Research Studies: A Convener’s Best Friend

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Research Studies: A Convener’s Best Friend
By: Nancy Rauch Douzinas, President, Rauch Foundation.

How a research project transformed a region - and the foundation that sponsored it. The Rauch Foundation presents Part 2 of their 3-part Insights series. Read Part 1: Could the Rauch Foundation Change Long Island? Only by Changing Itself.

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 ease highway congestion, but all previous efforts had been stymied by vocal, organized opposition in communities near the tracks.

We often hear that foundations make natural conveners, and it’s true that the image of philanthropists as independent actors, committed to the public good does position a foundation to bring the community together around a matter of importance. But between making common cause and making major change lies a long, uncertain road.

For the Rauch Foundation a sustained research project paved the way. Publishing a study is, of course, a widely used means of calling attention to an issue, but we discovered that, given time, it can do much, much more. In the course of a decade, the project we created transformed our organization and energized the Long Island region.

Our foundation took on a new role as convener in 2002. In the preceding years we had become frustrated, as good grants proved their worth, yet failed to scale. The problem was systemic to Long Island, an historically fractionated region that had sprawled its way to a behemoth of 2.8 million residents—and 655 government entities. The Island had neither a formal political organization nor an informal leadership structure capable of addressing regional needs. It was often said that Long Island “couldn’t get out of its own way.”

After studying the problem and visiting successful regions across the nation, the Foundation began an indicators project, which compiled for the first time data about the Long Island region, its economy, demographics, education, healthcare, etc. The Long Island Index revealed the Island’s strengths and weaknesses in comparison with other metro-area regions. This would, we hoped, raise awareness of the challenges we faced and promote cross-sector efforts to address them.

Importantly, the research we commissioned had to be of unimpeachable quality and without bias, in order to sustain and enhance the perception of the foundation as a trustworthy, honest broker. We were careful that our data and its presentation lived up to the Index’s motto, “Good information presented in a neutral manner can move policy.”

The indicators in our first report, released in 2004, served us well, for they included a finding that won instant attention. Long Islanders aged 18-34 were moving out of the region at a rate five times the national average. The risk was clear, since this was the population sector Long Island needed to jumpstart a new innovation economy. News of the “Brain Drain” became a top story in Long Island’s print and television media, and even in The New York Times, which usually covers the Island sparingly.

Having identified an issue of serious and shared concern, the Index set out to explore causes and possible remedies. Each year’s Index included in addition to the indicators, a Special Analysis focused on a specific topic. In the next years we followed up with studies of housing costs; land use; redevelopment of downtowns; efforts at “smart growth”; and the cultural factors that attract young people to certain regions. Reports included studies of initiatives in other regions and even a design contest for projects aimed at reclaiming underutilized downtown areas. And although indicator studies in other regions do not typically include polls, we thought they might be effective in demonstrating public support for reforms, and so we made a point of including them to measure Long Islanders’ receptiveness to various proposals. 

Later Special Analyses addressed issues ranging from educational equity to ways of incubating an innovation economy. Behind each of the studies was the overarching objective of fostering a regional perspective.

We knew from the start that the change we sought would take years to mature. We had determined to “follow the research,” that is, pursue issues where the case for change was solid and where polling showed a baseline of public support. So it was frustrating not to see more definite action around the issues the Index raised.

Yet other impacts were unmistakable. The Index itself and with it the Rauch Foundation grew exponentially in visibility and stature. The release of the annual studies became regional events, attracting top leaders from business, academia, government, and the non-profit community. Our research was picked up and re-circulated by universities, local governments, and news media. Officials at the Index and the Foundation were sought for commentary and participation in various forums. 

Our connections with effective and well-placed leaders expanded and strengthened, putting the Foundation in a position to spearhead cross-sector collaborative endeavors. One of them brought the Island’s top research institutions, including Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, together with the business community to create a venture marketplace for cutting edge science. Another led to the founding of a leadership academy at a major Long Island college, which brings cadres of some 50 leaders each year, from the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors, to network and strategize on regional issues.

Ten years on, a cooperative, connected community stood ready for action, and the Foundation stood ready to lead a new cause. Building a third Long Island Rail Road track through tight-knit, prosperous villages in Nassau County had been deemed a non-starter. Impossible. We talked it over—within the organization and with our allies—and declared, We can do this.

This is Part 2 of a 3 part Insights series by the Rauch Foundation. Part 3 will be published on June 18, 2020: How a foundation mobilized powerful players to overcome NIMBYists and entrenched political interests.

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.” 


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