The following is a conversation between Richard Buery, the Chief Executive Officer of the Robin Hood Foundation, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Denver: The Robin Hood Foundation is dedicated to combating poverty in New York City through a range of innovative and impactful initiatives. It stands out for a strategic approach to philanthropy, focusing on partnerships, technology, effective use of data, and direct community engagement to drive meaningful change.

And here to discuss this with us is Richard Buery, the Chief Executive Officer of the Robin Hood Foundation. Welcome to The Business of Giving, Rich.

Richard Buery, Chief Executive Officer of the Robin Hood Foundation

Richard: Thank you so much, Denver. Good to be here.

Denver: Can you give us a snapshot of the Robin Hood Foundation? You know, what’s your main mission, and what kind of initiatives are you focusing on to tackle poverty in New York City?

Richard: Well, Robin Hood’s mission has been pretty consistent over the 35 years we’ve been in business. Our mission is to fight poverty in New York City. And so what that really means is that we invest in the most impactful organizations, the most effective leaders who are driving program innovations that have a demonstrable impact in moving families out of poverty. And when we talk about that, what we really mean is helping families make the long-term move that it takes to live lives of stability and opportunity. 

So, as you said, one of the hallmarks of that work is our real focus on evidence and impact. We use a paradigm that we call the benefit-cost calculator that essentially tries to understand: What is the actual poverty fighting impact of a particular dollar in a particular program that is measured by the outcomes associated with whatever output you get with that dollar?  So, you graduate from high school, what is the long-term value of a high school diploma in your life? 

And we’re not an endowed foundation, so we go out every year, and we go out and raise money to do this work here in New York. And one of the benefits for people who donate to Robin Hood is that our board underwrites our operating costs so that when you give a dollar to Robin Hood, that dollar goes out to an organization doing work out in the field.

Denver: Yeah. You know, it’s interesting not being an endowed organization. I don’t know what it does to a culture of an organization, but I think it keeps it hungrier in some ways. You know, it’s just you’re scrappier than you would be if you had a big endowment.

Richard: I wouldn’t mind having a big endowment, of course. It’s interesting. I don’t necessarily think that having an endowment stops you from being scrappy. I think, certainly for us, it enhances our need to be responsive because of the number of constituencies we have to be responsive to, including our government partners.  They include the nonprofits we work with, the people we serve, but also includes the donors who have expectations about how their dollars are driving impact.

So, I think having a broad range of people to whom you’re accountable certainly matters, and that definitely speaks for Robin Hood.

“The ideal is that that person doesn’t have to come back tomorrow or the next day, that you help them get a leg up so that they can move forward in life, and that you have the capacity to help the next person who comes along”

Denver: You said in your previous answer about the long-term impact of moving families— how do you balance immediate needs in New York City with systemic causes? That’s a hard balance to keep. I was wondering how you set your priorities based on immediate concerns and systemic change.

Richard: That’s a great question, and I think balance is a right way to think about it. As I said, our focus is on moving people permanently out of poverty by helping people achieve those evidence-based milestones that we know are associated with long-term, life-long wealth, so things like having a job, third-grade reading scores, maternal health…  So from early childhood up until people are out into the workforce, making sure that people are achieving those milestones.

But we also know that it is impossible for anyone to focus on their long-term wellbeing and make investments in their future if you’re not stable right now. I mean, it’s hard to think about going back to a job training program if you can’t feed your family, if you don’t have a place to live. 

And so, and you’ll see in our portfolio, that there really is a balance between those investments that we might think of as short-term emergency investments and other investments like education programs. The workforce program would have a longer time horizon to yield impact.

But I would say a couple things. One thing is that even for the so-called emergency programs, there are ways to think about and implement those programs in a way that are more likely to drive longer term outcomes.

We have historically been one of New York City’s largest funders of emergency food assistance, but you’ll see in many of our food assistance programs that are of course focused on day-to-day needs of people who are facing food insecurity, who are facing hunger. You’ll also see programs that are working on connecting people to have access to long-term public benefits, helping people navigate things like housing eviction or other challenges which are part of the mess of challenges that ultimately keep people from food access because you don’t have enough money; and maybe you don’t have enough money because you’re spending it on rent and you’re spending it  on other needs, or you’re spending on emergency medical care. So one thing that even in the emergency work, we try to find and try to invest in an organization that is committed to a long-term horizon for the families in need.

