The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon shocked every American. For hours that morning, people in offices, in their homes, or at the local cafe watched in disbelief as the now-familiar sequence of events played out on television. By nightfall, however, with shock giving way to anger and the first stirrings of patriotic feeling, a single question began to dominate the national conversation: "What can I do to help?"
The answer to that question revealed itself the next day, as people around the country lined up to donate blood, bake sales and lemonade stands appeared on suburban sidewalks, and flowers, candles, and children's artwork transformed New York City's firehouses into shrines to civic pride.
That same sense of urgency and a desire to help fueled the decision of executives at the New York Times Company Foundation to create, on September 12, the New York Times 9/11 Neediest Fund and, subsequently, to disburse the money contributed to the Fund — some $60 million within six months of its inception — as speedily and efficiently as possible.
In March, Philanthropy News Digest spoke to foundation president and New York Times veteran Jack Rosenthal about the foundation's response to the September 11 attacks, media criticism of the philanthropic response to the disaster, and lessons learned by the philanthropic community in the wake of the attacks.
Rosenthal has worked for the New York Times since 1969, when he joined the paper as its chief urban affairs correspondent in Washington, D.C. He subsequently became an editor, editorial writer, and editorial page editor, and in 1982 won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, the first such prize won by the Times in sixty years. From 1993 to 2000, he edited the New York Times Magazine, including its special centennial issues in 1996 and the special millennium series in 1999.
Rosenthal was born in Tel Aviv, grew up in Portland, Oregon, and attended Harvard University, where he was executive editor of the Harvard Crimson. After graduation, he returned to Portland, where he was a reporter and editor at the Oregonian. In 1961, he went to Washington, D.C., as special assistant to Attorneys General Robert Kennedy and Nicholas deB. Katzenbach. In 1966, the Washington press corps voted him the outstanding press officer in the federal government. Later that year, he moved to the Department of State as executive assistant to the undersecretary.
During the academic year 1967-68, Rosenthal was appointed a fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics, specializing in urban affairs. He was the principal editor of the presidential commission report on urban riots (the Kerner Report) and then, before joining the Times, was Life magazine's first urban affairs correspondent.
Rosenthal was named president of the New York Times Company Foundation in 2000. He and his wife, Holly Russell, a sculptor, live in Manhattan.
Philanthropy News Digest: The New York Times Company Foundation launched the 9/11 Neediest Fund on September 12, 2001, the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. How did you and your colleagues arrive at the decision to create the Fund?
Jack Rosenthal: Like almost everybody on September 11, I began to wonder what we could do to respond to the attacks. And it occurred to me when I got home that night that the thing we should do is to do what we do best, which is philanthropy. Obviously, we had the New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, which is ninety years old and was already incorporated as a legal entity. And we had the phones, the Web site, the credit card processing capabilities, and so on. My thought was, Why don't we create a special subset of the Fund? So I went to the lawyers and the corporate people to see whether there were any objections or problems with that, and it turned out there weren't, and as a consequence, by Wednesday morning, the twelfth, everybody at the Times had signed on to the idea.
So we put the story in the next day's paper, thinking maybe we'd raise $4 million or $5 million and we could do some good with that. As it turned out, we raised that in a week — and ended up with $62 million. I hate to say it about a disaster of this magnitude, but it was probably the most inspiring thing I've ever been involved with. Not just raising that much money, but spending it in creative ways and setting an example for other people and agencies. I mean, by the time were done, we figured we probably helped somewhere between twenty and fifty thousand families.
PND: Were donors to the Fund mostly from the New York metropolitan area?
JR: No, they were from all over the world. The biggest gift was $2 million from Rolex International — which wanted to be sure we understood it wasn't just American Rolex — and the gifts ranged all the way down to $20 and change, which we got from some kids on the Upper West Side who had set up a lemonade stand.
PND: Did you compare notes with your colleagues at other foundations and nonprofit organizations in the city during the first week after the attacks?
