Lorie Slutsky, President, New York Community Trust: Maximizing America's Generosity in the Wake of September 11

September 4, 2002
Lorie Slutsky, President, New York Community Trust: Maximizing America's Generosity in the Wake of September 11

Within a few short, terrible hours on the morning of September 11, nearly three thousand people perished in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and Lower Manhattan was transformed into an all-too-real version of a sci-fi movie set.

Even as tens of thousands of dazed office workers, small business owners, and teachers and schoolchildren streamed out of the devastated area, the city's philanthropic leaders began to consider their response. By midafternoon, executives of the United Way of New York were in touch with Lorie A. Slutsky, president of the New York Community Trust, the country's largest community foundation, to discuss a joint response. The result of those discussions, the September 11th Fund, was announced later that afternoon and began to make emergency cash-assistance grants on September 17.

In July, Philanthropy News Digest sat down with Slutsky to discuss, among other things, the events of the eleventh, the thinking behind the creation of the September 11th Fund, and the effectiveness of the philanthropic response to what some have called the worst day in the history of New York City.

Lorie A. Slutsky has been president of the New York Community Trust, the country's largest and one of its oldest community foundations, since 1990. In that role, she is responsible for managing the Trust's 1,600 charitable funds, with assets of nearly $2 billion, and oversees an operation that distributed $128 million in grants in 2001.

Slutsky began her career at the Trust in 1977, starting as a grantmaker with responsibility for education, housing, government and urban affairs, and neighborhood revitalization. She was appointed vice president for special projects in 1983 and, in that position, was responsible for new business development, financial operations, government relations, and supervising the Trust's four off-site divisions. Slutsky was named executive vice president of the Trust in 1987, when she assumed responsibility for strategic planning, personnel and budget management, and oversight of all departments.

Slutsky received her B.A. from Colgate University, where she served for nine years as a trustee and chairmen of the budget committee, and her MA from New School University, where she now serves as a trustee. She is a former board chair of the Council on Foundations, vice chair of the Foundation Center, and board member of Women & Philanthropy, and currently serves on the boards of the United Way of New York City and Board Source (formerly the National Center for Nonprofit Boards). In addition, she has served on the boards of Hispanics in Philanthropy, the Nonprofit Finance Fund, the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York, the DeWitt Wallace Fund for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and the Lila Acheson Wallace Fund for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Philanthropy News Digest: Tell us about the New York Community Trust — when was it created, in what areas does it have formal grantmaking programs, what are the size of those programs?

Lorie Slutsky: The New York Community Trust was created in 1923 as one of the earlier community foundations founded in a traditional trust form. Today it has a formal grantmaking program, in effect, in all areas that affect the quality of life in New York City, including the arts, education, housing, community development, the environment, health, people with special needs, and so on. We give about $125 million annually, and approximately $40 million of that is discretionary. The balance is spread among funds with living donor advisers, designated funds, and some scholarship funds.

PND: Ten months have passed since the events of September 11. Most people, especially here in New York, have vivid memories of that day. Where were you on the morning of the eleventh?

LS: Sitting at my desk. It was a little before nine — I usually get in early — and I had been working at my desk for some time. Then the phone rang, and it was my brother, who lives and works in New Jersey, calling from his car phone. He was in New Jersey, driving to work, and he said, "Wow. Something's happening at the World Trade Center." And I said, "What's going on?" And he said, "There's smoke coming out of the World Trade Center, that's all I can tell you." So I said, "Well, let me see what I can find out," and hung up.

My office windows face north, away from the World Trade Center, so I walked to the conference room on the other side of the floor, and sure enough I could see a huge plume of smoke over Lower Manhattan. We don't have a direct view of the towers, but I could see black smoke boiling up from that area. By then, other staff members had gathered in the conference room, and we turned on the TV and just sort of listened in silence as reporters speculated about it being a plane crash, a commuter plane or something. And then, as we were all standing there, we could see the second plane come into view; we could see it. We never saw it hit the south tower, because our view was obstructed as the plane made its final turn. But then we saw this second huge plume of smoke billow up. And it was just devastating. Physically, you couldn't... I'm sure it wasn't like being down there and watching the buildings burn, but it just created this eerie feeling, like we were watching a Bruce Willis movie and waiting for the commercial break.

