Oh, Right, Help Thy Neighbor: Helmsley Takes on New York's Problems

New York is a global city, so it's no surprise that many of the foundations in town think globally—to the point that some forget to think locally and focus on the dire problems right outside their swank offices.

The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust bucks that cliche, and has always funded in New York City, particularly through its education program. But it's never had a New York strategy per se, until now. Helmsley has just launched a New York Regional Grants Program to begin focusing on local residents in need—the neighbors the foundation's staff pass every day on the way to work.

To find out more about this move, I recently spoke with a couple of staff members at the foundation, which only emerged onto the grantmaking scene five years ago. Despite its young age, the Trust has approximately $5 billion in assets.

Helmsley's New York program, which is led by Tamara Fox, remains in an early stage. According to Fox, the foundation didn’t want to rush out and build a local grantmaking program with specific focus—not just yet, anyway. Instead, the foundation set out to learn about what the people of New York City really need the most.

That's smart strategy, which is what you'd expect from a foundation that not long ago hired a seasoned strategic thinker, Betsy Fader, as its "Advisor for Strategy and New Programs" (which is not a title you see often at foundations, by the way). 

When Fox joined the trust two years ago, she figured that learning about the needs of New York City residents would be pretty straightforward. But she discovered that there were far more questions than answers as she started digging. In particular, she found that good data was surprisingly elusive about such basic problems as hunger, homelessness, and the aging population. And herein emerged an opportunity for the foundation’s first local grantmaking initiative.

Earlier this year, Helmsley put $731,794 toward a project called "NYC Data to Go," which will create a website to map out human needs and opportunities for improving wellbeing across the New York metropolitan area. This project will consolidate local, state, and federal data about needs, resources, and outcomes to create an insightful depiction of life in each New York City neighborhood. The Social Science Research Council undertood this Helmsley-funded initiative as a Measure of America Project, which is slated to launch in early 2015.

“NYC Data to Go is the ideal inaugural initiative for the Trust’s newly launched New York City Regional Grants Program, through which we intend to take a highly data‐driven approach to uncover and address health, economic, and social needs throughout the area,” John R. Ettinger, CEO of the Helmsley Charitable Trust said in a press release. "Undoubtedly, this new tool will be an invaluable source of information as we identify and execute New York program grants going forward.”

NYC Data to Go is the trust’s very first local grantmaking initiative approved by the trustees. Tamara Fox shared that additional initiatives are in the discussion phase at this time, but that they’re looking at an emergency food sector project for the next one. Although there are at least 1,100 food pantries and soup kitchens in New York City, many residents still go hungry. For the next initiative, the trust wants to identify the systems and issues that stand in the way of New Yorkers getting access to healthy food.

Fox also said that each initiative will extend up to three years and provide up to $5 million per year, which is some serious money. She expects the local initiative grantmaking 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.

Fox says that the Trust is relatively open to all initiative ideas at this time, but they're inclined toward initiatives that fit with the other work that the foundation has done. That’s not a litmus test, she says, but there's a good case for utilizing the experience that lives within their walls.

Unfortunately for grantseekers, the New York City Regional Grants Program is not open to unsolicited proposals. This program is very leanly staffed at the moment, and as Fox stated, the trust simply couldn’t design a program that would be responsive to the thousands of nonprofits in the city. Communications Director Kevin Cavanaugh added that the Helmsley Trust’s staffing limitations prevent them from responding to unsolicited proposals for any foundation program. Being respectful of nonprofits’ time and energy, and carefully managing their expectations is clearly important to the Helmsley staff. (And so is not being pestered by clueless grantseekers.)

But with that said, the trust looks for grantees that offer solutions-oriented programs, because it is not a direct service funder. Fox and her staff would most likely talk to a nonprofit that works within a niche and that can show data-driven results. The local program is squarely focused on the five boroughs and the New York City region. The trust would consider venturing out a little further, but not very much.

Fox says that the trust plans to fund at least one large initiative and perhaps one or two smaller initiatives at any given time. The NYC Data to Go website is expected to launch in January 2015, and we'll be keeping an eye out to see how this local program evolves through the next set of approved initiatives in New York.