And the second thing is when New York City has faced big crises, one of the things that Robin Hood is proud of is that at three different times in our history, 9-11, Hurricane Sandy, and during the pandemic, Robin Hood has gone out and raised large relief funds entirely focused on providing emergency assistance to people in need and the people who supported them, including making sure that victims of 9-11… their families received checks in the mail just to help them get through a difficult time.

So, we really feel like it’s not a choice between one or the other, but you’re absolutely right, with limited resources, trying to make sure that you have a portfolio that meets people’s needs today, but also make sure that when you’re helping somebody meet their immediate needs today, the ideal is that that person doesn’t have to come back tomorrow or the next day, that you help them get a leg up so that they can move forward in life, and that you have the capacity to help the next person who comes along.

Denver: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, you have a holistic view of it, and you help them for today, but you have an eye on their future as you do it, and knowing that that’s where we want to go. 

You know, New York City is so incredibly diverse and it’s constantly changing. I think about the changes that probably have occurred, Rich, since you’ve been in that chair two and a half years ago, they’re monumental, I would imagine. How do you keep up in identifying and assessing these changing needs in all the communities that you serve?

Richard: Yeah, I mean, I think two and a half years ago, no one would’ve really predicted the impact of migration, particularly from Central America, but also from Africa and other countries that have become so much a part of the daily life of everyone in New York.

You know, I think a few things. One is, part of it is just about being part of an ecosystem. I think one of the advantages for Robin Hood is being a truly local organization. I mean, our work in New York is that our ears are to the ground because we’re in the community. We fund some 300 community-based organizations and neighborhoods across the city; we develop deep relationships with many of those partners so that we are hopefully, if we’re doing our job right, developing good and close relationships with those in the field that understand where the world is shifting.

A big part of our work involves partnership with government. We know that even as the largest local philanthropy focused on poverty, in a typical year, we are investing $140 million or more in poverty-fighting initiatives. That is still dwarfed by the need in New York. It’s certainly dwarfed by New York City’s $100 billion-dollar budget or New York State’s budget, which is twice that.

And so we see a big part of our work as influencing the work of government, as a partner, as an innovation partner, as a thought partner, and sometimes, as an advocate. More and more in the last few years, we have funded advocacy as part of our work to try to get governments to respond to what the evidence tells us is actually going to win the fight against poverty. And so I think all those things really come together.

And the last thing I’ll say is research. I wouldn’t describe ourselves as an institution that sort of funds research for the purposes of research, but we do fund very practical research, including when there are questions that we’d like to understand the amplitude to help drive our funding.

One of the things that we’re the most proud of is a partnership with Columbia University, something called a “poverty tracker,” where we follow longitudinally a group of New Yorkers with lived experience in poverty, and we interview them several times a year to get feedback about their lived experiences.  How are they experiencing the challenges of life in New York in a way that sometimes the raw data can’t elucidate?  And that can help us sort of figure out, “Well, here’s what we need to focus on. Here’s what we need to learn more about because this is how people are actually… This is the thing that is helping people or hurting people or holding people back right now.”

So, we try to learn, but you’ve got to bring it all, approach it  all, I think, with a sense of humility, which is the truth. We try to keep our ears to the ground, but we’re not on the ground. We are not the ones teaching the kids or those who are returning home from incarceration. Or we’re not running the childcare centers, and so trying to bring our research bent and our methodology and our focus on results, but also to bring that with the real spirit of inquisitiveness and humility and listening to people on the ground, including more and more listening to the people who are on the receiving end of services through things like the poverty tracker and everything that we do, to try to make sure that our dollars are being deployed as impactfully as is humanly possible.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. No, that’s great. And I love the partnership you have with Columbia because sometimes I feel  that evidence-based work can be too narrowly defined, as you say, on the statistics and the math and not enough on the human experience, and not everything shows up in a chart. And that really is the kind of smoothing out that is really necessary to understand what needs to be done.

