Like December 7, 1941, and November 22, 1963, September 11, 2001, will be remembered as a watershed date in history — a day marked by truly shocking events that fundamentally altered the patterns of American life and politics.
The response to those events was as unprecedented as the events themselves. The federal government halted commercial flight operations across the country for the first time in the nation's history, passed s $15 billion Air Transportation Safety and Stabilization Act, and launched a military campaign in Afghanistan to unseat the Taliban and disrupt the Qaeda terrorist network; foundations, corporations, and the American people donated more than $2.1 billion to 9/11 relief and recovery efforts in New York and Washington, D.C.; and the media devoted enormous resources to reporting every aspect of the attacks and their fallout.
In May, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Paula DiPerna, author of Media, Charity, and Philanthropy in the Aftermath of September 11, 2001, about media coverage of the philanthropic response to 9/11, the public relations troubles of the Red Cross in the months following the attacks, public perceptions of philanthropy post-9/11, and the role of the nonprofit sector in a new era of homeland security.
DiPerna is a member of the Century Foundation's Project on Homeland Security and the Working Group on the Public Right to Know. She has served as president of the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, which focuses on public policy issues in the Great Lakes region, and was a writer, co-producer, and vice-president for international affairs at the Cousteau Society, where she was responsible for national and global environmental policy. She is also the author of seven nonfiction books, a novel, numerous magazine and newspaper articles, and a number of documentary films, and has taught journalism and writing at the Ohio State University School of Journalism and other institutions.
A lifelong New Yorker, DiPerna graduated from New York University with B.A. and M.A. degrees and was a candidate for the U.S. Congress in 1992.
Philanthropy News Digest: Tell us about Media, Charity, and Philanthropy in the Aftermath of September 11, the report you authored for the Century Foundation's Homeland Security Project. How did you come to be involved in its writing, and what were your objectives in writing it?
Paula DiPerna: Well, as you said, the report was sponsored by the Century Foundation, with funding from the [John S. and James L.] Knight Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and a few others. And I must say, I think it was very farsighted of Century Foundation president Richard Leone to bring together a diverse group of thinkers and leaders whom he felt had something to add to the public debate at this critical moment in our nation's history.
As you probably know, the project was divided into three working groups: the first, co-chaired by former Ohio governor Dick Celeste and former New Jersey governor Tom Kean, focused on the relationship between the states and the federal government in the post-9/11 era; the second, co-chaired by former White House chiefs of staff Kenneth Duberstein and John Podesta, analyzed a slew of issues related to the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security; and a third group, which I was invited to join based on my experience with foundations and communications, explored issues related to the media coverage of 9/11 and its aftermath.
As a member of the group, I really had two objectives: one was personal and the other was more intellectual and professional. In the case of the former, I felt that September 11 had been a transformational event for the country. I wasn't in New York City, my lifelong home, on September 11, but instead was in Chicago, where the Joyce Foundation is headquartered. After the staff and I watched the terrible events of that morning unfold on television, I decided to close the office so that staff could get home and take care of whatever personal things might have come up, be with their family or loved ones, and so forth. In those early hours, none of us knew what might happen next.
Anyway, I was the last to lave the office and as I headed home, I found myself walking on Michigan Avenue, one of Chicago's busiest streets. All around me people were leaving the Loop area in droves, and there I was, surrounded by people walking quickly, many getting news of what was happening via their cellphones and making calls to others. And yet I felt almost entirely alone. In fact, I've never felt so alone. And in that solitude, I realized that my life had been transformed, and that the life of our country and probably the lives of many future generations of Americans had been transformed, and that I felt alone because I had lost much that had been familiar to me all my life most noticeably an absence of fear. I also realized that what mattered in the world would now be different, and that the issues in which I had been involved my whole life would be changed in their meaning and relevance. I don't mean to exaggerate, but I still feel that way, almost two years later.
|"...I realized [on the morning of September 11] that the life of our country and probably the lives of many future generations of Americans had been transformed...."|
So I became involved in the project in part because I wanted to explore the depth and nature of the transformation set in motion by 9/11. But on a professional level, I feel, too, that there's nothing more important to democracy than an informed and thoughtful public; it's what makes a democracy work. Having said that, I know from experience that the public response to traumatic national events is often fueled by emotion. And in the aftermath of 9/11, in that very emotional time, I felt it was extremely important to get to the bottom of what the public knew, and had been told.
