Stephen Solender, Chief Executive Officer, 9/11 United Services Group: Coordinating Service Delivery to Victims of the World Trade Center Attack

September 5, 2003
Stephen Solender, Chief Executive Officer, 9/11 United Services Group: Coordinating Service Delivery to Victims of the World Trade Center Attack

In the wake of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, efforts to coordinate the charitable response in New York quickly became embroiled in controversy, as New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani clashed over who would would control the database at the heart of the effort, and the Red Cross, the largest and most important of the emergency-relief responders, hesitated about whether it should even participate.

Almost as quickly as it blew up, however, the controversy was put to rest, as both Spitzer and Giuliani backed away from their demands and the Red Cross, having been assured that confidential client information would not be compromised, agreed to be part of the effort then taking shape under the umbrella of a new entity, the 9/11 United Services Group.

In April, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Stephen Solender, chief executive officer of USG, about the organization's efforts to coordinate services to direct and indirect victims of the Trade Center attack, lessons learned by the sector in the wake of 9/11, and what he and his colleagues are doing to improve the coordination of second-response systems —— in New York and around the country —— in the event of future terrorist attacks.

Prior to his appointment as the CEO of USG, Solender had a prestigious career in social services in New York City and nationwide. Currently president emeritus of the United Jewish Communities, he served from 1986-1999 as executive vice president of the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York and, prior to that, held executive positions at the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore for eleven years.

Mr. Solender sits on the boards of numerous nonprofit organizations and schools, including the Nonprofit Chief Executive Forum, and is currently chairman of the President's Advisory Council of North General Hospital in Harlem. From 1987 to 1990, he was founding chairman of the Human Services Council of New York, an umbrella organization of the city's human service delivery agencies.

He received his B.A. from Columbia University and an M.S. from the Columbia University School of Social Work.

Philanthropy News Digest: USG was created in December 2001 to enhance the coordination of services to direct victims of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. Who were the major players responsible for its creation?

Stephen Solender: The main players were the September 11th Fund, the New York Community Trust, the United Way of New York City, the New York chapter of the Red Cross, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, Safe Horizon, and the Salvation Army.

PND: Did the New York State attorney general's office play a role in its creation?

SS: Yes. The attorney general was well aware that a large sum of money had been raised —— roughly $750 million at that point —— for the victims of 9/11 and was worried about oversight. USG was formed, to a great extent, to make the point that the nonprofit sector had the capacity to manage those funds in a fiduciarily responsible fashion, and it's my opinion that we have discharged that responsibility admirably. As a matter of fact, we've kept Attorney General Spitzer apprised as we've been going along, and he's absolutely thrilled that it has worked out as well as it has. It's a real example, in my opinion, of the public sector saying to the private sector, "You have a major responsibility to the public," and the private sector coming together in a very responsible fashion and meeting that challenge.

PND: What were the primary activities of the organization in the first few months of its existence?

SS: There were a number. One was to make data about families of the direct victims available to our member agencies in a client-sensitive way. The more fundamental responsibility, however, was to coordinate services to the victims' families in the most professionally responsible fashion. I think the whole concept of service coordinators is extraordinary. They were made available to families to help them understand what kind of help they needed and how to access the agencies in the system, so that they got the help as quickly and efficiently as possible.

PND: What kind of services are we talking about?

SS: Oh, everything from financial assistance, to psychiatric counseling, to assistance in finding jobs. The coordinators were also there to be supportive, in a general sense. We forget now, but people needed to talk; they needed someone who was sympathetic to listen to their stories and help them think through their next steps.

PND: Did the organization encounter any major obstacles in those first few months?

"...People were really motivated to move quickly and organizational barriers came down much more rapidly than they would have under other circumstances...."

SS: I've been involved in the human service system for forty-three years —— most of those in New York —— and I've never experienced a higher degree of cooperation. Even now, the degree of cooperation that developed among our member agencies is amazing to me. I was the founding chair of the Human Service Council in New York — that's a coordinating body for all the nonprofit human service agencies in the city — so I've been watching the nonprofit system here for many, many years. But during the years I was associated with the Council, even the Council never achieved this degree of collaboration, and I think that that's one of our major accomplishments. Yes, it took some time for us to begin to work together, and it also took some time for the staff here to get to know their responsibilities. But what I find so interesting is how little time it took everybody to get going. I think that was because the magnitude of the tragedy was so great that people were really motivated to move quickly and organizational barriers came down much more rapidly than they would have under other circumstances.

