Carol Kellermann, Executive Director and CEO, September 11th Fund: Meeting the Long-Term Needs of Individuals, Families, and Communities

September 9, 2003
Carol Kellermann, Executive Director and CEO, September 11th Fund: Meeting the Long-Term Needs of Individuals, Families, and Communities

The story is familiar to most everyone by now: New York Community Trust president Lorie Slutsky and Ralph Dickerson, then president of the United Way of New York City, agree on the afternoon of September 11, 2001, to create a fund in response to the morning's devastating attack on the World Trade Center. The September 11th Fund, as it's called, will leverage their organizations' respective strengths — the Trust's experience with grantmaking and fund management; the United Way's fundraising infrastructure and deep knowledge of local social-service agencies — to meet the needs, direct and indirect, of individuals, families, and communities affected by 9/11.

The Fund receives its first $1 million donation — from the Williams Companies, a Tulsa-based gas exploration company — the following day and okays its first grant, to Safe Horizon, a provider of victim assistance and violence prevention services, within the week. By the end of October it has received nearly $340 million in pledges and donations, on its way to raising more than $500 million, and, under the leadership of Joshua Gotbaum, has made dozens of emergency grants to disaster relief agencies, while taking the first steps to coordinate assistance to address longer-term needs — an effort that leads to the announcement, in July 2002, of the Fund's Ongoing Recovery Program.

Earlier this year, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Carol Kellermann, Gotbaum's successor as CEO of the Fund, about its continuing efforts to address long-term needs created by 9/11, the mechanisms the Fund has created to monitor the effectiveness of its programs, coordination among relief agencies and service providers in the wake of the attacks, and the lingering effects of 9/11 on New York and New Yorkers.

Kellermann was appointed executive director and CEO of the September 11th Fund on October 7, 2002. In that position, she is responsible for managing the organization and its staff, as well as monitoring and creating grant programs with the roughly $100 million remaining in the Fund to meet the ongoing needs of individuals, families, and communities affected by 9/11.

Kellermann has served in leadership positions in government and the nonprofit sector since the early l980s. Immediately prior to joining the Fund, she was president of Learning Leaders, Inc., the oldest school volunteer program in the country, and before that was a principal at Podesta Associates, a leading government and public affairs consultancy. In addition, she acted as chief of staff for Congressman (now Senator) Charles E. Schumer; was executive director of the Leonard N. Stern Foundation; and served in various positions for the City of New York in the areas of finance, the homeless, child welfare, and housing.

A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, she serves on the boards of Homes for the Homeless and the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and is a member of Planned Parenthood of New York City's Council of Advocates.

Philanthropy News Digest: You joined the September 11th Fund on October 7, 2002, succeeding Josh Gotbaum. Were you working in the nonprofit sector at the time of your appointment?

Carol Kellermann: Yes, I was. At the time I was executive director of Learning Leaders, a citywide school volunteer program here in New York, and had been in that position for four and a half years. I've spent most of my career — all of my career, actually — in various kinds of nonprofit, public service, and government activities.

PND: The September 11th Fund received approximately $425 million in contributions in the four months between September 12, 2001, and January 16, 2002, the day it was closed to contributions, and another $80 million or so by the first anniversary of the attacks. What percentage of that amount came from foundations and corporations and what percentage was contributed by individuals?

CK: About seventy percent to seventy-five percent came from foundations and corporations and the rest was from individuals. Lots of individuals. We received over two million donations from individuals.

PND: How much of the roughly $510 million raised by the Fund came from the Tribute to Heroes telethon held on September 21, 2001?

CK: About $125 million. That was the source of most of the individual donations.

PND: And how much of the $510 million ultimately raised had been awarded by the time you came aboard in October of '02?

CK: About $350 million. It's up to about $410 million now.

PND: Which areas of need received the largest percentage of those funds?

CK: The largest percentage went to cash assistance. We gave a bit more than $250 million in cash assistance. The rest was and continues to be spent in the other areas of need.

PND: And they are?

CK: The needs were — and continue to be — related to mental health, employment assistance, health insurance, legal and financial advice, and assistance for youth, small business, and nonprofit organizations.

PND: Were you given specific directions by the Fund's board regarding the disbursement of the remaining funds?