You know, the wonderful thing about philanthropy is that it gives those of us who are privileged to work in the field an opportunity to put ideas and money together at a moment of opportunity when they might actually produce something of special value. In the case of 9/11, philanthropy and charity had an opportunity to be especially helpful, which, again, was a privileged position, as well as an incredible responsibility. Because the events of that day were so shocking, the general public had a hard time absorbing, in real time, all that was thrown at them. People retreated into themselves and created a buffer around themselves as a way of dealing with the shock and trauma and grief, so I thought it would be interesting and important to go back after a certain period of time and find out what the public actually had been able to absorb as well as examine what was conveyed to them.
PND: To what extent was the outpouring of dollars from the public in response to the attacks driven by early projections in the media of the number of people feared missing or dead?
PD: I can't say for sure, but as I'm sure you remember, at first it was feared that six or seven thousand people had been killed or were missing. I don't think the exact number was what mattered; I think the public was just responding to the sense that there were a lot of people — many, many hundreds, if not thousands — who had been killed or were missing. In the fog of fear, anger, and emotion that lingered for weeks after 9/11, people didn't care whether it was six or three thousand; they just wanted to help.
PND: In the report, you argue that early media coverage of the philanthropic response was negatively influenced by four factors. What were they?
PD: The first was the confusion in the public mind about the difference between a charitable response, an emergency response, a philanthropic response, and what we would call regranting, which was a special intermediary role played by certain institutions like the September 11th Fund and the New York Times Company Foundation. The public and the media didn't really understand that a variety of responses was under way, beyond the emergency response involving disaster relief agencies like the Red Cross. The public didn't understand that a philanthropic response is about maximizing philanthropic dollars and not the same as an emergency response, however quickly dollars may be granted. And somewhere in between is what is known as charity, which tries to alleviate the suffering of people in need. Unfortunately, in the weeks after 9/11 I think the media blurred those distinctions completely, and as a consequence various organizations were unable to clearly communicate to the public what it was they were trying to accomplish.
|"...The public didn't understand that a philanthropic response is about maximizing philanthropic dollars and not the same as an emergency response...."|
The second factor was the sheer number of dollars involved. It was an irresistible target for the media, especially in the post-Enron era. I mean it was almost a Pavlovian response. As a reporter, if you begin to hear about large sums of money, of course you're going to respond by sniffing around issues of accountability. It was inevitable.
The third factor was and is the whole question of whether philanthropy per se can be news. Most of us who have been in the field understand that it isn't or wasn't before September 11. Philanthropy itself is not "man bites dog"; it's very much "dog bites man." And the only way to turn that into news is to focus on some unusual aspect of it. What was unusual about the philanthropic response to 9/11? The amount of money involved. And that's what triggered the media coverage initially.
The fourth factor — and, frankly, I think it's the most important — was shaped by certain expectations and the need for pure public-service information. By that I mean, when you have a disaster of this magnitude, the public expects a public-service response. It wants to know where to go for help, or how to offer help; it wants to know how many funds have been created, and what their goals and guidelines are. But the media doesn't see itself playing a public-information role per se. They report news; they don't provide information straight up unless it's paid for, as in advertising, or unless somebody at the editorial level decides to make an exception and publish straight public information. That was not done in any major way in the wake of 9/11. I think if the New York Times or the Washington Post had devoted some space, maybe once every three weeks or so, to reminding the public that a concerted effort was under way to help the victims of the attacks, where donations could be sent, guidelines, et cetera, there would have been a lot less confusion and hard feelings.
PND: You chose three case studies — the Red Cross, the September 11th Fund, and Disaster Relief Medicaid — to illustrate some of the issues raised by media coverage of the philanthropic response to 9/11. Why those three?
PD: Well, I chose the September 11th Fund because it was a creature of the moment. It was created in response to the events of September 11 and, as such, was an original.
I chose the Red Cross for two reasons: one, because it was the opposite of the September 11th Fund, in that it was a venerable, well-known institution that was very much associated with disaster response; and two, because, frankly, I was fascinated by the amount of negative coverage the organization received and curious about how it managed to get into all that trouble.