PND: When did USG start coordinating services for victims' families?

SS: We were up and running by early December of '01 and were coordinating services soon after that.

PND: When did the database become fully operational?

SS: Within a couple of months. One of the interesting things about the USG DataMart is that it was a partnership involving not only all the nonprofit human service systems in New York but also corporate America. By that I mean we couldn't have gotten it up and running as quickly as we did without pro bono assistance from IBM — it was amazing the way they moved in here and got things running — and McKinsey & Company, which lent us some of their management consultants, as well as Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, both of which made several full-time people available to us on a pro bono basis. That only skims the surface of the pro bono and discounted services USG has received from various corporate partners. It really has been a remarkable partnership.

PND: Was your work in those early months hampered by the initial reluctance of the Red Cross to share client information with other relief agencies?

SS: Not at all. In fact, the Red Cross of New York was the major driver in the formation of USG. They saw the need for coordination, and if it hadn't been for their leadership, USG would not have been successful. The fact that they're the major first-response agency in the metropolitan area and that Bob Bender, their president, took such an interest in USG are the major reasons why our efforts were so successful, so quickly.

"...There was never resistance at a fundamental level to the idea of sharing data; the question was how to do it responsibly...."

What often gets lost in discussions about the Red Cross is that while all these organizational issues were being dealt with, they were there on the front lines, from day one, providing incredibly important services to the victims and their families. Sure, they had to make adjustments, and one of those was how to coordinate the data they were obtaining from victims' families with the data that other agencies were obtaining while respecting the confidentiality of their clients' information. Everyone wanted to respect the confidentiality of their clients' information; that was a very important issue. So some of the concerns in the aftermath of the tragedy were not so much around whether we should coordinate, but how to do so in a way that would protect sensitive personal client information so that it wasn't made public in an inappropriate fashion. There was never resistance at a fundamental level to the idea of sharing data; the question was how to do it responsibly, and we continue to work on that. The last thing anyone wants is not to be sensitive to a client's privacy — there are legal reasons, obviously, but also professional reasons. What the Red Cross was saying to us from the beginning was, "Look, we want to cooperate, but how do we do it in a way that will meet privacy standards?"

PND: When did you join USG?

SS: I came aboard in November of 2002 and was blessed to have inherited an organization that had had remarkable leadership under Bob Hurst. What impressed me most was how much had been accomplished that first year.

PND: When did the organization begin to broaden its focus beyond database and confidentiality issues to include the longer-term needs of indirect victims?

SS: Let me correct an assumption in your question: We were not just involved in data collection issues early on; we were also involved in coordinating service. In fact, USG has five functions, and I think it might be useful for me to review them. One is the whole area of service coordination. The second is communications. Under the leadership of our information portal team, we regularly send out a newsletter to eighty thousand households around the United States that have been affected by 9/11. We also provide various online tools, including our public Web site and our recently launched September 11th Assistance Guide, that enable individuals to access the latest program information relating to their specific needs. Third, we're involved in advocacy. Yesterday, for example, we had our monthly meeting of our advisory council —— fourteen people who represent a range of communities affected by the WTC attacks, including some of the victims' families. Those meetings are designed to help us better understand what individuals' evolving needs are so that we can advocate on their behalf. Fourth, we're involved in developmental technology. And, last but not least, we focus on developing a framework to deal with future disasters.

So we have five functions, and the first four I mentioned were going full speed from virtually our first day of operation. But as the first year came to a close, we began to see that we had a responsibility to take our experience and do two things with it. One was to set up a mechanism that could be adapted quickly and put into play if and when New York is faced with another disaster of this magnitude. And two, we wanted to explore how we could work with FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] and the Department of Homeland Security as they develop a national approach to disaster response in the event of future terrorist attacks.

PND: Let's talk about that mechanism. At this point, what does it look like?

SS: Let me talk about New York first. One of the things we're committed to is making sure that USG does not become a permanent organization. One of the important messages we want to send to the public is that we know when to start and we know when to stop. So we plan to sunset the organization by the end of 2004 — assuming that there are no further attacks. By that point we will have helped our member agencies to absorb the various functions we're now engaged in, and it's even possible that staff who have developed expertise in those areas might go with the function to a member agency so that the agency has the benefit of their expertise.

