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Foundations for the Common Good: A Call to Action

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A conversation with David Okorn of the Long Island Community Foundation on making philanthropy easy, fun and effective, and why it’s so important.

If you have charitable intent, the Long Island Community Foundation (LICF) is an excellent resource and probably one of the best kept secrets on Long Island. They provide all levels of philanthropic support, including research to help identify the best performing charities to fulfill your objectives, as well as vetting to ensure they meet best practice standards for charities.  They review and evaluate to determine who’s getting the best outcomes, and how your giving may be most effective.

We’ve known David Okorn since he was Executive Director of the Keyspan Foundation and the Director of Community Relations for Keyspan, which merged with National Grid in 2006. He then became Senior Vice President of development and external relations at the Viscardi Center, which is dedicated to improving the lives of adults and children with disabilities. Since 2008, he has served the Long Island Community Foundation, becoming its Executive Director in 2010. We recently sat down with David to talk about this local division of the New York Community Trust, and what he sees from his unique vantage point of philanthropy on Long Island.

 

The LICF Website is a great resource. There, you can not only learn about their services and read about the organizations their donors help support, you can also access valuable information to better understand the issues facing our region. It’s an excellent resource for people who care about the health and welfare of Long Island.

Profile in Philanthropy: Dale Lewis and the Arts Reach Fund

We started out talking about one particular donor, Dale Lewis, who’s remarkable passion for the arts was emphasized to us by longtime arts and education advocate and philanthropist Roger Tilles. We hope to make his Arts Reach Fund the focus of a future article. For now, we’ll share it as an example of someone who works with the LI Community Foundation.

Dale established a “Field of Interest Advised Fund” at LICF to support arts programs and/or organizations. It’s almost as though he’s running his own foundation, combining his own extensive experience with the resources provided by the LICF.

Working with the LICF doesn’t have to be nearly this involved. There are various options making it extremely flexible to meet ones charitable needs and desires. For as little as $5,000, one can name and establish a fund from which the creator(s) can recommend grants as small as $250 to nonprofit organizations of their choosing. Again, LICF will vet the organization to ensure they meet both financial and governance best practice standards. The fee for the service is either 50 basis points (1/2 of 1%), i.e. $500/year for a $100,000 fund, or 2.5% of grants made, whichever is greater. With a Donor Advised Fund, one simply recommends the organization(s) to which they would like to make a grant, and then LICF handles all of the back office support.

David and his family have a fund like this and use it to support a multitude of issues and organizations such as the Interfaith Nutrition Network, which addresses hunger and homelessness; The Morgan Center that provides preschool aged children with cancer the opportunity to learn and socialize in a safe environment; Sisters of St. Joseph, who have numerous programs assisting the underserved and promoting justice; and many more.  For those who simply do not have the time to research and identify charities of personal interest, they can also simply state an intent and let the Community Foundation make recommendations of potential grants.

For as little as $5,000, one can name and establish a fund from which the creator(s) can recommend grants as small as $250 to nonprofit organizations of their choosing. LICF will vet the organization to ensure they meet both financial and governance best practice standards.

For many years, Dale Lewis was Executive Director of USDAN, a unique summer camp for the Arts based in Melville, NY. David agrees: If you want to know about the arts, he’s an excellent resource, “Dale is among the most committed individuals to his work of anyone I have ever met. He has an extraordinary passion for music, theater, and the arts in general. He is also among the most giving people I know; a true gentleman. He knows everyone and is happy to connect them with each other.

“When Dale retired from USDAN, he decided he wanted to give back in a deeply meaningful way. He started the Arts Reach Fund at the Long Island Community Foundation, which partners with organizations that enrich our communities through program innovation in the arts and arts education.

The stated mission of the Arts Reach Fund is, “Providing tools that will allow talented, high needs students to become arts educators, supporting arts teachers with enriching professional development, and providing local arts organizations with strategic help that will allow them to use their resources more effectively.”

“Dale believes in the power of the arts, and he does all he can to bring that to people,” said David, “If he sees a need, he doesn’t offer platitudes, he finds solutions.”