JR: Sort of. Our original thought was that we would raise the money and then distribute it through the seven large social service agencies that the New York Times Company Foundation has always relied on to disburse its Neediest Cases money. In this instance, that was doubly important, in part because Mayor Giuliani had already established the Twin Towers Fund for the families of firefighters and police officers killed in the collapse of the towers, and the restaurant workers' families were being taken care of through the Windows of Hope Fund. So what seemed necessary at that point was to help other needy people, which is why we called it the 9/11 Neediest Fund and decided to turn to Neediest Cases agencies like the Children's Aid Society, the Community Service Society, Catholic Charities, the United Jewish Appeal, and so on. And let me tell you, they did a wonderful job. These are agencies that are smart and experienced and really know the community. For example, Phil Coltoff, the head of the Children's Aid Society, knew as soon as he saw the plumes of smoke rising from the towers that kids with asthma were likely to be affected, so he immediately put out a call for two hundred thousand doses of asthma medication and inhalants, some of which came from as far away as Baltimore and all of which were snapped up by rescue workers within days. Of course, if the prevailing winds during that first week had blown the smoke over the city instead of the harbor, we would have been two million doses short. But the point is, you had to know what you were doing to have thought of that.
At any rate, toward the end of that first week I invited all seven agency directors to the Times building to talk about how we were going to spend the money. By September 15 or 16 we already had $3 million or $4 million, and my thought going into the meeting was to push the decisionmaking down as fast and as far as we could. We wanted to err on the side of speed. So we decided at the meeting to give every agency caseworker the authority to spend $2,000 on their own say-so and not to worry about the paperwork, yet. In the meantime, money would be getting to the people who needed it.
|"...In this kind of disaster you have to reject the standard procedures that prevail in the philanthropic world...."|
Now, remember, this was based on back-of-the-envelope arithmetic that took into account how many cases we'd thought there'd be and how much money we had. But as things turned out, the contributions kept pouring in. And after maybe a couple of weeks, some of the agency directors said, "We hope you don't expect us to spend all this money, because we can't spend it that fast." Which is how we backed into what may be the most important lesson we learned after 9/11: In this kind of disaster you have to reject the standard procedures that prevail in the philanthropic world, such as waiting for people to come and ask you for money and doing lots of due diligence before you distribute any money. I mean, both of those things make perfect sense under normal circumstances. But 9/11 was different, and after a few days it began to dawn on us that those inhibitions ought not to apply in this particular situation.
So we decided to be proactive instead of passive and to look for categories of need, wholesale needs, as opposed to individuals or families who needed help — what one might call retail needs. As we saw in the weeks after 9/11, there are lots of agencies that know how to do retail. But for us, the question was, "How do you do wholesale?" Wholesale is hard, in part because the categories of need, by definition, will differ from disaster to disaster. Suppose, for example, that the numbers in this disaster had been reversed, that there had been only a few deaths and hundreds or thousands of injuries. We'd be having a very different kind of conversation today, right?
But once we decided to proceed, we soon identified four categories of 9/11 need. One was jobs. Job rescue, we called it. Tens of thousands of families saw their livelihoods vanish on the morning of September 11. Some organizations, like the September 11th Fund, made a distinction between short- and long-term needs. Our view was, "What in heaven's name is long term about a poor family losing their income today? Can't we do something about that?" I mean, we eventually learned that on September 10 there were something like twenty-five hundred small businesses in the World Trade Center area; on September 12, five hundred of those had been either demolished or seriously damaged, many others were in danger of going under, and it was obvious that more jobs were going to disappear unless someone did something.
So I called up Carl Weisbrod, the president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, and Bill Grinker, the CEO of an organization called Seedco, which provides financial and technical help to poor neighborhoods. Bill said he wanted to do something and had the staff to do it, and likewise Carl said he wanted to help. So on October 7, the three of us sat at this table and cooked up the job rescue program. We gave them about $3 million on the spot, the Ford Foundation chipped in with $1 million, and eventually it ended up with something like $29 million. And so far, the program has been responsible for saving six to seven thousand jobs, which is probably a conservative estimate.
