How to Be Charitable, from Brooklyn’s Guru of Giving

Cecilia Clarke, CEO of the borough's community foundation, explains why she intensified the group's activism toward social and racial justice

Clarke in Dumbo, not long before moving the organization's headquarters to Crown Heights (Photo by Jason Andrew)

If you believe in the Resistance, you’ll feel a kindred spirit in the Brooklyn Community Foundation. The charity, which raises funds for the borough’s nonprofit groups, is an unabashed crusader for social justice against forces both home-grown and emanating from Washington.

In a changing borough, the group works to alleviate the effects of growing income inequality and gentrification. In the larger arena, it defends the rights of immigrants and minorities affected by President Trump’s policies, which hit close to home. “Be aware that the lived experience for Brooklynites is very much being impacted by these headlines we’re all reading,” said the foundation’s president and CEO, Cecilia Clarke, in an interview with The Bridge.

Since taking the helm of the group in 2013, Clarke has transformed it into a more activist organization. She launched an ambitious outreach project called Brooklyn Insights to set new goals, created an accelerator program to incubate new nonprofits, established the Spark prizes to reward innovative groups, and moved the foundation’s headquarters from Dumbo to a more central location in Crown Heights.

A graduate of Georgetown University, Clarke started out as a social worker before gravitating toward managing and funding arts organizations. Then, in 2002, she founded the Sadie Nash Leadership Project, a program for low-income young women, which she ran until joining the community foundation. A longtime Brooklyn resident, she lives in Fort Greene with her husband and the younger two of their three children.

In the charitable world, right now is peak season, when donors are feeling generous and thinking about year-end tax deductions. Clarke’s foundation raises about 70% of its funds in the fourth quarter; last year it distributed about $4 million. The Bridge talked with Clarke about her group’s evolution at her foundation’s office, with the Franklin Avenue Shuttle rumbling by just outside her window.

It’s the season of giving. What’s your advice to the generous?

If you live in Brooklyn, keep it local. Think about what matters to you in your borough and maybe even in your neighborhood. Because there’s really wonderful organizations probably right around the corner from you. One way you can find out about them is to go to our website and look at all of our grantees. We have over a hundred. Anything on our site has been vetted forever.


Supported by the foundation’s Immigrant Rights Fund, demonstrators in Washington call for a “clean DREAM Act,” which would create a pathway to U.S. citizenship (Photo by Atlas: DIY)

In general, trust the nonprofits. And just give freely–don’t attach it to some particular purpose. Because, honestly, most nonprofits really just want general operating support. They need to keep their lights on. Even the large nonprofits, ones getting government contracts, look wealthy or big on paper, but actually they have very little flexible money because the government contracts are so restrictive. So just trust them.

You could also give to us. If you do, it will end up in the hands of nonprofits. [The foundation pays operating costs out of a $60 million endowment.] Giving to us, dollar for dollar–it goes right back out the door.

Brooklyn has a growing affluent class. Are those people stepping up?

Yes, there is significantly increasing wealth. The sad part of that story is that it doesn’t mean there is decreasing poverty. By some estimates, about 25% of Brooklynites live below the federal poverty line, but if you look at other measures, almost 40% live in or near poverty. Essentially what’s happening in Brooklyn is that you’re moving from a kind of predominantly working-class and middle-class borough that had pockets of poverty, to an economically divided one.

So it is incumbent on us to [leverage] this kind of ascendant wealth. I feel like I’m just starting to do that, honestly. We are changing our board and I have some of these new, wealthy Brooklynites on the board, and they’re wonderful people. There are also a lot of businesses starting in Brooklyn.

Are there any new philanthropists in particular who have emerged?

Yes, for example, Gabe and Jolie Schwartz. He’s in finance, she’s an actor and producer. They moved with a couple of kids from the Village to Brooklyn and were really committed to giving back. He is now chair of our finance committee.

Two days after the [Presidential] election, he calls me and said, “You know, Jolie and I are upset about the outcome of the election, like many of our neighbors. In particular, we are really troubled by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the campaign. I think that the foundation should do something more around immigration. I think we should raise $1 million and we’re going to make a lead commitment that will put us well on our way towards that goal. Next week we have a board meeting. Will you help me get some language on paper?” I was so delighted that someone was taking action and showing leadership in the middle of how we all felt two days after the election.

