The job was supposed to last only six months, so Joshua Gotbaum ‘ 76 (‘ 78) didn’t even bother bringing his family with him to New York from Washington, D.C. But it was no ordinary job–Gotbaum was still at the helm of the September 11 Fund a full year after he started.
“I stayed because what we were doing was harder than just making grants,” Gotbaum said in early October, as he prepared to step down as executive director and CEO of what he called the “most visible charitable effort in history.”
Created by the New York Community Trust and the United Way of New York City, the September 11 Fund raised more than $500 million to address victims’ mental health, housing, educational, financial and legal needs.
“We created a program with portable benefits,” Gotbaum said. “For example, when victims of September 11 need counseling, they can get it wherever they are in the country. They can go to any licensed therapist they choose. If insurance won’t pay for it, we will. That’s very different from the way charities normally operate, so it took some time to put in place.”
The September 11 Fund does not provide direct services but rather grants funding to nonprofit organizations that have expertise in victim assistance, legal aid and disaster relief. On Gotbaum’s watch, it had granted $341 million to aid more than 100,000 people and 1,000 small businesses.
Engaging in what Gotbaum calls “social venture-capital work,” the fund established the 9/11 United Services Group, a centralized service coordinator to which victims can apply to receive assistance from any number of charities. The American Red Cross in Greater New York, the Salvation Army and Safe Horizon are among the many charities involved in the coordinated effort.
Gotbaum has helped people on a grand scale before. In 1998, while serving as an adviser to President Clinton, he was instrumental in securing $750 million in aid for Central America after Hurricane Mitch. And a prior stint as an investment banker with Lazard Freres honed his financial skills. As the steward of a half billion dollars in contributions, Gotbaum made accountability a priority (the organization’s Web site outlines all its grants and activities). The many Americans who gave to Sept. 11 relief efforts should know how their donations have been used, he said.
In January 2002, however, the fund asked people to stop contributing. According to Gotbaum, the combined resources of the government, the fund and other charities had become great enough to meet the needs of Sept. 11 victims for three to five years. People should give to charities that address the needs the September 11 Fund doesn’t reach, he said.
The move caused a stir, even among the fund’s own board of directors. “One board member called and said, ‘I’ve never heard of a charity that said don’t send money,'” said Gotbaum. “But the truth is, it’s a different kind of charity.”
So different that Gotbaum had trouble walking away. But with plans in place for the remaining $170 million, he knew it was time to get a job back in the business world.
Still, he said his experience at the September 11 Fund was among the most satisfying of his career. “I’ve worked in really terrific places, but this is clearly a peak life experience,” said Gotbaum, whose successor, coincidentally, is HLS classmate Carol Kellermann ‘ 76. “This was an unusual chance to help a lot of people. It’s an experience I will remember my entire life.”