The biggest accomplishment of the Brooklyn Community Foundation, established three-and-a-half years ago as the successor to the Independence Community Foundation, is the fact that “the foundation belongs to Brooklyn, rather than a private foundation, a wealthy individual or a corporation. Creating this foundation for Brooklyn is accomplishment number one.”
So says Marilyn Gelber, the founder and president of the Brooklyn Community Foundation, After 15 years in philanthropy and 28 years before that in the public sector, Ms. Gelber is leaving her post at the end of June, although she is unsure about what will happen “in the third act of my life.”
Brooklyn, for all intents and purposes, is a city, she says, and “most cities of this size have their own foundation. Brooklyn has more poor people than Detroit, and more wealthy people than Greenwich, Connecticut. It is getting wealthier, getting younger, but at the same time a huge amount of poverty exists here. We want to create vehicles together so Brooklyn is not `a tale of two cities.’”
Because the foundation is responsible to the community in general, she says, it has stepped up every time there has been a crisis. Soon after it was formed, a huge earthquake rocked Haiti. “Because Brooklyn has the largest Haitian population outside of Broward County, Florida, we knew we would get involved. So we founded the Hope and Healing Fund.
“When Hurricane Sandy struck at the end of October, having a community foundation meant there was a place that people who wanted to help could go to give money or offer their time,” she continues.
Within days, the foundation had co-founded the Brooklyn Recovery Fund along with the Borough President’s Office and the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. “Eventually, we raised $2.3 million, most of which has been given out. Hopefully, we will get some additional resources,” she says.
Outside of disaster relief, some of the efforts that Ms. Gelber feels are most notable include Brooklyn Greens, which does environmental work in three inner-city neighborhoods (Cypress Hills, Bedford-Stuyvesant, South Williamsburg); the Central Brooklyn STEM Initiative, in which graduate engineering students from NYU-Poly mentor teachers and students in Central Brooklyn and help them bring robotics into the classroom; and the School District 16 initiatives, which seeks to turn around one of the lowest-performing school districts in the country.
The original Independence Community Foundation came about in 1998 when, after leaving her post as NYC commissioner of environmental conservation, she met Charles Hamm, president of the now-defunct, Brooklyn-based Independence Savings Bank. After a series of conversations, they agreed to set up the foundation as an independent entity funded by Independence.
That foundation, she says, was different from the Brooklyn Community Foundation because it disbursed charitable grants everywhere within the bank’s “footprint,” including New Jersey and Staten Island. Independence was sold to a larger bank in 2006.
Before working in philanthropy, Ms. Gelber held a variety of posts, including caseworker, neighborhood planner for the Department of City Planning, chief of staff for then-Borough President Howard Golden, and the aforementioned commissioner post.