PND: And you knew the moment the second plane hit that it was terrorism?

"...And then as the second plane came into view, there was this terrible feeling in the pit of your stomach, because you just knew. You knew it wasn't going to be an accident the second time...."

LS: Yeah. I'm trying to piece together the sequence of events. Before the second plane hit, if my chronology is right, the media had identified the first plane as a commercial jetliner. So we were standing there trying to figure out how a pilot could make such a dreadful mistake. And then as the second plane came into view, there was this terrible feeling in the pit of your stomach, because you just knew. You knew it wasn't going to be an accident the second time, and that it had to be some sort of terrible terrorist act. You just knew. And then, of course, we watched as the networks kept running the video of the planes hitting the towers, first one and then the other.

We have a number of staff members here who have loved ones that work downtown, so we probably went through what every other workplace in the country, and certainly every workplace in New York, went through, which was to do a complete accounting of staff and their friends and loved ones. As I said, we have three staff members who had family downtown that morning — one whose brother worked in the World Trade Center, one whose husband worked across the street from the World Trade Center, and one whose significant other was over at one of the stock exchanges — and so we sat there anxiously, waiting for some word. Then I suspect we did what every other person in America did: We decided we needed to do something. Half my staff ran out to donate blood, while the rest were on the phone calling people to make sure everybody was okay. And by about twelve-thirty or so we had accounted for all the family members of staff who had been downtown. Fortunately for us, they were all okay.

After that, the problem became what to do next. For a while I didn't know what to do. Do you let staff go home? Do you keep them here? I was listening to the TV off and on, and it was clear that it was pretty chaotic outside. I mean, I went out at one point and I could see this stream of dust-covered people moving up Park Avenue, so I didn't want people running around the streets. Eventually, I found a deli that was still open and had them deliver sandwiches, and I put the staff in the conference room and kept them there. And then as we got confirmation that various transit systems had reopened, we let people go home.

PND: I've heard from other people that, while you were dealing with the needs and safety of your staff, you had also begun to mobilize the resources of the Trust to respond to the disaster.

LS: No, not true. I can tell you honestly, I did not think about the New York Community Trust's response for several hours. My focus initially was on accounting for everybody, accounting for everyone's family members, and getting my staff home safely or helping them to make alternate arrangements if they couldn't get home.

Eventually, after it was clear that people would be able to get home, I did come back to my office and began to ask myself, "What can we possibly do? What can I do as an individual?" All the staff members who had gone to donate blood came back frustrated because they had been turned away. On top of that, the phones weren't working particularly well, so it wasn't easy to communicate with people outside the building. But I would say that by about two-thirty or so, the thought had occurred to me that Americans typically give in circumstances like these, and that they would want to give in this circumstance. And that was something we knew how to do, it was a way we could help. So I went to talk to my general counsel, who said, "You know, by tomorrow morning we'll have dozens of phone calls from people asking where they can give. In other disasters, community foundations have stepped in, and in some disasters, United Ways have stepped in."

Now, I'm on the board of the United Way of New York City, and they happen to be in this building, so I said, "Gee, I ought to find out what they're thinking about." So I called Ralph [Dickerson, president and chief professional officer, United Way of New York City], and he said, "It's interesting you called. We're talking about what we should do. I'm about to sit down with my senior staff; why don't you come down?" So I went down to the lobby and went back up to the second floor — you have to change elevators to get to their offices — and then went back up to the second floor. And I would say that, by the end of the meeting, we had decided that, one, it would be better to work together; and two, that we were the two largest charities funding services in New York City, with different areas of expertise and different donor bases — they're really corporate and individual workplace givers, and we're really sort of organized philanthropy, foundations, and wealthy individuals; they have a better platform for small transactional gifts, which is not something we do well, and we have a bigger, richer, deeper grant staff — and that all suggested that there might be real synergies in a partnership.

So we agreed to establish a joint fund named the September 11th Fund, and then we headed back to our respective offices to write a press release, which I think we put out later that afternoon or first thing the next morning. Then I spoke to Dot Ridings [president of the Council on Foundations], I spoke to Susan Berresford [president of the Ford Foundation], I spoke to a couple of other key people whom I could reach — it wasn't easy to reach people that afternoon.

