Brief Relief

Print More

“Everyone felt the need to send their kids to something this summer,” explains Annetta Seecharran, executive director of South Asian Youth Action (SAYA). She picks up a toy from the floor, here in a room outfitted with child-sized table and chairs, an old piano, filing cabinets, and stacks of toys. This nook is the only space in SAYA’s church basement digs that’s not in use at this particular moment.

While the focus for much of the city is rebuilding and moving on, SAYA, and the South Asian youth it serves, are still coping with the backlash. Though the verbal and physical attacks from their peers have decreased, the psychological effects are just settling in. “They are aware of the arrests, the raids, the erosion of rights. They don’t feel that this is their country, even though many of them know nothing else. They don’t feel welcome,” says Seecharran. “Once that feeling gets started, it’s really had to turn it back. 9/11 really opened up a can of worms about race relations.” That sense of alienation has serious effects on everything from academic achievement to how they understand their own place in the world.

For SAYA–a youth development organization that for five years has been offering summer camps, counseling, academic support, and after-school programs focusing on self-esteem–these new challenges facing South Asian youth have meant a dramatic increase in demand for its existing services, as well as the need to add some new ones, under the umbrella of a Peace and Unity Initiative. Since last fall, SAYA has held conferences, forums and speak-outs for teenagers and young adults, beefed up counseling outreach in schools, helped create a paid summer internship for teens from different ethnic groups to create a theater project together, and even run a few self-defense workshops.

As SAYA put together this wide-ranging response to 9/11, several new supporters came to its aid. The Rockefeller Foundation, American Jewish World Service, Global Fund for Children, and New York Women’s Foundation all chipped in, bringing the group $237,500 in funds specific to September 11–nearly twice the size of its budget for the previous year.

Theoretically, the group could have gotten even more, but Seecharran repeatedly turned away funders who approached her with “outrageous” ideas that would have taken her group far off its mission–like providing counseling to the entire population of Elmhurst.

Luckily, much of the funding she did accept was quite flexible, allowing her to allocate it where it was needed as she went along. She was even able to hold over the American Jewish World Service grant for this coming school year instead of the last.

But there’s one piece of business on which nearly all the charities are holding firm. Almost none of them will be renewing their contributions to SAYA and its programs.

The need for SAYA’s services seems to show no sign of slacking off. Its expanded programs have brought the organization in touch with a much bigger universe of kids. Last summer, SAYA’s summer program served 15 young people. This year, the number is 100, which Seecharran attributes to much wider public familiarity with SAYA. “We extended our services because we knew the needs were there,” she says. “As a result, so many more people are aware of our services. We created a demand, indirectly.”

Will the fledgling organization be able to build on the work it has done over the past year? Or will the emergency funding that brought it here disappear before SAYA gains a solid footing?

These are the kind of questions a lot of nonprofits are asking these days. In the aftermath of September 11, New York City saw an unprecedented outpouring of aid from private sources: more than $2 billion donated by individuals and institutions to disaster relief. [see sidebar, “Brief Relief: Where the Money Went.”] The vast majority of that money–75 to 85 percent, depending on who’s counting–has gone to, or is slated for, cash assistance to families of victims of the attacks and displaced workers.

But a significant amount of relief money–at least $170 million–went instead to organizations providing a wide range of social and other services to New Yorkers. Nonprofit groups that work with hard-hit constitutencies, or claimed the capacity to launch casework operations very quickly, became vital players in recovery efforts. A year later, the impact of that flood of relief efforts is now becoming clearer (see sidebar).

The bulk of cash assistance to victims and their families was distributed through major social service organizations like Safe Horizon, which also received a large chunk of the grants made to provide support services. But they didn’t get it all. As it became clear that individual donations were being heavily targeted for families of victims, many funders began to ask who was being left out. They heard calls for aid for displaced workers and support services for tolerance initiatives, and proceeded to seek out social service organizations with access to specific immigrant populations–from Yugoslavian to Filipino–knowing that many immigrants, especially undocumented ones, were hesitant to approach the major disaster relief agencies.

For the groups selected for this flood of new funding, it’s been a year of explosive and challenging growth. Many had been just blips on the radar of mainstream foundations. Others had no experience in systematic service provision. After some chaos, many find themselves serving a bigger population in a broader way. September 11 put a lot of people with a wide range of needs in contact with service organizations that could help them.

In a tragic way, the attacks functioned as an incredibly effective outreach program. That was especially true in communities that ordinarily shy away from seeking help from institutions, or face language barriers if they try. But has the outreach drawn people into programs that will only disappear out from under them as the tide of funding recedes?


