People who are charitable, who give tzedakah — who feel the need to support the organizations that live out their values and the politicians who might enact the policies that accord with their beliefs, but who do not have the means to devote themselves to full-time, serious philanthropy — do not necessarily know how full-time or serious it is, or how morally profound it can be.
Although certainly many people give money to have their names on buildings or influence their friends, their neighbors, or college admissions officers, serious philanthropy is not at all that.
Serious philanthropy is undertaken by such people as Angelica Berrie of Englewood, whose life’s work is assessing needs, surveying the relationships and interconnections that exist and can be strengthened, and imagining the future as it unfolds astonishingly around us.
In April, as we reported, the foundation she leads, the Teaneck-based Russell Berrie Foundation, gave $1.6 million locally and another $1 million in Israel. That funding was the first phase of what is intended to be a three-phase initiative in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
In May, the foundation reported that it has given another $3.2 million, divided among local institutions, national ones, and Israeli groups.
The gifts include $250,000 each to Englewood Health and to Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck; both are to go for what its press release calls “emergency health needs,” including personal protective equipment and other supplies.
The foundation also is giving $100,000 to the Rockleigh-based Jewish Home Family and $100,000 to the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
Neither the recipients nor the specific projects for which the grants are given — for personnel needs and PPE for the Jewish Home, and for kosher Meals on Wheels and other local services, and for two case managers for the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Northern New Jersey — are chosen at random.
The first phase of giving was entirely emergency-based, Ms. Berrie said. “It was funding for survival in the immediate crisis. The funds we gave were about creating community stabilization. We were stabilizing organizations so they didn’t drown in their panic.
“We are facing a long arc of recovery, so we have to go through it in phases.”
To describe the second phase — this one — she quoted one of her board members, David Rosenblatt of Tenafly, who said that it’s “the fuzzy middle.”
“You still don’t know what’s going to happen, but you know that you have to sustain people so that they’ll have the resilience and the structure to face the days to come,” she said. “How do you step up to face the future? We try to future-proof the nonprofits we support with better shock absorbers. With the mindset for resilience.
“How do you rebuild, once the urgency of survival passes? Some groups will not rise to the top, not because they are not capable, but because the goalposts have moved in this time of crisis. People ask how important an organization is when people are starving, people have no jobs, people are losing their homes. There’s a sense of reprioritization. They will say ‘Why should I fund Lincoln Center, when I have people starving in my backyard?’ But culture is always important.
“In the same way that you want the restaurant you love to come back, you want the culture that you love to be there, but in the middle there is there but in the middle there is a need for repair and recovery.
“The third stage will be about the long-term sustainable future of an organization in this new reality. As of now, we don’t know what it will be. We have to get through the intermediate stage to know how to use our funding to reach the long term, and hopefully beyond, when hopefully the organization will have enough to take care of itself.”
The uncertainty of the times not only changes demands, it also changes funders’ access to information. Working by Zoom isn’t easy for anyone, including philanthropists; their ability to create new relationships is diminished, so they have to rely more on the ones they already have. Luckily for the Berrie Foundation, it has established relationships and so has access to information that otherwise would be hard to get. “It is a different mode of learning,” Ms. Berrie said. “We have to be very alert to the news of what other foundations are doing. If you don’t have the peer network to know who to call to find out what is happening in Jerusalem, what are the needs on the ground, it is a challenge.” Even with the network of peers and local staffers, “we have to operate with a blind spot,” she said. “That is a challenge for philanthropy.
“You can’t put your finger right on the pulse. You can’t have your feet on the ground.”
“The blind spot for us here in the United States is not knowing what’s coming” — a challenge, she acknowledges, not unique to philanthropists but shared by everyone. That means that philanthropists have to leaven the data on which they rely with intuition. They always use both, she said, but now the formula has to change.
“We know one thing,” she said. “We don’t know what the new normal will be, but we know that it won’t be business as usual. So I see this as an opportunity to rethink how we do things today, because that might not be relevant tomorrow. How do we correct our course?”
This opportunity, as devastating as it is, presents opportunities as well as a great potential for disaster. “It has shaken us out of our complacency,” Ms. Berrie said. “Everyone always quotes Rahm Emanuel as saying that you should never never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis, but that’s a misattribution.” That quote, in fact, came from Machiavelli; the idea behind it is at least 500 years old.
It’s a huge mistake to get complacent, though; to coast on the comforting thought that crises present opportunities. “Organizations think that if they can get through the next three months they will be okay. We have to have common sense, to say ‘you know what? It won’t be like that.’ Just look at the economy alone. Thirty-five million people have lost their jobs. Many think they will be hired back, but working from home will be the new normal, and that will change things. Some people’s jobs will disappear completely, and we don’t know yet who will be impacted.
