The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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APR 2011 Issue

SEEDING LOCALLY Brooklyn Community Foundation

Photo of Marilyn Gelber and team, courtesy of Brooklyn Community Foundation.
Photo of Marilyn Gelber and team, courtesy of Brooklyn Community Foundation.

Marilyn Gelber, President of the 18-month-old Brooklyn Community Foundation (BCF), knows an uphill struggle when she sees one. “The world of foundations and philanthropies is midtown-Manhattan centric,” she says matter-of-factly. “A study by the Foundation Center, released several years ago, found that 89.7 percent of all grants given in New York City go to Manhattan-based organizations.”

This makes BCF’s work, and the slogan it uses to promote its efforts—Do Good Right Here—particularly significant.

The vexing needs of the borough are both well-known and staggering: 25 percent of Brooklyn’s residents live below the poverty line; 30 percent of third graders cannot read at grade level; and more than 50,000 16 to 24-year-olds lack a high school diploma. And that’s just the tip of the problem iceberg.

Philanthropy, of course, can’t cure every social ill or redress all forms of inequality. But it can make a dent in improving people’s lives. Toward that end, BCF awards grants—from several hundred dollars to half a million—in five separate categories: Community development and neighborhood stabilization; education and youth achievement; support services to benefit senior citizens and the disabled, homeless, and hungry; ecology and environmental sustainability; and cultural and arts enrichment. During year one, October 2009 to October 2010, a total of $5 million was given to 240 Brooklyn groups.

Some, like the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, are quite mainstream. At the same time, BCF’s $500,000 grant will allow NYU-Poly to bring science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) instruction to 36 Central Brooklyn elementary, middle, and high schools—institutions that have been hard-hit by budget cuts.

 Other grantees range from food pantries, to programs for the children of incarcerated parents, to community gardens. “We’ve created a new civic organization to work on urban issues that people tend to see as intractable,” Gelber says. “Sitting on our hands is not an option and BCF is completely focused on grant making and service. We’ve given people a new institution, a new vehicle, to leverage money for Brooklyn.”

It goes without saying that Gelber is a passionate and articulate cheerleader for BCF, and she does not hesitate to sing the Foundation’s praises. Her proudest year-one achievement? The answer comes instantly, no thinking required: The creation of the Hope and Healing Fund, a special two-year project to aid Brooklyn’s enormous Haitian population in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake.

“We’re not an international relief group,” Gelber explains. “Our mission is local. We’d just taken the mantle of BCF when the earthquake hit, but our staff and board knew we had to do something. I called Borough Hall and was told that Borough President Marty Markowitz had called a press conference. I went, but it was more of a photo op than a planning session. Still, Elwanda Young of the United Way was there and she and I talked afterwards. We agreed that what was happening in Haiti would have a ripple effect on Brooklyn and Queens. We felt a sense of urgency and met over the weekend to talk about ways to provide resources to New York City’s Haitian community. The next week we put out a call to organizations that worked in this community and scheduled a meeting. More than 25 groups came. Feelings were very raw, but we asked the groups to prioritize needs so that we could quickly get something going.” A month later, with $100,000 from BCF and $100,000 from the United Way, the Fund began issuing grants in four areas: Legal services, emotional healing, education, and case management.

Among the 12 grantees: $25,000 to the Counseling in Schools National Network to provide individual and family therapy services to those who were grieving and traumatized; $40,000 to Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project to expand English as a Second Language classes to immigrant children and youth; and $20,000 to the Brooklyn Defender Service to assist immigrants with Temporary Protection Status applications.

BCF’s roots hearken back to 1998 when Gelber and Charlie Hamm, then President of the defunct Independence Community Bank, met at a fundraiser and had a conversation that proved fortuitous. “He told me he was thinking of starting a community foundation to serve Brooklyn and Queens, the areas of the bank’s footprint, and asked me if I thought that sounded like a good idea. He then called me the next day and asked me what I thought it would take to do this. A few weeks later he proposed to the Board of Directors that they take eight percent of the bank’s stock and use it to endow a foundation. They agreed and I was hired. We had $54 million on day one and ultimately became the Independence Community Foundation (ICF); our structure was such that we stood on our own, apart from the bank, in much the same way that the Ford Foundation is not part of the Ford Motor Company.”

The ICF opened its doors—initially a storefront on Atlantic Avenue—in 1998, and quickly became immersed in local giving. Looking back, the first years were almost idyllic, and as the economy flourished, so did the ICF. Indeed, as the bank grew—it bought Broad National Bank in Newark, and Staten Island Bank and Trust in the early 2000s—ICF’s assets ballooned to $100 million. In short order, ICF was doling out grants not only in all five boroughs, but also on Long Island and in seven New Jersey counties; a total of $70 million was distributed between 1998 and 2006.

Then, suddenly, the spigot stopped. As Gelber explains, by 2005, Independence Bank had grown so large that it became a takeover target and in 2006 Sovereign Savings acquired its holdings.

“Since we had organized ourselves as a private foundation, separate from the bank, Sovereign had not bought us,” Gelber explains. But what to do now that Independence Bank—and the funding stream it provided—no longer existed? Gelber says that once the initial shock wore off, she sought an organizational structure that would allow the grantmaker to solicit monies from both institutional and individual donors. The Community Foundation model fit the bill. “The ICF board considered the issue carefully because everyone understood that there were risks,” Gelber admits. “For one, what if we created a vehicle for giving and people didn’t respond? Eventually, we made the decision to try, knowing that need would likely always outstrip resources.”

By this point, however, another unanticipated glitch was evident: The U.S. economy was falling apart and the ICF stood to lose a huge chunk of it assets. “Yes, we lost a bunch of money in the Wall Street collapse,” Gelber shrugs. “But $50 million was still available so we decided to move forward and came up with the five funding areas that we wanted to concentrate on.”

In BCF’s first year, $2 million was raised from individual donors, and another $2 million from foundations. Gelber hopes this trend will continue—and increase. “A few weeks back we got a check for $10,000 from a couple I’d spoken to in Brooklyn Heights. That same afternoon we got a check for $100 from a family in Prospect Heights in honor of a baby being born. Both made me feel great.”

Nonetheless, while keeping the coffers filled presents an enormous hurdle for BCF, soliciting funds is not the Foundation’s only challenge. “Getting visibility for a new foundation has been more difficult than I anticipated,” Gelber says. “We anticipated difficulties in raising money during lean economic times, but didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to get news of the foundation’s existence to the people of Brooklyn.”

Still, she and BCF’s staff are hopeful that the DUMBO-based foundation will continue to do good in Brooklyn. “Five years from now I hope everyone in the borough will know that Brooklyn has a Foundation and see it as a strong force for community betterment,” Gelber tells me. “I want people to see us, a relatively new local grant giver, as a place to come when there are issues to be solved.” 


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

All Issues