Nancy Anthony, Executive Director, Oklahoma City Community Foundation: Philanthropy and Domestic Terrorism

February 26, 2003
Nancy Anthony, Executive Director, Oklahoma City Community Foundation: Philanthropy and Domestic Terrorism

At 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, moments after parents had walked their children to the second-floor day care center, 4,800 pounds of ammonia nitrate and fuel oil destroyed the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. Vibrations from the explosion could be felt almost thirty miles away. Later, it was learned that the destruction had been caused by a truck bomb. One hundred and sixty-eight people — men, women and children — were killed and another five hundred were injured, in what federal authorities soon were calling the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.

In the days immediately following the tragedy, the Oklahoma City Community Foundation joined with several other area organizations to provide leadership and oversee the distribution of charitable contributions that began to pour in to Oklahoma City in response to the bombing. The model of coordination developed by the foundation subsequently was hailed by philanthropic leaders around the country for its effectiveness and fairness.

In late January, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with OCCF executive director Nancy Anthony about her organization's role in the recovery efforts that followed the bombing; the similarities and differences between the charitable responses to the bombing in Oklahoma City and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.; and how communities and charities can better prepare for future disasters of this nature and magnitude. Anthony also responded to questions about how the economic slowdown has affected the community foundation's fundraising efforts and its future initiatives.

Nancy Anthony joined the Oklahoma City Community Foundation as executive director in 1985, at a time when it had assets of $20 million and one other full-time employee. Today the foundation has nineteen full-time employees, over $400 million in assets, and makes average annual distributions of $15 million to the Oklahoma City community. During her seventeen years at the helm of the foundation, OCCF has become a leader among community foundations nationwide in the development of agency endowments and today operates the largest agency endowment program in the United States, as well as the largest independent scholarship program in Oklahoma.

Anthony received a B.A. from Vanderbilt University, M.A. and M.Phil. degrees in mathematical statistics from Yale University, and a Ph.D. in biostatistics from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. Over the course of her career, she has taught at Vanderbilt and Oklahoma City University, and has served as a consultant in statistics and demography. As a community volunteer, Anthony has served for twenty-five years as a member of Oklahoma City's Metropolitan Library Commission, including six years as chairman, and was honored for her work as a library advocate by the American Library Association in 2000. In addition, she has served on a number of community boards and has also served as a volunteer coach for several girls athletic teams.

A native of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, she and her husband, Robert H. Anthony, reside in Oklahoma City. They have four daughters who are currently attending or recently graduated from college.

Philanthropy News Digest: Tell us a little about the Oklahoma City Community Foundation — When was it established? What are its signature programs? And how long have you been with the foundation?

Nancy Anthony: The foundation has been around since 1969, and I've been here since 1985. I'd say it's a typical community foundation. We're the oldest and largest one in Oklahoma, and were here a long time before the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. Most people seem to think we sprang up as a result of the bombing, but that's not the case.

The thing we're best known for — not only in this community, but throughout the country — is that we have the largest endowment fund management program in the United States. There are about two hundred and fifty nonprofit organizations in the Oklahoma City area that have endowment funds at OCCF. That's about $125 million in funds, comprising about a third of our assets. That gives us a permanent relationship with a relatively large number of organizations outside the normal grant process. In other words, we not only help them manage their endowment funds, we also help them develop donors for those funds. And we do other things typical of community foundations, like offering donor-advised funds and managing scholarship funds. In fact, our proven ability to manage scholarship funds is one of the reasons we were so involved in the response to the Murrah Building bombing.

PND: Take us back to that day. Where were you on the morning of Wednesday, April 19, 1995?

NA: The Murrah Building was right across the street from the small downtown post office where we have our post office box, and I drove by the building every morning on the way to pick up the mail. But that morning I was already in our offices, which are about five or six blocks away, when the explosion, which happened at 9:02 a.m., occurred. It was one of those kinds of explosions that if you were within ten blocks, you felt like it was your building that had exploded. It was that loud a noise. It was a chilly spring morning, and I remember thinking that the heating system, which is on the roof of the building, had exploded. All the ceiling tiles in the building sort of lifted off their metal runners and then settled back down. The air pressure created by the blast was so significant that it blew out all the windows in all the buildings in the immediate vicinity of the Murrah Building. It blew all the glass across the room, and then the vacuum created by the blast sucked it all back out again, so you had people being hit by glass flying in both directions.

After a minute or two, when we realized we weren't hurt, we ran outside to see what was going on. I think we expected to see the building on fire. By then, everybody else on our block had already run out of their buildings. And then — wham — the fire trucks and police vehicles started to arrive.

PND: Did OCCF respond in any way in the immediate aftermath of the bombing?

