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Having It All, At Least When it Comes to Charity

When it comes to giving away money, there’s no shortage of opinion on the best way to do it. Starting with John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, most philanthropists set up their foundations to last in perpetuity. But recently, there’s been a growing chorus of the super wealthy to spend it all during their lifetimes. Charles Feeney, founder of Atlantic Philanthropies, a foundation that will close in 2020, is even exhorting signers of the Buffett/Gates Giving Pledge to reconsider leaving money in their wills, and instead, give it away today.

So, give while you live or give for the future?

Were it not for the passion on this subject, the answer would be easy: do both. At The Trust, we do. We believe that we need to deal with problems today and have an obligation to our children and grandchildren to leave resources so that, particularly in times of crisis, they have the means to respond. Giving today gives us and our donors joy and satisfaction—and makes the world a better place. The gifts of yesterday’s donors make the lives of the New Yorkers in the following stories far more hopeful than they might have been. As Robert Frank of the Wall Street Journal wrote after the financial meltdown, “Now, with the living running out of cash, it is the nonliving who are back in the lead as donors.” It is with gratitude that we acknowledge our donors, who have remained steadfast.

Mr. Rockefeller lends a hand to Ms. Sosa of East New York—85 years later.

In 1924, The Trust had just incorporated and, as with all start ups, we needed money. So Ralph Hayes, our first director, approached the richest New Yorker he knew, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. A year later, Rockefeller wrote to Hayes: “I note with much interest the development of The Trust and congratulate you on what has been accomplished.” But he was concerned about the “very specific and limited purposes” of many of the funds. He continued:
“As our experience in giving grows, we find ourselves more loath to impose conditions which continue for an unlimited period of years, and are increasingly leaving broad discretion to the successor of present trustees.”

When Rockefeller endowed a fund in The Trust in his mother’s memory with $2.5 million, he took his own advice. Eager to support causes that his mother cared about, he asked us to find organizations that provide aid and services to poor people. In 2010, we used money from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial to support the Council of Senior Centers and Services of NYC. Its Bill Payer Program, in conjunction with the AARP Foundation, helps low-income older adults and people with disabilities manage their finances. Amanda Leis, the dynamic manager of the program, tells this story:

“When Legal Aid called us, they had already helped Cecily Sosa stave off two eviction attempts. A 74-year-old diabetic originally from Trinidad, Ms. Sosa was doing fine until her life savings and home were sacrificed to care for her husband, who died from Alzheimer’s disease. She lives in a tiny apartment jam-packed with furniture and mementos. She can barely afford the $850 rent on her monthly income of $1,295. Before joining the Bill Payer Program, Ms. Sosa would pay her rent in two monthly installments, when unforeseen expenses didn’t result in her not paying at all.”

Earline Williams is a 77-year-old retired bookkeeper and volunteer with the program. “I don’t like to sit,” she says. Over the last year, she helped Ms. Sosa reduce expenses so she could pay her rent in full at the beginning of the month. Still, she struggled to maintain her utilities. Ms. Williams provided Ms. Sosa’s Legal Aid social worker, Mary Donohue, with crucial budget information that enabled Ms. Sosa to receive a monthly grant of $300 from a charitable foundation. With help from the Bill Payer Program, Mrs. Sosa has finally settled her housing court case and can pay her utilities. And, for the first time, her bank account is showing a surplus.

A ferry ride inspires new perspectives, courtesy of the Reader’s Digest founders.

From an office under a Greenwich Village speakeasy with money borrowed from relatives, DeWitt and Lila Acheson Wallace put out the first issue of the Reader’s Digest. In late 1921, they mailed a letter soliciting subscriptions and went on their honeymoon. When they returned, they had 1,500 subscribers.

When the Wallaces gave up active management of their publishing empire in 1973, the Digest had a worldwide circulation of 30 million and was one of the world’s largest publishers of books and recorded music. They lived quietly—and philanthropically. In addition to their private foundations, they set up dozens of funds in The Trust. Many benefited a particular nonprofit and most had predetermined end dates, but several were for broader purposes and advised by the Wallace Foundation. For many years, Trust staff made grant recommendations to the Wallace Foundation for approval.
But in 2008, the Foundation asked us to consolidate several of the permanent funds into two: the Dewitt Wallace Fund for Youth and the Lila Acheson Wallace Fund for the Arts. The Foundation also gave The Trust full discretion over the money. Last year, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) used a grant from the Fund for the Arts to take a bite out of a constant problem for artists in an expensive city: finding affordable space in which to work and perform.

“As soon as I stepped on the ferry, I felt a sense of tranquility,” says Jessica Lagunas, an artist from Guatemala. She is talking about her commute to Governors Island, courtesy of LMCC’s Swing Space Program, which finds vacant office buildings and other venues for artists. Spaces include a 14,000 sq. ft. multi-use art center in a historic building on the Island.

Lagunas explores women’s condition in contemporary society. She got the spark for her project from the military history of Governors Island and the view of the water from her studio. Working with blue camouflage, she cut out pieces as in a jigsaw puzzle, stamped her name and LMCC on the back, and reassembled it by pinning it to a wall.

Visitors were encouraged to unpin and take a piece as a souvenir, causing it to gradually disappear.

The water and the Island also influenced J Carpenter, another artist who was given workspace. She loved the silence during the week, but was inspired by New Yorkers—particularly the kids—who took the ferry on weekends. “People come to have fun, and watching them brought a new playfulness and whimsy to my work.” Carpenter is interested in the idea of protection, and often works in lace she makes and twists to form houses. One of her pieces is a hollow wax sculpture in the shape of a balloon with windows. “A little girl, about five, circled the sculpture, stopped, went up to one of the windows, and yelled ‘IS THERE ANYBODY IN THERE?’ She got it.”

From Park Avenue to the Rockaways: A soap executive takes the A train.

It influenced decades of urban architecture: the blue-green glass building on the corner of Park Avenue and 53rd Street. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designed Lever House, completed in 1952; its construction was the responsibility of William H. Burkhart, then vice president in charge of production, research, and development for Lever Brothers, the global soap company. Burkhart, a chemical engineer with a degree from the University of Pennsylvania, started out in a laboratory at Proctor & Gamble. In 1955, he was elected president of Lever Bros., where he developed new products at an unprecedented rate. In 1960, Burkhart opened a modest donor-advised fund in The Trust. He died four years later, having set up a permanent fund through his will for unrestricted purposes. A grant in 2010 from that fund supports the Ocean Bay Community Development Corporation.

Pat Simon, the executive director of this community hub a block from the beach, is not a woman to be trifled with. “I believe in giving people opportunities. Everybody deserves a chance—and the resources—to succeed. They can take it or not.” Working in Averne, a forgotten community in the isolated Rockaways, Simon knows how hard it is to get a job in a tough economy, especially if you haven’t graduated from high school or have no job skills. So Ocean Bay runs an employment program that teaches interview, basic computer, and general office skills, and helps with résumés and job applications. It’s one of several Ocean Bay programs that operate out of community centers in nearby housing projects and share a common goal: to strengthen a poor community that is beginning to see new middle class homes, and develop shared values for all its residents.

“Why should you look directly into the eyes of a person interviewing you?” asks James Morris, an instructor in the jobs program. Hands shoot up quickly. “To show confidence,” answers one. “To show you’re really interested,” says another. Mr. Morris smiles. Some of the participants are there because they’ve been mandated by the courts, but it’s impossible to tell the difference between them and the young adults who’ve come on their own. They’re all enthusiastic.

Simon, who’s been a community organizer all her life, looks at it all with a practiced eye. “This community has all the usual problems: high poverty and crime rates, limited job opportunities, bad schools, etc. But I can see change happening. It may be small, but it’s there.”

Mr. Rockefeller, the Wallaces, and Mr. Burkhart tested The Trust during their lifetimes and trusted us to carry out their legacies. We like to think that they would be more than pleased with the work we support through their generosity. We know that our extraordinary grantees are. And more important, we know that they are helping New Yorkers improve their lives and those of the generation afer that . . . and the generation after that.

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The New York Community Trust is a 501(c)3 public charity.