The following is a conversation between Amanda Kraus, Founder and Executive Director of Row New York, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in WNYM New York City.
Denver: There are many activities that engage youth from underserved communities that help to change the trajectory of their lives– basketball and track, of course. Many listeners may even be familiar with fencing or chess, but you don’t hear quite as much about rowing. But you should, and you’re about to from Amanda Kraus, the Founder and Executive Director of Row New York. Good evening, Amanda, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Amanda: Good evening! Thank you for having me here.
Denver: Tell us about the mission of Row New York and what the organization was created to do.
Amanda: Well, I started Row New York about 15 years ago, and the mission was and still is to bring competitive rowing and academic support to young people from under-resourced communities in New York City– and not just young people from under-resourced communities, but people from all different socioeconomic backgrounds and with all sort of abilities and disabilities. So, really the idea is to use the sport of rowing to launch people into college, successful careers, being engaged with their community’s strength, et cetera. That was the goal in the beginning and continues to be now.
Denver: As you mentioned, the organization was founded, I think, it was in 2002. But it was really birthed a couple of years earlier up in Boston where you went to school. So, share with us a little bit about the founding story.
Amanda: I would say that Row New York really was inspired by a small group of girls in Boston. I went to graduate school at Harvard at the School of Education, and I started working part-time for community rowing up there… just as a part-time job, and there was a new program up there called Girls Row Boston, which brought competitive rowing to low-income girls in Boston.
I pretty much fell in love with that program within the first couple of weeks of working there, and was so inspired by the girls in that group, and found myself spending a lot more time with them than I did at school in graduate school because I was so much more interested in the progress that they were making and the learning that was going on with them on the water or in. We started doing little study groups together. I taught them to swim. We brought in nutritionists. They learned to train and to get fit, and then they actually started racing together in the spring. Like I said, I was just so much more inspired and interested in what was happening on the Charles River than what was happening at Harvard.
And they, that group of girls—and I can still picture them crystal clear in my head—were the inspiration for starting Row New York. Because when I finished graduate school, my husband– who was my boyfriend at the time– he was finishing graduate school too up there. I’m originally from New York City, and I knew that I wanted to come back to New York and be near my family. It was actually his suggestion: “Why don’t you start the same thing, but in New York City?” which at the time seemed like a terrible suggestion because there was no infrastructure for setting up a rowing organization in New York City, unlike a city like Chicago or Boston or Philadelphia where there’s a lot of infrastructure… boathouses. We just didn’t have that in New York City. So I thought that’s a terrible idea because we don’t have any money; there’s no money for this idea.
Denver: You had debt.
Amanda: Yes, we had debt. Exactly. Not only do we not have money. We had worse than no money. We had debt, too. Graduate school. But I mulled it over and thought: I’ve seen this work. I’ve seen this model. This program works unlike I’ve seen anything work. And if I could replicate this in New York City, I know it would be successful.
But I was always just very aware of that privilege and how lucky I was, and really just didn’t understand—it never made sense to me: Why do I have so much, and others… just because they were born into another family or another community… have so little? And what role can I play in trying to bring some of this abundance to others?
Denver: You know, the disparity between the poor and the well-to-do has always left an impression on you. I remember reading about your walking through Washington Square Park when you were a girl. That’s always been with you, correct?
Amanda: Yes. I’ve lived in New York City in the time…it’s changed so much. I never went east of Second Avenue. You weren’t really safe walking through Washington Square Park, but still my parents somehow let my brother and I take that walk down to school every day. But I was lucky enough to have food security and have a lovely home to live in and a good school to go to. But I was always just very aware of that privilege and how lucky I was, and really just didn’t understand—it never made sense to me: Why do I have so much and others… just because they were born into another family or another community… have so little? And what role can I play in trying to bring some of this abundance to others?
And it’s not just resources, but it goes way beyond that, and I think we experience that everywhere in New York all the time. We provide resources in terms of boats and SAT prep, for example, but I think there are also resources in terms of encouragement as a resource. And pushing someone to be stronger, faster, or work harder becomes a resource.