Sure enough, at the meeting Gabe presented and we got 100% board participation. We had $70,000 out the door right away to nonprofits who were calling us, already being impacted by hate crimes, people who needed to do self-defense training for immigrants. I mean it was real, like that.

So we crafted a really strategic and effective Immigrant Rights Fund. The need’s been staggering. A Sunset Park organization calls us because essentially they have created a program where women are training other women to come up with plans in case they’re deported and their children are still at school. And it’s a brand new program. They’re not going to get money [through traditional means], it’s not like an established program with metrics. Who’s going to fund them, right? No one. So they called us.

How would you characterize your major types of donors?

At one point my chief operating officer (COO) and I created demographic stripes, which are largely age categories. One is very established Brooklyn wealth–leaders of the major cultural institutions, deep pockets, long tradition of being philanthropic in the borough.


The Stomp Out the Muslim Ban performance at Borough Hall in October was presented by the Arab American Family Support Center and funded by the Immigrant Rights Fund (Photo by Natalie Keyssar/Inspired Storytellers Collective)

The next stripe we called the Brownstoners, which is people my age, approaching empty nest, live in pretty good neighborhoods. Maybe don’t have the kind of money that would get them on a major cultural institution, but really want to be socially active. That’s a sweet spot right there.

The next is more like Gabe. Young children, just moved to Brooklyn, doing really well financially. Want to get involved, feel an affection for Brooklyn. Being new to something, when you’ve made a real decision about your family, can be as loyal as been-here-forever.

When you assumed your new post in 2013, what was state of the organization?

What I found was a foundation struggling with transition. It had changed in 2009 from a bank’s private foundation to a community foundation focused on Brooklyn, but any kind of dramatic organizational change didn’t seem as obvious. They had done a fantastic job as a bank foundation, mind you, but the board was the bank board, it was bank officers. Changes that could have happened at the outset didn’t happen.

Then there was this learning stage when new board members were being added. They were kind of looking around and thinking, “So, what’s going on here? What do we want to be?” They decided to give it another try, maybe with some leadership transition. So one of the board members reached out to me and said, “I want you to throw your hat in the ring.”

Once you arrived, how did you learn the job?

My COO at the time called me while I was still at Sadie Nash and said, “I’m going to sign you up for this crash course in community foundations. And it’s attached to a conference, all in San Diego.” So my second week [on the job], I go trotting off to San Diego for this total-immersion training for [new] community-foundation executives.

After two days, I was like, “Oh, we are not a community foundation. We need to rethink.” The second thing I learned was really inspiring, because community foundations are doing amazing things around the country. There are about 900 or 1,000 of them. I learned how interesting and innovative they are, because they’re not like private foundations. They’re not as restricted, so they can do lobbying and advocacy and community engagement.”

The most common form that community foundations take around the country is essentially building assets through charitable tools by setting up bequests, trusts and donor-advised funds, which are the biggest now. And the business model is that the fees that come off of those tools keep the lights on. We now have over 50 donor-advised funds.

How does a donor-advised fund work?

It’s a charitable bank account. Say I need a tax deduction by the end of the year, I’ve got appreciated securities, and my accountant is bugging me. They literally just give it to us, take the tax deduction, and then at their own pace can make grants whenever and to whomever they want, in a dialogue with us. It’s lovely just from the fee standpoint, but  it’s also lovely because I’m creating relationships with people who want to learn more about Brooklyn.

One of the first things you did was launch Brooklyn Insights. How did that come about?

You know, within two weeks the board was saying, “So now, what’s your vision?” I said, I haven’t even really gotten here yet, but let me figure this out. I talked to a philanthropic advisor and said, “Help me. I want to set an ethos for the kind of foundation we’re going to be. I want to be external, I want to be transparent, I want to be in a relationship with our community. This is not going to be a strategic-planning session where we close the doors and shut down our website and say, “See you in a year.” That’s the antithesis of everything I believe in. So we designed Brooklyn Insights.

How did it work?

