As people lose their jobs in cities, they move to the suburbs expecting their costs of living to decrease. Their migration affects local poverty levels: More than two-thirds of the increase in poverty from 2000 to 2013 in major metro areas occurred in suburbs, according to a study by the Brookings Institution. On Long Island this trend, combined with local job losses, is increasing the needs of the poor, said David Okorn, executive director of the Long Island Community Foundation in Melville.
Donors allocate funds to their chosen causes through the foundation, which then vets individual nonprofits. The foundation, which has granted $155 million to charities since 1978, is part of the New York Community Trust, a $2.7 billion organization that created operating divisions on Long Island and in Westchester to address suburban needs.
Okorn, 50, started his career as an accountant for Grumman and went on to leadership posts at LILCO, KeySpan Foundation, and Abilities before joining the Community Foundation in 2008.
How do the new Donors Unite charitable gift cards work?
Instead of buying material gifts for people, you can buy a charitable gift card so that the money can go to charity and have a lot more benefit for people. The recipient of the card can actually determine what charity they want it to go to, and can search the website by ZIP code and map. Charities on Long Island all struggle to make their operating budgets year after year. They run galas, golf outings, they’re trying to get donations. And this will hopefully open a whole new pool of money to them. The gift cards are expected to be available starting Dec. 18 at donorsunite.org.
For donors, your website says you offer the maximum tax benefits without the bother of administration. What does that mean?
We work with individuals, families and businesses. And rather than them creating their own private foundation, they’ll create a fund with us. It’s a lot simpler — we do all the back-office work for them. Many of our donors are busy and don’t have time to research organizations. We totally vet all the organizations and make sure that they’re meeting best-practice standards of charities. And if they’re not, we’re going to question it and see why not, and then also report back to the donor so that they know before making a grant.
How do suburban and city poverty differ? Is it just the funding level, or are there actually different kinds of needs?
It’s funding level, but also in New York City you can hop on a train and get just about anywhere. And social service providers are everywhere. Out here on Long Island it’s very scattered, and without a car it’s very difficult to get to services, programs and support. So the real difference is that on Long Island we really lack the infrastructure to properly support people who are poor, people who are struggling.
What needs are still unaddressed on Long Island?
Poverty here on Long Island. People are looking for “cheaper places to live,” and although Long Island is not a cheap place to live, we’re finding more and more people coming out here. Also, due to our high cost of living here, many people who now either lost their jobs or are underemployed are falling into that classification of being below the poverty line.
How do you make sure a donor’s intentions are met?
They can leave it wide open where they say, ‘You just figure out what’s the most important issue on Long Island and fund that for me and then report back and tell us what you did with the money’. Or they can say, ‘I only care about groundwater protection, so only give my money to organizations that are working on groundwater protection.’ So we’ll find some of the best organizations that are actually doing that and then make grants for that specific issue.
NAME: David Okorn, executive director, Long Island Community Foundation in Melville
WHAT IT DOES: Works with individuals, families and businesses to get their donations to the most effective nonprofit organizations addressing the issues they care about
BUDGET: $10 million