Terri Lee Freeman, President, Community Foundation for the National Capital Region: Mobilizing Resources to Meet the Needs of Pentagon Families

August 26, 2003
Terri Lee Freeman, President, Community Foundation for the National Capital Region: Mobilizing Resources to Meet the Needs of Pentagon Families

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, with images of the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center still fresh in the national imagination, it was easy to forget that Washington, D.C., the seat of America's political and military might, had been the primary target of the terrorists. In fact, but for the heroics of a group of passengers on United Airlines Flight 93, it's almost certain that the White House or Capitol would have been hit and the course of history changed forever.

All too aware of the symbolic value of the terrorists' targets — as well as how nearly the country had escaped disaster — officials in the White House and Department of Defense decided to send a message of their own by pulling out the stops to have the damaged Pentagon rebuilt in time to mark the first anniversary of the attacks. The audacious efficiency of that effort did little, however, to assuage the grief of the victims' families or support local populations affected by the attacks.

In May, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Terri Lee Freeman, president of the Community Foundation of the National Capital Region (CFNCR), about the foundation's efforts to meet the needs of the families affected by the attack on the Pentagon, the impact of the attack on immigrant communities in the D.C. area, the difficulties inherent in ccordinating a philanthropic response to future attacks, and lessons learned by the philanthropic community in the aftermath of 9/11.

As president of CFNCR, Freeman has been responsible for providing thought leadership and furthering the mission of the foundation to facilitate individual, family, and organizational giving at all levels to improve the quality of life in the metropolitan Washington region. Under her leadership, the foundation's assets have grown from $52 million to more than $200 million, making it the largest local grantmaker in the metropolitan D.C. area, with grants of more than $47 million in fiscal year 2002.

In April 2002,Washingtonian magazine identified her as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Washington, and in August Ebony recognized her as one of the top black leaders in philanthropy. More recently, Washingtonian recognized her as one of its Washingtonians of the Year, and she was invited to join the Washington Business Journal's Board of Advisors. A graduate of the 1996 class of Leadership Washington, Ms. Freeman has served on a variety of boards and is currently a member of the board of Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest, the board of directors of Venture Philanthropy Partners, and is a member of the Strategy Group for New Ventures in Philanthropy.

Freeman obtained her bachelor's degree in journalism/communication arts from the University of Dayton in 1981 and received a master's degree in organizational communication management from Howard University in 1983. She is married to the Reverend Bowyer Freeman and has three daughters.

Philanthropy News Digest: How long have you been with the Community Foundation of the National Capitol Region?

Terri Lee Freeman: It will be seven years in July.

PND: What were you doing before you came to the foundation?

TLF: Immediately prior, I was executive director of the Freddie Mac Foundation, in MacLean, Virginia. Prior to that, I worked for thirteen years in a variety of communications positions at the Freddie Mac Corporation.

PND: Where were you on the morning of September 11, 2001, when you heard that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon?

TLF: In the office.

PND: Were you already aware that something had happened in New York?

TLF: I was. We were preparing for a grants and program committee meeting that morning, and we heard that something had happened in New York. My assistant was on the telephone with someone at the Pentagon when the plane hit there, so that's how we found out what was going on.

PND: Was it immediately apparent that the two events were related?

TLF: Yes.

PND: Did you do anything that day to respond to the attack on the Pentagon?

TLF: The only thing I did that day was to talk with Dot Ridings at the Council on Foundations and Lorie Slutsky at the New York Community Trust. They told me that a press release about the establishment of the September 11th Fund would be going out the next day and asked whether or not we would sign on. I said yes, and that was it for the day. I felt it was imperative that I be with my family.

PND: Can you walk us through what CFNCR did during the remainder of that week?

TLF: Well, one of the first things I did was to review the press release about the September 11th Fund. As I did, it became apparent that that effort was very New York-focused and was not going to meet the needs of the Washington area. We knew the United Way here would help the nonprofit organizations that served the families of people killed or missing at the Pentagon, but we also anticipated that people would want to support those families directly. So I talked to several colleagues in the region about establishing something that would benefit families directly. To make a long story short, after a lot of consultation with people from Oklahoma City and conversations with the Washington Post, we finalized the details of the Survivors Fund and announced it that Friday, the fourteenth, in the Post. On the sixteenth, Sunday, the Post ran an editorial that basically said, "This is what we're contributing to," and the next day the Fund started to receive contributions.