But the critical decision we made that day was to give the money in the form of grants. Forget loans. The federal loan program was infuriatingly irrelevant. You needed an accountant to fill out the endless application form, and by the time you got the loan four or five months later your business would be gone and the feds would be staring down your throat looking for fraud. It was clear to the three of us that these were people who needed the money right now, and we had to decide whether we had the nerve to give them outright grants. So what if a couple months down the road the New York Post discovered some guy who had taken the $10,000 or $20,000 and hightailed it to Mexico — ha ha ha, stupid New York Times — so be it; we'd deal with it. The important thing was to get the money into the hands of the people who needed it. It was that simple.
PND: What about the other categories of need?
JR: The second was kids, specifically kids who went to school downtown, many of whom had seen and experienced horrible things, including people jumping from the towers. In addition, many lived downtown and were displaced not just from their schools but from their homes. So we began to ask ourselves what we could do to try to ease their parents' predicament and make life easier for parents and kids alike. Now, we'd had a lot of contact with the After-School Corporation, which works to provide quality after-school programs in the city's public schools. And it occurred to me that they probably had some programs downtown. So I called Lucy Friedman, the organization's president, and by perverse coincidence it turned out that although they had programs in something like a hundred and fifty schools around the city, none were in schools downtown. So I asked, "Well, how quickly could you get them started?" And she said, "Whoa. We'll call you back tomorrow." When she called back the next day, she said, "Well, we could get into all eight schools between now and the end of the year." And I said, "Well, I don't count eight schools, I count sixteen." And she said, "Yes, but you're including Chinatown." And I said, "Yes, let's include Chinatown. We're talking about kids who've really been traumatized, and Chinatown is as bad off in that respect as anyone." So Lucy said, "Okay, we can be up and running in three schools in a month, and we'll get the rest up by January. But it will cost a ton of money." And I said, "Well, this is one of the few times in my life I can say that's not a problem."
We ended up giving them $2.6 million to do the program — not just for the fall term but through the end of the school year and the following year. And, by George, they got the programs up in fifteen of the sixteen schools — grade schools, middle schools, and high schools — and would have been in the sixteenth but for the fact that the principal and parents were happy with the after-school program they already had. We visited a couple of times, and it was just wonderful to be able to give those kids an island of peace, and to give their parents three extra hours a day to sort out their lives at a time when many of them were in serious distress.
Now, you probably know that five days before September 11, New York City schools chancellor Harold Levy had announced a 15 percent budget cut for the city's schools — and had compounded the pain by recklessly allowing principals to find the 15 percent any way they wanted to, which resulted in a lot of principals cutting all their arts programs just at the moment, as it turned out, when that kind of self-expressive therapy was most needed. So we decided we needed to do something about that. We went to a wonderful woman named Carol Fineberg, who had worked as a consultant for us and knows all about arts-in-education, and we sat around the table here and eventually cooked up something we called the School Arts Rescue Initiative. We invited the arts coordinators for the five community school districts most affected by 9/11 — Districts 1, 2, 6, 27, and 31 — to come to the Times for breakfast and presentations from a dozen arts providers — known, quality providers like Studio in a School, ArtsConnection, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, Teachers and Writers Collaborative, and City Lights Youth Theatre. These were all organizations we had funded in the past and had relationships with. After the presentations, we told the arts coordinators, "Here's a million dollars — $200,000 each, not in cash but in arts credits. You pick whichever program or mix of programs you want, and we'll pay the providers, bypassing the bureaucracy at the Board of Ed." Well, of course, the arts coordinators were thrilled — not least because if they'd had to do it through the Board of Ed, they'd still be filling out the paperwork.
