Foundations as First Responders?

Thursday, April 18, 2013
By Marilyn Gelber, President, Brooklyn Community Foundation
When I was in city government (a quite remarkable time in New York City extending from the 1970s to the late 1990s) and some disaster befell us — blackouts, hurricanes, massive water main breaks, civil disorders — you knew that you were expected to respond quickly and do whatever it took to help with the recovery.
I had already left city government and begun my work in philanthropy, starting the Independence Community Bank Foundation, when the stunning attack on the World Trade Center occurred on 9/11. Overwhelmed by shock and grief for my city, I felt I had no role in first response compared to my former colleagues in government who were immediately on the spot to help. I was running a foundation, not a city agency!
But that thought was quickly followed by another: I realized that what I now do is help people by raising money and providing support faster and more nimbly than government can often do. I began to think that an active and engaged foundation could also play a vital role by connecting resources to people and communities most affected by this type of unexpected event.
Our office was located in a storefront on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, along a shopping street dominated by Middle Eastern stores. Feelings were running very high, and we quickly established ourselves as a safe space where people could come together to give and grieve and plan for a better future.
We learned a lot. Our small staff was able to quickly and effectively raise money through the Bank’s branch network and get funds out the door for a range of immediate needs, including parochial school scholarships for children in Brooklyn and Queens who had lost parents and mental health counseling for mothers and fathers in New Jersey who had lost a loved one. Our resources were tiny compared to other larger funds created in response to the tragedy, yet we could connect to more local efforts because of the steady work we had put into developing relationships in communities where we made grants.
I learned the lesson first of the necessity of a quick response, and second of the benefits of being able to identify effective nonprofits rooted to their communities.
Those lessons hit home again after Superstorm Sandy.
In October 2012, Brooklyn Community Foundation marked its third anniversary of transitioning from the private Independence Community Bank Foundation, serving the metro area, into the first-ever community foundation for Brooklyn. In that short time, we were able to build upon and focus the partnerships we developed during the previous decade, and invite the general public to be a part of our work.
We had taken on the mantle of being the borough’s biggest benefactor and community-based nonprofit supporter; and so when Sandy hit Brooklyn, and the daylight revealed unprecedented damage, it was clear to us that the community foundation had enormous responsibility for what happened next.
The lessons of 9/11 kicked in. We knew we had to act fast and we knew we needed to tap our deep community connections for information and action.
We felt it important to respond in partnership with local government and the business community, and within a matter of days, we launched the Brooklyn Recovery Fund with the Office of the Brooklyn Borough President and the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. Every donation we received would stay in Brooklyn and be channeled through local nonprofits for relief, rebuilding and the long-term challenges of a full recovery.
We began to raise money from major Brooklyn business interests like the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center, and from other foundations and individuals with ties to the borough. Over $2 million poured in within the first month and a half, and we were able to disburse more than $600,000 to 40 local organizations within the first weeks.
We set up two types of grants: “Emergency Fast Track” grants averaging $10,000 for immediate needs, and “Community-wide Collaborative” grants of $100,000 to help establish and support the efforts of nonprofit coalitions working together across sectors to serve a neighborhood.
By February, we had awarded an additional $1,345,000 through a second round of grants for “Community Rebuilding,” to address the issue of mold and to expedite rebuilding and rehabilitation in five hard-hit communities: Red Hook, Canarsie, Coney Island, Gerritsen Beach, and Sheepshead Bay.
Over this time, another commonsense lesson began to emerge: communities where our foundation had invested in developing local nonprofit organizations to serve residents of public housing were able to respond more rapidly and comprehensively than communities in which we had not taken a more targeted place-based approach to grantmaking.
Also of interest were those self-sustaining civic organizations that had no history of foundation grants, but were tightly knit and highly organized and able to focus on assessing the needs of individual families and businesses in their community. These organizations initially made contact with the Brooklyn Recovery Fund through the Borough President’s Office, demonstrating the value in our partnership with government. Nonprofits may look to foundations for help, but civic associations look to elected officials.
And where do individual residents look? All of the above.
While Sandy has taught us all a great deal, for me there is no greater lesson than the need for community. The closer our ties, the more we know and understand our neighbors and spend time with them, the better we fare the storm.
Editor’s Note: On June 30, 2013, Marilyn Gelber will be leaving her position as President of the Brooklyn Community Foundation. All of us at Philanthropy New York congratulate her for her years of service to the philanthropic community and to the borough of Brooklyn.
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