Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust: New York City Grants

OVERVIEW: The Helmsley Charitable Trust has only been on the grantmaking scene for less than a decade, but the foundation is already redefining its role in New York City. Helmsley has a New York Regional Grants Program to begin focusing on local residents in need. Each initiative lasts up to three years and provide up to $5 million per year.

IP TAKE: The trust looks for grantees that offer solutions-oriented programs, because it’s not a direct service funder. Unfortunately, the New York City initiative program (or any program, actually) isn’t open to unsolicited proposals. 

PROFILE: Harry Helmsley was a real estate mogul with impressive properties like the Empire State Building, The Park Lane Hotel, and the Ritz Carlton in his portfolio. Although the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust was established in 1999, it only began operating at its current level in 2008. Mrs. Helmsley directed charitable giving after her husband’s death, including nearly $100 million in grants to New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center for research and treatment in several areas of medicine, including cardiovascular disease, rehabilitation medicine, and digestive diseases.

John R. Ettinger became the Helmsley Charitable Trust’s first CEO when he joined the foundation in early 2012. He and the trustees chose to work in areas where there were substantial unmet needs. However, the trust doesn’t fund grants for basic needs, like food and shelter, or what Mr. Ettinger calls "higher calling" projects, like museums. Instead, it focuses on what he calls the "middle level," providing funding for initiatives that will allow people to blossom. "You need health and education for people to thrive," Mr. Ettinger told Crain’s New York Business.

Today, the Helmsley Charitable Trust has over $5.5 billion in assets. Since 2008, a vast majority of the funds have been directed at health and medical research grants, which revolve around Type-1 diabetes, rural healthcare, Crohn’s & IBD, and cardiovascular disease. Helmsley grantmaking has traditionally been conducted on a national scale, however, the foundation launched a New York Regional Grants Program to  focus on local residents in need: The neighbors the foundation's staff pass every day on the way to work.

Helmsley's New York program used to be led by Tamara Fox. According to Fox, who we interviewed a couple years back, the foundation didn’t want to rush out and build a local grantmaking program with a specific focus. Since it is still learning, growing, and evolving, the foundation set out to learn about what the people of New York City really need the most. Fox also said that she expected this program to include very little direct service funding. The trust isn’t looking to be in the Band-Aid business, but rather wants to utilize data and other approaches to help devise better solutions.

At this time, the local initiative program is focused on harnessing data to provide social services to New Yorkers and improving the emergency food supply for homeless city dwellers. The trust has two or three of these initiatives going on at any given time, and these initiatives are squarely focused on the five boroughs of New York City. Unfortunately, the local program isn’t open to unsolicited inquiries, nor are any programs at the Helmsley Trust at this time. To learn more about the type of niche, data-driven, nonprofits that Helmsley gravitates towards, check out the foundation’s past grantmaking activity page.


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