More on Dale Lewis
– Dale’s bio on the Long Island Arts Alliance website
– A look at Dale’s tenure at Usdan in the New York Times
– The Arts Reach Fund website
An article about Dale in the Huntington Patch

Helping People Define Their Mission

“We offer as much or as little support as needed,” explains David, “You can find organizations and we’ll vet them for you, or give us parameters and we will recommend organizations from which you choose, or leave it entirely up to us and we will make grants and report back to you on how the funds were granted along with outcomes. We have RFP processes for specific funds as well as published, competitive grant applications that address important needs on Long Island that we’ve identified.”

 “Helping people clearly define their intention is the most important part,” says David, “especially when working with people who are writing LICF into their wills. They won’t be around to ask if things change or are unclear.”

It’s about defining a donor’s personal mission, charitable intent and the strategies they would like to see implemented to achieve it. “We bring people in and talk with them,” David explains, “Say someone is interested in animal welfare. We help them define what that means – Are we talking about pets? Wildlife? Making sure pets have homes once owners pass on? Veterinary care? Is this about abuse prevention? Education? Would you be interested in supporting service animals?”

Another common example is Breast Cancer. “What are they looking to accomplish around this health issue? Is it research? Outreach? Family support? Prevention? Say we cure it, or manage to prevent it entirely – where shall we direct your funds in the future?”


“Helping people clearly define their intention is the most important part,” says David, “especially when working with people who are writing LICF into their wills. They won’t be around to ask if things change or are unclear.”

“Yes, I agree this organization you’ve chosen is wonderful, but what if things change? What if it goes out of business, or the leadership changes dramatically? What would you like us to do then?”

“What if what you’re seeking to do becomes impossible or impractical to carry out in the future?”

David talks about one famous example where these kinds of questions came into play: The March of Dimes was originally founded to deal with Polio. While it’s a fantastic example of a rare organization that managed to adapt with the times to now address birth defects, it’s also an example of a well-reputed group that no longer does what it initially set out to do. Maybe the donor wouldn’t choose that alternative mission. Maybe they’d prefer to redirect their funds elsewhere.

“Getting back to Breast Cancer,” says David, “What if it’s cured? Would you like to support another women’s health issue? Or perhaps some other cancer research?”

“How can we define your terms to keep meeting the spirit of your intent even as the world changes?”

It’s important to make sure that the language is prescriptive and yet open enough; to make sure that the donors’ intent is clear even to folks who have never met them, so that the LI Community Foundation can help realize it well into the future.

Given the number of individual funds the LICF manages, they also have the capacity to get creative and effect synergy among funds. “When an organization comes to us with a program, sometimes we can cobble together comprehensive funding that more effectively addresses a complex issue, or simply pool to achieve more substantial support from diverse funds. It’s nice to be able to do that.”


“How can we define your terms to keep meeting the spirit of your intent even as the world changes?”

Vetting Charitable Organizations, Staying True to Their Own Intent

The Long Island Community Foundation comprehensively evaluates each and every nonprofit it considers for a grant, “We have 20-plus criteria that we use to evaluate organizations in terms of how they conduct their governance and manage their finances.”

“In addition to our own research, we do a lot of networking and other endeavors out in the community,” says David, “We talk to a lot of people, and a lot of people talk to us. We end up with a fairly comprehensive view of the landscape.”

The organization takes its stewardship role very seriously. While a donor may choose to override the guidance of the Community Foundation, there are lines they will not cross in the interest of maintaining their own integrity. If an organization isn’t passing muster, they will offer several alternative ones that do.

As an example, David recalls an Alzheimer’s research organization in Maryland that a donor wanted to fund. “It had a beautiful brochure,” He remembers, “Unfortunately, it turned out that only a very a small fraction of funding was going to Alzheimer’s research. The majority was going to marketing!”

The Long Island Community Foundation uses 20-plus criteria to evaluate organizations in terms of how they conduct their governance and manage their finances.

In addition, they do a lot of networking and other endeavors out in the community.

“We talk to a lot of people,” says David, “and a lot of people talk to us. We end up with a fairly comprehensive view of the landscape.”

There is also a system of checks and balances in place to make sure the LICF is fulfilling its mission. David explains, “After we get the donor to clearly state their intent, and how to adapt that with the changes of time, there’s a process that provides multiple and independent review to help ensure that we are fulfilling our promise to honor and appropriately carry out the donors wishes.”