CK: The areas of need had already been established or outlined by the board by the time I arrived. But, of course, part of what the board wanted me to do was to make my own assessment of what they had done and how things had changed. So I did, and it turns out they had done a pretty spectacular job in identifying a comprehensive list of needs and activities that were designed to address the medium- and longer-term effects of the disaster. At the time, I thought it was an excellent list, and we continue to fund in all the areas the board laid out because there's still need in all those areas.

PND: The Fund launched its Ongoing Recovery Program in September 2002. Did you change the way you operate as you moved into the Ongoing Recovery phase?

CK: We did. The first year, we operated in much more of an emergency mode. By that, I mean there was a lot of effort devoted to rescue and recovery, to reimbursing organizations for losses they had suffered, to paying for the cost of meals provided to recovery workers, and to just dealing with emergency needs as they were presented to us. Since we've launched the Ongoing Recovery Program, however, we've been much more involved in the management of these programs and in working with our grantees to ensure that people's needs are met. We're also much more involved in monitoring and evaluating grants. Because the initial periods for many of the grants we made in the first year have expired or are about to expire, we're looking at reports that grantees have submitted, visiting grantees to see how things are going, and making decisions about which programs should be extended and which ones could be wrapped up. So, again, we're in much more of a monitoring and assessment phase than the reactive mode we were in, of necessity, for much of the first year.

PND: Service coordination is a large component of the Ongoing Recovery Program. How does that work?

CK: The September 11th Fund is funding over two hundred full- and part-time service coordinators through different social service agencies around the city. The coordinators work with the families of people who were killed or injured in the World Trade Center disaster; they work with people whose livelihood was adversely affected because they worked south of Canal Street and either lost their jobs or a significant portion of the income they were earning before September 11; they work with small business owners and nonprofit organizations in the area. In addition, there are an array of social-service agencies in the city that have large complements of caseworkers on staff, which means that other people who may have been affected by September 11 in a less direct way are being helped. But we're funding service coordinators to work directly with the Ongoing Recovery-eligible people. You know, lots of people are having problems related to housing, or are having difficulty learning about and signing up for programs, or need counseling, and the service coordinators are a way for them to stay up-to-date with the programs that are available to them as well as with changes in those programs. The coordinators help people figure out what their options are, they help them navigate the often-confusing array of agencies and acronyms, they deal with paperwork.

PND: How many people have asked for a service coordinator?

CK: About ten thousand so far.

PND: Is the effort separate from the service-coordination effort of the 9/11 United Services Group?

CK: No. USG was created as the result of a discussion between Eliot Spitzer, the attorney general of New York, and Josh Gotbaum, my predecessor, and we're the biggest funder of their effort. We also fund organizations that provide services directly. But in those cases, one of the conditions of their funding is that they become a member of USG. USG, in turn, has certain standards in terms of case management that they hold their members to. The most important requirement is that all case managers use the common database created by USG, so that everybody involved in the recovery effort can coordinate their services and make sure people are getting the things they need.

PND: Tell us about the Fund's healthcare assistance program? Is it an open-ended benefit?

CK: It's an insurance program, and an unusual one at that. The program provides one year of free health insurance to people who worked in the World Trade Center area and lost their jobs and health insurance — or the wherewithal to purchase insurance — as a result of 9/11. We have relationships with a range of organizations that provide different types of services, including some neighborhood-based clinics, an HMO, and an organization that will subsidize your COBRA payments if you're able to continue with insurance provided through your employer. So it provides a degree of choice for people, and we pay the premiums for up to a year.

PND: Is there an application cutoff date for the program?

CK: No, not yet. There are twelve thousand people in the program at the moment, and as with all of our programs, we're continually monitoring how much money we're spending and trying to project when we'll need to close the program. I think it's important to note that this is the first time many of these things have been done and there's really no model to follow in terms of enrollment patterns. [Editor's note: Since this interview was conducted, the Fund has announced that January 31, 2004, will be the cutoff date for enrollment in the Employment Assistance and Health Care programs.]

PND: The Fund supported a good many afterschool programs during the 2001-02 school year. Why was it important to do so?