Then the next day we began to hammer out the details of the September 11th Fund, looking first at the differential costs of the New York Community Trust versus the United Way. Because people are sensitive to administrative costs in these kinds of situations, and because the costs are different with respect to our two organizations, you end up having to explain the differences. So we finally agreed to simply waive all administrative fees for both the Trust and the United Way. Then we hammered out a broader statement of purpose and agreed that the Fund should have an independent board responsible for making the distribution decisions and a modest-sized staff, which would allow it to really focus on the task at hand. All along, our goal was to harness the expertise of the two parent organizations and to avoid creating a cumbersome new structure that would be slow to get up and running.

PND: From the beginning, the mandate of the September 11th Fund was left deliberately broad and flexible. Why?

LS: Two reasons. You have to understand that I had talked to a number of colleagues over the years, in Columbine, in Florida, in Oklahoma City, and every one of them had told me that no one could possibly imagine all the needs created by a disaster or tragedy the day after the disaster. What seems critical on day one may not be critical on day twenty-five. That's the first reason.

The second just comes out of my experience. I've been in the community foundation business for over twenty years. We have more than sixteen hundred funds at the New York Community Trust, and I have never had trouble administering a broad one. A broad mandate gives you the flexibility to narrow your focus to the degree necessary to accomplish your goals. But a narrow mandate cannot be broadened.

"...I believe...we were very clear with our donors, both institutional and individual, and we were very clear about our role...."

PND: Was it the right decision in hindsight?

LS: Absolutely. I believe it was the decision that created the most consternation for the media, but we were very clear with our donors, both institutional and individual, and we were very clear about our role. And that was to find a way to maximize Americans' generosity to help rebuild the lives and the city that were devastated by the attacks.

PND: Were you or your staff directly involved in assessing the needs of the victims in the weeks after the attacks?

LS: Yes, we had both our staff and the staff of the United Way working almost around the clock, seven days a week, doing emergency assessments. Over the course of, I would say, the first week, we met with close to three hundred agencies. And we reached out; we built on the networks that we use every day to do our work, we built on our relationships with other funders, we built on our relationships with government agencies, and we built on our relationships with grantees to figure out who had the capacity to do what and which things needed to be addressed first. Then we developed a needs assessment document that was quite long and detailed, and during that process it became apparent that one of the first things we'd have to do is find a way to distribute emergency cash assistance.

So we began a search for an agency, or several agencies, that had the capacity and procedures in place to qualify people very quickly, and we made our first grants on September 17. The needs document was finalized on September 21, and in it we tried to codify all the various needs, as well as the agencies that might be able to help us meet those needs. And the end result of that effort was a set of emergency grant guidelines that we posted to the September 11th Fund Web site, which itself was up within days of the attacks, and then distributed broadly so that everybody knew what we planned to do in the early stages of the relief and recovery effort.

Our goals in creating the needs document were to quickly mobilize the existing expertise of the two parent organizations and to get money moving as quickly as possible to meet critical emergency needs. And then to build a structure that would begin to look at the intermediate and longer-term needs, which is where we are today.

PND: Were there any surprises in the evolution of the needs landscape over time? Are you doing today what, back in September, you thought you'd be doing today?

LS: Yes. We were righter than I could have imagined. I knew that what we do here at the Trust, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, is assess needs and figure out how to craft grants to help meet those needs. That's what we do, and we do it in lots of different areas. So meeting new and emerging needs is a competency we actually possess. Having said that, I don't think we've ever had to operate at quite the pace, or with the kind of second-guessing and scrutiny, that we experienced in the months after September 11. That was certainly different. I had imagined there would be some of that; I did not imagine that there would be as much as there was.

I knew, too, that, yes, people would need cash to put food on the table, and keep a roof over their heads, and make sure their health insurance was paid up. But over time, I also knew we'd really have to look at the mental health and long-term life-rebuilding needs of the people affected by the attacks. We were on the phone with Nancy Anthony [executive director of the Oklahoma City Community Foundation] almost immediately, and she said two things to me: Remember to reserve money for longer-term needs, because there will be many more long-term needs than anybody can imagine; and make sure you set up the fund in a way that people don't think it's a cash-entitlement program, unless that's what you intend to do.