First the LICF Board of Directors has to approve each grant, followed by approval from both the New York Community Trust Vice President of Grants and the General Counsel. Final approval is granted by the New York Community Trust Board.

Two Steep Paths in Opposite Directions: Challenges to Long Island's Safety Net

While the LICF’s primary client and sole source of revenue is the donors who hold their funds with them, the organization considers itself a steward of 501(c)3 organizations Island-wide. David sees his role, ultimately, as endeavoring to partner with charitable individuals and organizations to establish an endowment that acts as a safety net for the Long Island nonprofit sector.

“These organizations work day and night to achieve a mission,” says David, “They need significant financial support. Beyond other challenges they face, they’re often responsible for funding shortfalls.”

A primary challenge David points to is that government funding has and continues to dwindle while needs have grown dramatically. “It gets even worse,” says David, “Often there will be specific requirements when government agencies contract with nonprofit organizations, particularly in terms of Human Services. However, government funding does not cover all the expenses that these requirements entail, so agencies get left trying to fill the gap.

Adding to that challenge is the dwindling number of mid- and large-sized companies that provide charitable contributions on Long Island. David talks about how Keyspan, where he once worked, provided nearly $5 million in community grants a year supporting nonprofits on Long Island, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.  As many of these once local companies are bought out by others not headquartered in the region, we have seen a steep decline in the commitment and level of the financial support to our nonprofit sector.

Another major impact on the fundraising landscape is the number of banks that have merged over the last twenty years, reducing their number significantly. What we have seen following mergers and acquisitions of these financial institutions, is that the totality of the charitable contributions from the individual entities prior to a merger or takeover is typically greater than that of the newly combined entity.

What’s more, notes David, “Many of the smaller businesses don’t seem to be participating in supporting our local charities that are truly improving the quality of life for all in our community. We’re not sure why, but many feel that they just don’t seem to care.”

“It’s two steep paths in opposite directions,” David remarks as he goes on to talk about how the plunge in major funding sources is being outmatched by skyrocketing needs on Long Island, “Something must be done to ensure the health and welfare of Long Island.”

“Nonprofits need money to provide programs. The folks who do this work need to be paid, too.  We need everyone’s help to build an endowment for Long Island that will serve as a safety net for the nonprofits who are on the front lines each and every day to improve the quality of life for our families, friends and neighbors.”

“It’s two steep paths in opposite directions,” David remarks as he goes on to talk about how the plunge in major funding sources is being outmatched by skyrocketing needs on Long Island, “Something must be done to ensure the health and welfare of Long Island.”

Adjusting Unrealistic Standards, Encouraging Giving on LI

The conversation has a familiar ring. It’s very similar to observations offered by Dr. Jeff Reynolds of the Family and Children’s Association that we shared in early 2017.

They both also discussed challenges in securing donations from individuals. Although there’s a tremendous amount of wealth on Long Island, the giving doesn’t seem to reflect that. Often, charitable individuals bypass their own region entirely, giving to more well-known city-based and national organizations that don’t generally do much on Long Island. Then there’s a matter of unrealistic standards that have been popularized over recent decades. David pointed to a statement reflecting this challenge that was made by organizations dedicated to nonprofit best practices, including the Better Business Bureau, Guidestar, and Charity Navigator. It’s called “The Overhead Myth.”

“There are some donors who don’t want to give to any organization for whom the administrative portion of the budget is more than 5 or 10%,” explains David.

We’ve seen this kind of recommendation before, and never really understood how groups can function that way. We are grateful to hear David validate our concerns, “It’s not realistic and, frankly, when I see a successful organization claiming that they’re managing that, I become a little suspicious.”

Plus, he explains, there’s a lot of leeway in how these numbers can be assigned. “Some folks think they have to list their entire Executive Director’s salary as administration,” says David, “Others do the opposite.” There’s truthfully a lot of room for interpretation.

He goes on, “I think a more realistic number is around 30%.  Then I know there’s room for professional development, strategic planning, and evaluation; that they’re able to do the fundraising they need to broaden their base of donors; that maybe people doing this work – which is generally so much more than a 9-5 – are actually being paid at least barely enough to live on Long Island and focus on what they’re doing; that the organization can plan for succession or disruption. That they can do the creative thinking required to come up with innovative solutions to the complex problems they are focused on.

Although there’s a tremendous amount of wealth on Long Island, the giving doesn’t seem to reflect that.