PND: Why did you name it the Survivors Fund?

TLF: We didn't want to use the term "victim"; we wanted something with a more positive connotation. "September 11th" was already taken, so we decided to go with "Survivors."

PND: What was the announced mission of the Fund?

TLF: From the beginning we said that the Fund would be established to meet the longer-term needs of the families and others impacted by the September 11 tragedy at the Pentagon. Which meant the Fund had geographic restrictions and a time frame. We came right out and said our expectation was that the Fund would be in business for between five and seven years, and that we would focus on education, mental health, job transition, and other longer-term activities.

"...We knew the United Way here would help the nonprofit organizations that served the families...but we anticipated that people would want to support those families directly...."

PND: Was your definition of "survivor" fairly specific or open-ended?

TLF: It was relatively open-ended because we knew it wasn't likely to be limited to the families of those who were injured or had died. We learned that from talking to people from Oklahoma City. For instance, I don't believe the Oklahoma City relief efforts initially included first responders. But after talking to the people there, we understood that first responders would need assistance. We also recognized that there would be people with survivor's guilt, people who normally worked in the area where the plane hit but, for whatever reason, weren't there that morning and survived while many of their friends and colleagues were killed. Same with American Airlines employees. So the Fund's mandate was relatively broad from the beginning. Where we had to do some fine-tuning, which was done in what we call our team governance committee, was around the issue of what constitutes a victim's family. Later on we divided the affected population into primary and secondary audiences. The primary audience was comprised of those who had a family member who was injured or killed. The secondary audience included those whose mental health was significantly impacted by the event.

PND: At what point was the scope of the Fund broadened to include indirect victims, for example those who lost their jobs or income as a result of the attack?

TLF: It wasn't broadened to include them. Instead, we tried to leverage other dollars. We had already been working with immigrant populations in the region. So what we did, particularly with larger corporations, was to walk funders through the decision process. We began to talk to people and told them that we hadn't made provisions for the economic distress we were seeing and would they consider deploying some of their funds specifically for those populations. But the Survivors Fund was always limited to the population I mentioned.

PND: How much did the Fund eventually receive?

TLF: Right around $20 million.

PND: And approximately how many people contributed to the Fund?

TLF: We received about twenty thousand gifts.

PND: Is the Fund still open to contributions?

TLF: It is. We received a few gifts around the time of the first anniversary in September 2002. We also received some gifts around the holidays. So it's open, but we don't anticipate getting many more contributions.

"...We understood that first responders would need assistance. We also recognized that there would be people with survivor's guilt...."

PND: How much of the $20 million have you distributed?

TLF: We've authorized $7.3 million for victim assistance and actually distributed $5.2 million.

PND: The administrative costs of providing assistance became a hot-button issue for many 9/11 relief funds. How were they handled in the case of the Survivors Fund?

TLF: The administrative costs of the Fund were covered by corporations, local foundations, and the Washington Post.

PND: A hundred percent?

TLF: One hundred percent.

PND: Have you set a termination date for the Fund?

TLF: We had planned for the Fund to operate for five to seven years. We haven't set a specific termination date, but one of the things we continue to do is have our case managers keep an eye out for other sources of revenue that can support people's continuing needs after the Survivors Fund has ceased operations.

PND: The Survivors Fund differs from many of the funds created in the aftermath of 9/11 in its use of case managers. What do your case managers do, and why did you decide to structure assistance from the Fund around them?

TLF: Through consultation with other social work professionals, it was clear that the distribution of cash alone would not necessarily help people. This was a severe, traumatic event, and there was going to be a need for counseling. The case management approach is very personal, one-on-one, and fosters longer-term relationships that can help people navigate the charitable landscape. We instructed our case managers to not just look at what the Survivors Fund could provide, but also to look at how they could help people connect with Red Cross dollars, or United Way dollars, or with whatever assistance might be available.

