On September 12, 2001, New York City was closed for business, as those of us who worked and lived there reeled from the shock of the attack the day before.
Stuck at home and unable to get to my job at the Community Service Society of New York, one of Manhattan’s oldest charities, I wondered what the relief effort should look like.
Could the nearly inconceivable challenges be met? How could nonprofit organizations play an effective role in the recovery?
The answer wasn’t immediately clear, but over time I learned two things that worked:
- Local nonprofit organizations stepped away from their traditional missions and adapted quickly to respond to sharply changed circumstances. That decision was risky, because it could have hurt the people who had relied on the groups before the disaster, but few charities suffered such problems.
- New leaders and organizations brought a fresh perspective to fill the gaps left by established players. While some people worried that the groups would duplicate efforts, the new charities’ impressive accomplishments overcame that concern.
Ten years later, as the nation grapples with social needs created by difficult economic conditions, it is important to keep in mind the power of established and new organizations to work together to maximize their capacity to solve seemingly insurmountable problems.
While some nonprofits were not sure how to respond in the days right after the attacks, the chief executive of my organization, David Jones, believed strongly that action was necessary. In fact, he said, groups that didn’t participate in disaster relief risked irrelevance, not just in the near future but also in the long-term.
Other leaders also held this perspective, and they immediately raised money, hired new staff members, and figured out effective ways to adapt their services to meet the needs the disaster created.
Many new organizations also played a major role in the relief effort. In fact, the 258 organizations that received expedited tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service raised a remarkable $679-million in the first year after the attacks. The vast majority of those organizations provided financial assistance, though some provided social services.
The founders of those organizations were different from the leaders of older nonprofits. Their personal experience of 9/11 and their solidarity with those affected it by were the motivating force behind the organizations they built.
Most of those groups were short-lived. They raised money, distributed it, and closed their doors. In 2006 only 56 of the original 258 filed informational returns with the IRS, and only 38 have filed returns in the past two years.
The organizations that have endured are those with the closest personal connection to the 9/11 attacks, including those formed by the family members of the tragedy’s victims and those formed by companies that employed people who died in the attacks.
One such group, the Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund, provides a valuable example of the difference new organizations made in the relief effort and offers lessons for how new and established organizations can work together and make one another stronger.
The creators of the fund were hospitality-industry professionals, and they knew people who had died at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center.
In the month following 9/11, they raised $6-million to provide financial assistance to the families of hospitality-industry workers killed in the attacks, and by the end of 2002, they had raised $11-million more.
I first met the fund’s leaders when they came to the Community Service Society in October 2001 to suggest our two organizations work together.
The group’s founders knew they lacked some of the skills they needed to effectively distribute the money they had raised. After all, as Waldy Malouf, one of the several remarkable chefs who founded the group told me, “we’re chefs, not social workers.”
Their decision to collaborate with us made it possible for Windows of Hope to carry out the founders’ vision for disaster relief immediately and was critical to the organization’s success.
The leaders of Windows of Hope challenged my assumptions about disaster relief.
I assumed that the existing network of nonprofit organizations that had adapted to meet community needs following the disaster was sufficient. While those organizations did great work, the leaders of Windows of Hope countered that they feared that the families of hospitality-industry workers killed in the attacks would be ignored in the relief effort. Many of those workers were immigrants, and their survivors had limited social networks in the United States and didn’t know how to get help.
The fund’s leaders argued that those families would be more likely to seek aid through an organization made up of people they trusted—people from the hospitality industry, whom they viewed as an extended family. And they were right. We needed Windows of Hope to be part of the relief effort.
As I reflect on this experience a decade later, several lessons stand out.
First, nonprofit organizations need to be adaptable to remain relevant. Groups that responded to community needs following the 9/11 attacks proved they were durable and essential community resources.
Second, we need to view the creation of new nonprofit organizations as a positive phenomenon. They bring new people and approaches into community problem solving.
The leaders of established organizations often worry that new groups will increase competition for scarce resources.
While those concerns are valid, competition is not always a bad thing, and new organizations sometimes bring new resources. For example, it is unclear whether the money Windows of Hope raised from people in the hospitality industry would have gone to other organizations had that charity not existed.
Third, new organizations can increase the likelihood of success through close collaboration with existing ones.
Ten years after September 11, I remember that day and the months immediately following with enduring and deep sadness. I manage that sadness, at least in part, with the knowledge that I was involved in a relief effort that was part of the nonprofit world at its best—with established groups all-in, making a difference right away, and new groups filling the gaps with passion, energy, and resourcefulness.