Chairman and CEO of the Heckscher Foundation for Children
Anyone whose work takes them into the poorest communities of our city and state, as ours does, can’t help but notice that, over the years, there has been little change in the lives and future prospects for underserved children and young adults. Yet the richness that surrounds these poor communities continues to grow as the gap between rich and poor seems to ever widen.
The resources in New York City are almost limitless. Our hometown has the most vibrant economy, the most billionaires, the highest wages, the largest financial sector, and is among the most expensive cities in the world for real estate. If New York City were a country, its economy would be bigger than Switzerland’s.
Amid this contrast of abundance and deprivation, we now face the milestone of 100 years as an independent foundation. How can we most effectively address wealth inequality among our youth, particularly the unequal distribution of jobs and educational resources, in a way that creates lasting impact?
Our answer has been to focus on high-leverage funding strategies—catalytic giving, strategic partnerships with other funders in the public and private sectors, and targeted problem solving—while seeking out what we like to call inflection point funding, focusing on those specific obstacles that keep underserved youth from realizing their full potential and the key junctures where our grants might change the course of their lives. We ask ourselves: If we can solve this with our funding, does it have the potential to create an opportunity for a young person to rise to new heights or, conversely, does the failure to solve this lead to a significant downturn in a young person’s life trajectory?
As we look to the future, we also intend to ask ourselves and those we fund to be bold. Being bold means challenging our grantees to take more risks to equip young people with the skills they need to succeed in an ever-more competitive world and, at times, accepting corresponding failures. Being bold means demanding more from our grantees’ Board of Trustees, whose philanthropy we encourage with matching grants for increased board support. Being bold means encouraging curriculum-sharing among community-based organizations, and supporting teachers and schools willing to share best practices that lead to substantive increases in student outcomes, like our East Harlem Pride initiative does. Being bold means focusing on college students’ financial emergency needs, like our SUNY Student Emergency Fund which provides low-income students with small grants they can obtain with a minimum of red tape, keeping them in school and on track for graduation. It means supporting new revenue-generation models for community-based organizations, as we are doing with our “pay for success” initiative with the City University of New York. It means betting on and encouraging effective leaders as the key to every success. And it often means, in the words of former New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, “emboldening government,” not replacing it.
It is equally important to say what being bold does not mean to us. It does not mean that we, or the organizations we support, must always strive to serve more young people, open new locations, or seek to “scale” for scaling’s sake alone. It does not mean trying to answer questions about professional development for teachers when we don’t know what effective teaching itself means. It does not mean supporting a technology solution for a problem without a thorough appreciation of what other solutions exist, or without clearly understanding what the problem is that the technology solution is trying to solve in the first place. And being bold never means forgetting the generosity of spirit and the dedication of our founders and early leaders: August Heckscher, Arthur Smadbeck, and Ruth Smadbeck.
The author acknowledges with gratitude the words of former New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in his 2015 Letter on Philanthropy for the phrase “embolden government” and inspiration provided by The Wall Street Journal in its Thanksgiving editorials, “The Desolate Wilderness” and “And the Fair Land,” which have been published annually since 1961 and which he has read to family and friends faithfully each year, much to the rolling eyes of his children and wife.