NA: I think it's important for people to understand that we perceived this as an emergency situation, like a tornado or a flood or a hurricane. And we are not emergency responders. We manage endowment funds for the long-term. It's the job of the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army and FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] to show up at the tornadoes and floods and fires. You also have to remember that nothing like this had ever happened before, at least not here in the United States. So we didn't respond in the immediate aftermath of the bombing; we reacted. To respond means you know what you're going to do. We know what to do when a tornado comes to town because we've dealt with so many of them in Oklahoma. We know what kinds of services are needed; we know what's going to happen to people, and what the whole rebuilding process for a family or a community is. But in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, nobody knew what to do. Nobody was prepared for the tremendous social and psychological impact it ultimately had on the families of the victims and on the community. Instead, our initial reaction was, "Hey, this isn't our deal. We're not in the emergency business. The best thing we can do is to stay out of the way and let the emergency people run the show." And that's what we did, and what they did. The Red Cross treated it like any other kind of emergency, which, basically, was to come in and get people out of the building and take care of the people who had been hurt. That was it.

But by the following Monday, people had begun to recover from the shock and were beginning to feel the need to respond in a significant way. If it's their next-door neighbor or somebody they know, people bring flowers. They bring food. They do what they can to help. If, on the other hand, they don't live in the community, their options are limited and so they send money. And that's what happened. The money began to pour in, and all these little funds to help the victim's families sprouted up. Every radio station had a fund. The Junior League had a fund. The Rotary Club had a fund. People wanted to help and they wanted to do it through people they had a connection to. So, if you belong to the American Legion in Omaha, Nebraska, you call the American Legion in Oklahoma City. If you belong to the Rotary Club in New York City, you call the Rotary Club in Oklahoma City. You tend to rely on people you trust, on people who share your values.

In any case, it didn't take long to realize that the money was mounting up. And at that point, we said, "Okay, all these people are talking about making grants to individuals, which are very different than grants to nonprofit organizations. We need to let the community know what grants to individuals are all about." So we contacted the Council on Foundations on Monday and asked for some materials. And by Wednesday, we had issued a press release and mailed out a letter to all the banks in the area and anybody that had a fund saying, "If you're going to collect money, if you're going to make grants to individuals and people are going to get a charitable deduction as a result of their contributions, then you have to follow these rules."

After that, we had five or six banks and major radio and television stations call us up and say, "We can collect this money, but we don't have a clue about how to acknowledge or distribute it. Would you do that for us?" And we agreed to help out, with certain conditions. And those conditions were, one, that we could commingle the funds for the purposes of utilizing them and, two, that we had the final say as to how the dollars were used. Sure, tell us if you want it to be used for children, or education, or whatever, but once you do, we'll make the final determination as to the particulars.

At that point, there were eighty different entities out there that had some kind of fund receiving contributions. It wasn't that people were actively fundraising; the money was just coming in the mail. So, because he was concerned about scams and accountability issues, the governor, Frank Keating, called a meeting of all these funds — this was about eight or nine days after the bombing — and said, "Okay, let's see what we can do to coordinate all this." The governor felt it was important that we find a way to collect and share information so that everyone involved in the recovery effort would know who the victims were and who the family members of those victims were. And as a result of that meeting and the fact that we shared a couple of trustees, the United Way of Oklahoma City and OCCF volunteered to coordinate the database effort.

Like I said, we didn't think we had a role to play initially. But after about ten days, it became obvious that this wasn't a run-of-the-mill emergency, that the implications in terms of how people had been affected were much larger than we had imagined. The stuff the Red Cross and the Salvation Army normally do for people in times of emergency wasn't required after the first couple of days. People didn't need shelter. They needed help in rebuilding their lives, which is a very different scenario than the ones in which the Salvation Army and Red Cross normally operate.

PND: Was the situation in Oklahoma City similar to the one those organizations later faced in New York after 9/11?

NA: Yes, but in Oklahoma City, the Red Cross and Salvation Army weren't as visible. They didn't have to deal with the same level of media scrutiny here as they got in New York. What they did, however, and how they did it was similar. Don't get me wrong; I'm not complaining about it. I'm just saying that Oklahoma City was a different situation than what those organizations were used to dealing with. No one knew what to expect. I mean, we went about three months without knowing from one day to the next what would happen. But now there are two templates for this kind of disaster response: Oklahoma City and New York. And if something happens someplace else, at least everyone will have a basic idea of what needs to be done.

PND: Well, let's talk about New York. How did you hear about what had happened at the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001?

NA: We watched it unfold on television like everybody else. I would have to say that we identified with the chaos: the lack of information, the lack of a plan detailing which organizations should respond, or even what needed to be done. I also have to admit that I said to myself, "I'm glad that we don't have to go through that again."

PND: When were you first contacted by folks here on the East Coast and asked to share your experiences with the aftermath of a devastating terrorist attack?