But seriously, it worked out so beautifully we ended up providing another $500,000 to give the same opportunity to suburban schools that had been affected by the attacks. I even tried to get the September 11th Fund interested, but Josh [Gotbaum, the first CEO of the Fund] and Frank [Thomas, the Fund's chairman], were still getting organized — it was November before they had their first board meeting. So it was a real satisfaction when, the following spring, they called up and said, "Would you mind if we put up $2.5 million to continue the program for a second year?" Would we mind! So it turned out to be a real success and became a model for other programs as well.
Again, I'm only giving you examples of the grants we made in each of the four areas of need.
The third area was law, which didn't occur to us at first. But we quickly became aware that undocumented aliens affected by the attack were afraid to show up at the Family Assistance Center at Pier 94 for fear of being deported. Other people were having trouble getting death certificates, while still others were having trouble with landlords who were demanding the rent and so on. Well, it dawned on us that these were all legal problems. And then we received grant applications from the Legal Aid Society and Legal Services New York, both first-rate organizations and which between them have thirty-one neighborhood offices around the city. We sure didn't want to choose between them. So I called them back and said I wasn't going to read their individual applications but would be pleased to read a joint application. Well, they grumbled a bit, but within twenty-four hours they had sent in a beautiful proposal that called for the creation, in effect, of a full-service law firm for poor and undocumented victims of 9/11. And that worked out so well that, within a couple of months, we doubled their grants.
Do you know the story of Disaster Medicaid?
PND: No, I don't.
JR: It's a wonderful story, and it hasn't really been told. It was cooked up by some of the young lawyers at Legal Services New York and Legal Aid in Brooklyn, who realized that large numbers of elderly people in Brooklyn who had no connection with 9/11 whatsoever were nevertheless suffering because they couldn't file Medicaid claims. Why? Because the collapse of the towers destroyed the city's Medicaid files, and without access to the records the state said it couldn't process claims. Well, the young lawyers kept hearing these tales of woe and finally said, "This is intolerable. We have to do something." So they went to the state and said, "We understand you don't have these thirty-five-page Medicaid applications. But we have an emergency on our hands. How about if we create a temporary program? Here's a five-question questionnaire. We'll get these things filled out if you process and pay them."
Well, the folks at the state office scratched their heads and finally agreed. And although the program was only in effect for four months — I think it expired in March or April of 2002 — they ended up registering something like a hundred and fifty thousand people for Medicaid who had not been registered before. The state wasn't too happy about it, but how can you be unhappy when you're providing something you're mandated to provide?
PND: And the fourth category?
|"...We took great care from the outset to be scrupulous about donor intent and tried to define "victims" clearly and narrowly...."|
JR: We called it trauma treatment, which is shorthand for mental health. But first, let me say that we took great care from the outset to be scrupulous about donor intent and tried to define "victims" clearly and narrowly. We were so grateful to the tens of thousands of people who contributed to the Fund, and we wanted to keep faith with them. In fact, we know from mail and e-mail we received that people were much taken by two aspects of our mission: One, the fact that our assistance was targeted to the "neediest"; and two, that the Times assumed all administrative costs associated with the Fund, allowing every dollar contributed to go directly to benefit victims.
Even within a scrupulous definition of victims, however, it was not hard to do the math and come up with two or three hundred thousand people who were subject to trauma. I mean, three thousand families lost a loved one. Another twenty-five thousand or so people escaped from the buildings before they collapsed. Eight to ten thousand school kids and their families were affected, not to mention all the residents of Lower Manhattan. And there were tens of thousands — maybe as many as fifty thousand people — who lost their jobs. Just doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation, you very quickly arrive at two hundred thousand direct or indirect victims of the attacks without straining the definition of "victim" at all.