Often, charitable individuals bypass their own region entirely, giving to more well-known city-based and national organizations that don’t generally do much on Long Island.

Then there’s a matter of unrealistic standards that have been popularized over recent decades…

Another challenge is donor demands that funding go exclusively to direct services. “It’s not practical if 100% of funds go exclusively to whomever an organization is serving. While very specific donations can be of value, an organization can’t survive without administration.” This includes not just overseeing programs, but also functions such as tracking what donors want and making sure that’s actually what’s happening. Sound organizations have accountants, lawyers and often rent to pay.

“We are always seeking ways to help meet the needs,” David explains, “With our resources, yes, but also with anything else we can connect folks with, be it information or time. In reality, we’re still kind of bound and we know we will never have enough money to address all the needs. We are always willing to share information with nonprofits and other funding agencies. Every little bit counts.

Some don’t want to give to any organization for whom the administrative portion of the budget is more than 5 or 10%

“It’s not realistic,” says David, ” and, frankly, when I see a successful organization claiming that they’re managing that, I become a little suspicious.”

“…a more realistic number is around 30%. Then I know there’s room for professional development, strategic planning, and evaluation; that they’re able to do the fundraising they need to broaden their base of donors; that maybe people doing this work – which is generally so much more than a 9-5 – are actually being paid at least barely enough to live on Long Island and focus on what they’re doing; that the organization can plan for succession or disruption. That they can do the creative thinking required to come up with innovative solutions to the complex problems they are focused on.

Building the LICF Resource Base

Trudy asks how the LICF expands its own base of funders. The primary method is word of mouth. Donors tend to be quite proud of the work they do with the Foundation. The LICF is most grateful when these happy donors encourage their friends and family to join them in giving. They also work with professional advisors – accountants, attorneys, and financial advisors. If someone becomes aware that a client has a tax situation, is writing a will, or simply has a charitable intent, they will explain available resources, including the LICF.

“We do a lot of outreach to such professionals, and welcome opportunities to build more relationships,” says David, “We will work with them however they want to work with us. Sometimes they’ll ask us to come with them to meet a client. Sometimes they’ll ask us to reach out to them directly. Sometimes they feel most comfortable just taking the materials and leaving us out of it entirely. Whatever works for them. We are grateful for the referrals.”

“Cities are gentrifying,” explains David, “Where do you suppose the folks they are pushing out go? They end up here on LI, which does not have the same infrastructure as the city. This leaves them even more vulnerable. You can’t just hop on a bus or train to access services. These folks end up more isolated and without services. If you really care about poverty, you can’t only have a city-centric view.”

Metropolitan and National Charities: We Need You

It’s not just wealthy individuals who want to give to Manhattan charities that David hopes to inspire to support Long Island.
 
“There’s a really big push to educate big NYC or National Funders, who generally only fund the metropolitan area. We’re trying to get them to understand that there are now more poor folks in the suburbs than in the cities.”

We used to see poverty here as an urban crisis. Now, the tables have turned, “Cities are gentrifying,” explains David, “Where do you suppose the folks they are pushing out go? They end up here on LI, which does not have the same infrastructure as the city. This leaves them even more vulnerable. You can’t just hop on a bus or train to access services. These folks end up more isolated and without services. If you really care about poverty, you can’t only have a city-centric view.”

“We want these NYC and national funders to consider more regional approaches. Even better, we want to bring them out here and get them to make grants directly to our local Long Island nonprofit agencies. We are here to be their partners and to provide support.”

He notes that as a major local philanthropic entity with strong ties to a more regional organization, the LICF is in a unique position to make this case, “We can be the agitator without any risk/harm to the agencies. If a local non-profit tries it, it not only wastes their resources, they might actually build a bad relationship with a foundation. We don’t have that risk, so we see it as our responsibility. We consider this an important part of our role.”

Collaborations

 As it encourages regional entities to give to Long Island, the LICF also endeavors to be a part of regional solutions. In addition to what they do through donor advised funds and competitive grants, the LICF engages in partnerships to address important regional issues.

One is the Long Island Sound Funders Collaborative, a joint initiative with funders from New York City, Westchester and Connecticut. Together, the partners have crafted a proposal to protect, preserve, and clean up the major water body that they share.