CK: We felt they were an important part of the recovery process for kids, that kids needed places where they could relax and be themselves under the supervision of caring adults. We thought it was especially important for kids who went to school in the Trade Center area and were forced to evacuate their school buildings on the morning of the eleventh. In many cases, those kids suffered terribly because of things they saw or heard. So having good programs for kids after school really was a form of therapy, not to mention a way to contribute to the overall health of the community.

PND: The Fund also is supporting a sizeable mental health benefit for people affected by 9/11. How is that benefit being offered?

CK: Through the Mental Health Association of New York City. It's very much like our health insurance program, in that you can go to the mental health provider of your choice — whether it's a social worker or a licensed therapist — and the program will reimburse your expenses up to $3,000. It also covers medication and certain in-patient treatment expenses not covered by most insurance policies. The person receiving the benefit can submit a reimbursement form, or ask their health provider to bill us directly.

We also have a large program to train mental health professionals and other folks — early childhood providers, pediatricians, clergy members, and so on — who are most likely to encounter people suffering post-traumatic stress. Our goal is to train six thousand people in the helping professions over the next year or so.

PND: Is the demand for mental health services in affected communities rising or falling?

CK: Actually, it's been pretty stable. A lot of people talked about the experience of the folks in Oklahoma City, where there was a big spike in demand for mental health-related services at eighteen months. We haven't seen that. What we have seen is that certain events — the raising of the terror threat advisory to orange, the war in Iraq — are contributing to people's anxieties and nervousness about their personal security, particularly here in New York. Those kinds of things compound the problem for many people, particularly those who had a terrible experience on the morning of the eleventh — either they were evacuated, or wound up covered from head to toe with dust, or watched from a distance as the towers that they worked in simply vanished. There were also a lot of calls around the first-year anniversary. In fact, the more media coverage of 9/11-related events there is, the more it reminds people of what happened. But at this point demand is fairly steady, and our goal is to keep the program going for another two and a half years.

PND: Has the Fund made grants to communities and populations in the Washington, D.C., area?

CK: That was a much talked-about issue, and last spring — before I replaced Josh — our board made the decision to open the Ongoing Recovery Program and extend all case-management services to people who lost their jobs at Reagan International, which was completely closed for three weeks and re-opened in a very gradual fashion. We have a small office in D.C. that helps coordinate the activities of a number of social-service agencies in the area, and we're just getting ready to open the health insurance programs to those people.

PND: Tell us about the mechanisms you've established to determine the effectiveness of these programs? What are they and what are they telling you?

CK: Well, this is not going to be a ten- or twenty-year effort where you have the leisure to study and evaluate. We're trying to help people quickly, and we expect to spend the rest of the money quickly. So for us the main measure of effectiveness is numbers — how many people are enrolling in these programs, how many people are still calling the mental health hotline, and so forth. Those kinds of things are the primary measure of the effectiveness of our programs as far as we're concerned.

We also have Safe Horizon calling people — they have a large phone bank that in many ways is kind of an ongoing monitoring and assessment tool for us. For example, they'll call everyone who has been to an information session and ask whether they have enrolled in the health insurance program. If they haven't, they ask them why not and whether they intend to. So we're constantly getting feedback from people in the programs, as well as from people who are eligible for the programs, about the kind of experience they're having, and we feed that input back to the agencies and ask them to follow up on complaints.

In addition, we're doing some quality-assurance things through the 9/11 United Services Group, which is employing an outside research firm to survey recipients of case-management services, asking them about their experience, whether they were happy with the service, what things could be improved, and so on. Then they compile the information and report back to the case managers. The people who run our employment program have just done a similar sort of survey of people in that program, and they'll be presenting the findings to us at the end of the month.

PND: Will that feedback inform what you hope to do over the next two or three years?

CK: Yes. We have about $100 million left, and I think we need, over the next few months, to monitor the programs we have and really determine how they're doing, the rates of participation, and so on in order to decide whether we're going to have enough funding to do anything new or different going forward. At this point, I don't think the information suggests that what we're doing is not what needs to be done. As I mentioned, there are twelve thousand people in the health insurance program; there are almost five thousand people in the employment program, and they continue to sign up at the rate of about two hundred and fifty people a week; we have more than five thousand people in the mental health program, and those numbers continue to increase. So we wouldn't want to do anything that would impede our ability to keep all of those programs going as long as they are needed.