Now, nobody's saying two hundred thousand people are going to experience post-traumatic stress. But as Betty Pfefferbaum's paper [i.e., Lessons from the First Two Years of Project Heartland, Oklahoma's Mental Health Response to the 1995 Bombing] makes clear, fifteen percent of the kids within a hundred-mile radius of Oklahoma City were still traumatized or having nightmares and acting out two years after the bombing of the Murrah Building. So, fifteen percent of two hundred thousand is thirty thousand people. Then we asked ourselves, "Are there enough qualified shrinks in the area to treat thirty thousand new patients?" So we asked around, and the consensus was that while New York may be the shrink capital of the Western world, and while every shrink in New York may think he knows how to deal with trauma, they don't. As one psychiatrist said, "What a lot of therapists think they know is, in fact, toxic."
So we ended up giving a spectrum of different mental health grants, from New York Downtown Hospital, which was treating people off the street in the days after the attacks, to the International Trauma Studies Program at New York University, which created a community-based program to support families and educators in the downtown school communities that were most affected by the events of September 11.
The largest grant we gave in this area, and in many ways the most important one, was to establish something called the New York Consortium for Effective Trauma Treatment. That started when Erica Goode, the psychology writer here at the Times, recommended that I call Dr. Randall Marshall, who runs the Trauma Program at the New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia. Randall came in and, with becoming candor, said, "Look, you have to understand, we're only one of four hospital-based trauma centers in the city." The others were at Mount Sinai, St. Vincent's, and Cornell Medical, which later moved to NYU. And I said, "Well, what are the chances of the four of you getting together?"
Well, he gulped — I mean, these were centers that competed with each other, and now they were being asked to collaborate. But he called me back a couple of days later and said, "Okay, we'll do it." So we cooked up an arrangement whereby each of the four institutions selected fifteen clinicians to be trained by trauma experts from around the world. The Neediest Fund put up $225,000 to pay for the training, and then another $2 million to cover fifty percent of the salaries of those sixty clinicians for a year so that they'd be able to not only treat trauma victims based on their new training but mainly to train other clinicians. And we're now up to five hundred newly trained clinicians and counting, and it thrills me to realize that, beyond 9/11, this has become a permanent resource for the entire New York community.
Let me tell you a story. I went to the very first session, at the New York Academy of Medicine, for ceremonial reasons and because I was curious, and the guest speaker was Edna Foa, a professor from Penn who people in this field all bow down to. And there are sixty clinicians sitting in rapt attention as this sweet middle-aged woman with a honeyed Israeli accent is talking about prolonged exposure therapy, where you relive the incident that caused the trauma. And in the middle of the room is a TV monitor with a clip of a forty-year-old woman who had been gang-raped when she was sixteen and was still traumatized, and she's saying, "I blame myself for having been so passive, for not having resisted more." This is after twenty-four years, mind you. There's a pause, and even though you can't hear her therapist on the tape, you can see the woman's reaction: Her brow darkens, and she says, "Well, yes, I was scared!" All of a sudden, it's as if a light bulb has gone on over her head. "You're damn right I was scared," she says. And then she slaps her hand on the table and says, "And besides, the son-of-a-bitch was heavy. I couldn't budge him!"
Well, in that moment, I understood what toxic meant. If this kind of therapy is done well, you can release the patient from the trauma, but if it's done poorly you trap them in it. And that's what the Consortium is about: helping professionals to do it well. Rachel Yehuda, who's a professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai and director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division there, conducted a sample study in which she divided 9/11 patients into three categories: those who were treated by their own shrinks, those who were treated by the original sixty clinicians trained by the Consortium, and those who were treated by the five hundred clinicians who were students of the original sixty. And she came up with two impressions: One was that there was a distinct difference between the first group and the trained group. The patients of therapists without the advanced training have done much less well. They dropped out of treatment more often and their problems were more severe. And two, she found there was no difference between those who were treated by the original sixty and those who were treated by the five hundred. Which was a wonderful, reassuring indication that the training was being passed on effectively.