For service agencies, it’s been a year without time to ask many questions. From the foundations, “We get a lot of heads up about funding, but they don’t know what they’re doing either,” says David Chen, executive director at the Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC), the city’s largest agency serving Chinese-Americans. “Once you get the money you should have started last month.”

Steven Yip, CPC’s director of operations, just groans when he’s asked about coordinating September 11 programming. “I’m about ready to jump off a cliff,” he says.

It’s not that he’s not interested in providing the services. He talks long and well about the needs in Chinatown. But “we were already making do with duct tape and safety pins,” he says. “One percent overhead. Absorbing all these [new] funds and turning them around, without any administrative funding…. It’s a headache.” It’s especially a headache for Yip, who is very concerned with the ethical questions underlying job training, for example. What industries to train people for that will be best for them long and short term? What level of language skills should they aim for? He knows that these big picture issues need to be dealt with, but his energy for the past year has been focused on the minutiae.

Chinatown, adjacent to the area of the attacks but largely not included in the first map of areas eligible for government aid, has suffered dramatically. The garment industry, which provided much of the employment for the area, was devastated. “Sixty percent of the youth [in our programs] have parents in the garment industry,” says Chen. “Layoffs lead to family issues, which come back to us through the youth.”

Since September 11, CPC has distributed direct relief, provided referrals, given technical assistance to small businesses, and beefed up its ESL and job training programs. The group is currently about to implement more job training and a longer-term case management program through the September 11 Fund.

Speed and uncertainty have put a strain on an 18-year-old organization that is accustomed to moving incrementally. Finding qualified social workers, always a challenge given the organization’s modest salaries, became even more difficult as a premium on bilingual social workers created citywide wage inflation. In order to staff CPC’s 9/11 programs in time, Yip had to hire a mix of more-or-less monolingual Chinese speakers and English speakers and have them work in pairs.

If CPC, a multimillion-dollar service agency with dozens of locations, is struggling with the increased expectations, it’s no surprise that Asociación Tepeyac has hit some rough patches. Before September 11, Tepeyac was a largely volunteer-run agency that provided administrative support to 40 small local organizations in New York’s Mexican community, as well as some social services to members of those groups. It had two full-time staff, a few interns, and dozens of volunteers. In 1999 it had income of just $11,000. Its fundraisers doubled as cultural events and ways of bringing the community together.

But as an organization that undocumented Latino immigrants could trust, after 9/11 Tepeyac soon found itself acting as a major agency dispersing aid to workers and their families. Over the course of the year Tepeyac got $770,000 in grants and individual donations, and it distributed an additional $611,000 as cash assistance. Most of the grant money went to hire 16 new staff members–caseworkers, a psychologist and support staff. Tepeyac has served around 900 displaced workers and 100 families of victims.

The organization’s profile grew so dramatically that it was not only aiding people who were directly affected by September 11, but also others who began to hear by word of mouth how helpful the organization was in general. “We served these victims,” says Teresa Garcia, the group’s development director, “and now everyone wants to come here and get services.” She isn’t sure how many new folks have come independently–all their reporting systems are new as of this year, and Garcia can’t even say for sure how many volunteers the organization has.

This summer, Asociación Tepeyac received a grant from the September 11 Fund–to hire a receptionist. Though Tepeyac had become a major center for distributing benefits, its rapid growth had taxed it so much that no one at the Fund or the other relief agencies could ever reach anyone there. For weeks after it put in a new voice mail system, no one could leave messages because the mailboxes hadn’t been activated.

Funders and colleagues are universally admiring of the incredible amount of work Tepeyac has done. But the rapid growth has also forced some big changes in this formerly bottom-up organization. Though created by and for its member community groups, Tepeyac suspended its work with them from September to February as it attempted to handle the operation of its social services. “The people in the neighborhoods were missing our work,” says Tepeyac director Brother Joel Magallán. “During that time we lost some leaders.” But, he says, they just didn’t have the staff to do both things until they received $180,000 from the Robin Hood Foundation.

It used to be that most clients came as referrals from Tepeyac’s member groups, and they were often encouraged to become volunteers who supported both the local groups and Tepeyac. Now many more people are finding Tepeyac on their own. Staff are doing their best to connect clients who come in on their own to the local social networks of its grassroots base–so essential for immigrants who are here without family–but they operate more like one agency making a referral to another, rather than a partner in an ongoing relationship with both the client and the local group.

Still, Tepeyac is not looking back. While it has gotten the work with the local groups going again, and that continues to be a priority, the group is developing new business, too, in social services. Even in this uncertain climate, Tepeyac is “experimenting,” Garcia says, with ways to fill other needs: medical, child care. And yet she still muses about going to back to relying on volunteers if the funding goes away.


