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9/8/11 - Ten Years Later: A Q&A about 9/11 with Lorie Slutsky, Trust President

Originally posted on PhilanTopic, the blog of The Foundation Center, on 9/8/11


On September 11, 2001, Lorie Slutsky was president of the New York Community Trust -- a position she was appointed to in 1990 (and still holds). Early that afternoon, as Manhattan slowed to a standstill, Slutsky began to talk to executives of the United Way of New York City about a joint response. The result of those discussions, the September 11th Fund, was announced by the end of the day, and the fund began to make emergency cash-assistance grants a week later. Nine months later, PND sat down with Slutsky to discuss the events of September 11, the thinking behind the creation of the September 11th Fund, and the effectiveness of the philanthropic response to what many people at the time were calling the worst day in the history of New York City.

Lorie_slutsky Earlier this month, we reached out to Slutsky to ask whether she thought the city had recovered from 9/11, whether the September 11th Fund had achieved its purpose, and what she might have done differently as president of the Trust in the weeks and months after the attacks.

This is the second in a series of Q&As with executives and thought leaders in the field about the meaning and impact of 9/11.

Philanthropy News Digest: As the president of the largest private funder of nonprofits in New York City -- a position you've held since 1990 -- you’re uniquely qualified to comment on whether the city has fully recovered from the September 11 attacks. Has it?

Lorie Slutsky: Given the market collapse of 2008, a struggling economy, the job loss, and a jittery Wall Street, it's hard to evaluate the city's recovery. Certainly, downtown has come back, perhaps even stronger than it was before September 11. New Yorkers always adapt to change, and we were already a suspicious lot, aware of our surroundings. And as much of the country has descended into deadly partisan and ethnic battle, New Yorkers still manage to get along -- although I think many of us miss the added feeling of community that animated us after the tragedy.

PND: Did the September 11th Fund, which was set up by the Trust and United Way of New York City on the afternoon of the attacks, achieve its intended purpose? Looking back, is there anything you and your colleagues would have done differently with respect to the fund?

LS: The short answer is yes, we achieved our purpose. As experienced grantmakers who know the city, we knew that needs would emerge weeks, months, and years after the event. And as a community foundation, we knew that giving narrow definitions to both victims and geography would restrict our ability to respond to problems we didn't yet understand. We were able to ensure that a broad swath of people, institutions, and geography were included as "victims" and would be eligible for funding. That allowed the fund to support a review of the environmental impact of the collapse, which ultimately led it to fund health care for first responders, cleanup workers, and residents until government stepped in. It enabled the fund to bring relief to residents and businesses in Chinatown, which was part of the "frozen zone" yet not recognized as a "victim."

Although there isn't much I'd do differently, I wish I'd been more mindful of the difficulties of partnerships, something that foundations, including mine, sometimes push on their grantees while not doing much of it ourselves. Here we were dealing with two old institutions, each with its own culture, structure, fees, expectations, and personalities. But because we didn't want to create another nonprofit, which might have been hard to close when its work was done, and we sought to reduce confusion for the millions of people who wanted to donate, I'd do it again.

PND: Not a philanthropy question per se, but are you surprised it has taken as long as it has to build the 9/11 memorial and redevelop the WTC site?

LS: I haven't been following the memorial or rebuilding of the site, but I can tell you that any real estate project in New York City is beyond complicated and always takes longer and costs more than projected.

PND: When we spoke back in 2002, you expressed some concern that the line between philanthropy and charity, in the public's mind, was becoming blurred. Do you still have those concerns? And why is it important to preserve the distinction between the two?

LS: At the time, my concern about blurring philanthropy with charity was the notion that "charity" helps individuals and families -- the "victims." With that definition, the press immediately attacked some of the September 11th Fund's most important grants. For example, initial cash awards to the families of victims were perceived by some as too small, despite the fact that they were for immediate basic needs and that we were awaiting the announcement of federal compensation, which ultimately was considerable. The fund was criticized for making grants to nonprofits that had lost revenue because they were not "victims," as defined by this notion of charity. But as a philanthropic institution, the fund was obligated to broadly support recovery, which meant making grants to retrain displaced workers, help arts organizations revitalize downtown, shore up nonprofits that provide critical services, as well as contributing to initial emergency efforts and supporting victims and their families.

-- The Editors





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