“Basically, it brings environmental funders together to determine what’s worked, what hasn’t, and how we can work in concert to have a greater impact.”

The collaborative commissioned a Long Island Report Card, based upon an extremely successful model established in Maryland for the Chesapeake Bay. David pulls out a map, noting that while the further one gets from the Metropolitan area the better the water quality grade gets, the actual rating along the shorelines are typically significantly much worse.

“It would be really neat to have an app on one’s phone that told them if the water was clean enough to swim in that day. It would be even better if this work woke up enough people to demand solutions from our local and regional governments to invest in cleaning up our local water bodies.”

“It would be really neat to have an app on one’s phone that told them if the water was clean enough to swim in that day. It would be even better if this work woke up enough people to demand solutions from our local and regional governments to invest in cleaning up our local water bodies.”

Another collaboration is an effort to make sure that Long Island gets its fair share of Federal Funding by Encouraging 2020 Census Participation.

In 2017, New York State paid $40.9 billion more in federal taxes than it received in benefits—the largest deficit of its kind in the nation.  The Long Island Association released a report showing that in 2013 residents and businesses on Long Island sent $42.5 billion to the federal government and got back $19.4 billion.  A more accurate census count could help close that gap.

An accurate population count is also important to our hundreds of charitable donors who support education, the arts, environmental protection, food programs, and other safety net programs. Generous donations cannot meet a community’s needs alone. Appropriate government funding informed by census is critical.

LICF and several local philanthropic partners, like the Rauch Foundation, are once again involved in “getting out the count” efforts. They did this for the 2010 Census as well because census data affects so much of what matters to them, their donors, and our region.  In 2010, LICF and Rauch pooled $500,000 with other funding partners, which they distributed to 22 Long Island organizations to reach out to typically undercounted populations.  They received additional support from business and municipal partners like Northwell, LIPA, Cablevision, WLIW, the Nassau and Suffolk County bus systems, and other community stakeholders.  In turn, 19 of the 23 Census tracts in which the initiative focused its efforts showed increased response rates, including a dramatic 21 percent increase in Central Islip and a 7 percent increase in Roosevelt.

In 2017, New York State paid $40.9 billion more in federal taxes than it received in benefits—the largest deficit of its kind in the nation.  The Long Island Association released a report showing in 2013 residents and businesses on Long Island sent $42.5 billion to the federal government and got back $19.4 billion.  A more accurate census count could help close that gap.

“There will be many challenges to getting an accurate population count in 2020, and as such, our collective efforts are more important than ever,” explains David, “In partnership with foundations statewide, we are strategically pooling and distributing resources to hard-to-count communities across the State to ensure that our State keeps its 27 congressional seats and receives its fair share of federal funds to support education, health, social services, infrastructure, and other vital programs and services that New Yorkers and Long Islanders depend on for the next decade.” 

 “We are concerned that many people in our region will be afraid to be counted,” says David, “whether it’s because they are undocumented, or simply have an unauthorized accessory apartment in their home.  As such, we need to raise awareness, debunk myths, and support efforts to ensure an accurate population count for Nassau and Suffolk Counties.”

Every Contribution Matters: Please Get Involved

We talk about non-profits that make a tremendous difference, and about people and organizations who make their work possible. We talk about philanthropic organizations and others pooling their resources to meet needs in ways they realize they are uniquely positioned to help. We talk about the need to pay attention, not only to those who aren’t doing the right things, but to appreciate and positively reinforce those who give so much to make things better for more than just themselves. For David, it’s all about working together with all who are willing, and encouraging others to step up and help make sure our region is as economically, environmentally and socially healthy as it can be.

“Everyone plays a role in making Long Island the greatest place to live,” says David, “As such, I would encourage individuals, families, and business to support the local charities whose missions align with their concerns, interests and passions.  Please feel free to reach out to the staff at LICF as we are always here to assist.”

Thank you, David. We appreciate it.

LICF Competitive Grants
In addition to managing more giver-directed Donor Advised Funds, LICF administers competitive grants, which are accepted three times per year.

Current program areas include the Arts, Community Development, Education, the Environment, Hunger, Mental Health, Organizational Technical Assistance, Youth Development and Social Change (through the LI Unitarian Universalists Fund)

The next deadline is April 8, 2019.

You can see a full description and application instructions here.