Brooklyn Boro

How they did it: Anticipating impact of COVID-19, a foundation in Brooklyn mobilized early, quickly and dispersed $3 million locally

May 14, 2020 Michael Stahl
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For more than a decade, the Brooklyn Community Foundation, a fund with about $75 million in assets, has distributed donor monies to borough nonprofit outreach organizations that share its vision of, as its website says, “a fair and just Brooklyn.”

“One of the things that makes us distinct as a community foundation is we have a very, very strong racial justice lens,” Cecilia Clarke, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Community Foundation (BCF), told the Brooklyn Eagle. “So that’s very much the value that we bring, considering this borough is a borough of almost 70 percent people of color.”

The BCF has invested in local youths, whose future leadership will lead to a better borough, Clarke said, and has funneled resources toward fighting for the rights of the nearly one million foreign-born Brooklyn residents. Among the BCF’s most vital and unique sources of assets are its Donor Advised Funds, composed of a large cross-section of Brooklynites and families who choose to give back. The Donor Advised Fund members designate the types of charities they wish to aid, with the funds distributed via BCF management.

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All told, the BCF has helped support more than 300 nonprofits since 2009, dispersing in excess of $50 million to date. And as the COVID-19 virus descended upon the United States, the BCF doubled down on tried-and-true fundraising methods, leaned on long-standing relationships, and vowed to optimize money flow through the organization.

The results have been undeniably positive: The foundation has already raised and dispersed more than $3 million to aid Brooklyn’s most vulnerable people during the crisis. Many new donors have emerged; longtime supporters rejiggered their grants so they’d go directly to the frontlines.

“I had a couple of board members coming to me at the end of February saying, ‘This is going to be very bad; let’s get ahead of this,’” Clarke said. She added that the BCF mobilized so quickly because, “like any crisis, it essentially opens up the inequities that people of color deal with every single day,” including dubious access to essential goods, education, and healthcare, to say nothing of pervasive economic disparities.

The BCF fundraising was already underway a month before Gov. Andrew Cuomo handed down stay-at-home orders across the state. President Donald Trump was still telling Americans that, in the U.S., the virus was “very much under control.” And instead of taking a wait-and-see approach, with the economy sure to suffer long term in the wake of the crisis, the BCF also increased fund dispersals from its endowment.

President and CEO Cecilia Clarke of the Brooklyn Community Foundation.

By March 13, still a week before New York City would shelter-in-place, the BCF launched the Brooklyn COVID-19 Response Fund, “to provide immediate and longer-term resources to vulnerable residents across our borough,” its website says. (The $3 million that’s shuttled through the timely fund since doesn’t even take into account what the BCF has moved from its endowment.)

“Not in our wildest dreams did we think this was going to happen,” Clarke said of the outcome, adding that 80 percent of the donations have come from Brooklynite benefactors new to the foundation. “We get to see neighbors being as generous as possible to neighbors,” Clarke continued. “It’s just inspiring.”

To date, more than 1,200 donors have helped support, through the foundation’s response fund, 136 organizations that have a direct impact on COVID-19 relief in Brooklyn. Clarke praised each of the ground-level grantees, but is particularly thrilled to have connected for the first time with The Ladies of Hope Ministries — which used part of the $10,000 it received from the BCF to provide stipends for food delivery to recently released female inmates of Rikers Island and state prisons — and Siren — a group that received $5,000 to help coordinate food relief and online movement classes for residents of the NYCHA-run Bedford-Stuyvesant Rehabs complex.

Board member Carley Roney, an internet entrepreneur who co-founded the popular wedding-planning platform The Knot, told the Eagle that she’s particularly grateful the BCF has paid attention to the needs of Brooklyn’s Chinese-American residents. Among related grants awarded, the foundation sent $10,000 to the Asian American Federation to protect local Asian Americans against hate. (The NYPD recently reported that biased attacks against Asian Americans have increased across the city, spurred by the COVID-19 outbreak, which happened to originate in China.)

“My children are half-Chinese, and there’s an increased anxiety for that community, and that was a very keen, immediate response that the fund was aware of,” Roney said.

The pace at which the funds were procured, Clarke said, was possible thanks in part to cost-effective, hyper-local and impactful advertising — through the Park Slope Parents Listserv, for one example — as well as social media posts that transparently chronicle the work that beneficiary organizations carry out with the help of grants. Clarke added that the BCF is fluent in building deep connections with its donors, standing the test of time, which comes in handy during states of emergency.

“We have seen a lot of donors come to us right away and just say, ‘I think what you’re doing is amazing,’” she said. “And we had one donor come to us and say, ‘Move all the money out of my donor-advised fund over to your COVID fund.’ This is because they know us, and they trust us, and they also know our vision.”

“This is the power of a foundation focused on OUR community, on Brooklyn,” Sarah Williams, CEO of the social impact fund Propel Capital and BCF board member, wrote in an email to the Eagle. “That proximity to our neighborhoods, families, workplaces means they can see things earlier and respond immediately. … These are all our children, parents, neighbors — and this virus shows how clearly our fates are linked together. Supporting this fund allows us to take care of each other now and for the future.”

BCF board member and Proper Capital CEO Sarah Williams with her husband Andrew Kimball.

The BCF’s fundraising’s swiftness was, by design, only matched by the rate of fund dispersal.

“We would like to be as least burdensome as possible on nonprofits,” Clarke said.

The foundation’s COVID-19 fund does not include reporting requirements for the grantees, according to Clarke, and the application form for returning organizations seeking funds includes only two questions: “How will this money be used to address the emergencies presented by Covid-19?” and “How does this work reflect racial justice and racial equity?”

“That’s just unheard of,” Roney said of the foundation’s minimized boundaries. “Nobody who is doing hard work in Brooklyn has time to fill out a 40-page proposal and prove their value.”

Hope Reeves, a freelance writer and 22-year Brooklyn resident, wrote in an email to the Eagle that she and her husband gave to the BCF’s COVID-19 Response Fund “because we were incredibly impressed by their ability to so quickly pivot their already nimble and responsive grant-making to aid community-based organizations doing really important work on the ground.”

“We live here because of the culture, diversity, energy and attitude — the things that make our borough so beautiful and so vulnerable,” she added. “There seemed no better place to entrust our money.”

Another recent donor, Steven Eisenstadt, president and CEO of the Brooklyn-based family business Cumberland Packing Corp., the parent company of Sweet’N Low, told the Eagle he considers the people of the BCF “friends,” and counts himself among their admirers.

“Supporting them is a no-brainer,” he said, “and I do so with utmost trust and confidence that they will disperse these funds with the greatest impact.”

Though Cecilia Clarke told the Eagle she’s “grateful, honored, and amazed at how people have stepped up” to be part of the Brooklyn Community Foundation’s successful fundraising efforts, she acknowledged her team’s work is far from over.

“We realized we need to raise twice as much,” she said. “There’s no slowing down of people asking us for money.

“We’re in relief mode right now; we’re trying to deliver food,” she continued. “But what happens when the full weight of the economic toll hits this borough? What is recovery going to look like?”

Brooklyn’s bound to find out, but at least its most vulnerable people know the potent fundraising power of the Brooklyn Community Foundation is in their corner.


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