PND: You mentioned that, from the beginning, you expected people to respond to the events of September 11 by giving generously of their time and money. Was there ever a point at which you were surprised by the scale of that giving?

"...I am almost never surprised at the depth of Americans' generosity. It's an extraordinary thing, and I see it repeated daily in my work...."

LS: Having been in the charity business for a long time, I am almost never surprised at the depth of Americans' generosity. It's an extraordinary thing, and I see it repeated daily in my work. But you especially see it in response to disasters, and this disaster affected the nation in a way that few others have. So I knew there would be an incredibly generous response from Americans.

That said, the swiftness with which the money was collected did surprise me. And ultimately, I guess I was surprised by the sheer number of people who gave. I mean, the September 11th Fund attracted contributions from more than two million individuals and hundreds of institutional donors, hundreds of corporate donors, as well as foreign corporations and charities. But if you had asked, "How much money do you think you're going to raise?" — I would not have said $500 million.

PND: As the total passed $300 million, and then $400 million, did you become concerned that the Fund and the agencies with which it was working might not be able to handle all that money, especially given the expectations of donors and the media?

LS: It's an interesting question, although I think you're sort of asking two different questions, at least in my mind.

The answer to the first is, no, I was not concerned. We handle lots of gifts here at the Trust, and they handle lots of gifts at the United Way, and although 9/11 was on a scale above and beyond what we had ever done, we had the right procedures in place from the beginning. Once we got the Web site up and the online donation mechanism set up, we were able to accommodate, with the help and generosity of banks like Citibank and J.P. Morgan Chase, lots of transactions.

Now, did I worry that we would be able to do that in accordance with the expectations of the media or whomever —

PND: — the general public.

LS: Well, I'll debate the general-public issue with you. But certainly, as far as the media goes...

When we created a fund with the purpose of meeting immediate and longer-term needs of victims, their families, and communities that were affected, we clearly created an expectation that there would be a sequencing and pacing of the distribution of those funds. At the same time, we had people walking away from the Family Assistance Center at Pier 94 [on Manhattan's West Side] with checks from Safe Horizon within five days of September 11. We were the only organization that had people leaving the Family Assistance Center with checks. In fact, Safe Horizon was writing checks on our okay that we'd get them the money, and I'd say they wrote close to forty thousand checks over the several weeks after September 11. We also made a series of grants to agencies to help mobilize mental health counseling and health care for people who needed it, to provide meals and equipment for recovery workers, and so on.

But if your other goal is to begin to look at the implications of 9/11 — I mean, most people forget that there wasn't a reasonably final list of the people who had died in this tragedy until December. It was a moving target, and our goal was to both address the immediate needs that presented themselves in as efficient and humane a way as we knew how, and then begin to codify what were going to become intermediate and longer-term needs and design programs that could meet those needs. It was never my expectation that we would spend $500 million in three days. And I wasn't disappointed when we didn't.

I must say I was surprised, however, at the apparent confusion between a concept that I'll call victim compensation and the goals of charity. They're different things. Victim compensation is about monetizing the value of a lost breadwinner and making sure that a family is provided for, while charity seeks to find ways to provide emergency relief and services that help people begin to move beyond a very painful or traumatic event in their lives to a point where they can start to rebuild their lives. And that takes time. Remember, there are people who need help who haven't even come forward yet.

PND: I'd like to stay on the topic of the media for a minute. We both agree that the media played a couple of different but important roles in the wake of the attacks. For example, they turned what was, initially, an intensely local event into a global event.

LS: They did.

PND: And, as you suggested, they also created a set of expectations as to the nature and pacing of the recovery efforts. Can you think of other ways in which the media influenced the philanthropic response to 9/11?

LS: Well, I think the media played an unbelievable role in mobilizing the world to contribute. If you think back to those early days, every network and cable news outlet ran crawls telling Americans how they could help, where they could donate blood and supplies, where they could give money — it was an extraordinary, extraordinary service, and it really focused the world's attention on the unprecedented nature of this tragedy and helped people find a way to feel it, to understand it, and to be a part of it.

Now, from a media perspective, there are always factors, tangible and intangible, involved in choosing stories to report. And if you look at 9/11 from the intensely individual human-interest angle that the media tends to focus on, then there's this issue of whether the money got to the people it was intended for. But, you know, philanthropy is not something the media spends a lot of time covering. For example, we had reporters working on front-page stories with incredible deadlines who really didn't understand the industry they were covering. So we would get questions like, "You gave your money to Safe Horizon — why aren't you helping victims?" Well, that's what Safe Horizon was doing on our behalf — they were writing the checks. It just sort of made it hard to explain the story to people who didn't have a lot of time to learn it.

"...I just think the media...in their desire to do their job, pushed a bit too hard to make sure the money was spent quickly rather than appropriately...."

Now I do think we all feel a certain amount of impatience when we see our fellow Americans in pain, or when our basic security is threatened in a way that most people of my generation, at least, have not experienced. And our immediate reaction is to want to help. In that context, immediate cash assistance for victims is critical, because you're talking about people whose lives have been totally disrupted. But in the charity business, you understand that rebuilding lives and rebuilding communities requires more than cash. Sometimes it requires building consensus and forging a common view of where you're going and what the issues are. Those things take time. Some of the best solutions and remedies simply aren't apparent in week one, or week two, or week three. And I just think the media, as well as many of the government regulatory agencies, in their desire to do their job, pushed a bit too hard to make sure the money was spent quickly rather than appropriately.

PND: That said, did any good come out of the criticism from certain segments of the media? In other words, did media criticism improve the distribution process?

LS: I can't speak to what it did for other organizations. It didn't change our effort, and I don't think the criticism was accurate, so I don't think it was particularly helpful.

PND: Let's talk about coordination. In October, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer called for the creation of a centralized database to help coordinate the relief efforts of various agencies. What was your reaction to Spitzer's proposal?

LS: I thought it was helpful. When it comes to 9/11, the word "unprecedented" has real meaning, and in my mind it meant, among other things, that we could not have been prepared for what we could never have imagined. But I also think there was much more coordination among the charities providing services in the days after September 11 than most people realize. I say that because many of those agencies met here daily, and then weekly, to review who was going into whose system and how they were going to try and coordinate. Lots of goodwill and hard work went into making the process as good as we could make it in the short time frame in which we had to operate.

Having said that, let me add that the problem with coordinating and sanitizing data is that it's antithetical to speed. And speed, for many, was the critical issue. But I think the attorney general had a legitimate concern during that period, in that it was going to be harder for those who qualified for and needed assistance to get assistance unless we created a more centralized database. And the attorney general pushed constructively to get that done, and it's being done, and it will help those who continue to need help to get help.

PND: And that coordination is now being handled by something called the 9-11 United Services Group?

LS: Yes, correct.

PND: Is the New York Community Trust or the September 11th Fund working directly with the United Services Group?

LS: I think we're their largest funder. We work very closely with them through the September 11th Fund staff itself.

PND: And are those efforts limited to the sharing of data?

LS: Josh Gotbaum [president and CEO of the September 11th Fund] could certainly give you the details, but I'm under the impression that they've designed a central intake form that allows the various agencies to share data and avoid duplication and abuse. It also provides a measure of portability and seamlessness to clients who, for whatever reason, require services from multiple agencies.

PND: A number of people have suggested that, in creating the United Services Group, the philanthropic community in New York has, in effect, created a unified service-delivery infrastructure that can be used in the event of future disasters here. Do you see it filling that role?

LS: I don't know whether the United Services Group will continue forever, but I do think that the system probably needs to be preserved, along with the lessons we've learned about how to mobilize quickly in the face of a disaster. Now in this disaster, the size of the victim population, which includes not only the direct victims — those who were seriously injured or who had family members who died — but displaced workers and residents, numbers forty or fifty thousand. And no matter how well you communicate, no matter how clearly you think you've communicated, with a disaster of that magnitude there are going to be people who don't hear or don't understand your message. So I think there's much we can learn about how you have to keep educating and reaching out to people — not just for reasons of accountability, but so that those who need help can get it.

PND: As the head of the largest private funder focused exclusively on New York City, to what degree, in your view, are the city's current economic difficulties attributable to 9/11?

