeply in this organization but I also believe, so deeply, in Joe,” said Actors Fund Chairman, Brian Stokes Mitchell. “He is an incredible leader because he leads with his heart. He inspires all of us to dream big and do all we can to keep The Fund growing and serving more people in need in our industry every year.”           

Recognizing the sporadic nature of employment and the need of performing artists to obtain and maintain health insurance, The Fund, in 1998, in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Arts, launched the Artists Health Insurance Resource Center. The AHIRC maintains a national web database, conducts seminars and offers individual counseling providing the performing arts community with up-to-date information on obtaining affordable health care and, on a state-to-state basis, collects information on self-pay insurance plans, government subsidized plans and specific organizations to contact for assistance.

The Fund also was instrumental, along with Equity and the other performing arts unions, in having the New York State Legislature pass the COBRA Continuation Assistance Program to pay half of COBRA premiums for eligible union members who have lost their health benefits. 

Benincasa is proud of maintaining The Fund’s long legacy as an important safety-net for the entertainment industry, of putting its financial house in order and of the participation and loyalty of the entertainment community. 

“The work of our Trustees and all our other leaders is inspiring, and our Chairman, Brian Stokes Mitchell, is far more than a figurehead, he is truly our inspiration. They are always there for us,” he said, adding that the entire community is supportive of The Fund’s work and goals.

Does he have any regrets over his 25 years with The Fund?  One, and it’s motivational: “We want to do more.”  

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