Anyway, that's one slice of the spectrum. Another really big grant we gave was $2 million to the American Group Psychotherapy Association. You know, even with all the ad hoc efforts that sprang up in the days and weeks after 9/11, there was no organized mechanism for providing mental health services to people — not just at ground zero or in the five boroughs, but in New Jersey, where something like forty percent of the direct victims lived, or in Boston, or Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles [the destination of two of the hijacked planes]. So we started to ask what we could do to help create some kind of mechanism that was flexible and open-ended and also addressed the stigma that often attaches to mental health issues.
Eventually, I went to AGPA, which, in effect, was a trade association of therapists around the country, and asked them whether they'd be willing to set up three hundred or so counseling groups wherever they were needed. After two or three weeks had passed, they had set up only one group, in a synagogue in central New Jersey. Well, I lost it. Here we were trying to get this stuff done quickly, and it just wasn't happening. So we had a painful lunch, and they saw that I was ready to end our relationship. But they went out and hired some staff, and before long we were calling them our "ugly duckling," because they just flowered. In fact, they've set up more than three hundred groups and have reached out in a hundred different directions to other programs and providers.
Let me tell you one more story. It was January of last year, 2002. And it occurred to us that many of these mental health professionals were doing wonderful work but had little or no connection with the work other people in the field were doing. So we decided to have them all over to the Times, and what started as a breakfast finally broke up around noon, with people so excited about all that was going on — and this was just among our grantees. At one point, Steve Cohen, who was in charge of mental health programs for the September 11th Fund, came over to me and, in mock outrage, said, "You have a lot of nerve doing what government ought to be doing." I realized in that moment that this was the closest thing to coordination that any of these people had experienced. Over the ensuing months, more and more people started to approach us in this role. I mean, everybody knows the Times and trusts it, and that gives us a certain convening power. In fact, last year I probably spent from a third to a half of my time on issues related to mental health coordination, protocols, lessons learned, and so on.
There's a whole separate chapter of this having to do with providing school-based trauma treatment to kids, which, in my view, is the biggest failure of the post-9/11 recovery efforts. But it's a long story, and we're still far from writing the ending.
PND: Okay, here we are, eighteen months later. Do you have any regrets that you committed one hundred percent of the contributions you received within twelve months of the attacks?
|"...Again, I could comfort myself with the fact that if there turned to be longer-term needs, there was a ton of money elsewhere in the system to take care of them...."|
JR: Zero. But there are reasons for that. For starters, we knew the Red Cross and the September 11th Fund were sitting there with hundreds of millions of dollars for the long run. So what's the point of saving our funds? If we can get money out usefully and quickly, we don't need to hold on to any of it. But there's a bigger reason. In the wake of 9/11, Nancy Anthony, the executive director of the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, came to New York and told a lot of us to hold a chunk of money in reserve because, she said, we would discover as the months passed that there would be a lot of needs we couldn't have imagined. We figured she had to be right, she'd been through all this. But it gradually dawned on me, as I read more about Oklahoma City, that what she was really talking about was mental health needs. It was nothing more mysterious than that. It was just that Oklahoma City was the first event of its kind, and it took people a long time to realize how long it would take for these mental time bombs to go off in people's heads. But once you understand that, what other mysteries do you need to save money for? And if we're spending our money intelligently on mental health now, well, the sooner you can get help to people, the better. Again, I could comfort myself with the fact that if there turned to be longer-term needs, there was a ton of money elsewhere in the system to take care of them. But here we were, without a bureaucracy to speak of, free to turn on a dime and in a great position to do things sooner rather than later.
PND: You adopted three guiding principles at the Fund's inception — need, speed, and 100 percent, a reference to all administrative costs being picked up by the Times. The fourth principle was transparency. What did you do to ensure that your efforts in the wake of the attacks would be transparent?
JR: Two things. One was easy because we had the New York Times. Whenever we had something of interest or importance to announce, our colleagues would write a story about it.