And lastly, I chose Disaster Relief Medicaid, even though it has been reported on a little bit by now, because it still stands as one of the great untold stories of the immediate post-9/11 period. In fact, I believe that had it been reported on in more depth in the months after September 11, it would have gone a long toward clarifying what philanthropy was doing in the wake of the attacks, what philanthropy actually is, and how the intersection of advocacy, public dollars, and philanthropic programs works to the benefit of many, many more people than meets the eye. I just think it's a phenomenal success story that most people are unaware of or don't understand.
PND: How would better coverage of the Disaster Relief Medicaid story illustrated those aspects of philanthropy?
PD: DRM demonstrated brilliantly how nonprofit organizations often are ahead of the policy curve, how they constantly contribute to social innovation, and how, when there is an emergency, they often bring a fresh point of view to bear. DRM also showed how, sometimes, the so-called bureaucracy can be heroic, as those on the inside and those on the outside work together to solve a problem. But above all, DRM demonstrated how important it is to have a diverse and vibrant group of organizations involved in any given problem over time, and how important it can be to support advocacy groups over the long haul, so that when a crisis does occur they are strong, well-informed, and ready to jump into the breach.
PND: Why didn't the media — especially the press — cover the story in more depth? Was it a case of good news not qualifying as news?
PD: I think the media simply missed the story. And perhaps the nonprofit community did not actively seek broad coverage of the story out of fear that the streamlining of the system and the elimination of certain barriers that were the hallmarks of the success of DRM might have been misinterpreted. In fact, some nonprofits have said exactly that. To an extent, a fear of media coverage did settle over the sector in the wake of 9/11. And that's a long-term concern, of course, in that communication with the public about the work of the sector is vitally important.
PND: Let's talk about the other two case studies. What, in your view, were the major missteps made by Red Cross officials in the weeks after the attacks?
PD: Their major missteps were, one, being defensive and technocratic and, two, hiding behind jargon to solve their problem. Look, [Red Cross president] Bernadine Healy had an insight, which was that 9/11 was not your run-of-the-mill disaster, and unusual events — unprecedented events — require an unprecedented response. That should have been the first thing they made clear to the public. But instead, they fell back on this very blurred, neutral, weak language "We are raising money for this and other disasters." Then, when they were attacked for using 9/11 funds for non-9/11 purposes, they tried to lay their whole defense on those few words "this and other disasters" as if they were lawyers negotiating a contract. Their mistake was not being more forthright and clear in their description of what they were doing; instead, they just kept repeating what they weren't doing.
Beyond that, the Red Cross board ended up vilifying their CEO in public, which was a tremendous mistake, even though everyone I've talked to said she had her shortcomings as a leader. Still, she had a tremendously insightful approach to what was happening, and the way her resignation was handled was unfortunate, to say the least.
Finally, I think that rather than being positive in their response to criticism, Red Cross leaders were far too defensive and willing to offer unnecessary mea culpas throughout the immediate post-9/11 period. For example, the public flip-flop over using a portion of the Liberty Fund for other purposes, which ended up sounding like, "We've heard you, you've slapped our wrist and we understand that our wrist has been slapped, so we're going to put all this money into 9/11 victims and 9/11 victims alone," was not a particularly distinguished approach. And that's too bad, because I think it was a teachable moment.
Of course, the crowning blow was to put [former Senate majority leader] George Mitchell, whose integrity is above question, in the role of "overseer," which has such negative connotations, as opposed to giving him another title like senior advisor or chief for 9/11 programs something, in other words, that would have kept the focus on what the Red Cross was actually doing with the money.
PND: Do you think public outrage over the Red Cross plan to divert a portion of its 9/11 contributions to other purposes was largely driven by the media?
|"...The [Red Cross] diversion story was greatly exaggerated by the media in general, and the board of the Red Cross overreacted in kind...."|
PD: Yes, I do. The diversion story was greatly exaggerated by the media in general, in my view, and the board of the Red Cross overreacted in kind. First of all, the amount of money that would've been "diverted" was relatively small. Second, the word "diversion" itself is the wrong word, because the Red Cross had tried to head off that concern in its very first ad after the attacks by saying that money raised after 9/11 would help it respond to additional terrorist attacks, which most of us thought were on the way. To an extent, it's the public's fault that it didn't get that subtlety. On the other hand, how could the public pick up such a nuanced message when it was buried in such a weak throwaway sentence? It should have been the first sentence, not the last. And finally, it took the Red Cross far too long to produce the actual "proof" that it had addressed the diversion issue in its early ads, that it was standard practice for the organization to roll over funds from one disaster to the next, and that it had been explaining that fact in all its ads from the beginning. The Red Cross didn't really put the text of all its ads forward until the congressional hearing, and by then it was too late.