9/11 grant-making isn’t entirely finished. The Robin Hood Relief Fund has said it will be giving “as long as the need exists.” And the September 11 Fund has announced that it will be distributing its remaining $200 million in an Ongoing Recovery Program over the next five years. Much of that will be going to more cash assistance, health insurance, and individualized mental health benefits for families and continued support for affected small businesses and nonprofits.

Nonprofits and schools will be receiving approximately $50 million from the September 11 Fund in the coming year for case management, job training, work with school children and legal assistance–actually twice what the fund gave to nonprofits for actual programming in the past year. Most of these programs will be funded for a year and a half to three years.

Nonetheless, the pool of 9/11 money is starting to recede. Most funders that collected individual donations for special relief funds–including the September 11 Fund, Tides Foundation and McCormick Tribune Foundation–have stopped doing so. The Robin Hood Relief Fund is still accepting donations but not actively soliciting them.

Among foundations that diverted funds or increased their payout rate, many, including the Open Society Institute and the American Jewish World Service, considered them explicitly one-time pots of money, and the grants tended to be for one year. Others, like Rockefeller, were undecided as of early September whether they would renew September 11-specific grantmaking, but they have told at least some of their grantees that the funds were one-time shots.

“Most people understand they’re expected to perform like an accordion–expand dramatically when the need is there, and contract afterwards,” says Margie McHugh, of the New York Immigration Coalition. Still, as McHugh notes, the shift will likely hit some organizations hard. Four of her new funders told SAYA’s Seecharran that their grants–totaling $222,500–were explicitly one-shot deals, since SAYA didn’t fit in their regular funding guidelines. “That was half of our budget,” says Seecharran. So far she has gotten one grant for this coming year, $20,000 from the Sponsors for Educational Opportunity Community Assistance Fund. Tepeyac’s Garcia doesn’t know what she’s going to do next year when the emergency money is gone, if in fact it does disappear. She’s hopeful for renewals but isn’t confident of them.

Individual support has faded, too. Emira Habiby Browne, Director of the Arab-American Family Support Center, a social services center in Brooklyn, says that while the problems in the Arab community with detentions, raids, and harassment have increased every day since September 11, pro bono legal aid for people detained by the INS has fallen off dramatically. When news of the detentions began, there was a spike of offers of pro bono representation, says Habiby Browne, and her organization was able to connect them with those in need. After a few months, though, attorneys began asking for fees.

Meanwhile, city contract cuts and the recession have been gathering on the horizon. This spring and summer it became apparent that many United Way chapters, including New York City’s, were experiencing a 50 percent drop in the regular funding they distribute to member agencies, because so many individual donations had been earmarked for September 11 victims. While the United Way is making concerted efforts to fundraise for its Community Fund, this year around 90 percent of United Way–funded organizations will see some decreases in support.

Many of the organizations that have expanded in the last year express hope that their new funders, having learned about their good work, will stick around. It’s not impossible. Tepeyac, for one, has moved into the “core” funding program of the Robin Hood Foundation, with a grant for its after-school program. But that hope can’t be counted on as a fundraising strategy.

Barbara Bryan, president of the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers, says that there is talk of how to take persisting needs–especially mental health and economic uncertainty–into consideration in their regular philanthropic work. One of the recommendations from a meeting held by NYRAG in July was that funders check in with their current grantees to see if they needed any additional capacity-building help.

They might want to add strategic planning to the list. In a year characterized by crises and targeted project funding, few of these organizations have done the planning and preparation that would usually go into implementing and funding the new programs they’ve already started, let alone into finding entirely new sources of support.

It’s partly that the situation has been so sensitive. Universally, organizations are hesitant to admit that such a big tragedy has in any way been an opportunity for them. McHugh was reluctant to even talk about the immigrant groups that got increased funding, when so many others are struggling. Yip and Chen at CPC would not disclose the total funding they’d received to provide post-9/11 services, saying they feared it would be divisive to associate a dollar amount with a specific organization.

Grantees of the Robin Hood Relief Fund have been put through their strategic paces with hefty donations of consultant time and energy to do everything from setting up accounting systems to helping grassroots staff get used to keeping track of numbers. But other organizations may not be so lucky. Because individual donors were very concerned that all their money go directly to victims, September 11 funding tended to be even less likely than standard foundation grants to allow for any administrative or overhead expenses.

New York’s nonprofits and funders rose to the occasion after September 11 in an incredibly inspiring and effective way. But like everyone else, they’ve been changed by the process. Quick contractions could mean the loss of programs that have proven their effectiveness–and that would take large new infusions of resources, and time, to repeat. As with Ground Zero, rebuilding will mean more than returning to how it was before.

Miriam Axel-Lute is a Manhattan-based freelance writer. Research assistance by Helen Matatov.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *