Feature Story: Meeting the Moment - The New York Community Trust

Meeting the Moment

For Every Crisis, The Trust is There

When the attack on the World Trade Center came out of a perfectly blue sky on the morning of September 11th, 2001, the city plunged into crisis. Nearly 3,000 people died, millions faced uncertainty, the region came to a stunned halt.

“As the enormity of what had happened sunk in,” recalled Lorie Slutsky, president of The New York Community Trust, “all of us were shocked and saddened, but we all had the same thought: ‘How can we help?’”

As emergency workers were still rushing downtown to the smoking rubble, the staff of The Trust gathered in its midtown office, joined forces with the United Way, and created the September 11th Fund, which continued to address the repercussions for four years.

That same spirit drove our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Trust’s ability to respond to these and other crises that have periodically shaken New York since our creation in 1924 is in our DNA and has been honed through the decades.

While The Trust and its divisions—the Long Island Community Foundation and the Westchester Community Foundation—often apply a patient, long-term approach to bring about systemic change, our history shows that there are five key ways in which we are well-suited to help navigate through a sudden, calamitous event.


Feature Story: Meeting the Moment
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In a sense, The Trust is always ready for a crisis. Because generations of New Yorkers have left legacy gifts in The Trust to help after they pass away, we have funding in hand when calamity strikes.

As far back as the Great Depression, which impoverished millions of New Yorkers, The Trust was able to provide relief by targeting grants from our Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund to the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor and Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side.

Today, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund is still making grants; it is one of more than 400 legacy funds that ensure we can quickly address an emergency. In 2020, it made possible an emergency grant to God’s Love We Deliver so it could deliver shelf-stable meals to thousands of homebound clients with HIV/AIDS or compromised immune systems who were at at high risk for developing serious complications from COVID-19.

People standing in a bread line during the Great Depression.

As far back as the Great Depression in 1929, which impoverished millions of New Yorkers, The Trust was able to provide relief. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

September 11th

Building remains after the 9/11 attacks.
Wikimedia Commons


Since we are thoroughly familiar with the disparate communities and nonprofits in our region, we can hit the ground running when time is of the essence and strategically get funding out in the ways that will be most effective.

When superstorm Sandy pummeled the East Coast in 2012, Long Island Community Foundation staff members could expedite aid to the hard-hit barrier island of Long Beach because of their relationships with the close-knit communities there. Immediately after the storm, staff drove through the area, assessed damage, and checked in with nonprofits to see what was needed. The Long Beach Latino Civic Association used the Foundation’s support to provide bilingual assistance to help residents apply for benefits, coordinate volunteers for clearing muck and debris from homes, and organize drives for food and bedding. The Foundation also helped Long Beach Reach provide mental-health and educational support to families with children who were displaced, distraught, and unable to go to school.

In New York City, much of the public attention was focused on the unprecedented images of water filling subway tunnels and flooding neighborhoods that had always seemed safely removed from our waterways. Trust staff recognized that one isolated, often overlooked part of the city, the Rockaways—particularly its lower-income areas—would need help.

The storm caused unprecedented flooding, fires, and extensive damage to homes, businesses, and cars throughout the Rockaway peninsula. Many of the residents were cut off from electricity, heat, phones, and basic supplies. Without working elevators, older adults in the poorer neighborhoods in the north were stranded on the upper floors of their buildings.

The Trust turned to nonprofits it knew could assist, and many even went beyond their usual missions. After quickly putting out a request for proposals, we funded the Queens Public Library to provide the displaced with shelter, hot meals, and a chance to read books in warm mobile libraries; and the Ocean Bay Community Development Corporation became expert in coordinating the in-kind donations of food, clothes, floor tiles, doors, and home accessories for restorations.

“The New York Community Trust came in with workforce dollars that allowed Ocean Bay to offer hard- and soft-skills training to prepare residents for some of the job opportunities that came up in construction, demolition, carpentry, plumbing, and for electricians’ helpers,” recalled the organization’s executive director (then program director), Jonathan Gaffney. “We educated close to 200 people and we had an 80 percent job placement rate. We were also able to use this opportunity around workforce training for community meetings and civic engagement. We helped create a level playing field, give the community a voice, and prepare them for the opportunities to get good-paying jobs.”


Two people with masks on due to COVID.
A food pantry run by Vision Urbana during COVID-19. Photo by Eric Diaz

People with disabilities who tossed their mobility aids aside and pulled themselves up the steps of the Capitol to protest in 1990.

In September 2008, the stock market crashed after the faltering of the international banking system and the bankruptcy of the iconic Lehman Brothers bank. The Trust knew the impact would ripple out beyond the financial sector. It quickly developed a social safety-net program that put more than $10 million out into the community within weeks of the meltdown. The Trust sent grants to United Neighborhood Houses for its 36 settlement houses so their young people and older adults would continue to get the services they needed, such as food assistance, employment training, and educational support. As the Great Recession weighed on the city, The Trust made grants to City Harvest for emergency food distribution, to Vibrant Emotional Health for an expansion of its counseling services, and to Legal Services NYC and Legal Aid to form the Economic Crisis Legal Assistance Project, which helped low-income New Yorkers navigate issues with government benefits and consumer debt.


There is power in numbers. The Trust has built relationships over the decades with philanthropies, individual donors, and nonprofits that allow us to multiply our potential impact by creating working partnerships in a moment of crisis.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the region in early 2020, The Trust and its suburban divisions quickly formed funds in collaboration with other donors—corporations, foundations, and individuals—to marshal aid to nonprofits unprepared for the disruptions to the economy and life as we knew it.

