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Public administration expert tracks 9/11 nonprofits

2011-08-23

BINGHAMTON, NY – More than 250 new nonprofit groups developed after the 9/11 attacks and generated nearly $700 million in the first two years of operation. In exploring why so many nonprofits sprang up after the disaster, and how they performed once established, a Binghamton University researcher offers key lessons that may help in future crises and in improved coordination between new and existing relief agencies.

Drawing from his own experiences after 9/11 when he served as vice president for programs with Community Service Society, one of the oldest nonprofit organizations in New York City, David Campbell, an associate professor of public administration, has studied and written papers on the formation of disaster-response agencies.  His research tapped into his own experience with one of these organizations, the Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund, which was established to support the families of hospitality-industry workers who died in the disaster.

"At first, I didn’t understand it,” Campbell says. “Why do people need to start new organizations? For instance, why didn’t the Window of Hope fund founders come first to Community Service Society or to an existing organization that had a track record? That piqued my interest for the research agenda.”

Campbell’s examination and findings, titled “Stand by Me: Organization Founding in the Aftermath of Disaster,” was published by The American Review of Public Administration.

In “Stand by Me,” Campbell studies the motivations of the people who created nonprofit organizations and the roles they played after 9/11.  He read tax-exemption applications the groups submitted to the IRS and identified the “defining characteristics” of each. For example, some groups may be geographically based, while others might be affiliated with a fire company or, like Windows of Hope, an employer of 9/11 victims.

“All of the categories represent where people’s passions lie in making a difference in the community,” he says.

But some organizations lacked direction. Campbell pointed to an application from two people in the Midwest who planned to start a nonprofit that would provide foster care for orphans.

“They had no connection to New York City,” he says. “They had no funding source. I think people have a lot of positive energy and they are not sure where to direct it.”

Campbell found that most of the new post-9/11 organizations ceased operation within two years. Once the money was raised and distributed, the group disbanded. Those that endured past two years likely had stronger ties to the families of victims.

Campbell’s second research project, “Organic and Sustainable: The Emergence, Formalization and Performance of a September 11th Disaster Relief Organization,” focused specifically on Windows of Hope. The case study was published in Nonprofit Management and Leadership last year.

Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund was established by Windows on the World restaurant owner David Emil and chef Waldy Malouf who joined with Quest restaurant owner and chef Tom Valenti, and others in the hospitality industry, to provide financial aid, health insurance and educational help to the families of hospitality-industry workers killed in the World Trade Center attack.

Campbell’s study, which was a logical extension of his first research project, offered an opportunity to reflect on the factors that contributed to the group’s success.

“There was a shared sense of identity among this group of hospitality-industry workers,” he says. “The Windows on the World founders told me, “We have to take care of our own.” That’s what brought them together. But it wouldn’t have mattered if they hadn’t been able to bring in resources. If you look at the hospitality industry, it has resources and knows how to leverage them.”

Windows of Hope leaders also understood the need for collaboration and knew when to ask for help, Campbell says. Having raised over $22 million, Windows founders sought out guidance from the Community Service Society to make sure that they were able to fairly distribute the funds to the victims’ families.

“Their willingness to acknowledge what they did not know and to use Community Service Society allowed them to be responsive quickly,” he says.

Both “Stand by Me” and “Organic and Sustainable” offer lessons to post-disaster organization founders and advisors, Campbell says. The projects, in particular, can help a new organization get off — or even stay on — the ground by providing some key questions to address.

“What is the life cycle of an organization founded in response to a disaster?” Campbell says. “Are you looking to go out of business after a year, which is fine but unusual? What is it you are trying to accomplish?”

Perhaps most important, Campbell would like to see closer coordination between new groups and the nonprofit infrastructure. The IRS can help make that happen when nonprofit applications are approved, Campbell says, and produce more success stories.

“These organizations need a connection to the existing service-delivery infrastructure,” he says. “I want to make sure these people talk to each other.”

Campbell will next turn his research attention to a second U.S. disaster: Hurricane Katrina. More than 400 new nonprofit organizations received approval for charitable activities in response to the 2005 storm, which devastated New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf coast. Campbell will analyze the groups and see how their life cycles compare to the 9/11 organizations.

Last Updated: 9/17/13