Responding to Haitian Devastation, At Home

Monday, August 16, 2010

By James R. Knickman
President and Chief Executive Officer, New York State Health Foundation

The devastating earthquake in Port au Prince in January has lately fallen off many people’s radar, for lots of reasons: six months is a long time in today’s world; Haiti is a long way from New York; the oil spill in the Gulf Coast is closer to home and continues to capture our attention. But the earthquake affected—and continues to affect—hundreds of thousands of Haitians and their families directly, and prompted millions of people across the globe to ask, “What can I do to help?”

At the New York State Health Foundation (NYSHealth), staff members almost immediately asked me whether our organization could find a way to help that was consistent with our mission to improve the health of New Yorkers. Although we quickly established that our Foundation could not support on-the-ground efforts in Haiti, we could identify ways to help meet an enormous need here at home.

I encouraged the staff to explore possible projects that we could pursue to support Haitian communities in New York State, and they more than rose to the occasion. Many of our more junior staff took the lead in this effort and found it to be a rewarding professional development opportunity. They researched which communities across the State had large Haitian populations; talked with organizations that were already providing healthcare and social services to Haitian immigrants and their families; and recommended three projects for funding.

Our Board was supportive and fast-tracked approval to proceed with the grants to meet the needs of the Haitian communities in Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island, and Rockland County, which are among the fastest growing—but also the most underserved—in the Greater New York area. Collectively, they total more than 180,000 people and comprise one of the largest Haitian communities outside Haiti itself. Since the earthquake in January, these communities are in greater need than ever of health, legal, and education services.

NYSHealth is now supporting the efforts of the Long Island Community Foundation, the Brooklyn Community Foundation, and the Haitian American Cultural and Social Organization (HACSO) Community Center in Rockland County to provide needed healthcare and social services for those affected by the earthquake. In New York and on Long Island, our Foundation participates in a funding collaborative with other foundations and organizations committed to supporting local response efforts. In Rockland County, most of the local support was provided as in-kind services; our contribution there fills a more acute monetary need for direct services.

We feel proud of the work we’re supporting in this area, and we’ve learned a lot along the way. Here are the top three lessons I take away:

  1. Empower staff to run with smart ideas. It wasn’t community organizations knocking on our door that prompted NYSHealth to act, and it wasn’t my idea as CEO. This series of grants came about because a handful of program officers, associates, and assistants popped into my office and said, “We have to do something!” They were passionate about responding to the devastation in Haiti, and they took the initiative and did the legwork to make it happen.
  2. Stay true to the mission, but get creative. Our Foundation has a very clear mandate to focus on the people of New York, so at first blush it seemed as though we’d be hamstrung to invest in earthquake relief efforts. But we realized that hundreds of thousands of people living or arriving in New York were affected directly, and that there was a gap in needed health and social services that we could fill: access to mental health counseling; enrollment in public insurance programs; coordination with schools, churches, and health centers to connect residents to local healthcare services. We could invest in projects that are in perfect alignment with our mission and provide support to those who had lost loved ones in Haiti or still had family members there, and to those newly arrived in New York because they were displaced by the earthquake.
  3. Value experience and partnership. In the weeks and months following the earthquake, many organizations—some with little history of working with Haitian communities in New York—were ramping up to provide needed services. We ourselves had limited experience working with Haitian groups, so we sought grantees and partners who had already established networks and built up trust within the communities they served. They were able to assess quickly the most pressing needs in the wake of the disaster and mobilize to coordinate services efficiently and effectively. Both the collaboration and coordination among funders and community groups were key to ensuring streamlined and appropriate services.

These are not revolutionary ideas, but principles that all of us in philanthropy strive to adhere to in our everyday business. But they struck me in sharp relief as we at NYSHealth worked to approach a problem that was out of the ordinary, one with a global as well as a local impact. What lessons have others learned—or revisited—in their efforts to respond to extraordinary circumstances or events? How do you ensure that you are flexible and responsive while staying true to your mission?

An active philanthropy executive, scholar, and community leader, James R. Knickman is the first President and Chief Executive Officer of the New York State Health Foundation (NYSHealth), a private foundation dedicated to improving the health of all New Yorkers. Under Dr. Knickman’s leadership, NYSHealth has invested nearly $60 million since 2006 in initiatives to improve healthcare and the public health system in New York State. Today, the Foundation focuses its efforts in three priority areas: reducing the number of New Yorkers without health insurance coverage; improving prevention and management of diabetes; and integrating mental health and substance use services for people who cope with both issues at the same time. Prior to joining NYSHealth, Dr. Knickman was the Vice President of Research and Evaluation at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), where he led and oversaw research initiatives, external evaluations of RWJF’s national initiatives, and internal analyses related to its grantmaking priorities. Between 1976 and 1992, Dr. Knickman served on the faculty of New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, where he was active in community service directed at improving healthcare delivery to vulnerable populations. Earlier, he worked at the New York City Office of Management and Budget, and he has been a visiting professor at the University of Rochester, UC Berkeley, and Princeton University. He has also served on a wide range of advisory boards and published extensive research on issues related to improving services for homeless families, frail elders, and individuals with HIV. Dr. Knickman is also the co-author of a widely used textbook on health policy and management. He serves as a board member of the Robert Wood Johnson Health System in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and of the Center for Effective Philanthropy in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is a past Chair of the New Jersey Department of Health’s Cardiac Health Advisory Council, a past board member of AcademyHealth in Washington, DC, and a past board member of the New York Catholic Health Care System. Currently, Dr. Knickman is a member of the editorial boards of The Milbank Quarterly and Inquiry. Dr. Knickman received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology and Psychology from Fordham University and his Ph.D. in Public Policy Analysis from the University of Pennsylvania.

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