Now, because we felt so strongly about this and were so overwhelmed by the volume of contributions, we also wanted to be specifically accountable to our donors and the public. So we created a six-month report and posted it to our Web site, followed by a nine-month report and a twelve-month report. The latter was particularly satisfying, because we were able to report that we'd spent something like $60 million by March of 2002, which was about ninety-nine percent of everything we received. We've since received another couple of million and have been spending that in a variety of ways. But I was really proud that we were able to get the money out that fast. For the Fund's twelve-month accounting, we doubled the size of the foundation's annual report and devoted half of it to 9/11 activities, including detailed descriptions of many of the grants we made. All told, we have made more than a hundred grants, and I think the idea that we would err on the side of speed was vindicated. I'm glad to say I'm not aware of a single case of fraud involving a grant we made. In some cases, recipients were a little slower in spending the money than I would have liked, but they spent it. In fact, I don't know of a single funder who experienced a serious case of fraud, which, if you think about the amount of money involved, is remarkable.
PND: Were you criticized by anyone for moving too quickly?
JR: No. On the contrary, we got a lot of credit for moving quickly. It was always a sort of secret, mischievous hope that we could, by example, goose other people to move faster. The one area in which we really failed in that regard was with respect to the Board of Education and school-based trauma treatment. In November, we were infuriated to learn that even though there was a ton of Project Liberty money available, the Board of Ed still had not provided school-based trauma treatment for a single child. I was damned if I was going to let those kids go home for Christmas break without anybody having done anything for them. So in two weeks, we cooked up a program called Strength in Schools — we wanted to keep mental health terminology out of it — and managed to get something going in ten downtown schools. It wasn't much, but it was something. For example, in one school the NYU Child Study Center was doing one hour of therapy a week. We gave them a grant and got them to do ten. Our main objective was to help the kids. If in the course of doing that we were able to send a message to the Board of Education, well... I mean, their attitude, as it was expressed to a reporter from the Times — "We're not going to allow our kids to be used as guinea pigs so that therapists can get federal dollars" — was just so frustrating. Even now, it makes me cringe to think about it. Guinea pigs!
PND: Why do you think the media was less eager to criticize federal and city agencies on the issue of speed than it was to go after the philanthropic community?
JR: That's a big question that concerns a lot of people, and I can only give you my own theories. The biggest one has to do with the Red Cross, whose behavior established the tone for the whole recovery effort. And I don't just mean on a single occasion; there were three different turns of the screw where they messed up. Don't get me wrong. I know Bob Bender and I respect the organization; they've done extraordinary work in the past and did so after 9/11. But in the wake of 9/11, they ended up fouling their own nest with some sheer elemental PR stupidity. I think it sort of established the climate for the charity bashing by certain elements of the media that followed.
|"...Because people were so emotionally invested in the response to 9/11, it almost didn't matter whether the money was being spent or not; the act of giving was what mattered...."|
There's another aspect to it — and this is wholly speculative on my part — but based on the speed and volume with which contributions began to pour in, I think the national mood in the days immediately following the attacks was dominated by one simple question: "What can I do?" A lot of people tried to give blood, but that avenue was soon closed to them. So people started to give money. And, of course, people wanted their contributions to help the victims. But in many cases it was given with such intensity of feeling that, in hindsight, I think of it as "vengeful philanthropy." It was a way to strike back at the terrorist sons of bitches who had attacked us. Because people, through their contributions, were so emotionally invested in the response to 9/11, it almost didn't matter whether the money was being spent or not; the act of giving was what mattered.
Then along comes a careless or sensation-seeking TV interviewer who doesn't really understand the questions he's asking and who says, "Aha! You haven't spent the money yet, or you've done such-and-such...." And it strikes a spark. People become disappointed, but in a different way than if it had just been money given for earthquake victims. If it were a case of not getting the money to victims so they could make repairs to the house, or for flashlights and blankets — well, that would just be ordinary incompetence. But for this money not to have been well spent was an outrage. It was contrary to the war effort. That's my take on it.