Richard: Yeah. You need all of that evidence, and then you need to apply human judgment against it. And ultimately, there are human beings that are making these decisions. We can’t actually plug numbers into the benefits-cost calculator and then decide, “Okay, well, we do this and not that.” Ultimately, human judgment has to be born against all this evidence, and so we try to bring that humility to our decision making.

Denver: Yeah. Tell us a little bit about the Power Fund, and that focuses on addressing underinvestment in organizations led by people of color. Share with us some examples of how this initiative has really made an impact.

Richard: Yeah, the Power Fund, it’s something that my predecessor started, and it really came out of research from Echoing Green and The Bridgespan Group, which really showed what really shouldn’t be a surprise, that as philanthropy has grown, Black- and Latino-led and Asian-led organizations have not benefited from that growth, and that shouldn’t be surprising in a society where racism continues to drive who leads organizations, continues to drive who sits in seats of power, drives where resources go. That’s no different in philanthropy than it is in government, or in business, or any other sector. 

So, philanthropy doesn’t have a particular sin here, but certainly, as a part of the world so comprehensively focused on justice and opportunity, I think we have a responsibility to hold ourselves accountable. And so the Power Fund really asked: What can we as an organization do to identify and support organizations led by people of color?  And in part, because… we were just talking about listening to the voices of those who are affected, we know that organizations that are led by people of color that have diverse leaders, like all organizations with diverse leaders, make better decisions over the research is overwhelming. But also the idea that the greater chance that organizations that are led by people of color, that are connected to communities that we’re serving are going to be better positioned to do the work.

And so what we found when we started this work in the third week in July of 2020, we found that 30% of our total grants went to organizations led by people of color, so a little bit less than a third, and those organizations received 20% of our funding. So they were about a third of our organizations we funded, and they received disproportionately fewer grants.

As we sit on the other side, three years later, what we now find is that organizations led by people of color constitute 48%, so basically of our grantees,  they also receive half of the grants awarded.

I will say part of that is about a broader shift in the sector. It’s an ongoing shift to one that I think was amplified after the mergers of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and sort of the broader public awareness of the need for diversity, equity, inclusion in our institutions, and so some of that is just us following the field, but it’s also about our intentional work.

 And one of the things that we found, which is so important to me, is that those organizations have a higher renewal rate in terms of Robin Hood grants than our broader pool. You know, we, again, as an evidence-based investor, organizations come out of our portfolio as they don’t demonstrate results.

But what this suggests is that by bringing this focus on organizations led by people of color, that has not reduced quality by our typical measures. It’s presumably increased quality because those organizations are getting funded more.

And what we’re trying to do now is the Power Fund that Robin Hood was… we started a separate pool of grant making. What we’ve tried to do now is to bring those disciplines, to bring those expectations into our standard grant making pool. So that it’s not that there’s one group that is focused on making grants in this space, but so that every one of our teams has expectations around how it’s showing up in communities, holding themselves accountable for identifying and putting forward organizations who have non-traditional leadership. And so I really think it’s been a transformative initiative here at Robin Hood.

“The reason why we’re so focused on impact is not because donors want it or the donors love that language, but because people deserve it. People deserve services that work for them, that actually change their lives. They deserve more than people who are working hard and trying their best. They deserve interventions that actually are impactful.”

Denver: Oh, yeah, yeah. And I’m guessing, having had some other conversations that a lot of these local organizations led by people of color really surfaced during the pandemic because they began to see who was doing the great work on the ground, and you’re saying, “Wow, why weren’t they on our radar to begin with? I’m sure glad they are now.”

Richard: A hundred percent. You know, I hate to say this. I wanted to say there’s no silver lining to the pandemic, but I don’t want to say that.

But certainly, what just happened regularly with us after these relief funds, including the Pandemic Relief Fund, is you identify these small grassroots organizations who don’t typically meet the– of course, we are challenging funders in a lot of ways because of our expectations around evidence of impact. Sometimes they can take a relatively sufficient organization to be able to sort of manage the relationship. You know, we’re trying to get better, but it is, I think, part of what it means to deal with Robin Hood, but as you say, we have found a lot of organizations that we didn’t know. I mean, “found” is not the right word. 