Denver: Well, you needed some encouragement because here you are taking a leap; you’re coming to New York. You’re maybe 25 years old. You have no real-world experience, and you just set up all the problems – I’ve got no money. I have debt. I have no body of water. I have no kids. So, Amanda, where did you start?
Amanda: You said it right! Where did I start? We lived in the East Village in this tiny apartment—and that was I think 300 square feet—with our two cats. I remember getting this huge piece of paper and writing out all of the things that I needed to do, and hanging it on my wall in the kitchen/living room/dining room, whatever it was. And it said everything from “Get nonprofits status,” “Build a board of directors,” “Fundraise,” “Find a body of water,” “Get boats,” “Find kids.” And then there were some things, and it would be like “Buy office supplies.” But then, right underneath that would be something enormous like “Find a place to row.” And I sort of just saw it as this great big project, and I didn’t really have any skills to bring to the table. Yes, I got through college, and I got through graduate school, but it’s amazing how much school one can go through and still not have any real skills.
So I realized that I would just start picking off the list, but I also realized I needed to get more people on my team. And I think that’s where having been a rower comes in as you realize you can’t do this alone unless you’re rowing a single. You need to find some teammates. So, I did all the networking I could. I went to everything I could possibly go to that had anything to do with boats or sports or college or academics because I didn’t even have a network in New York City.
And I finally started to find some people through NYC2012, which was the group trying to bring the Olympics to New York City at the time, and they were wonderful – Dan Doctoroff, Jay Kriegel, and those guys. They introduced me to some rowers who were a little bit older. They had jobs, so they had some money. And I said, “Listen. I have this idea.” They had been rowers themselves. They got it. I said, “I want to bring this rowing to girls in New York City,” because we were only girls at the time, “and I will do all the work, but I don’t have any money.” And they said, “Well, that’s good because we have some money, but we don’t have any time.” So, it was sort of the perfect marriage, and that was the beginning of the board of directors.
Denver: How did you find a body of water?
Amanda: I literally got in my car with my husband – boyfriend then – and he had been a rower, too, and we drove around New York City for two days, I think. We looked at the East River. We looked at the Harlem River. We went and looked at the Bronx River. We looked at Jamaica Bay. We just literally drove around the city, and we finally landed in Flushing Meadow Park at Meadow Lake, and I still have the picture of the day that we drove up there. I don’t think anyone’s ever been so excited to see Meadow Lake in Queens. And we both said, “This is perfect. This is perfect!” It’s somewhat protected. There’s a building. It was all barricaded so you could barely see in. We had to look through some cracks on the doors. It was old, one of the World’s Fair buildings, and it was filled with garbage and paint. But I said, “This is perfect.” Then the guys from NYC2012 helped me find a connection to the Parks department. And it took about a year to get a key to get permission to use that lake and asking the commissioner.
Denver: They must have fast-tracked it for you.
Amanda: Exactly. And that’s when I had my first lesson of “it’s who you know.” When someone from NYC2012 called the Parks Commissioner and said, “Will you meet with this woman who’s trying to start this program?”
Denver: Things happened.
Amanda: –Things happened. Right. Exactly. So, I went to the Parks Commissioner for Queens at the time and said, “I really would love to start this rowing program for girls on this lake of yours in this park. They won’t know how to swim, and the boats are narrow, and we’ve never done this before here.” And they said, “Okay. That’s good.” So, luckily, permission was granted and that was the beginning.
And then I called my college coach and I said, “I’m starting this program.” He’s from New York, too, and he’s a real New Yorker. He worked at the New York Athletic Club, Jim Dietz. He said, “I’ll bring you some boats,” so he showed up with some boats. I called my dad; he bought me an outboard engine. You know, it started to come together.
Before we get into the program, let me ask you a little bit about rowing. I have a couple of friends who row, and they all tell me it’s harder than it looks. Is that the case? If so, why is it that much harder?
Amanda: Yes. The short answer is: it is absolutely harder than it looks, so much harder than it looks. That said, once you know how to row—and this is sort of the beauty of the sport—you can come in overweight; we always joke in the office like if you throw somebody a box of tissues and they don’t catch it, they’ll say, “That’s ‘cause I’m a rower”—like you don’t need any hand-eye coordination. You just need to be able to get this one stroke down. It’s not like there are multiple strokes, or now we’re going to do a different stroke. There’s only one stroke.