NA: Well, on September 19, the head of the Oklahoma City United Way, Tom Brown, called me and said he had been asked by the United Way in Washington, D.C., to come east and lend them a hand. But he had just retired, so he asked if I would go instead, which I did, on September 20. We also got calls from some of the people in New York asking about the forms that we had used, how we had set up the database, and so on. Obviously, the scale of the disaster in New York was of a different order of magnitude. But the fundamental issue which dominated both Oklahoma City and New York was dealing with a very large group of individuals who have lost a loved one in a very tragic and highly visible event. Dealing with the emotions and the needs of the people is the driver for all of the activity. Even though there was more of it in New York than Oklahoma City, the character was the same.

PND: Can you describe your role in the weeks following the attacks?

NA: I spent a lot of time on the telephone — about half of it with people trying to figure out how to provide services or create or administer funds. The rest of it was spent talking to people from the press. I did about a hundred interviews with different media people over a period of about six months.

I actually came to New York in early November and started working with a couple of groups in the city. Some of them were involved in sorting out the legal issues related to distributing charitable funds. As you probably know, a waiver was eventually granted by the IRS to September 11-related charities that allowed them to ignore financial need as a criterion for distributing charitable funds. That was a big difference from Oklahoma City, where the relief-based-on-need requirement was never waived. Once that happened for New York, things changed a great deal. Because Oklahoma City didn't have a waiver, we didn't make direct grants to individuals but instead paid bills for them or gave them vouchers if they didn't have any resources to pay for food, housing, or medical care. Services like funerals, mental health, and counseling services were provided without respect to financial needs. Because so much money was involved, there was an extensive letter from the IRS to Oklahoma City charities about this issue. Basically, it said that if an individual had resources, you could not give them money just because they were related to a tragedy.

Then, from the middle of January through June, I was probably there every three weeks or so, working with the September 11th Fund, the Robin Hood Foundation, and several mental health groups, letting them know what we had done, in terms of mental health counseling, in Oklahoma City and also what they could expect as far as the victims and the families of victims were concerned — namely, that their first reaction would be anger, followed by anxiety related to figuring out how they were supposed to get on with their lives. In that regard, the two events played out in similar fashion.

But there were differences, too. In New York, for example, the press was a much bigger player in the story than it was in Oklahoma City, and I think a lot of the agencies involved in the recovery effort started doing things based on how they felt the press would react. Sure, we did that to some extent here. But it was a bigger issue, obviously, for the Red Cross and the September 11th Fund in the wake of 9/11. And I think, eventually, it led many organizations to look for ways to get rid of the money as quickly as possible so as to avoid criticism. Often, they'd just give it to somebody else. But what they did was to give it to other charities, not directly to individuals, which is a much harder thing to do. As long as the money had been distributed, however, they could say that they'd given it away.

PND: We're talking about a lot of money — something like $2.6 billion when all was said and done. Were you surprised at the outpouring of support for the victims of the 9/11 attacks?

NA: Well, that was interesting. It was much more driven by local corporations and foundations than I think a lot of people realize. Of course, I say local, but many of them are national foundations and multinational corporations with headquarters in New York. When you have groups like IBM and Texaco and the Ford Foundation putting $8 million and $10 million into something, that's huge. But if the attacks had happened in Omaha, I don't think those corporations and foundations would have responded in quite the same way. In that sense, the charitable response to 9/11 was similar to what we experienced in Oklahoma City. It's just that the numbers popped significantly because of the huge amounts contributed by New York-based organizations, while we didn't have those kinds of resources in Oklahoma City. In fact, the single largest gift we received was a million-dollar contribution from Southwestern Bell.

PND: In your opinion, how effective was the philanthropic response to 9/11?

NA: Given the unique circumstances, it's difficult to judge. And it's probably too soon to know. My feeling is that, when it's all said and done, the question of effectiveness is going to revolve around how many of the people affected by the attacks were able to get beyond them and live their lives in a productive fashion. That's the whole goal of the recovery effort. It's not about getting money into people's hands. It's about trying to help people rebuild their lives — and if I've said that once, I've said it a hundred thousand times. Unfortunately, we tend to focus on the money, not on what the money is supposed to help people accomplish.

In Oklahoma City, we felt pretty good that, five years after the bombing, we had only seventy out of about eight hundred families still receiving some type of assistance. We still have money and are able to help people. We keep up with most of the families that had children because we administer the main scholarship programs. If they need help, we're in a position to provide it and to already know about it. Most of them no longer need our help except for the scholarship program and some counseling. We have some kids who have overcome it and are going forward in the best way they can, which is better in my mind than saying, "Yes, we had this many dollars and we distributed it all; it all went to people, and none of it went to administrative purposes." Does that mean we were effective? I don't think so.

PND: What was your response upon learning that the federal government had created a compensation fund for the victims of the 9/11 attacks?