PND: Bernadine Healy's resignation as president on October 26 was linked by the media to the diversion-of-funds story and also to her perceived unwillingness to cooperate with the effort, spearheaded initially by New York State attorney general Eliot Spitzer, to create a single database of 9/11 victims. Was that the whole story?
PD: Well, I wasn't privy to the conversations leading up to her resignation, so I'm as much of a victim of what I've read and heard as anybody. But from what I've been able to piece together, her resignation had a lot more to do with her relationship with her board and a number of strategic institutional blunders she made — namely, creating the Liberty Fund without clearing it with the board, even though she had the authority to do so. According to some accounts, she did touch base with a few board members, and they agreed that it was a good idea. But they backed away from that position under pressure from the media — and did so publicly, which was unfair to Healy.
It's also clear from accounts that have been published since then that there were lots of structural problems at the Red Cross. I've never spoken to Bernadine Healy, but I suspect one reason she decided to create a separate fund for 9/11 contributions was because she was afraid the money would be shared with local chapters, which had been standard operating procedure for the organization in previous disasters. And I'm pretty sure she had other ideas for how those chapter needs could be met and how the 9/11 funds should be spent. Look, not everyone who's responsible for running an organization tells the staff every single thing he or she has in mind at every single moment. Healy probably had a plan for how she was going to deal with the needs of the chapters over the long haul and how that related to the 9/11 contributions. I think if she'd been able to communicate that plan more effectively to her board and the public, it would have strengthened the organization in the long run and the Red Cross would be viewed as a hero today instead of having to run around with its tail tucked between its legs. The sad thing is, it was a hero; the public just doesn't know it.
PND: Why were other leaders in the sector reluctant to defend Healy and her organization?
PD: I don't know if they were ever asked to, so I can't speak to whether they were reluctant. But it did strike me as peculiar that there wasn't much of a defense or response on behalf of the Red Cross. I suppose these things have a kind of self-fulfilling aspect to them, in that if you re-read the early press coverage it's apparent that the Red Cross had a big communication problem on its hands. People who weren't party to the decisions being made at the organization were understandably reluctant to defend it without first-hand knowledge of how decisions were reached. To his credit, Josh Gotbaum, the president and CEO of the September 11th Fund, tried to defend the Red Cross in several television interviews. Unfortunately, the people who interviewed him weren't interested in hearing his defense of the Red Cross.
PND: Could the Red Cross have minimized the damage it suffered at the hands of the media if it had mounted a more proactive communications campaign?
PD: Yes. I think the Red Cross would be exponentially ahead of where it is today in terms of its reputation, its fundraising, and its image as a forward-looking organization equipped to handle the new kinds of disasters we're likely to face in the post-9/11 era if it had been more proactive and accessible on the communications front.
PND: Let's turn to the September 11th Fund. You argue in your report that the Fund was a victim of its trailblazing nature and ambition. In what way?
PD: Lorie Slutsky [president of the New York Community Trust] and Ralph Dickerson [then-president of the United Way of New York City] recognized right off the bat that they might have to play a sort of charitable relief role and spend some money on very short-term needs. But they also knew as experienced philanthropists that there would be long-term needs. They were trailblazers in that they created an organization that could be both an immediate responder to an unprecedented event as well as a long-term backstop for other needs that wouldn't become apparent for months — and certainly weren't apparent on September 12, the day the Fund was officially announced.
I think their ambition was extraordinary, because they knew immediately that, by virtue of the Fund's name and the sort of dual mission they had created for it, it would be a highly visible entity — the go-to fund, if you will. Now, perhaps they didn't fully appreciate the extent to which that would be the case and, in that sense, misjudged just how much the public expected from them. But when you're involved in fast-moving events, it's hard to think about everything.