They were there doing the work in many cases long before we showed up on the scene, but at least, new to us, that we found because they applied for a small grant to provide emergency cash assistance to people in their community, and you meet these leaders; you see these work. 

And sometimes my challenge to the staff is that if there’s an organization that we see is doing great work, but they can’t compete for funding from us because of the way we’re set up, that may not be their fault; that may be our fault. And so what is it about… how can we, without giving up these principles and standards, because ultimately, I think the reason why we’re so focused on impact is not because donors want it or the donors love that language, but because people deserve it. People deserve services that work for them, that actually change their lives. They deserve more than people who are working hard and trying their best. They deserve interventions that actually are impactful. 

But our process doesn’t always find those organizations because as you talked about before, we sometimes have limited ways of evaluating them, but also limited ways of identifying them. My networks are supported by who we are and who we know. So, the Pandemic Relief Funds have been a great way to introduce organizations. Some of those became Power Fund grantees, and some of those are now part of our grant-making portfolio.

Denver: And just to that point, it really is, I think, forced us to have a real reassessment of what best practices are. Because best practices are the way things have always been done, and those certain criteria, and it’s been looking at how these organizations have performed, as you said, and getting a renewal rate even better. You begin to say, “Well, maybe these best practices were pretty stale,  pretty limited, pretty codified, and there are different ways to solve problems and maybe we need to be more open-minded about those.”

Richard: That’s right. I mean, it’s so easy for the best ideas and the best notions to go overboard and to have the tail begin to wag the dog.

And so it also forces us, as you were saying, to think differently about evidence in a number of ways, including taking advantage of evidence that just really didn’t exist in a way that was accessible to organizations like Robin Hood a decade ago. 

So, our benefit-cost calculator, as I described, the benefit-cost ratios are based on the best evidence we can find. So, I go back to the high school diploma because it’s the easiest thing to imagine. We know that a high school diploma has value in the marketplace… a college degree, even more. And so if you invest in an organization, and they have an 80% high school graduation rate versus the expected 40% graduation rate for an organization serving that demographic in that place, and you know that each of those diplomas are worth X dollars over a lifetime, you can begin to build a model of  how our dollars are driving impact, and that’s great!

But there’s a couple of challenges. One is that the research is not always complete and up to date. We don’t have developed evidence on every intervention. Even when we do, the evidence doesn’t always speak the same language, and so part of the challenge is: How do we constantly update our models to reflect the best evidence? But the second challenge is that even in all those models, it’s all predictive. It’s based on eight years ago. Somebody did a research study based on this intervention. And so now, if we see fidelity and we’re seeing the same outputs, we’re assuming the same long-term outcomes.

But now, we know that cities and states and the federal government have all sorts of rich data that don’t require prediction, that we can actually understand  this person within this program for four years, and now they’re doing this. 

And so thinking about how we can really engage with public actors and governments to really utilize population-level administrative data to really understand how different institutions have been making difference in the lives of people in New York, I think is another place that we want to go.

And then the last thing I would say is continuing to push the envelope on what it means to listen to those who we actually serve. I talked about our poverty tracker research with Columbia. We have another initiative called the Design Insight Group, which is a group of a few thousand people, again, with lived experience of poverty that basically form a database which serve basically as a customer group, a customer impact group for some of the innovations we fund through one of our programs, Blue Ridge Labs, which essentially funds technology-based innovations in poverty. 

So, we pay these people to test products and say: What are the things you most need? And to play with these products that these grantees are developing, to see this tool to help you utilize food stamps…. Is that a tool that you would use? What does it need? How is it working? 

I think one of the things about philanthropy that is always the most fascinating to me, and that I think that at heart makes us work so much harder than so much other work, is that at the end of the day, the people who pay for this stuff are not the people who use it.

Denver: Yep.

Richard: If I’m buying an apple from somebody, you can’t have some test of the value of the apple because of what I’m willing to pay for it. But just because a philanthropist is willing to pay a thousand dollars for an after school program, doesn’t mean it’s a great program. And the fact that a person who needs it doesn’t have a thousand dollars doesn’t mean it’s not worth funding. 