PND: From the beginning, the Fund's programs were designed to complement the efforts of other funders and agencies. Are you doing anything in conjunction with the federal government's Victim Compensation Fund?

CK: We're the largest funder of programs devoted to providing people with free assistance in filing claims with the government's fund. We're the primary funder of Trial Lawyers Care, which provides free attorneys and expert witnesses to anyone who wants to file a claim, and we also fund the National Center for Victims of Crime, which provides free seminars and information to families on how to decide whether to file or not. And that's because we think that filing a claim with the government's fund is the most foolproof way for families of the victims to assure their financial well-being over the long term.

Of course, our other programs are all open to victims' families, regardless of whether they've filed a claim with the government or not. For example, we run the program for mental health in conjunction with the Red Cross and have many family members of victims participating in it. The Red Cross also recently announced that they'll be joining with us to fund health insurance payments for victims' families for up to a year. Similarly, the employment assistance program is open to victims' families, and we try to make it as easy as possible for them to participate.

PND: Have you been satisfied with the level of cooperation and coordination among various funders, service providers, and relief agencies?

CK: Basically, yes. You know, there seem to be certain misconceptions floating around about the September 11th Fund — and about the response of the nonprofit, philanthropic, and social service communities in general. For starters, people seem to think there was no coordination. I disagree. In fact, it's amazing to me how much coordination there has been. I've been involved in nonprofit social service work in New York City for many years — I ran a homeless organization, I worked in child welfare — and I've never seen anything like this before. We've worked closely with the Red Cross and, as I've mentioned, are jointly running several programs with them. We work very closely with the New York Times Foundation. We've tried to fill gaps and do things that others haven't or couldn't, and in order to do that you have to talk to others and find out what people are doing. Then there's the United Services Group, which is an amazing creation that should be a model for how social-service delivery is provided in general. So I haven't found coordination to be a problem; on the contrary, I've found there to be a great deal of coordination and cooperation. Nothing's perfect, and yes, it took a little time for people to get their acts together — mostly because 9/11 caught everyone by surprise. But I think it's remarkable how much has been achieved.

PND: It has been suggested that the perception of a poorly coordinated response by the philanthropic sector was largely a function of mistakes made by the Red Cross and by the tendency of the media to focus on bad news and scandal. What are your thoughts about the way the September 11th Fund was treated by the media? And, in retrospect, what might the Fund have done differently to deflect some that criticism?

CK: Well, as a person who observed it from outside and then came in and heard the history and read transcripts of O'Reilly, et cetera, I think your explanation of what happened is correct. Reporters do look for scandal and gotcha stories, and in this case I think they tended to exaggerate what they found. Sure, mistakes were made, but the September 11th Fund was extraordinary in that, from the very beginning, it had a broad mandate and was very open and clear about what it was doing. That doesn't mean that the message always registered, but there was a proactive approach to communications here. Should we have responded directly to the criticism? I don't think so; it would have been a distraction from our real work, which was helping as many people as possible who had been affected by 9/11.

As for what could have been done differently, well, maybe the philanthropic and nonprofit communities could have spent more time and money on educating the public and press about the process of delivering emergency assistance and aid, both in relation to a disaster and every day. But you'd have to be a little naïve to think that you could take on the additional burden of educating the public and press after a crisis hits and still be effective at delivering your message. 

PND: What do you think of the idea of having the philanthropic community in New York designate a single spokesperson or entity to handle media relations the next time we face a disaster of the magnitude of 9/11?

CK: Well, it sounds good in principle, and maybe it wouldn't hurt to try. But it assumes a lot of things. For starters, what exactly will the role of philanthropy be in the next disaster, assuming there is one? Just because everybody tends to think the next disaster will be more or less like the one we just experienced doesn't mean it will be. We could be talking about something completely different, and that makes it very hard to prepare for.

Now, when you start talking about a coordinated sector-wide communications effort in response to such a disaster, I think it will be very difficult to get most parties to agree to it — and I say that having been involved in plenty of situations in which different agencies or organizations touch base on a weekly basis to discuss what's going on and what they want to communicate. So maybe you don't need to have a single spokesperson so much as you need everyone to know that they need a spokesperson, and that it should be someone who's trained to do the job. It's standard procedure in most other fields of endeavor, and it should be standard procedure in our field as well.