PND: How did the name of the September 11th Fund complicate its task?
PD: Well, it seems so simple-minded, but if you think about selling yogurt or some trivial thing, you wouldn't want to have three or four different kinds of products with the same name. But because the Fund named itself after the day on which the attacks occurred, which made perfect sense, it was immediately confused with every single relief fund that was subsequently created, including the federal government's effort, which eventually was called the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. As a result, the Fund became a victim of journalistic shorthand, in that every time you opened a paper and saw "September 11th Fund" in the headline, it was natural to think it was the September 11th Fund created by the New York Community Trust and the United Way, when, in fact, it often wasn't.
PND: Why was the telethon sponsored by the Fund in late September such a public relations nightmare?
|"...When it comes to communications, the more you have to define your terms, the more likely it is that your communications effort is in trouble...."|
PD: In that instance, you suddenly had two funds — the September 11th Fund and the September 11th Telethon Fund, on top of all the other funds with 9/11 in their name. At the same time, the Red Cross story was beginning to break and people were starting to think a lot of money was being raised but not much was being spent. All of which contributed to making the telethon effort a sitting duck. It was a timing issue more than anything. Yes, the telethon raised a significant amount of money, but it also raised the whole issue of who is and who isn't a victim. And when it comes to communications, the more you have to define your terms, the more likely it is that your communications effort is in trouble. I mean, you shouldn't have to constantly refer people to your Web site for an explanation of what it is you're doing.
Again, that was an instance where a little common sense might have gone a long way. I'm not saying the public is unable to handle complexity, but in an emergency situation simple is always better.
PND: A number of other negatives attached themselves to the Fund in the weeks after 9/11. Do you have a theory about why that happened?
PD: I think it was a chicken-and-egg situation. The media was already running with the Red Cross diversion story and was starting to develop the coordination story — you know, the fact that some families were having problems getting emergency assistance because the Red Cross and other agencies were unwilling, according to the media, to share client information with each other. But what was missing in much of the reporting was a sense of scale and proportion. I mean, here we were looking at between three and six thousand dead or missing, none of whom could be identified from their remains because there were no remains, and you had all this money floating around and all these needs to be met, and yes, it was inevitable that a few people, maybe even more than a few people, would slip through the cracks.
But again, if there had been a reminder to the public every few weeks or so that this is how much money has been raised and this is how much has been spent, the general public might have been much more understanding and patient. Because after the initial confusion, the operations at Pier 94, where the main disaster assistance center was located, did get better, and the overall system did become more responsive. And in the end, many of the people who had gone on television to say they had been missed were in fact helped and in a significant way. In that respect, the media played a constructive role in helping people who had fallen through the cracks get the assistance they were entitled to. But there's no question in my mind that a handful of scandal-mongering television programs created the impression that there were a lot of people whose needs were going unmet or who were being given the runaround and, to a large extent, that simply wasn't true.
PND: Executives of the September 11th Fund have argued that they were proactive in communicating with the media and public. But it doesn't seem to have been enough. What else might they have done to deflect the media criticism directed their way?
PD: Well, Lorie Slutsky herself told me that they issued a press release every single day for the first month or so after the attacks. But the traditional model of issuing a press release and having the press write it up just didn't work in that kind of fast-moving news environment. So I think we need another model. The press had so much to cover and write about that after the Fund issued its first press release, subsequent releases probably didn't seem to add much breaking news to the story. If I had been a reporter, I'd have been hard-pressed to figure out what to write about the Fund in those first few weeks, because the "news" coming out of it was about the creation of a new initiative, or another grant, or the naming of a new board member — the kinds of things you would expect to be going on. That's fine, but they probably could have done more to be truly visible earlier on.
For starters, they could have had a table, a physical presence down at Pier 94, where the victims' families were; I think that would have saved them a lot of headaches. The public and the media would have seen them every day on the job. I can understand that this might have seemed self-serving to some, as if the folks at the Fund were saying, "Look at us, look at what good work we're doing." But I would respectfully disagree. The fact that the September 11th Fund made these large grants, based on a handshake or telephone call, to organizations like Safe Horizon with the express purpose of moving money quickly was news. I mean, the press was criticizing the sector for having these ridiculously long application forms and making people jump through all sorts of hoops, and there was Lorie Slutsky on the phone with David Campbell from Safe Horizon saying, "Whatever you need, we'll back it." That extraordinary flexibility and decisiveness did not get reported. Of course, if it had been, the Fund probably would have been criticized for not establishing appropriate guidelines and accountability measures. Maybe they just couldn't win in that situation.