And so trying to find ways to elevate the voices of those who actually benefit and to bring them in in a rigorous way into our decision making, I think for me is like… we’re nowhere near there yet. We have some really great things that we are studying and deploying, but I feel like that’s really the next level of my being able to go to a donor and say with confidence, “Yes, the dollar that you give me, I’m telling you, it’s going to be well-deployed. It’s gonna be well-deployed because the research evidence demonstrates it, because the administrative record proves it, because we have the track record of those who’ve come through it, and because the people who receive it are telling us that this is a kind of intervention that they want and they need.”

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. We’ve been woeful when it comes to beneficiary feedback, and it just seems as if we have that old notion of what charity is, and we’re giving them a handout, so to speak, and they should be happy with whatever they get, and nothing could be further from the truth.

I was talking to someone the other day who was making that point, that “You ask us what would work in this particular case, but you’re telling us what the problem is. And you’re asking us our opinion of the problem, but you’re coming in with what would be the best solution. And they said, “That’s not our problem.” And they went on to say that, “You come in and try to fix things in our community. Why don’t you put money in what’s working well here, and that might eliminate fixing things.”

So, we sort of go in where we think we’re listening, but we go in, I think, from my experience in philanthropy, with too many assumptions of what people need, and then we let them weigh in based on that assumption.

Richard: Absolutely. And that… those comments are so insightful, and I couldn’t agree more. I think about our Design Insight Group– this is a group of New Yorkers I described before… so Blue Ridge Lab is essentially an incubator, where we have classes of fellows who apply to come in and apply their technology skills to solve a problem, and much in keeping with that commentary, what we do first is we ask the Design Insight Group: What are the problems we should be solving? So rather than, again, us… I wouldn’t say, speculating, it’s never purely speculation, we’re looking at research, we’re looking at data, but we ask them what we should prioritize during this cycle. Then we go out and put that to RFP; we get fellowship applications; they help evaluate the fellowship applications, and then they decide both the quality of the products and that in this program, you can sort of progress. As your product progresses, they help decide who progresses, and I think those comments are so insightful, including the idea about investing and what works.

And another version of that I think is not just focused on solving crises after they occur, but also: How do you help communities build wealth and equity and power so that they’re in a better position to advocate for resources, better position to support their own institutions? And again, I’ll admit, I think, this is not often our mindset, and so we just all have to get there as a community.

And one of the things that I love about a place like Robin Hood, you started talking about: What does it mean to not have an endowment that we can rely on to drive all of our work? One of the things it gives us is that it puts us in relationship with a large number of wealthy and influential people who care about New York, and I think part of what we also try to do is to be a bridge for those people as well.

Denver: Yeah.

Richard: Well-meaning people actually understand what’s happening in the field by bringing them in proximity to those in need, by bringing them evidence that challenges their assumptions about what actually matters and doesn’t. And so, it’s a fun platform because I get to work with the government, get to work with donors, get to work with community organizations, and to try the best we can to bring all these amazing people together to do good work, to do the work of America, which is just building a country that works for everybody.

Denver: Yeah. Well, I have always considered Robin Hood to be the ultimate 360 organization, and it really does enhance the understanding, and so many of us who work in the sector only have a 90 or a 180. We don’t have a 360 where you can see how it all comes together and how it can work better.

You know, you mentioned tech a moment ago, Rich. Tell us how you’re using advanced tech, like AI, to boost your philanthropic efforts and outreach.

Richard: So, a work in progress. I think first of all, like every other organization, mostly just me in the middle of the night, playing with ChatGPT.

Denver: The only time you can get on.

Richard: Yeah, anyway, I’ve been playing a lot with the image generation in DALL E. Anyway, it’s fascinating technology, obviously, but of course, that’s  cutting edge.

You know, we all use the AI all the time. If you use the spell checker in Word, you’re using AI, right? So it’s either in some ways ubiquitous technologies, and I think the large language models that have sort of taken over the popular imagination. I think as I talk to people who work deeply in technology, or the refrain I always hear that, “That is amazing. That’s going to change the world.” But that’s only the surface of transformation that these technologies are impacting in society.