People needed somebody to help them manage that process. That's why we de-cided on the case-management approach, and it has proven to be effective. We did a survey of our clients, and 93 percent of them reported that they were highly satisfied with the case management they received, while 91 percent reported they were highly satisfied with the services and financial support they received. Anecdotally, we've had people say, "Thank you for the Fund, but thank you more for the case manager." So that approach very much added value to the dollars themselves.

PND: How did you go about selecting the case managers?

"...The case-management approach is very personal, one-on-one, and fosters longer-term relationships that can help people navigate the charitable landscape...."

TLF: We didn't. We contracted with Northern Virginia Family Services, who do this kind of work on a regular basis. So we approached them and said, "We want to establish a fund for the survivors of the Pentagon attach, we want to use case managers, but we can't do it ourselves. Tell us how many people you'll need in order to keep the case loads reasonable." Typically, case managers are social workers who have been involved with other disasters or have worked with people who have experienced significant trauma. I can't tell you exactly how many years of experience they have on average, but I can say that Northern Virginia Family Services sets high standards for their case managers, and that these people — we have there ten case managers and one supervisor — are solely devoted to the work of the Survivors Fund.

PND: Has the predicted need for mental health counseling post-9/11 materialized in your community?

TLF: Yes. We're still seeing an average of ten to twenty new cases a month, most of them mental health-related. Some of them are relatives of victims, but many are Pentagon employees.

PND: Do you anticipate that the need for mental-health counseling will extend out for the next several years?

TLF: Yes, we do. We're starting to see the need develop among rescue workers and Defense Intelligence Agency employees. After the first anniversary, we started to see a spike in the numbers. They've leveled off, but we continue to see a steady inflow of new people seeking help. We expect to reach the one-thousand-client mark eventually.

"...We're still seeing an average of ten to twenty new cases a month, most of them mental health-related. Some are relatives of victims, but many are Pentagon employees...."

PND: The immigrant community in the D.C. region was hit particularly hard by 9/11. Why was that, and what is the foundation doing to address the needs of immigrants in the area?

TLF: There were several reasons, one being plain old backlash against a religion and various ethnic groups that, in the minds of many unthinking people, had perpetrated this horrible crime against Americans. Second, we have a lot of immigrants who work in the hospitality industry, which was the industry most affected by the attacks. We had been working with nonprofit organizations that provide services to immigrant communities for about a year and a half prior to 9/11, focusing on naturalization issues, tenant advocacy, and so on, and after 9/11 we stepped up our convening activities around some of those issues. But most our efforts have been an extension of the work we'd been doing with the Washington Area Partnership for Immigrants, which deals with social justice issues, legal services to the immigrant community, and col-laboration between various ethnic-oriented nonprofits. That work continues.

PND: Have you seen evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, to suggest that support for 9/11 recovery efforts in the D.C. region came, or is coming, at the expense of existing programs?

TLF: Immediately following the attacks, yes, there was a decrease in dollars flowing to organizations that were not directly involved in disaster recovery-related efforts. But people weren't saying too much back then. It was just too sensitive a topic. Later on, after several months had passed, we began to hear more about all the money going to people directly impacted by 9/11, and questions began to be raised about whether too much money was going to the victims' families and not enough to other types of victims — immigrant communities, hospitality workers, et cetera. But remember, the economy had turned down before September 11, and the attacks served to compound the situation, creating a kind of perfect-storm scenario. I haven't heard people blaming it directly on September 11, but September 11 certainly was a factor. A bigger factor in my opinion, however, was all the negative press around the Red Cross and transparency and accountability — moreso than the contributions to September 11 funds themselves.

PND: Speaking of negative press, were you and your colleagues treated fairly by the local media in the aftermath of 9/11?

TLF: I think so. Surprisingly, we largely stayed out of the fray. Twenty million dollars is a lot of money — but not when compared to the hundreds of millions raised in New York. While we were the largest of the funds devoted to folks at the Pentagon — the other funds raised in this community were very small — we worked closely with those funds. We also kept our local media abreast of what we were doing, and we were never shy of saying, 'We don't know how this is going to play out; we've never done this before.' So we really didn't receive any negative press.

PND: Is the media still paying attention to the Fund and the needs of the survivors and victims' families?

"...We were never shy about saying, 'We don't know how this is going to play out; we've never done this before'. So we really didn't receive any negative press...."