NA: It was a very emotional response. It wasn't necessarily a thoughtful response. I also think the creation of the fund established a precedent that the federal government is going to have a difficult time following in the future. Because if terrorism does become part of our lives for the foreseeable future, as many experts predict it will, it's going to become increasingly difficult to compensate victims of terrorist attacks. It's sort of interesting that, in Oklahoma City, it was a federal building that was bombed. Half the people who were killed in that bombing were federal workers. But there was no compensation for those people, despite the fact that they were employees of the federal government. That's a great irony.

PND: Have you been surprised by the cool reception given the compensation fund by the victims' families?

NA: No. This whole thing is driven to a certain extent by the grieving process. How do people grieve in a situation like this? They get angry. I felt sorry for a lot of the charities in New York that were criticized by the press because people were unhappy and angry. I mean, what did they expect? People were going to be unhappy, they were going to be angry, and it didn't make any difference what charities and relief agencies did, because what happened to the victims was awful. Now, that's not to say that everybody did a perfect job and shouldn't have been criticized, or that we couldn't have done a better job. But I think there was an unrealistic expectation on the part of the press that once all this money was disbursed, everybody would be happy and whole again. That's just not going to happen, and the amount of money that was or wasn't distributed has nothing to do with it.

In a way, money becomes a distraction. It's a way to be angry about something else rather than being angry about the loss of a loved one. We saw it in Oklahoma City, but on a smaller scale. And we were concerned, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, that there would be a lot of people here who became angry about the distribution of funds to victims in New York and Washington, D.C. But the actual number was much smaller than we anticipated. And I think that was because a lot of them had already dealt with their grief and were determined to get on with their lives. In New York, on the other hand, people are still going through the grieving process and the money still means something. They haven't figured out that the rest of their lives is what's really important, or that the money is more symbolic than anything else.

PND: How well has the philanthropic community in this country prepared itself for the next terrorist attack?

NA: I think it's something that's being thought about a great deal. I've spoken with a lot of different people and made presentations in several different communities with people who spend a lot of time thinking about the next time. And, as a result, I think the response by the philanthropic community will be very different the next time. In the first place, I don't think people will see it as a typical Red Cross/Salvation Army/FEMA kind of deal. People now understand that those groups are limited in what they can do, that the problem of responding to a major terrorist attack is much bigger than those organizations alone can handle, and that we will need to coordinate and put some services together that are much, much broader than what are normally provided by those organizations.

Second, I think we all accept the notion that there needs to be collaboration from the very beginning, and that relief agencies and charities will have to forget their differences and create some kind of common intake form and a process by which families that need assistance can get it without being swamped by bureaucracy. As we learned after 9/11, every organization creates its own bureaucracy, and if you multiply that by ten, it just becomes a nightmare for people who are trying to navigate the system and are already stressed out to begin with.

And third, I think it's important for every community to have a neutral non-service-provider fund or collection of funds that people can contribute to in the event of a major terrorist attack that's controlled by stakeholders in the community and not by the Red Cross in Washington, D.C., or the Salvation Army in Atlanta, or FEMA, wherever they happen to be. When the Red Cross or Salvation Army receives money, how those funds are used is determined by their national disaster offices. They don't give money to any local service providers other than their own programs, and they have national guidelines about what they will and will not pay for. There is little or no input from local organizations in that process. There are lots of different kinds of service providers, and I don't think you should designate one, because in the event of a major terrorist attack, you're going to need a whole variety of services. So, every community should have some kind of clearinghouse, like a September 11th Fund or a community foundation, that can be neutral with respect to the kinds of services that need to be funded and can help facilitate their delivery. That's a message we've tried to deliver whenever we've had the opportunity. Now, whether communities will be able to put something like that in place remains to be seen. But I think it's important to note that contributions from donors are given voluntarily, and donors tend to give to organizations that they have confidence in.

PND: Before we wrap things up, I'd like to ask you one or two questions about OCCF. Has the economic slowdown affected your fundraising plans?

NA: Because we do a lot of endowment development, we've pulled back some in that area to give local nonprofits that are having trouble keeping their doors open a little breathing room. On the other hand, we're staying pretty aggressive with respect to planned giving and major gifts. But it's tough. Middle-class donors that had grown accustomed to contributing appreciated stock — and that's a significant portion of our donor base — just didn't have it to give this year.

PND: Are you planning any new initiatives?

NA: We're going to try to step up our planned-giving efforts, because we feel like planned gifts are independent of the economy to a certain extent. It's also the kind of thing that provides a better base for the community. And we're going to continue to emphasize endowment development as much as we possibly can. We feel like that's the best insurance for an organization, and we want to continue to deliver that message.

PND: Well, Nancy, thanks for taking the time to speak with us this morning.

NA: Thank you. It was my pleasure.

Kevin Kinsella, PND's managing editor, interviewed Nancy Anthony in January. For information about the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, at