Denver: Not like golf with a drive and a chip and a putt.
Amanda: Right. And you’re not going to use a different oar for a different race. That said, what people don’t realize until they start this sport is that the boats don’t naturally set up and balance. They’re very tippy. They’re very narrow. And so, it takes a great deal of time to learn how–basically, you’re keeping your body centered and powerful, and the height of the oar handle is dictating the balance of the boat. So, when you press the oar handle down and the blade, which is out by the water, goes up, the boat will go down to your side. And if you lift up, it comes up off of your side whether you’re port or starboard. And so, that’s fine, and you figure that out with good coaching.
But then you have to recognize that there are seven other people– when you’re in an eight– doing that. So, you all have to be literally pushing down at the same exact time to the same exact height, and then coming forward to the catch and lifting up at exactly the same time. You have all these variables because you’re on water, and there’s wind and there’s current, and sometimes there are white caps if it’s really bad. Ideally, there are no white caps. So getting that balance is technically very challenging, and it takes a long, long time for boats to not look like a… you know, if you picture a child on training wheels, which is going from side to side. Ideally, you get to the point where you’re not on training wheels, and the blades aren’t hitting the water at all.
And the idea is that if you’re really going to transform someone’s life, and you’re really going to move the needle, so to speak, you can’t do that one or two afternoons a week. If you’re going to train and race against other youth in the Northeast, they’re training five-, six days a week. So if you want to be competitive, that’s what you need to put into the sport and into the training.
Denver: Riding the subway without holding on to anything sometimes. Going back and forth. So how does Row New York work? Who is eligible for the program? How do they get accepted? What does the program consist of?
Amanda: Row New York has multiple programs. I would say that we always describe our core program is our middle school and high school after-school, year-round program.
Denver: Let’s start with that.
Amanda: So those kids are with us; the middle schoolers are with us four days a week: two days a week of rowing, and two days a week of academics. The high schoolers are with us six days a week.
Denver: High dosage, I think, is what they call it. That’s a lot.
Amanda: High dosage. We call that high dosage. And our kids, that’s 270 kids in that program year-round, and that’s across three on-water sites… so Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, too. Boys and girls. And those kids come to use from public schools, from private schools, charter schools. We mostly recruit from public schools in low-income communities. They come to us, and they learn how to swim. They do swim lessons. They lift weights. They run. They erg. They obviously learn to row and train on the water from March through around November when it gets too cold, and we come off the water for the winter.
And then they do academics. So small group tutoring, Regents prep, SAT prep. We visit colleges. So the kids who are with us… are with us—they’re really in it. We estimate that our high schoolers do about 1,008 hours a year with us. And the idea is that if you’re really going to transform someone’s life, and you’re really going to move the needle, so to speak, you can’t do that one or two afternoons a week. If you’re going to train and race against other youth in the Northeast, they’re training five-, six days a week. So, if you want to be competitive, that’s what you need to put into the sport and into the training.
Our goal was to take kids, regardless of background, regardless of ability, and help them be as fast as possible and as successful as possible on the water. Also help them academically so that they can then launch into college, and stay in college and do well… and go on to do all the great things that they want to do.
Denver: Well, let’s talk about racing and competitiveness. They do then compete in some—well, tell us a little bit about that.
Amanda: So our goal has always been: we didn’t want to just be a program that brought the sport of rowing to kids who didn’t look like all of the other kids in rowing. I’ll just say it like it is. Rowing is still a very white affluent sport. Just last weekend, I went to the Mid-Atlantic Indoor Rowing Championships with some of our adaptive rowers, and those are rowers with disabilities. I saw hundreds and hundreds of kids racing at this event. I think I saw two kids of color, not including Row New York. So it’s still a very, very white affluent sport.
And so, our goal was not just to make it not white. Our goal was to take kids, regardless of background, regardless of ability, and help them be as fast as possible and as successful as possible on the water. Also help them academically so that they can then launch into college, and stay in college and do well… and go on to do all the great things that they want to do.
Denver: Did the academics come from the very onset? Or was that something that you put into the program as it evolved?