"...What's complicated about this is that we don't know what the next disaster is going to look like...."

We also plan to create what we're calling a shell —— a framework that would keep USG intact organizationally, but without a staff or a budget. It would be something that could be activated very quickly in the wake of a disaster, and the executive committee or officers would meet periodically to touch base. What's complicated about this is that we don't know what the next disaster is going to look like. It could be similar to what happened at the World Trade Center; it could be a biological attack that affects tens of thousands, rather than thousands, of people; or it could be a variation on a theme we haven't even imagined. So we're trying to create a mechanism that brings the right leadership together to evaluate the crisis, whatever it might be, and make important decisions. Question number one would be, Is this organization — meaning USG — necessary? Maybe the established first- and second-response agencies could handle it without a USG-type operation, in which case the organization wouldn't be activated. On the other hand, if there were indications that an organization like USG was needed, the question would then be, What form should it take?

We're also developing a memorandum of understanding with the Office of Emergency Management in New York City so that we can be coordinated with the city's services right from the beginning. As a matter of fact, part of that memorandum will guarantee that we have a desk in the Office of Emergency Management, ensuring that the partnership between the public and private sector will be as effective as possible from day one.

Nationally, we're trying to do a couple of things. First, we think there are three important disaster-response models that have evolved over the last ten years. One is the Oklahoma City model, the second is the New York-USG model, and the third is the Washington, D.C., model. What we're recommending is that the appropriate national organization —— maybe it's the Department of Homeland Security, or NVOAD [National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster], or the Red Cross, or the Salvation Army, or some combination of these groups —— convene regional seminars around the country to which public and private officials from various municipalities would be invited and asked to review the three models, with an eye to adapting one of them to their own local circumstances. One of the important messages we're trying to convey nationally is that in addition to a first-response system — the Red Cross and Salvation Army and Homeland Security and FEMA — there also needs to be a highly developed second-response system that deals with human service needs. We want to encourage Homeland Security to see it as a very important part of their program, and we'd also like to encourage other municipalities to develop them.

PND: Can you outline the differences between the three models? How did the human services response differ in the case of Oklahoma City, New York, and Washington, D.C.?

SS: In the first place, the scope of the disaster was much greater in New York than in Oklahoma City or Washington. Nobody else had that many victims; nobody else had to deal with three thousand deaths. In addition, nobody had to face the complex jurisdictional issues that New York did — I mean, you're talking about Long Island, Westchester, New Jersey, southern Connecticut, and the five boroughs. You're also talking about forty, fifty countries being involved. So the model here had to be sensitive to the scope of the disaster and the complexity of the environment in which it happened. In D.C., where many of the victims were Department of Defense employees, the government played a much greater role. It was a very different kind of a situation, and what the volunteer system had to do there was to respond to the families of the victims who were not Department of Defense employees — a smaller, more defined universe. I'm not that familiar with Oklahoma City, so I can't really comment on that model.

PND: Since 9/11, there have been calls from many quarters for the creation of a sort of unified communications bureau that would speak for the nonprofit sector in New York in the event of a future crisis. Do you agree that the nonprofit/philanthropic community needs something like that? And is it a role USG could play between now and the end of 2004?

SS: Well, you might have seen the recent ad that USG and several other organizations ran in the New York Times. One of the interesting things about it was the fact that our Web site was the site that everyone involved with the ad agreed should be mentioned. Obviously I'm a little biased, but I think it's evident that we've developed considerable expertise in communicating vital information through numerous online and offline channels in an accessible way, and I would hope that in the event of a future disaster our communication tools could continue to provide that kind of information in a timely fashion.

Having said that, I would have to say that, given the incredible diversity and complexity of New York, I really can't envision a future disaster scenario in which the city wouldn't have its own communications mechanism to brief people. And there probably would need to be distinctions between first- and second-response mechanisms —— the Red Cross has some very important communication mechanisms, for example, as do the Salvation Army and Safe Horizon. So I think what we're talking about is a series of different mechanisms, some focused on the first response, some focused on the second-response human service needs, and the human service needs being subdivided into different areas. In other words, I think you could expect to have several different voices.

PND: The USG Web site emphasizes the organization's efforts to meet the needs of 9/11 victims "compassionately and efficiently." I thought that was an interesting phrase. What does it mean to you?

