A Brooklyn of Wealth and Needs Gets a Major Charity All Its Own

Brooklyn, which never fully recovered from merging with Manhattan and losing the Dodgers, is about to get new fuel to stoke its stubborn brand of local pride: It is now rich enough to support a major charity of its own.

The Independence Community Foundation, long the largest private charity based in the borough, is changing its tax status so it can raise money rather than simply rely on income from its roughly $50 million endowment.

With the change, to be announced on Thursday, the foundation will concentrate most of its fund-raising and all of its grant-giving on Brooklyn. It will try to capitalize on the borough’s well-developed sense of identity and its growing wealth, a net worth estimated to be $154 billion by next year.

The charity, to be renamed the Brooklyn Community Foundation, will be the first community foundation devoted to a single New York borough — and a potential rival to other groups that raise and disperse money in Brooklyn and other parts of the city.

The move is born of a feeling that the borough is not getting its fair share of charitable money.

“When you’re out here,” Marilyn Gelber, the president of the foundation, said in her office in Dumbo, “looking at the fact that New York State is still No. 1 in philanthropic giving, with over $5 billion annually, and then you start to look at how much is coming to Brooklyn, given our size and given our need, you realize that the landscape of philanthropy is quite uneven.”

Brooklyn — which, if it were still a separate city, would be the country’s fourth-largest, with 2.5 million residents — is a landscape both of vibrant neighborhoods that attract young families and members of the creative class and of vast struggling areas with high poverty rates. But a 2002 study by the Foundation Center, an independent research group, found that nearly 90 percent of New York-area charitable giving goes to Manhattan.

“The needs are enormous, and this was the only way we could figure out how to do it,” Alan Fishman, the chairman of the foundation, said of its decision to change from a private charity to a community foundation. “We already operated as if we were the community charity anyway, and we just needed more resources.”

Traditionally, community foundations have worked with trusts and estates, allowing people to direct contributions while they are alive through so-called donor-advised funds, as well as to pass on their assets when they die. According to the Foundation Center, community foundations account for 1 percent of grant-making foundations in the country but represent about 10 percent of giving. Even as the economy spiraled downward last year, they increased their giving to $4.6 billion, for the first time exceeding that of corporate foundations.

The city already has a community foundation, the New York Community Trust, which has about $1.5 billion in assets in 2,000 donor-advised funds and endowed funds, over which the foundation has discretion. The trust, one of the country’s largest, is also one of the most generous: In 2008, it made about $170 million in grants, mostly from donor-advised funds.

Of that, $57.5 million went to organizations in Manhattan, although the foundation’s executives say some of the money was used for services in the other boroughs. An additional $3.5 million went to organizations in Brooklyn, $2.1 million to Queens, $1.5 million to the Bronx and $62,000 to Staten Island.

But leaders of the Brooklyn foundation, established in 1998 with an endowment from Independence Savings Bank, would like to see more money focused on its borough’s needs. It hopes to tap not only local donors large and small but also successful Brooklynites like, say, Sanford I. Weill or David Geffen, who have moved away but may feel nostalgia for the place where they grew up.

Since its inception, the foundation has given out about $70 million in grants, mainly in Brooklyn but also in North Jersey. Now it is looking to establish a different model for community charities by encouraging donors to give to any of five “field of interest” funds. Through a competitive application process, the foundation’s staff members and the board would select grant recipients working on issues like low-cost housing, education, emergency social services, the arts or the environment.

Experts in philanthropy have generally greeted the plan with enthusiasm, saying that anything that channels more money toward charitable causes is a good thing.

“They’re tapping into people who live in Brooklyn and want to give to Brooklyn to support their own community, and the idea behind becoming a community foundation is that donors of all sizes can join together to do that work,” said Ronna D. Brown, the president of Philanthropy New York, an association of 285 grant-making foundations. “The more the better — you want more and more people in a community to find the vehicle that feels comfortable for them to join in and to be able to give.”

But others warned that the foundation could siphon donations from nonprofit organizations.

“I don’t think you know whether it will be good or bad,” said Lorie A. Slutsky, the president of the New York Community Trust. It will be good, Ms. Slutsky said, if the foundation attracts donors who are not already giving, but added, “To the degree in these troubled times it steps in front of local charities who are now getting direct gifts from Brooklyn individuals, it probably won’t be a net plus.”

Officials at the foundation, however, say they are looking to increase overall giving rather than take donations away from others, especially given the wealth now concentrated in the borough. According to a study the foundation commissioned to estimate how much money could be available for charitable giving, Brooklynites could provide enough for $153 million a year in grants from 2010 to 2030.

It is not just the money, though, that Ms. Gelber said the foundation is seeking to harness; it is also that ineffable Brooklyn spirit and a growing sense of social activism.

As a case in point, she mentioned a challenge grant the foundation recently organized that raised $100,000, mainly from central Brooklyn, to help a public library in Bedford-Stuyvesant buy books and establish an African American Heritage Center.

“This notion that in Brooklyn there is not the capacity to do more for itself, something like this shows that’s not the case,” she said. “It’s not only Brownstone Brooklyn — it’s all communities, all neighborhoods. If given the opportunity to invest in things they care about, people will do it.”