Amanda: Yes. Academics have always been a part of it because you don’t want to just have someone who is a super-talented, strong rower who is not also getting the support they need in school. But, yes, from the very beginning, it’s like, the kids… we wanted them to be competitive. And that’s what rowing is. Rowing isn’t about just going out for a paddle. You know, you’ve known rowers.
Denver: It’s about winning.
Amanda: It’s about winning. It’s about being as fast as you can possibly be. So, you can’t do that a few days a week.
Denver: You’ve sort of touched on this before, but you do have an amazing breadth of programs? Tell us about some of the others outside of your core program.
Amanda: I’m glad you asked because we do have wonderful other programs. We have a veterans program. We’re serving veterans from around the city, and some of them compete with our adaptive program. So some of them have physical disabilities; some do not have physical disabilities and just compete in our veterans program. They train. Right now, they’re training on the ergs, but they’ll get back on the water this spring and compete.
So many of them have come to me and said, “You know? This is the first time since I can remember that I felt like I’m a part of something, like I’m a part of this team, and we’re in this together. But this is so positive, too.” Those are their words, not mine. I would never say that on their behalf.
Denver: But you’ll stick it in the annual report.
Amanda: We sure will. And then we also have programs during the school day. We partner with District 75. So their girls—this is girls only at the Queens Boathouse—with cognitive disabilities will come to the boathouse during the day, and we’ll run their PE classes for them. So they’ll be on the rowing machines. They’ll get out on the training barges, on the lake. And there are very different goals for that program. So those girls aren’t going and racing, but there’s a real lack of access, so to speak, for physical education in our city in general, but especially kids with disabilities, so we’re really excited about that program and that partnership.
…99 percent of our kids have graduated from high school. We have about 96 percent going on to college. It changes a little bit year-to-year, but about 92 percent have either graduated from college or are on-track to graduate from college.
Denver: You’re a very data-driven organization, and you measure the impact, issue a report about it. Tell us about some of the outcomes that this program has had.
Amanda: Absolutely. We love to look at how we’re doing and make sure we course-correct along the way. So it’s not just for our funders, but for ourselves as well. We weren’t always as good as we are at this, but now we have someone who’s wonderful, who’s ahead of all our metrics and evaluation. And so, she’ll report out to the whole program staff and leadership staff every month on where we are in terms of everything from attendance, to GPA, to fitness. We track fitness; we track academics, and then we also track social and emotional learning and growth.
So, for instance, 99 percent of our kids have graduated from high school. We have about 96 percent going on to college. It changes a little bit year-to-year, but about 92 percent have either graduated from college or are on-track to graduate from college. And the college-readiness rates are much higher than the average New York public school student. And then we also like to keep track of the hours per year we provide in advisement for our students going on to college, compared to the average for the New York City public school students.
Denver: Who have been some of your financial supporters and partners? How much of your revenue is philanthropic? How much of it is earned income?
Amanda: We have an operating budget of around $5 million this year, and we’ve always had around 50 percent of our funding coming from foundations. We’ve had a really good track record with foundations over the years. We’ve been very lucky that way and worked on finding good relationships with very generous supporters – Altman Foundation, Charles Hayden, Pinkerton, Maverick, New York Community Trust.
Denver: Good names.
Amanda: The list is long, and they’ve been wonderful partners. Heckscher Foundation.
But then the next big bucket is individual funders. So we do everything from people running the half-marathon or the marathon and raising money that way. We have multiple events throughout the year. We have the Harlem River Classic where people pay $5,000 a boat to race one another on the Harlem River and support Row New York. We have a young person’s event that raises $40,000 to $50,000. They call it The Bow Ball. We have our annual gala. So we have a lot of funding that comes in from individuals, as small as $10 donations, all the way up to much, much larger checks.
And the board is very involved. They’re very active on the fundraising front, and we’re very clear about that from the beginning that that’s a big part of your role on the board is to really be cultivating relationships, new and old, and actively fundraising.
Denver: Glad you set those expectations because so many organizations don’t do that and then expect it to happen by magic later on.
Amanda: Exactly. We have more people who we lose as potential board members than we get just because we have the conversations early on, but it’s good for them to know and for us to know. No surprises, right? So, we always say, “Listen. There’s a give-get. We will meet one-on-one quarterly to talk about who you’re cultivating. We will, of course, be helpful in that process.” But the idea is board members really are expected to be very active, and our board chair leads the way on that.
