While families and communities figure out how to cope with their losses following last Tuesday’s tragedy at the World Trade Center, many of the service organizations typically called on to offer support in such dire situations now find themselves the ones looking for a helping hand.
Several hundred nonprofit organizations have headquarters in the area below Canal Street, only part of which reopened for business Monday. While only a few of those groups actually called the Trade Center home, many in that vicinity expect they will need technical and financial assistance to stay in business. In the short term, they say, they have been unable to serve their clients for at least a week. While most organizations hope to get back in the next few days, it is unclear what kind of shape their computers and files will be in.
“The first thing is, we need to get operational,” said Fran Barrett, executive director of Community Resource Exchange, based at 39 Broadway, near Rector Street. CRE advises nonprofits around the city on issues from fundraising to administrative management. While she hopes to be allowed back into her offices by Tuesday, Barrett says if that’s not possible, CRE will temporarily relocate a few blocks north to 1 Lafayette Street, where another group has offered them desk space for a month. That move will not be cheap, however: Barrett estimates equipping her 27 staffers with laptops and cell phones will cost about $11,000.
“God knows, there’s going to be a need for a lot of money,” she said.
To address the anticipated variety of needs among social service organizations and the New Yorkers they serve, some groups and foundations are beginning to work on how to make help available. The United Way of New York has joined with the New York Community Trust to start up the September 11 Fund. The fund will, of course, assist families directly affected by the World Trade Center tragedy. But the United Way will also help support nonprofit groups whose offices and computer systems may be in disrepair, whose city contracts may be in jeopardy, and whose clients may be hurting without their assistance.
In a meeting on Friday, the United Way spoke with some of the nonprofits based downtown to start to assess their needs. The biggest concerns, said Barrett, are loss of computer equipment and office space and the effects of not being able to do work for several days under performance-based contracts.
“There are going to be cash needs because you haven’t been able to perform,” said John Small, director of the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee, a member organization for groups around the city. CRE, for example, estimates it brings in about $20,000 a week under its own pay-by-the-hour contracts.
While no one has asked the city, state or other funding entities to waive such contract requirements, on Monday the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers (NYRAG) asked its 250 philanthropist members to give automatic extensions on grant report deadlines and funding applications due over the next several months. NYRAG will list the foundations that agree to do this on its web site, www.nyrag.org.
Other groups available to provide possible needed cash infusions include the Fund for the City as well as banks and community development financial institutions. “There is definitely some concern in high places for the fate of the nonprofits themselves,” said Chris Jenkins, senior director of business development at the Nonprofit Finance Fund. His fund, which caters exclusively to nonprofits, plans to assess the number of groups affected and the type of damage sustained, to help funders understand what will be needed to cover office damage, as well as lost operating costs.
To help with technology needs, Microsoft has asked NPower NY, which helps nonprofits install and use computer technology, to channel nonprofits’ requests for technological assistance directly to the software giant’s staff. While the figure is subject to change, the computer giant has offered about $5 million in in-kind services, including connectivity, software, data recovery and staff. “Right now we’re just trying to do an inventory,” said Barbara Chang, executive director of NPower NY.
As for how the United Way will decide which organizations in need get what funds, those details have yet to be determined. Members of the September 11 Fund met to discuss plans Monday morning, but details were not available by press time.
In the meantime, Barrett and her staff have been busy contacting CRE’s funders, one of which has already offered to carry the cost of any technology needs. “They’re glad to hear from you. They’re glad to know we’re OK,” Barrett said. She said she has also learned the importance of contingency plans, and hopes she can get the funds to equip her employees with at-home office set-ups in case of future emergencies.
She is also aware of other long-term changes to be made in her organization and in those she advises. “We have to act as agents of peace,” said Barrett. “Right now we’re not well enough prepared to speak to these issues.” She plans to add not only a civil defense kit of masks and goggles to her office’s equipment cabinet, but also educational material on Islam and Arabs and groups that work on advocacy for Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent.
Then there is the dreadful possibility that the challenges New York is facing now may be only the beginning. Barrett notes that the institutions our society relies on are facing monumental tests of their strength, and that they’ll need all the backup they can get. Said Barrett, “Nonprofits have to fill the place of the marketplace when capitalism or democracy don’t work.”