SS: Well, that's really our vision; it expresses the value system behind everything we do here. We want to be as client-sensitive as possible. These are people who have experienced terrible, terrible trauma, and they deserve to be treated in a way that is responsive and caring. That's why everything we do here, from our Web sites to the newsletter to the training of our service coordinators and case managers, is designed to help people in a way that takes into consideration the trauma they've experienced.

PND: How many people are you currently helping?

SS: We have about a hundred and ninety service coordinators, and there are roughly seven thousand people involved with those coordinators. Those are the people who need sustained help. But there are many, many other people who are getting sporadic help on an as-need basis.

PND: Can you give us a few examples of the kind of assistance you provide?

SS: Some of it is psychiatric. Some of it is focused on helping people find employment. Some of it is focused on their children, who are especially vulnerable. And some of it is focused on specific problems they may be having. We help many people who have been stable for a long period of time and then are suddenly destabilized by a particular event, whether it's a death in the family, or the trauma of a terrorist attack in another country, or some other event. For example, some family members who had managed quite well in the first six or eight months were very negatively affected when they went to the first anniversary celebration at ground zero on September 11, 2002 — the trauma, the grief, it all came back to them. So there are different triggers for different people, and we do our best to help them through the agency systems if and when they need it.

PND: Was the war in Iraq a trigger for some of your clients?

SS: Absolutely. As is the threat of another terrorist attack. Every time the terror alert is raised, we see an increase in the demand for our services.

PND: Do you expect the number of people you are helping to increase, decrease, or remain the same over the next twelve to eighteen months?

"...Because our society is facing so many different challenges at the moment, there's a tendency for the public to say, "Okay, that's over; let's move on to the next emergency...."

SS: That's a good question. As you probably know, the folks in Oklahoma City carried a very significant caseload for six years after the bombing of the Murrah Building. So I think we can expect there to be a significant caseload in New York as well. Whether it goes up or down over the next year and a half depends to a large degree on external circumstances. However, I think we all need to remember that the fallout from 9/11 didn't end after a year. As a matter of fact, I think it's a major issue for the country. Unfortunately, because our society is facing so many different challenges at the moment, there's a tendency for the public to say, "Okay, that's over; let's move on to the next emergency." But for many family members, year two is proving to be even harder than year one. In year one, the families of the victims were mobilized, neighbors were mobilized, business associates were mobilized, society was mobilized. In year two, in contrast, family members are still experiencing trauma but for everyone else it's business as usual. As a result, we're seeing a certain amount of pathology that's worse than what we saw in year one. For example, school systems are reporting that, in many cases, children of the victims are expressing more hostility in year two. So one of the important responsibilities we have is to alert the public to the fact that, for many people, the pain continues. In fact, we've been talking with several newspapers about how to commemorate the second anniversary in a way that will remind the public of that fact.

PND: Tell us a bit about the DataMart.

SS: The DataMart has information on approximately eighty-three thousand victims of 9/11 who have received services of one kind or another. Essentially it's a reference tool for our service coordinators that enables them to know with a fair degree of precision, even if it's the first time they've sat down with a client, what type of help a client has received, what their experience has been, and what sort of help they might still need. It really enhances the manner in which our service coordinators work with clients because, among other things, they don't have to ask clients the same questions over and over again — a process that, among other things, can re-traumatize them. It also will probably serve as a sort of historical record going forward, allowing people in a very tangible way to look back and actually see what was done to help the victims of 9/11.

Of course, the client has to consent to the sharing of the information. Again, that theme — respect for the client — runs through everything we do. We want to respect them from the standpoint of being sensitive to their needs as well as appreciating the fact that they've given us confidential information. The last thing in the world we want is to have clients feel that their personal information is being made public in an inappropriate way.

PND: Will you hand it off to another organization as you prepare to close your doors in '04?

SS: Yes. We'll be talking with various agencies in our system and fully expect that one of them will assume the responsibility for maintaining it.

PND: Do you have any other initiatives under way that we haven't touched on?

SS: Well, we're working very hard with the national offices of the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and the United Way to come up with a list of the kinds of data they would need to have included on a common intake form. If we can achieve that objective, it would mean that in future disasters families would be able to fill out a single form that would give them access to the entire private-sector emergency-relief system. In my dreams —— I still dream a little bit, although it gets harder and harder as the years go by —— we might even get to the point where the form is accepted by public-sector agencies. So we're working on the first step, agreeing on the common data, and we hope that will eventually lead to acceptance of a single intake form by the entire private nonprofit sector.