And then we have a small bucket of earned income. It’s about $350K a year, which is our Scholastic Rowing League, or the participants who pay to be a part of Row New York. The paying youth row with the non-paying youth, so the idea is that all of our kids are actually training together, racing together, visiting colleges together. They’re not separate programs.
Denver: You know, I suspect you are asked this a lot, Amanda, but with the proof of concept and some very impressive impact numbers, have you thought of taking this on the road and having Row New York become Row Chicago or Row Atlanta and doing it in some other cities?
Amanda: Excellent question, and we are asked that a lot, about: Do we want to go somewhere else? We did a strategic planning process a few years ago now, and that was one of the questions we asked ourselves as an organization, and the answer then was no. We’re focused on New York City for now.
There’s a lot of quality control, there’s a lot of safety control that’s necessary in our programs because we have kids on water. For obvious reasons, safety is paramount. So right now, we are focused; we are all in for New York City. And I could see us revisiting that in a few years, but for now, it’s focused here. But we do get calls and emails from people around the country– and even around the world– asking for advice on getting started.
So we’ve been hosting our own show, our own podcast monthly called Waterside Chats, which you can find on our website. We focus on metrics, the next month was fundraising. We did one on staff development for working with low-income youth. We’re holding a conference in April, too.
Denver: You have a pretty good-sized team now across the city. Tell us about your corporate culture, and one or two things about it that you think makes it an exceptional place in which to work.
Amanda: That’s a fun question and I love this topic. I think it’s hard for me to be objective on that one, so you should probably ask other people who work at Row New York because this is very biased, admittedly.
Denver: They always say the CEO is the one who knows the least about the culture.
Amanda: Yes. I’m going to own that.
Denver: But with that being said, give us your best shot.
Amanda: Yes, I will own that. I think when you’re the founder, and you’re the CEO, and you steer the ship, so to speak, the culture, you have to sort of own, take responsibility for what’s going well and what isn’t. And I think for me, what I always value is a culture where people work really damn hard. And so I think that absolutely happens. I think also it’s a culture where we really do encourage people, and people do do it. Like use your vacation time, log off on the weekends. You’re not going to get an award for staying latest at night in the office or being the last to leave. This is a marathon, not a sprint is what I always say. There will be moments of sprinting, but we’re not going to win this overnight, so you have to take care of yourselves.
And I think it’s a culture of when someone needs help—we’re rowers, so if someone needs help with something, everyone jumps in and lifts that person up, whether it’s they’re finishing writing something, or they need to research something, or they’re bringing boxes out to a van. No one should be sitting and watching someone else work. And I think that’s definitely a part of the culture.
Denver: You’re rowers. That says it all.
Amanda: Right. Exactly.
Denver: Let me close with this, Amanda. With your re-dedication here to New York and only for New York right now, you certainly do have some big and ambitious plans on the horizon. Tell our listeners about those.
Amanda: We do. We are, with help from our lead funder on this project, Dick Cashin from One Equity Partners, we are breaking ground in about a year on a Norman Foster design in collaboration with Bade Stageberg Cox… They are New York City architects, breaking ground on a 14,000 square foot community boathouse and learning center in Manhattan.
So the project is probably going to be about $25 million all-in, and it’s going to be this phenomenal, beautiful, meaningful, important, wonderful, fun boathouse in New York City for New York City, being built, being designed by this world-renowned architect. The vision is really to make it a place where 400-, 500 kids a day will be in, and it will be their second home. And I’m unbelievably beyond excited about it because I think it’s going to be such a gift to the city and then to young people for generations to come in our city.
Denver: A very cool way to end. Well, Amanda Kraus, the Founder and Executive Director of Row New York, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. For people who want to learn more about the organization, your programs, how they can help and become involved, what is your website, and what will they find there?
Amanda: So, absolutely: folks, rowers or people interested in education or getting involved with Row New York, our website is rownewyork.org.
Denver: Well, thanks, Amanda. It was a delight to have you on the show.
Amanda: Thank you for having me.
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