LS: This isn't my area of expertise, but my own personal view is that the New York City economy had significant challenges confronting it before 9/11. Certainly, 9/11 didn't help, but I've looked at data that suggests that there are cities more heavily dependent on tourism that are suffering higher unemployment rates than New York post-9/11. My guess is that the data eventually will show us which economic problems predated 9/11 and which ones were exacerbated by the attacks, but I'm not sufficiently well-versed in the data to give you an educated opinion about that.

PND: Did 9/11 create needs that have yet to be addressed?

LS: Oh, yeah. And I think that's what we're doing. We believe, for example, that there's an enormous demand for job training and re-training. We now know, based on surveys of our database and USG database, that a significantly large proportion of people who were rendered unemployed on September 11 remain unemployed or underemployed. We know there are many people who have gone back to work, particularly in Chinatown garment factories, who today are earning less than seventy percent of what they were earning before September 11, mainly because of reduced hours. We know there's an enormous demand for mental health services of the kind that have been provided by Project Liberty and a few others on an emergency basis. We also know that post-traumatic stress frequently emerges well after the fact, and that people will continue to need mental health services for years to come. We know that schoolchildren need to get back to being kids. We know they need to have some sort of order restored to their lives, to be reassured that school is school, that it's a place to learn and have fun, not a place to be terrorized. We see enormous needs there. And we know that we have to spend more time and energy and money on helping people get help. It's not enough to simply say, "I'm going to pay for this, here it is." You've got to get to the hard-to-reach populations, and you've got to make people understand that if they need help, it's available and here's how to get it.

PND: What, if anything, does 9/11 portend for the future of New York City? Does it signal, as some have suggested, the beginning of a long slide for New York as the dominant world financial and cultural capital?

"...The kind of response that New Yorkers mustered in the face of this tragedy, their ability to plow ahead in the face of adversity, is what gives me hope for the future...."

LS: I believe that this city is more resilient than almost any other I have ever studied. And the kind of response that New Yorkers mustered in the face of this tragedy, their ability to plow ahead in the face of adversity, is what gives me great hope for the future. Will there be bumps in the road? Certainly. Would there have been bumps in the road anyway? I believe there would have. This is a magnificent city, but it's not without problems, some of them serious and, at times, seemingly intractable. But many of us have devoted our lives to addressing them, and I don't think anyone's ready to throw in the towel because of 9/11.

PND: A final question: What are the three most important lessons philanthropy learned as a result of 9/11?

LS: Well, as someone who works in philanthropy, I'll tell you the lessons I learned. The first is the importance of having a charitable sector that knows the neighborhoods, knows the various populations and how to reach them, and knows how to work with foundations and government agencies to address the needs of those neighborhoods and populations. That kind of knowledge, that layer of expertise, is critical to any effective philanthropic response. And I am more convinced than ever that we have to work harder to maintain and strengthen those relationships for the future.

The second lesson has to do with understanding the value you think you're contributing to an endeavor, whatever it might be, and then make sure you stick to your guns, even in the face of criticism and frustration on the part of others. Given the loss and devastation of so many lives in this tragedy, anger and pain were an inevitable part of the process. But we remain convinced that the value we had to contribute was to help Americans find a sensible place for their generosity, and then to translate that generosity into a thoughtful program that provided immediate assistance to the victims and then thoughtfully worked its way through how to coordinate with other agencies to ensure that as many people who needed help were helped.

And the third lesson, for me, involves the confounding question of how we help people understand the difference between victim compensation and charity. Again, I believe they are fundamentally different, and some of the criticism and perhaps some of the frustration, though clearly felt, was misplaced because of a tendency to confuse the two. That's not to suggest that the people who lost loved ones in this tragedy did not deserve to be compensated under the rubric of victim compensation. It's not what charity does, however. Charity tries to help those who most need help but can't get it other places and, through a combination of emergency cash assistance, financial counseling, and other services, helps those people move from being victims to rebuilding their lives.

PND: And on that note, we'll have to leave it. Thank you, Lorie, for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with us this morning.

LS: Sure. Thank you.

Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, interviewed Lorie Slutsky in early July. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at mfn@fdncenter.org.