The Trust and its philanthropic partners announced the NYC COVID-19 Response & Impact Fund and issued a request for proposals from front-line nonprofits the same day the state was put “on pause.” Within a week, the Fund made its first grants. The Fund soon raised $73 million for grants from more than 1,300 donations for small and medium-sized nonprofits working in the human services and the arts and cultural sectors (another $37 million went out in no-interest loans through the Nonprofit Finance Fund). Much of the funding was aimed at helping organizations meet immediate needs, including staff salaries, moving operations online, and obtaining equipment to protect workers and clients. Our suburban divisions in Long Island and Westchester also created funder collaboratives, which raised an additional $3.5 million from more than 200 donations to benefit local nonprofits.


New York City Hall, AP Photo/Rick Maiman

These collaborative funds created “one-stop shopping” for nonprofits who were hard-pressed for time while trying to meet escalating demands for their services, confront lost revenue due to stay-at-home guidelines, and transition to remote work.

After the Apollo Theater received a grant, Jonelle Procope, its president and CEO, wrote: “We are grateful to know that we do not face this crisis alone, and that you are with us. We are confident that we will see the other side of the pandemic, and that we will rise stronger than before.”

Collaboration has helped us “meet the moment” for decades, such as when the AIDS epidemic struck the city in the 1980s: thousands were dying each year, and the response was complicated by the prevalence of anti-gay bias at the time.

The Trust’s AIDS-related work began in 1983, when we used our Francis Florio Fund—created 10 years earlier to investigate blood diseases—to support one of the first privately funded AIDS research projects in the nation. By 1989, with the number of cases reaching 100,000, The Trust joined with others to address both the disease and the stigma associated with it. Working with the Ford Foundation’s National Community AIDS Partnership, The Trust formed the NYC AIDS Fund to coordinate grantmakers, government, nonprofits, and people with AIDS to educate, conduct research, and provide needed services locally. Two years later, The Trust and the Council of Fashion Designers of America Foundation created the CFDA Foundation-Vogue Initiative/NYC AIDS Fund to support local nonprofits in their efforts to combat the disease locally through research, education, advocacy, and palliative care. By the time the NYC AIDS Fund sunsetted after 25 years of grantmaking, it had made close to $30 million in grants.


The Trust can act quickly to tackle the immediate impact of a catastrophic event, which can seem overwhelming in the moment, but experience has taught us that a crisis can have a long tail and unexpected consequences. Our planning also addresses recovery efforts that may last long after the initial shock abates.

While the September 11th Fund was created the same day as the attacks on the World Trade Center, its work continued for four years. Grantmaking started with immediate needs, such as financial assistance to 100,000 people and hot meals delivered to Ground Zero for rescue workers, but evolved to help thousands of displaced workers train for new careers, expand the availability of mental health services, and counter Islamophobia.

A catastrophe can be seen as a stress test for our systems, bringing into high relief the needs for improvement. We work with nonprofits after each crisis so that the region builds back stronger, more equitably, and better equipped to meet the next crisis.

During the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the city teetered on the edge of bankruptcy; federal help was not forthcoming (captured in the famous New York Daily News headline: “Ford to City: Drop Dead”). Civic leaders, elected state and city officials, financial executives, and the unions pulled it back from the brink. But The Trust also helped put mechanisms in place that would let the city better navigate out of the crisis. It worked with others to create a task force of nonprofit and government leaders who analyzed the impact of proposed budget cuts on nonprofits that relied on city contracts to fund human services and recommended ways to minimize their impact. A Trust grant to the Citizens Budget Commission in 1978 allowed it to forecast the city government’s revenues and expenditures for the following five years, helping to guide policymakers and financial watchdogs in efforts to get the city back on track.

Our Westchester division—to help its county continuously improve its readiness for the inevitable next crisis—has strengthened Westchester’s Community Organizations Active in Disasters planning group. That relationship informs the Westchester Community Foundation’s grantmaking as the group tracks local needs, coordinates response efforts, and ensures that volunteers are well integrated into the work of emergency personnel.


A lady crosses the street to a food distribution site.
A food distribution site run by Trust grantee Sapna NYC during the COVID-19 epidemic.

When catastrophes strike, philanthropy and community responses shift to an “all-hands-on-deck” mode, focusing on the crisis at hand. The Trust knows an emergency response cannot be allowed to eclipse the ongoing needs of New Yorkers.


In 2020, the killing of several Black Americans by police ignited urgent calls and nationwide demonstrations to end long-standing racial injustices, which were compounded by the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color. Those disparities helped shape The Trust’s pandemic response, even as its grantmaking continued to address other enduring challenges to racial equity.

In 2020, donors stepped forward in extraordinary ways, allowing The Trust to make $266 million in grants, second only to 2002 when the September 11th Fund led to $369 million in grants. The ongoing work of The Trust, though, did not pause: we made hundreds of grants unrelated to the pandemic that encouraged civic participation, improved environmental quality, and continued efforts to improve the well-being and economic opportunities of New Yorkers.


The eight counties that The Trust serves are densely populated, massively complex, and have a justifiable reputation for gritty resilience. When confronted by crises, New York has bounced back and crawled forward. It’s the city that never sleeps, but it also never stops. The sprawling machinery of the region, though, needs continuous vigilance, and for almost 100 years The Trust has been at the ready. Whether the latest challenge demands a rapid response or a sustained solution, we bring together the generous neighbors and dedicated nonprofit workers who keep our beloved community safe, strong, and vibrant for all.