PND: Are you suggesting that the news business is hooked on bad news and scandal?
|"...But if you look at the bigger media picture, the news hole is shrinking, and that's why bad news wins out over good news...."|
PD: In my mind, the issue is not whether it's good or bad news; it's the shrinking news hole. I wouldn't want to speculate on the number of profiles, features, or interesting angles that could have been written about the Red Cross and September 11th Fund. But if you look at the bigger media picture, the news hole is shrinking, and that's why bad news wins out over good news. At the end of the day, people like to be shocked and titillated. News consumers are not innocent in this situation.
PND: In terms of the press, your report makes it clear that the coverage of the philanthropic response to 9/11 was driven to a large extent by the New York Times. Would the coverage of 9/11 have been different if New York had not been one of the cities attacked?
PD: The first thing I would say is that much of the Times' coverage was truly excellent, and that it should not be lumped in with "the media," and certainly not with the cable news outlets. On the other hand, I think if New York had not been attacked, overall there would have been far less coverage and follow up. Local or regionally focused papers might have been a bit more feature-oriented. You might have gotten a little more of the on-the-ground perspective assuming, of course, that there were a couple of vibrant media outlets in whatever city happened to be attacked.
But it was no coincidence that 9/11 happened where it did, and it was kind of remarkable the degree to which the Times shaped the coverage in other papers.
PND: In today's hyper-competitive media environment, is it possible for an individual, an organization, or an entire field, for that matter, to get a fair hearing once the media smells blood?
PD: That's a good question. I think your earlier question about Bernadine Healy and the shared database, which I really didn't answer, is relevant in this regard. Again, I wasn't in the room, but when you read some accounts of what Healy actually told Eliot Spitzer after he approached her with the idea, you understand that she wasn't opposed to the database per se, which is how the press reported it. She was concerned about the privacy rights of the victims' families, which is a sacred principle at the Red Cross. But the press either chose not to report that angle or deliberately ignored it, or perhaps Healy herself told different things to different reporters. In any case, Spitzer's interpretation — "The Red Cross isn't interested in sharing client information with other relief agencies" — became the driving spin on the story. But surely somebody at the Red Cross could have gotten to a reporter or editor and said, "Why aren't you talking to us about this? Why is only Eliot Spitzer quoted in this story?"
However, once the press smells blood, as you put it, it's very hard to get them off that aspect of a story. It's just a bad position to be in. On the other hand, if you find yourself in that position, the first rule of communications is to be honest, be clear, and don't hide behind jargon. You're already in trouble if you're in the apology mode, and you don't want to make the situation worse by being coy or unclear.
PND: What, if anything, can public officials, private-sector leaders, and the general public do to hold the media accountable for erroneous and/or biased reporting?
PD: I'm not sure. I mean, should we really expect the public to know when a piece of reporting is biased? It's not the public's job, is it? But once a piece of reporting has been revealed to be biased or erroneous, the first thing people should do is write a letter to the editor. I'm a firm believer in letters to the editor, because they actually do get published and they are read not least, by newspaper editors and owners.
On the other hand, complaining to reporters is a waste of time, because when you actually talk to reporters about the good news-bad news conflict, they tend to agree with almost everything we've said. They agree that the news hole is too small and shrinking, and at smaller papers they often say, "We don't have enough time to do our work, we don't have backup or departmental secretaries, it's just us and our cellphones, et cetera." It's a whole lack of supporting infrastructure in all our institutions, not just the field of journalism and it results in too many people wearing too many hats, all the time, and that's bad.
I think you could also argue that the growing conglomeration we see in the media business makes it harder to hold people and institutions accountable. I don't think it's a coincidence that all these recent scandals have happened on the heels of a wave of mergers within the media business. How can we really stay abreast of all the activities that occur under the umbrella of these giant media companies? They're just too big. And that not only makes it very difficult for the media to police and critique itself, it also makes it difficult for the public to do so.