So, I think we look at it in two ways. I mean, one is like every other organization, we’re just trying to understand how all technology,  how AI can improve our process. And so there’s various ways in which we’re trying to use technology to better organize information, even thinking about how it makes a program officer’s job easier. What do program officers spend their time doing in other tasks? Currently, they’re doing what could be done and supported through technology in a way that would expand the amount of time they had to go out in the field and engage with folks, and to read research. And so I think like all the organizations, we think about it that way.

But like most small organizations, when I talk to some of our donors who sit on top of organizations, they are devoting tons of money to hiring teams to do the work for them. For us, we don’t really quite have that capacity. We have sort of our skunk-work folks here and our sort of data intelligence team, which is basically a two-person team, that are trying to think through these things.

So, on the one hand, we’re just like everybody else trying to trudge through, trying to learn what tools are out there, and really around the early stages of thinking about how they have impacted us as an organization.

“So, our idea was to bring together the best technological minds in the world, bring together the businesses who are at the cutting edge of thinking about AI, and to put them in a room with policymakers, people in government, and put them in the room with people who have lived experience with poverty, and put them in the room with people who are leading organizations that are trying to meet needs, and to have a productive conversation.”

Denver: Yeah, I was speaking to Josh Bersin the other day and he was saying that’s what nonprofits should do: “Don’t spend all the money upfront; let others do it, have it settle out and decide what works.” But he did say, “Continue to learn.” And that’s something that you’re doing: you’re having an AI summit coming up, aren’t you, on February 6th?

Richard: Exactly, exactly. And so another thing I was going to say is, they’re thinking about how AI helps us internally, but we want to think about what AI will mean to the part of the world that we exist to serve. And the one thing that we know about technological innovations… I was just saying this to somebody the other day… that there’s no better time to be alive for anyone than in 2024, and that’s just the truth. That’s true if you’re poor; that’s true, I mean, just for all the obvious reasons, even for those who are struggling deeply for the most part. It’s the best time to be alive, and technology plays a big role in that.

And so I don’t want to ever look at the world from a fear lens when it comes to technology, but we also know that the nature of technological innovation that those innovations tend to benefit those who have the most benefits already, and the disruption that technology always brings tends to be most heavily experienced by those who are furthest from opportunity and resources. And when we see what’s happening in a place like New York, that is really the concern. 

So, our idea was to bring together the best technological minds in the world, bring together the businesses who are at the cutting edge of thinking about AI, and to put them in a room with policymakers, people in government, and put them in the room with people who have lived experience with poverty, and put them in the room with people who are leading organizations that are trying to meet needs, and to have a productive conversation. 

I mean, it’s not that we believe we’re going to solve, you know… it’s a day-long conference, we’re not going to solve the world, but we do believe we can begin a conversation. And for me, really focusing folks not only on the risk of harms… because we have to do that, and I do believe there’s a lot of tension focused on the risks of harms, but what are the potential benefits? How do we make sure that the family in the Howard houses in Brownsville has an opportunity to benefit from the innovations that are coming when we think about things like financial inclusion, in schools where there are already a proliferation of products– some good, some bad, too few directed towards the families who would most benefit from them– and healthcare, et cetera.

So, we’re really excited about the conference. Again, it’s on February 6th here in New York. And, again, we’re hoping it’s the beginning of a conversation and connecting like I said, a lot of organizations, companies that are led by people who, I believe both people are good, I think people who lead these companies, they want to do well for themselves, but they also want to have a positive impact on the world and helping them find a path to do that by, as we were just saying, connecting them to people… and the organizations that are closest to challenges and to say, “Well, how can the thing that I’m thinking about over here, what are the applications and implications for the people over there? And now that I have these relationships, how can we begin to work together to actually build some bridges and do some positive work for people who otherwise are more likely to get left behind?”

Denver: Yeah. And as you said, as a nonprofit organization, you’re playing to your strength. You don’t have the deep pockets to get involved in AI, but you’re the great convener. And you bring people together, and that’s where you make your contribution in a meaningful way.

And I also think it’s good to look at the positive aspects of what AI can do and then worry a little bit about some of the negative, because you want to start with what are the possibilities to impact positively humankind, and think about what do we need to watch out for, as opposed to the other way around, and I think that will lead to better outcomes.