PND: Are you seeing any movement in that direction here in New York?

CK: Honestly? Not really. I hear a lot of generalized talk about lessons learned and a lot of introspection about the criticism we received as a sector and what we should have done. Quite frankly, I would prefer to see people looking ahead, rather than back at something that already happened. My role as CEO of the September 11th Fund is to do what donors to the Fund intended in terms of meeting the needs of victims of 9/11. But I think that for the philanthropic community in general, this is an appropriate time for all of us to start talking about how we will address another large-scale disaster.

PND: September 11 delivered a serious blow to the economy of New York City. How close is the city to having recovered from that blow?

CK: Well, I'm not an economist, but things don't look so hot to me. If you look at the data, it's clear that we continue to lose a sizeable number of jobs every month, especially downtown and in Chinatown. And I think our grantees would agree. I just read the final reports from the Legal Aid Society and Legal Services for New York, two of our grantees, and they're both seeing an increase in the number of evictions. In the months after September 11, people were getting by with the help of charities and their families, but that money is running out and people are starting to get eviction notices, they're lining up at food pantries, they're getting desperate. Everything seems to be balanced on a knife-edge, and I think the cuts in the city's social service budget are going to make matters worse.

PND: As steward of the second-largest pot of 9/11 contributions left, is it important for you to draw a distinction between the long-term needs created by 9/11 and the economic fallout of the post-bubble crash?

CK: A very good question. It's extremely important — and one of the most difficult challenges we face. As the steward of these funds, we have to be faithful to the donors' intent, and the donors' intent was to give to people who were affected by 9/11, not by the recession. It's very difficult to separate those two things. So what it means, basically, is that we end up turning away a lot of very compelling proposals from organizations that are meeting important needs not directly related to September 11. It seems harsh to some service providers, but we have to do it — that's why our board established specific geographic guidelines. So whenever we're presented with a new proposal, my first response is always, "What would the donor say? Is this something we can show is related to September 11?" If we can't, we won't do it, no matter how worthwhile.

PND: Do you think the $2.6 billion raised for post-9/11 relief and recovery will be enough to address the long-term needs created by the attacks?

CK: I think $2.6 billion is a lot of money, and I think a tremendous amount has already been accomplished. But I'd also say that we don't yet know what those long-term needs are. We just don't know. It may be that we learn something seven years down the road that no one had known before. But yes, the American public was unbelievably generous, and we have enough to meet the needs we have identified and are working to meet.

Let me just say, however, that there are a lot of assumptions floating around, and your question touches on one of them — namely, that philanthropy will be responsible for meeting the needs of victims in the event of future terrorist attacks. But will it? I don't think that's something that anyone has really addressed. What is government's role in the event of future attacks? What's the role of the private sector? Are the people that terrorist acts happen to different than the victims of other tragedies? In the case of 9/11, which was an incredible shock to New York and Washington and the country, you had this amazing outpouring of support. But I don't think we can assume that people will always respond in that fashion if there are more attacks — and that's something that isn't being talked about, either. It's just assumed that the philanthropic community will step up to meet the needs of people victimized by terrorism. But I don't think that's realistic. It's a responsibility that can't be met, and that's the real reason the two sponsoring organizations of the September 11th Fund — the New York Community Trust and the United Way of New York City — asked people to stop giving to the Fund. The senior executives of those two organizations understood that there were other needs in the community that were in danger of being overlooked, and so they asked people to direct their generosity to those needs. And those are the kinds of issues our community needs to start talking about.

At the end of the day, there are distinct roles that should be played by government agencies and by charities. Government usually has the lion's share of funds available for recovery efforts. Charities have the experience and capability to meet a vast range of needs and serve diverse populations. The best outcome for whatever we might face in the future will come when we understand, value, and capitalize on those differences.

PND: I'm afraid we'll have to end it there. Thanks so much for your time this morning, Carol.

CK: You're very welcome.

Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, interviewed Carol Kellermann in April. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at mfn@fdncenter.org