False Prophets, Metrics & the Lonely Nonprofit Soldiering On

Wes Moore, the New Executive Director of the Robin Hood Foundation, may be the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to that organization or to philanthropy in New York City in a long time. I recently had an opportunity to meet him, and I left wanting to give him a hug or a cape, mostly both. He’s a refreshing, impassioned voice of change in an otherwise highly structured, restrained field of professionals that align true to their corporate playbook. I have a furtive desire that Wes may be one of the great heroes our industry so desperately needs right now, however, this post isn’t about Wes, not quite… but there’s more to the Robin Hood story…

Two weeks ago I arrived home from a double hitter wedding/funeral weekend with a migraine, hangover, overtired children and a newly arrived gala invitation to a friend’s youth-based organization. My friend is a former colleague that I hold in high esteem—he’s a twice-over executive director, with a fancy degree and all the smarts, empathy, grit and hard work that ranks him with the best of the best. Certainly the migraine and sadness didn’t help my interpretation of the gala invitation: I turned it over and over and became more and more angry. It was not an invitation to an event for his organization, but for 12 in total. More importantly, it was a signal of our times.

The tough thing about raising money today is explaining why money is money, because it seems like few donors with the actual capacity to give out real money want to do so. In New York City, there is a deep supply of former wall street or tech professionals that gave up their for-profit careers to sidle on over to the nonprofit world to show us how its done because “we’re so poorly trained/equipped for modern business.” The real damage, however, is their small-batch hipster hell of “support structure” organizations, projects and RFPs that don’t provide money but require at least 1-2 years of fruitless labor on the part of the nonprofit to work through some byzantine MIT throwaway modeling practice that is proffered by millennials with voice fry.

The invitation I held that day was structured along a similar concept. I didn’t have to look at the host organization’s staff roster to know that this gala-not-a-gala was being led by a former hedge fund-wall street professional with a staff roster chock full of similar marketing/business folks. I, of course, did check and it is. I was given a pitch to support a gala, to support my friend’s agency (and 11 other nonprofits), as part of a yearlong program where the Mother Hen agency trains this group to raise money.

Here’s the way I see this playing out: Mother Hen gets to claim the mission of all nonprofits it serves; claim the metrics of the money each organization raises and the lives each organization touches; benefit from the outreach of each nonprofit’s marketing efforts; maintain ultimate control over the gala, honorees, location, theme, messaging, etc.; and, most likely, recoup the greatest economic benefit from this gala and yearlong “training program.” Mother Hen, after all, can claim the BIG, sexy project, which ultimately will attract the largest short and long-term donors.

Within the larger city context, Mother Hen has also created yet another “middle-man” approach that is hardly new and barely needed. We can start with the established players that have been doing this much longer and, let’s face it, with greater impact: United Way, New York Community Trust, Impact NYC, even (oh, yeah!) Robin Hood Foundation. You know what activity would have been helpful for a group of hedge fund-wall street/marketing professionals: volunteer at any of these 12 nonprofits; donate to their cause; serve on their board. No, they had to create their OWN middle-man entity because, well, you know some folks “don’t play well with others.”

But the duplicative (or do I really mean to say duplicitous) nature of Mother Hen’s mission a-go-go is not the worst part. Rather, it is that Mother Hen is acting like a school-yard bully calling out a big capacity weakness of the other 12 nonprofit players. The organizations are, in fact, literal poster children—their names are splashed up in big print for all to see: “Look who can’t fundraise or market their work! Don’t worry – Mother Hen is here to save them FOR THE YOUTH! Ah… grassroots orgs… aren’t they so cute?”

I’m confident that another vital strain to this terrible story is one that Vu Le of Nonprofit AF has identified, deconstructed and nailed quite perfectly over time. Vu discusses funders inherent distrust of grassroots, community-based, and POC-led organizations, which characterizes the type of organizations targeted by the Mother Hens of our field. These groups and their leaders are routinely infantilized under a common misperception that they lack capacity and that their small or mid-sized budget must be due, in part, to a lack of business savvy and basic skills. The real investments are going to the established players of the nonprofit field, often led by a white male/female demographic. If you haven’t checked out Vu’s writing on this topic, do it now. He’s one of the most important voices coming out of our field today.

OK, so if we’re going back to capes, voices, heroes and leaders (start with Vu)… let’s also discuss Wes, Robin Hood and Metrics with a capital M. I may be off about Wes, but I’m not wrong that we desperately need strong voices. I also know that these voices can’t come from the business-as-usual crowd. Robin Hood, Mother Hen, and every other private, public and corporate foundation with a lifeblood being pumped from either Wall Street or tech is first and foremost all about the Metrics.

Metrics can be an extremely powerful advocacy tool. Wes discussed the causal connection between metrics, government action and city-wide policy decisions. He believes Robin Hood has the ability to help influence this kind of systemic change in New York City and beyond. It has never been harder for a middle class or impoverished family to live in New York City or get out of poverty. These families desperately need systematic support on the City level, on a policy level, and they will certainly need the kind of money that only a foundation like Robin Hood and other NYC titans have coffered for so long.

I am concerned, however, that Metrics-with-a-capital-M bulldoze the equally serious, everyday work led by some of NYC’s toughest, smartest and most capable nonprofit leaders. You know, the ones that Mother Hen needs to teach and capitalize on their funding and Metrics. There is great work that Metrics can help prove, identify and highlight, but not all.

For instance, my organization struggles to capture the outcomes of families who live in domestic violence safe houses. These families leave our clinic and virtually disappear – the city government routinely jostles them around from shelter to shelter with little to no tracking systems and the families themselves exist in such chaos that phones, lives, situations change with hardly an ability to track one path to the next. And, yet, we provide dental, medical and mental health care – the same services received by nearly all upper-middle to upper class families. None of these families would ever consider needing a metric value to prove the worth of any of their personal healthcare services.

Nearly 100% of our foundation and government donors require metric proof of the worth of these services. We rarely fit into most foundation RFPs: our work is not considered systemically impactful, meaningfully replicable, or technologically sophisticated. On a large-scale metric, it is impossible to track these outcomes. Yet we know on an intrinsic level the value of basic healthcare services to these families. And I’m sure the executive who made a $500,000 contribution to Robin Hood’s last gala can tell you a thing or two about the worth of his mental health professional. His wife probably didn’t miss her son’s last dental visit… but that’s none of my business…

There are many competing and distinct worlds in New York City philanthropy—there are the donors, the organizations, government, corporations, communities, the constituents, the bricks-and-mortar city itself. The more we evolve, it seems, the greater we grow apart. In the focused lens between philanthropists and the organizations they support, we’ve never been more at two ends. Instead of creating monuments to our own egos, and further adding to the unrealistic growth rate of the nonprofit sector, we need to collaborate and consolidate. I’m sure that’s the sales pitch that was given to my friend: “Look, 12 grassroots orgs coming together, working together, benefiting together.” But behind it all is not an altruistic desire to see all ships rise with the high tide… it’s a furtive sacrifice to one’s ego.

We’re not here for metrics, false prophets or to be lonely soldiers bracing against the impossible, desperate poverty battles that so many New Yorkers face every day. We’re here to work together. Jon and I are waiting for the real conversations to begin and the real heroes to step forward. Someone wake us when they show up.

– Sarah