PND: Do you think philanthropic organizations in New York and around the country learned a lesson about public relations as a result of 9/11? And do you think they'll behave differently in the event of a future attack?
JR: You probably noticed that one of the conclusions — maybe the major conclusion — put forth by Tom Seessel in his report [i.e., The Philanthropic Response to 9/11] for the Ford Foundation is that philanthropies and nonprofit organizations, for the most part, performed wonderfully well in the wake of 9/11. But, far from getting credit for it, we were criticized. So what do we do about that in the future? Seessel suggested we employ a single spokesman for all agencies and service providers and funders in the event of another terrorist strike. That doesn't seem practical to me. For one thing, many of the agencies involved are very complicated, and you'd need to have an insider's view of them in order to speak for them. If a reporter calls up and asks a question about the New York chapter of the Red Cross, some newly minted central czar isn't going to know how or where to get the answer for that reporter to make his deadline. So I probably wouldn't endorse the idea.
But I do endorse the idea of coordination in general, even in a place like New York, where there are hundreds of philanthropic players. What we can do and should do — and what I would urge on other communities — is to create, area by area, an informal council of the big players and convene it every now and then to compare notes and take the lay of the land. I mean, you can't predict what kind of disaster we may face — there's no point in trying. But you can know who the players are and have a plan to get them all together in the mayor's office or wherever if something happens.
In late September, after the blowup of the attorney general's effort to coordinate things, Vartan Gregorian [president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York] and Susan Berresford [president of the Ford Foundation] convened a meeting of the various players at Carnegie. And Vartan started the meeting by saying something like, "Look, this is not coordination; this is just information, so I know that if you're giving shoeshines, I can give haircuts." That seems to me to be a terrific model, both for the coordination process generally, and also for media relations.
You know, I think from time to time that if the September 11th Fund had set its sights a little higher, it could have played that role. I half-thought when I learned on September 12 that they were up and running that maybe we should fold our thing into theirs. And I suppose we didn't because we had the newspaper and the next day we were able to put a story in the paper, and things kind of developed their own momentum after that. But if they had decided to go bigger — not to run things, per se, but to take the lead in creating a sort of coalition of organizations — and if they had started to offer a daily press briefing as part of that effort, who knows what might have happened?
PND: The September 11th Fund is going to spend itself out over the next few years. Is there another organization that could fill that role?
JR: I don't know. It's not brain surgery. We just need to use common sense. Nobody has to subordinate themselves to anybody else. The Red Cross doesn't have to subordinate itself to the Robin Hood Foundation; Robin Hood doesn't have to subordinate itself to the September 11th Fund. We could all be players, and if there's some overlap as a result, so what? We're not talking about an automobile plant that has to produce a certain number of SUVs a day.
PND: Is the philanthropic community in New York better prepared to respond to a major terrorist attack or catastrophe than it was on September 10, 2001?
JR: Yes, decidedly. For one thing, we all know each other better now — and like each other, and respect the different things we each have done in the wake of 9/11. For another, I think the experience has made us all far more receptive to joining quickly in cooperative efforts. Several of us are cooperating right now, for example, in trying to get the lessons of 9/11 across to philanthropic communities in other cities.
PND: As a long-time New Yorker, how long do you think it will take for the city to recover from 9/11?
JR: There are a lot of New Yorks. In a superficial sense, I suppose many of them have already recovered from 9/11 — or wish to pretend they have. That's probably a healthy kind of denial. But for a lot of New Yorkers, their mental palette will always be shaded a bit darker than it was before September 11, 2001. I mean, you can feel it in the air every time there's a new Code Orange alert, or a squadron of police cars at the tollbooths on the George Washington Bridge or at the tunnels. So, I don't know. A long time.
PND: Well, thank you, Jack, for taking the time to speak with us this morning.
JR: My pleasure.
Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, interviewed Jack Rosenthal in March. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.