It was a two-part process. One was 30 topical roundtables with experts who were all Brooklyn residents, over a five-month period. Two breakfasts a week. Any topic you can name: art, youth, criminal justice, seniors, LGBTQ.

And we started to gather data from that. Then a community organizer on the ground went to three different neighborhoods and we did deep dives. So we were getting the lived-experience stories vs. subject-matter-expert stories and comparing them.



Those three neighborhoods were East New York, Coney Island and Sunset Park. So very different from each other, but very much emblematic of Brooklyn. We would always do at least two if not three town-hall meetings in each of the places.

Then we sat down and analyzed the data. We emerged with five themes: youth, criminal justice, immigration, neighborhood strength and racial justice. Neighborhood strength is about this sense that residents feel the control of their neighborhood is being lost, that long-established neighborhood identity and sense of community was being disrupted because of gentrification.

As for racial justice, there was always somebody who would raise their hand and say that if you don’t actually drill down to the root causes of these disparities, you’re never going to get anywhere. There are policies that created these disparities. Resources are distributed along racial lines. We heard about systemic oppression, and we needed to state that. And interesting, I still had six bank officers on my board. And I think there was some discomfort around that [assertion], but I said, “You know what? This is what we heard from the people.” And it sounded right. It’s a borough that’s almost 70% people of color.

We presented the whole report to our board and then we crafted a strategy out of it. The first really major thing that emerged was our Invest in Youth portfolio.

Why did you decide to move your headquarters?

We were in Dumbo. The rent was astoundingly high and lease was up in December, three months after I arrived. I said, well, this is an opportunity. I got a broker and she told me about this new development in Crown Heights, the old Studebaker Service Station [at 1000 Dean St.]. And I knew the person developing it [Jonathan Butler, co-founder of Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg]. 

I walked into this space and I was like, Done! It’s going to be cheap, it’s big and beautiful, and it’s in the middle of central Brooklyn, which is where most of our work happens. That is sending a signal that we want to be in the community.

But it was not a popular decision [with the directors]. Everyone’s like, no way. They’d always been in Downtown Brooklyn; most of the board members were in Brooklyn Heights. But in the end it was one of the best decisions we’ve made.   

Do you put on those festive charity galas?

We really try not to do galas for a number of reasons, aside from them being generally a pain and no one likes them. I think it’s important for us to be different from our nonprofits in this borough. We’re here to support them, not compete with them. So I don’t want to be on a gala circuit.

We do two events a year, distinctly different from each other. In November, we had our third annual Invest in Youth Dinner, which supports our largest grant-making portfolio. It’s been called a TED-talk-but-with-good-food, essentially a dinner of substance. 

The other event, coming up Feb. 8, is for the Spark Prize, which is this unique award that gives five organizations in Brooklyn $100,000 each, no strings attached, based on their social-justice-oriented service to the community.

One of the reasons we started Spark was because only 4% of New York City’s philanthropic money, foundation money, actually makes it to Brooklyn. I’m sure it is reflective of the fact that Manhattan has the largest charitable institutions, museums, hospitals, universities. But still, 4% for the fourth-largest city in the country [where Brooklyn’s population would rank it], with between 2,000 and 3,000 registered nonprofits, is a problem. So this was a way to shine a light on some of the phenomenal work happening here that might not have access to that philanthropic money.

What kind of startups are you hosting in your incubator?

Movement Netlab is a nonprofit collective that came out of Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street movements. They’re consultants to organizing groups. So if you want to start a protest or do advocacy around something, how are you going to run yourself? You hire Movement Netlab to assist you in that.

They’re way radical and really interesting because social movements are starting to look different. There’s no clear road, typically no charismatic figurehead. These are collections of people, the millennial way of doing it.

Another is the Alex House Project, run by a woman who grew up in the Red Hook Houses and had a child, Alex, as a teenager. The project supports young women with babies in learning how to be parents. She was running the project at the Red Hook Initiative and got a contract with the Administration for Child Services and she was like, “Oh my god, I think I’m about to become an organization.” By the way, I met Alex one day and it was so sweet. He’s about 6-foot-5 now.

Steve Koepp is the editor of The Bridge. Previously, he was editorial director of Time Inc. Books, executive editor of Fortune and deputy managing editor of Time.