TLF: An article appeared in the Washington Post on September 11, 2002, that was very positive about the work of the Fund. The Post actually talked with some of the survivors and some of the people who were utilizing the case management services provided by the Fund. But I haven't seen an article about the Fund in the local press since then. We're getting ready to do another report to the community, so maybe something will be picked up after it's released.

PND: Is the funding community in the D.C. area doing anything to prepare for future terror-related contingencies?

TLF: Yes, very much so. In October of 2002, we committed to doing an evaluation of the nonprofit and philanthropic response to September 11 in the D.C. area. We assem-bled a task force of stakeholders, including people from other foundations, the local VOAD [Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters], the media, and so on, and then McKinsey & Company donated their services to help us look at what had been done in response to 9/11 and to develop a blueprint for future disasters — a blueprint that could also be used by other communities. The task force was broken down into several work groups — one devoted to resource mediation, another to in-kind goods and services, a third to volunteers in service coordination, and a fourth group that focuses on communications activities — and we got to work. I'm happy to say that the first draft of that blueprint has been completed. So the next time the call comes from the Red Cross — as it usually does — we'll be in a much better position to mobilize our resources to meet the needs of the community than we were before 9/11.

"...We need to make sure that when we establish a mandate for a fund...we define it in such a way that it can meet the deeds of all those who are impacted...."

Having said that, remember that the whole process I just described was done in response to an event that resulted in about two hundred fatalities and injuries. Obviously, the next time could be much worse, and the issue of scale is one we continue to struggle with.

PND: Has the Department of Homeland Security been involved in the process?

TLF: Yes. George Vradenburg, one of our trustees, chairs the task force and has been very involved with the Board of Trade's emergency-preparedness work. He also has been working with the Council of Governments and with Michael Byrne, who is now in charge of the Department of Homeland Security's D.C. regional office.

PND: So it's fair to say that the D.C. funding community is better prepared to respond to a next time, should there be a next time, with a caveat: We don't know what the next time will look like.

TLF: That's right. However — and I say this in almost every meeting — the best-laid plans...you just don't know. You try to cover all the bases, but could something happen that we didn't plan for? Absolutely, and we have to recognize that.

PND: What lessons should we learn from the Survivors Fund? And are they the same lessons we learned from Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center, or did each of those disasters generate its own unique set of lessons?

TLF: While I think each event generated its own unique lessons, there are similarities. One of the things we've learned is that the community that's ultimately affected in catastrophic disasters tends to be larger than just those who were directly impacted. So, the next time this happens we need to make sure that when we establish a mandate for a fund — and it's very important to define what a fund is and what it will do — we define it in such a way that it can meet the needs of all those who are impacted. That was a lesson learned in Oklahoma City, a little after the fact, and something that the September 11th Fund did quite well.

I think the second thing we are learning — again, borne out by the experience of the folks in Oklahoma City — is that people's needs change over time. They want closure, and as time goes by they're apt to be more irritated than appreciative of the process than they might have been early on. Closure is important, and sometimes putting a human face on closure is overlooked. That's why case management is essential to helping people get on with their lives.

Let me give you a quick example. We had a case where an individual was too traumatized to leave the house. Simply cutting her a check wasn't an option, because that wouldn't have gotten her out of the house. So we sent a case manager over to see her and work with her, and eventually she reached a point where she could leave the house and do things like see a doctor or go to the bank. But without the case manager, the pieces of the puzzle wouldn't have come together. People heal in different ways, and you need people who are skilled in mental health counseling or social work to be able to identify different types of therapeutic need.

Finally, all of us have learned that when it comes to the public, we must be transparent, we must be clear, and we must communicate frequently so that its trust in us is preserved. Frankly, I'm concerned that if something else were to happen, we would not be able to raise significant dollars because of all the negative press that was generated in the wake of 9/11. The corporate community will always be a good partner in times of crisis, but you have to wonder whether the average donor will feel as com-fortable writing a check for a hundred dollars the next time we're hit by a catastrophic attack. That's a question we should all be asking.

PND: And one to which I hope we never learn the answer.

TLF: That's right.

PND: Well, Terri, thanks very much for your time this morning.

TLF: You're very welcome.

Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, interviewed Terri Lee Freeman in May. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at mfn@fdncenter.org