PND: Tom Seessel, who authored a report on the philanthropic response to 9/11 for the Ford Foundation, argued that media coverage of 9/11 often gave the erroneous impression that philanthropy should operate as a "frictionless conveyor belt moving money from donors to recipients." If philanthropy in the wake of September 11 was not meant to be a conveyor belt between donor and recipient, what was it meant to be?
|"...Most people, if you sit and talk with them, think philanthropy is a conveyor belt, or should be that it exists to write checks for good causes and everything else is superfluous...."|
PD: Well, it's not just the media that has that impression. Most people, if you sit and talk with them, think philanthropy is a conveyor belt, or should be — that it exists to write checks for good causes and everything else is superfluous. Having run a foundation, I know that if you really get grantees to talk to you, that's what they think, too. They'd rather have the funds and not deal with the other stuff. I'm exaggerating slightly, but many grantees feel that the important intermediary role claimed by foundations is overstated and doesn't add value to their work. Quite frankly, I feel the same way at times. When I was president of the Joyce Foundation, I tried to think of us as a "yes" machine — exercising thoughtful review, of course — but I know that, from the other side of the table, foundations more often look like "no" machines.
Putting all that aside for the moment, however, I think it's fair to say that philanthropy was never meant to be a conveyor belt between private wealth and good causes. In my view, philanthropy is meant to maximize the public good — and not just while the individual donor or philanthropist is alive. That's a role that philanthropy continues to play, which is a good thing, because philanthropy is one of the few non-commercial, relatively neutral sectors left in our society. All of us in the field have to remember that and have to remember not to be defensive about the fact that philanthropy holds wealth, because that wealth is used to add value to society beyond specific dollar amounts, even if the public doesn't always appreciate our role. Now, I don't know what the field can do to get the public to be more appreciative of the role we play, other than to be more transparent and focused on our grantees. But at the end of the day, it's only the grantees how strong they are, how effective they can be, et cetera that matters.
PND: In the aftermath of 9/11, how effective was philanthropy in maximizing public dollars — that is, dollars contributed by the public? And did it do a better job, in that regard, than the public sector did with taxpayer dollars?
PD: As I wrote in my report, the innovation that the September 11th Fund introduced in the area of health care — basically, they took the usual, narrow, jobs-linked approach to health insurance and tossed it out the window — was revolutionary. And some of the grants I evaluated for the New York Times Company Foundation were superbly innovative. The creation of a top-notch mental health counseling service for uniformed personnel, no questions asked, or the idea of having the Legal Aid Society and Legal Services Corporation work together to provide pro bono legal services for anybody who thought they had a 9/11 claim again, no questions asked was terrific.
But I also think the public sector did a fantastic job with the public dollars that were available to it. Sure, some things went wrong, but if you look at the attacks and their aftermath in proper perspective, you'd have to say the public-sector response was comprehensive and great. I think it's important to recognize and acknowledge that. The response was far more than mere money could ever buy.
PND: You suggest in your report that one casualty of 9/11 was pubic confidence in charities and the philanthropic sector. Susan Berresford, president of the Ford Foundation, has argued that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 public confidence in charities and the philanthropic sector soared and that the recent declines in the level of confidence are just a reversion to the norm. Is she on to something?
PD: Yes, perhaps, but I think it's important not to confuse public confidence with the public's need to believe. If the level of public confidence in our sector at the moment is the norm, I don't think we should be happy or satisfied. I mean, maybe it's the norm for all institutions in our society at this particular juncture, but if it is, that should make us even less happy.
PND: What can those of us in the sector do to raise the level of confidence in our field?
PD: Well, for starters, there can never be enough stories put out about grantees and what they've done and have learned from 9/11. Lessons are coming out every day about how to deliver services more effectively, how to streamline and eliminate things that seemed necessary but aren't — there's a lot of operational adaptation going on that came directly out of 9/11.
I know there's a school of thought out there that believes we should put 9/11 behind us, people are tired of it, let's dissolve the 9/11 work groups and move on. But I think that would be a mistake. Instead, I think we need an ongoing post-9/11 task force that would come together every couple of months under the umbrella of the Council of Foundations, perhaps, to talk about recent developments and continue to try to tell the story of what happened in the aftermath of 9/11. That's why this Foundation Center effort is so important — the public may simply never know the extent to which its donations to 9/11 charities were well used and good purposes were served by the tax-exempt status of foundations.