That same group is working on developing the technology to move client information to the appropriate agencies based on a client's request. And we have a third team working on the legal aspects of all this so that we don't violate any of the confidentiality agreements we're all subject to. It's a very important initiative.

We're also very interested in learning how to communicate better with the public in anticipation of future disasters. In fact, I've spent a good deal of time recently talking about the subject with various consultants, and although it's really still in the discussion phase, there might be some kind of seminar in the not-too-distant future involving various service agency heads, reporters, editors, and publishers to talk about lessons learned from 9/11 and Oklahoma City. The next time, I think it's critical that we do a better job of communicating with the public.

PND: Care to give us a preview of some those lessons?

SS: Well, I think we probably need to spend money on public information ads from the beginning —— ads that explain how to access our services, the guidelines people need to follow, how contributions are being used, and so on. We need to make ourselves much more consumer-friendly from the start. Obviously, there was confusion after 9/11 with regard to the Red Cross situation. As a lifelong fundraiser, however, I can say with some authority that the best thing to do in a situation like that is to fully disclose up front so that everyone, donors included, knows how their dollars are going to be used.

The other thing is more complicated. There are very few reporters who specialize in the nonprofit human service area, and it's a very complicated area. So what happens when a 9/11 hits is that they get parachuted in, they're on deadline, and they don't really understand the sector, all of which makes it's natural for them to grab hold of the issue of the day and to write about it without fully understanding the context. To combat that, we're trying to develop relationships with reporters and editors who might be covering these kinds of stories in the future as a way of getting to know each other better, to establish mutual trust, and to ensure that there will be journalists who understand our sector and can provide some of that context.

PND: Speaking of next times, is the nonprofit sector in New York better prepared to respond to a future terrorist attack than it was on September 10, 2001?

SS: Yes. We are blessed with an amazing network of human services agencies in New York. And while it's important to remember that what USG did after 9/11 was to help that network adjust to the crisis and focus on the specific needs that the events of that day required, we also need to recognize that if we hadn't had such a strong system already in place, we would have been in real trouble. I mean, there's no way we could have created that system on September 12. It's a tribute, really, to the hundreds of thousands of donors over the years who have supported the systems, and the thousands of volunteer leaders who have worked with professionals to develop the systems, and the countless volunteers who have worked in the systems.

PND: Is there a cautionary note in that for communities that might not have been as farsighted and generous as New York in creating their own human services networks?

"...The key word here is adaptation....Everybody's going to do their own thing; that's just the way it is...."

SS: Well, I wouldn't recommend to anybody that they take our system and adopt it as is. The key word here is adaptation. I do a lot of consulting around the country and I am acutely aware of local differences. Everybody's going to do their own thing; that's just the way it is. Obviously, large municipalities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh already have very sophisticated human services networks in place, which may not be the case when you go into smaller communities. But the important point to remember is that even though everybody does it differently, it helps to have a couple of different models to look at and some benchmarks to work from.

PND: It's relatively early in the game, but do you think the Department of Homeland Security will be a good partner in the efforts you've described?

SS: I hope so. We want to reach out to the department and develop as strong and effective a partnership with it as possible. I appreciate the fact that the department is only a few months old, and that they've had to reorganize while remaining focused on potential crises of enormous magnitude — I'm very respectful of that. But I do hope that over the next three to four months we can begin to work with them on developing a human services focused second-response system that will be ready to go should there be a next time.

PND: Looking ahead, what is your ambition for USG?

SS: There are a couple of things. First, I want us to continue to provide the kind of sensitive, high-quality services to our clients as we have been. Second, I want us to develop a responsible plan for the transfer of those services to the right agencies at the right time. Third, I want to be certain that we leave behind a mechanism that can be activated quickly and efficiently in the event of a future disaster or attack. Fourth, I want to communicate to the public the message that they should feel very proud of what's been created here and can be assured that their philanthropic dollars were used in a responsible fashion. And fifth, I want to pay tribute to the people who have worked at USG. It's a remarkable group of professionals who have provided a service that they'll never be able to be thanked for enough.

PND: Well, Stephen, thank you for speaking with us this morning.

SS: Thank you. It was my pleasure.

Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, interviewed Stephen Solender in April. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at