“What donors face now is not compassion fatigue as much as information fatigue. There is so much that you don’t know and can’t anticipate.”
One thing that we should anticipate, she said, was chillingly put into words by a director of a nonprofit with whom she works. We’ve just lived through “the earthquake before the tsunami,” she quoted him as saying. “We are just waking up after the storm, and no thinking that there might be an aftershock. A second wave. And then a tsunami.
“If we are to overcome this kind of challenge, we have to be more creative, more innovative, and bolder than usual,” she said. “We can’t do things are usual. This is not the usual time. The usual kind of thinking is not sufficient for the scope of this challenge.”
Ruth Salzman is the CEO of the Russell Berrie Foundation. “We provided two grants to the federation” — that’s the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey — “because we’ve been looking at understanding the community’s needs, and we know that federation is the community’s central address,” she said. The relationship between the foundation and the federation goes back a long time and far predates the pandemic. “We saw two roles in working with them. One was the grant to the emergency fund; they raised $300,000, and that really was based on their reaching out to different organizations in the community and asking what they needed. We provided $50,000 of that, and that made sure that the kosher meals on wheels were delivered.
“The second grant was because of our understanding of the level of economic distress that the JFCS” — the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey, a federation agency — “was experiencing, so it was to provide caseworkers. Again, it’s responding to the idea of the federation as the central address, with an overview of what the needs are, and as being able to explain it to funders.
“We are working with the federation to help with the community conversation. What the Jewish community in northern New Jersey will be like in 2020 is not like what it was in 1960 — for that matter, it’s not like it was in 2019. How do we have a thriving community? That’s something we’re very engaged in thinking about.”
“In the case of the Jewish Home, we try to be engaged with our grantees as constructive partners, to understand what is going on with them in a way that enables us to make a difference.
“The story of senior facilities in New Jersey is a very rough story, and the Jewish Home has not escaped it, but it is among the best. Carol” — that’s its president and CEO, Carol Silver Elliott — “has done a terrific job.
“One of the things that they explained to us is that holding onto their nursing staff is the absolute difference between success and failure. It is necessary to have a highly trained nursing staff. So we provided a grant to provide a differential between what they had been paying and what they had to pay to retain that staff.
“That is the kind of grantor we want to be.
“And that comes out of a relationship and an engagement that doesn’t happen just the day of the emergency.”
In fact, Ms. Salzman added, the relationship between the Berrie Foundation and the Jewish Home is so deep and real that “we made a $3 million gift to its Second Century campaign. At the time we provided it, it was the largest single gift to that campaign. That comes out of knowing them, and caring a lot about them.” (It also comes out of doing a great deal of due diligence, she added.)
Ms. Silver Elliott is still living with the aftershocks of the intense covid siege that took over the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, where the oldest and frailest residents live. “Things are feeling much more normal, but we went through a five-year-long month in April,” she said. “I remember the first time right after the walls were taped, floor to ceiling, and we were in full garb for the first time. I felt like I had been plunked into an alternate reality. Everything was entirely the same and completely different.
“We are in a much better place now — pooh pooh pooh — and we have had to learn on the fly, literally changing policy sometimes three times a day, as things changed.
“There hasn’t been a day when I haven’t used the words ‘fight’ or battle.’”
Now the numbers are coming down, she can breathe, and she can talk about the Berrie Foundation.
“When we started talking about what we were seeing,” back when the nightmare began, “a number of people reached out to us, including long-time donors, and including the federation. And the Berrie Foundation reached out in a lovely way. They asked ‘What do you need? How can we help?’
“We are very data driven, and we already had a pretty good spreadsheet.” Using that data, she and her colleagues were able to figure out “how much we would have to spend on PPE, and how much the extra staffing was going to cost. We offered incentive pay to people working in the covid area, and we had to get a lot of new iPads for virtual visiting.” Outsiders were not able to visit residents, so people’s only contact with their dear family and friends — at times their last contact — was electronic. “We also lost revenue because we closed our admissions and discharged people from the rehab center if we knew they’d be okay at home.” The risks to patients who did not have covid was too high.
The help the Jewish Home got from the Berrie Foundation was invaluable, Ms. Silver Elliott said. “It is a wonderful, community-oriented foundation,” she said. “And it’s smart too.”
Jason Shames is the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
“As usual, the Berrie Foundation stood up in the face of crises to support our community in a very significant way,” he said. “Not just the Jewish community, but the community at large. We are very grateful for the targeted support. We are grateful to be partners with them.
“Their money passes through us 100 percent; it’s used for things like stocking the food pantry, buying things like masks and gloves, and paying for social work case managers. Their money means a lot to us. Its impact can be quantified in dollars, but not in terms of the huge impact it makes in people’s lives.
“Without people like them, our community would be in a much darker place.”