Could the Rauch Foundation Change Long Island? Only by Changing Itself.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Could the Rauch Foundation Change Long Island? Only by Changing Itself.
By: Nancy Rauch Douzinas, President, Rauch Foundation.

In 2016 the Rauch Foundation, a regional foundation on Long Island, NY, led a campaign to build an additional rail track on a critical segment of the Long Island Rail Road. The addition had long been sought as a means of reducing commuter delays, enabling reverse commuting to help staff Long Island businesses, and moving freight by rail to reduce highway congestion, but all previous efforts had been stymied by vocal, organized opposition in communities near the tracks. 

To move a $2.6 billion infrastructure project, in the face of strong opposition, takes a daunting amount of power. How is a regional foundation to tap so much force? For us it took time—almost two decades, starting with our decision to break from traditional funding and venture in a new direction.

The Rauch Foundation had been started in 1961 by the two sons, Philip, Jr., and Louis, of Philip Rauch, an inventor and entrepreneur who combined vision and pragmatism to design innovative products found to this day in planes, trains, and automobiles, ships, tanks, and household appliances. The brothers brought the same outlook to their philanthropy, seeking out practical ideas that could make a real difference. 

By the 1990’s the Foundation’s grantmaking was focused in the fields of early childhood and the environment. We were dissatisfied, however, as we watched excellent grants fail to thrive. Groups fought with one another, promised state funding disappeared, partners would unaccountably withdraw even from the most successful programs. 

The setbacks reflected a systemic problem: Long Island’s historically fractionated political structure. America’s first suburb had grown up piecemeal into a Byzantine behemoth: with 2.8 million people—and 655 separate units of government. Once an economic powerhouse, the region was stalled. To get started it needed to come together. Efforts had been made, leadership committees formed. But plans went nowhere, and the conclusion, shared by citizens and leaders alike, was: “Cooperation is not in Long Island’s DNA.”

If lack of cooperation was the region’s real problem, the Foundation reasoned, then that’s what we should be addressing. What regions have solved the problem? we asked, and how did they do it? We brought in a nationally recognized expert on regional development, Doug Henton. We took learning trips to talk with leaders in places such as Silicon Valley, Louisville, and Boston.

From the beginning we realized that coalition building must begin with us. Our Board was already blessed with leaders from divergent fields. We now set up an Advisory Committee that brought together a score of high-power leaders in business, education, labor, the non-profit sector, and the media. Participants in learning trips were similarly diverse: one early trip included the editorial page editor of Newsday, the head of the tri-state Regional Plan Association, and the then-CEO of United Way of Long Island, now Chairman of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. 

On these trips, as on the Advisory Board, bonds formed organically between individuals—often from different or even “opposing” fields. Over time, relationships strengthened and interconnected, forming a trusted posse that we turned to again and again. I cannot stress enough the value of such partners to a foundation, or a non-profit. Indeed the talents and connections of our allies supplied most of the power that made the railroad project a success.

Our study of regional change elsewhere ultimately led us to consider sponsoring an indicators project, which would compile data on the Long Island region, including its economy, demographics, education, healthcare, etc. By showing the Island’s strengths and weaknesses in comparison with other metro-area regions, we hoped to raise awareness of the challenges we faced, and promote cross-sector efforts to address them. 

Such an endeavor would be a major departure from the Foundation’s accustomed grantmaking role. The self-funded project would require major resources including new staff; we would need to master new specialized fields in addition to our accustomed ones; and the work would place us in a more expansive public role. Above all was the magnitude of the undertaking. The Foundation would be setting out to change the way an entire region thought about itself, and acted. If the effort failed, we would own the failure.

We carefully weighed the risks, but we never really hesitated. Who has ever made a real difference without taking a risk? And who better placed to take one than a foundation? The greater failure would be not to try.

It would be almost twenty years from that beginning to the dramatic success of the railway project. In that time our organization was transformed in terms of its capacity and influence. Long Island changed too, developing a cohesiveness that a generation before was not thought possible. 

This is Part 1 of a 3 part Insights series by the Rauch Foundation. Part 2 will be published on May 28, 2020: How a research project transformed a region—and the foundation that sponsored it.

Read “Breaking Through”—the inside story of how Long Island overcame NIMBYism and moved an infrastructure project long given up for dead. 
    Also hear the Nonprofit Leadership Podcast, “How a family foundation is helping to transform transportation in New York City.”