PND: Did 9/11 create an expectation among the public that philanthropy can and should be more responsive in times of emergency?
|"...I think we've missed an opportunity to explain to the public how philanthropy differs from charity and emergency assistance...."|
PD: Well, I think this goes back to your very first question. I don't think the public knows anything about the difference between charity, philanthropy, and emergency assistance. And maybe they shouldn't. But I think we've missed an opportunity to explain to the public how philanthropy differs from charity and emergency assistance — that while foundations are there to backstop the emergency responders and fill in gaps in the provision of services, you can't expect foundations to play the role of emergency responder. It's not what they do; they're not fast-moving entities. Which maybe leads to the next question: Well, why aren't they?
And that's where we're stuck. Why isn't philanthropy a conveyor belt? And why do we need philanthropy if it's not going to function as one? I hate to say it, but those are the kinds of questions you hear all the time from the public. I even quoted someone from the September 11th Fund who said she felt that reporters, in their questioning of her, were sort of reflecting this latent antipathy that the public has for philanthropy. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say most people in the field know ten people who are just as happy to complain about philanthropy as they are to praise it.
But here's where I think we could do a better job of working with reporters. We need to find better ways of linking grantmakers with their grants in the mind of the media. Maybe it's just a matter of more education with reporters one-on-one. And maybe there's a way to encourage editors and publishers to do an occasional feature about a foundation or the people who work in foundations we don't see enough of that, either. You know, there are lots of fascinating people in philanthropy who don't get profiled — in part, I think, because foundations don't encourage their personnel to get out front; they want to keep the focus on their grantees. As a result, it becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy philanthropy prefers to stay in the background, but when there's an emergency the general public doesn't truly understand what philanthropy does. Perhaps we should try to bring more attention to program officers, who often have a very vivid perspective on individual grants and grantees and how they come to recommend grants to foundation leaders and boards.
PND: As we sit here this morning in a conference room in New York City, the Department of Homeland security has raised the terror alert to code orange, there are police officers on subway platforms and National Guardsmen at bridges and public monuments. You argue in your report that in this new era of homeland security, it behooves us to reconsider the relationship between various sectors of society, including the media. What is the role of the nonprofit sector in terms of homeland security?
PD: Well, I would go further and say that the nonprofit sector should be taking the lead in redefining homeland security. Homeland security has two very distinct aspects. One has to do with civil defense and military preparedness. The second aspect involves the broader security of society and individuals. What we saw after 9/11 was that the nonprofit sector has a vital role to play on both fronts. While the nonprofit sector surely should not be expected to become a civil defense force, many nonprofit organizations were able to retool themselves overnight to provide a first-line response. And as time went on, it was strikingly obvious that nonprofit organizations, supported by emergency 9/11 grants and funds, were the critical players in terms of trying to deal with the ripple effects caused by the attacks.
So I think we need to rethink the very definition of security in the post-9/11 era. Security can mean a lot of things, including economic security, health security, and so on. The nonprofit sector, along with government, is a key provider of that kind of security. If nothing else, 9/11 showed us how quickly any of us can become victims and suddenly be faced with a whole new set of circumstances. Therefore, it's up to the nonprofit sector to really articulate how these ongoing needs relate to future emergency preparedness and to ensure that the social safety net remains in good repair.
PND: You've alluded to it throughout our conversation, but I wonder whether you could say a few words about why it's important for us to examine the nexus of charity, philanthropy, and the media in the aftermath of 9/11?
PD: Well, I go back to an earlier point, which is that the only thing that makes a democracy work is an informed public, and the philanthropic sector is one of the few remaining non-commercialized venues for information left in this country. If the media continues to treat philanthropy in a way that ignores or diminishes its unique role in our society and the public loses faith in the sector, then we will have a hard time holding onto our credibility and our democracy will suffer as a consequence.
PND: Well, thank you, Paula, for taking the time to speak with us this morning.
PD: Thank you.
Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, interviewed Paula DiPerna in May. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.