Going to ask you two quick questions.

Richard: Sure. 

Denver: What idea in philanthropy is ready for retirement?

Richard: That’s a great question. Part of me thinks that the answer to the question is part of the problem is that philanthropy is in some ways a separate field, even separate from those who are delivering direct services, and that whenever you have a structure that sort of brings capital together, but the capital is fundamentally separate from the field, you’re creating gaps.

And so I think the practical way  I think about that is, like when we hire people here, obviously, we are trying to hire generally people who are bringing expertise in the field, who’ve run a program, who’ve worked in the field, and I think it would be great if more institutions viewed that as a cycle as opposed to a destination. 

So, like if your work is in the social services sector, you shouldn’t spend 15 years in direct service and then 20 years as a funder or whatever direction that works, but you spend three years in direct service and three years as a funder and three years in direct service and three years as the funder, it would be interesting, and I think some organizations think about places like Ford that sort of have built in the idea that, you’re going to be at Ford for a time. 

I would love the idea of thinking about philanthropy less as a its own sector, if this makes sense, but there’s a place, where people who are doing the work can come back, reflect, think about how to deploy resources back into the field, and there’s an ongoing conversation that’s more dynamic because we’re not sitting it separate on opposite sides of a semi-porous, but kind of a fence, essentially.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. That is really an interesting answer. I’ve never heard that before, but that’s a really great insight. What idea in philanthropy do you wish would be adopted widely today?

Richard: So nothing with that is probably unique, I would say, but a lot of them we’ve already touched on. One is a more rigorous application of client perspective into decision making. We just need to center the voices of people who receive services more, so I would start there.

Better use of data and citywide and statewide and countywide administrative data, making that data more accessible to the institutions who are meeting, who are serving people, so that people have real-time understanding of how their work interacts with the world. 

And then, I think the thing that we always talk about and the thing that Robin Hood is trying to get better at: more general operating support, more long-term funding, not because we want to remove rigor, because we do need to have rigor and accountability, but because we know that innovation takes time; good work takes time.  People don’t have the sort of support they need to make quick decisions to make investments. As a sector, we don’t see all the impact we could, because the people who leave the organizations are too hamstrung by limited funds, by having to convince somebody to take advantage of an opportunity because they don’t have the resources on hand to do it. And so I think some of those things all would lead to a more efficient, impactful sector.

Denver: Let me close with this, Rich. Share with listeners your leadership philosophy and how it influences your approach to tackling poverty in New York City through Robin Hood.

Richard: I don’t know if it’s much about leadership philosophy, but I would always start and end with humility and listening.

Assuming that every room I go into that I know the least about the problem, whether it’s with my colleagues or government officials or the organizations or the folks, going in with humility and open mind and open heart and listening, and then not being afraid to make decisions once you’ve done that homework. That’s sort of the way I try to approach it, and that requires surrounding yourself with excellent people.

You got to make sure that it’s true. I’m proud to say that it is at Robin Hood, that is maybe sadly for me, but almost always the case. I’m surrounded by people who just know a lot more about the work than I ever will, and learning from them, and following their guidance and then where I sort of fit that it’s a little unique, and then I get to sort of pull from all those people, pull the strands together, and then try to make a decision that reflects the breadth of views that are coming at me.

Denver: Yeah. It sounds a little bit like facilitative leadership. You pretty much hold the conversation together. You connect the dots for everybody, and then you steer the ship in terms of where we need to go.

For listeners who want to learn more about the Robin Hood Foundation, tell us about your website and what visitors will find there.

Richard: Well, always. Well, thank you so much, first of all, Denver, for the time, we appreciate it.

You can find us at You can learn how to get involved, how to contribute resources, how to volunteer with organizations that we support. You can learn about the challenges of fighting poverty in New York. All of our research base, all the information is there. You can see the grantees, the places where the resources go. And you may not want to fund Robin Hood, but you may see organizations that speak to you and we love when peoplele go to those organizations directly and support them. So, come to You can learn a lot, you can join the movement, and you can help make New York a place that actually works for everyone.

Denver: Thanks, Rich. It’s a wonderful conversation. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.

Richard: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to meet you.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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