Posted on October 17, 2002
Geoffrey Canada, President/CEO, Harlem Children's Zone, Inc.: Improving Outcomes for Children and Youth Through a Place-Based Strategy
PND Newsmakers - Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO, Harlem Children's Zone
The numbers are startling: 760,000 children in New York City live in poverty. Barely a third (39.3 percent) of the city's elementary and middle-school students meet or exceed grade level on state and city math exams, while only 35.3 percent meet or exceed grade level on city math exams. Twenty percent of the city's high school students drop out before graduation. Citywide, roughly 215,000 children between the ages of six and thirteen are unsupervised by a family member in the after-school hours the same hours, studies show, when children and youth are most likely to use alcohol, tobacco, or drugs, or commit a violent crime.
As sobering as they are, such statistics fail to capture the full dimension of what many feel is a deepening crisis in communities across the country. Beyond the economic cost to society in New York State, for example, the annual cost of incarcerating a single juvenile offender is $80,000 the price paid by kids themselves, in terms of higher rates of crime and drug abuse, dramatically reduced job opportunities, and dreams deferred or denied, is staggering.
In September, Philanthropy News Digest spoke to Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of Harlem Children's Zone, Inc., (HCZ), a community-based organization in New York City that provides preventive, educational, community-building, and recreational services to the Harlem community, about the barriers to success faced by low-income kids, the things his organization is doing to remove those barriers in a twenty-four-block neighborhood in central Harlem, and the lessons he has learned over a twenty-year career dedicated to improving outcomes for children and youth.
In addition to his role as president and CEO of HCZ (formerly the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families), Canada is the acclaimed author of Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America and the East Coast regional coordinator for the Black Community Crusade for Children (BCCC), a nationwide effort coordinated by Marian Wright Edelman and the Children's Defense Fund to make saving black children the number-one priority in the black community.
Born in the South Bronx, Mr. Canada enjoys a national reputation as both an advocate for and expert on issues concerning violence, children, and community redevelopment and has dedicated his life to helping disadvantaged and at-risk children secure both educational and economic opportunities. A frequent guest on such nationally broadcast shows as "CBS This Morning", "Good Morning America," "The Today Show," and "Nightline," he was the host in 1994 of a national PBS special, "Jobs: A Way Out?" that explored the importance of employment opportunities for keeping youth from following the path of violence, and has won numerous awards for his work, including the Robin Hood Foundation's Heroes of the Year Award, the Spirit of the City Award from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Bowdoin College's Common Good Award, and a Heinz Award from the Heinz Family Philanthropies.
Canada holds a bachelor of arts degree from Bowdoin College, a master's degree in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and honorary degrees from Harvard University, Williams College, John Jay College, Bank Street College, and Meadville Lombard Theological Seminary. His second book, Reaching Up for Manhood, was published in January 1998.
Philanthropy News Digest: Geoff, this has been a year of significant change for your organization, a fact reflected by the decision made earlier this year to change the organization's name from the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families to the Harlem Children's Zone. Before I ask about the reasons for that change, can you tell us about Rheedlen when was it founded, what was its original mission, and what is your history with the organization?
Geoffrey Canada: Sure. Rheedlen was founded in 1970 by a man named Richard L. Murphy. Murphy started the organization simply because he began to notice young children between the ages of five and twelve who were out on the streets when they should have been in school. And that got him to wondering why so many young children in the city were not attending school. Murphy guessed, and was later able to prove, that it was not the children's fault if they're that young, it's probably the fault of the parents. So he began to work with chronically truant children and their parents to do something about the problem. At the same time, he began to look at the impact of truancy on families and home life, and that eventually led him to start Rheedlen.
I joined the organization in 1983 as educational director and was asked to look closely at the education program and figure out ways to revamp it, with an eye to getting children who were not reading at grade level to read at grade level.
In 1994, Murphy left the organization to become commissioner of the Department of Youth Services in the Dinkins administration [i.e., then-New York City mayor David Dinkins], and I took over as executive director.
PND: Under your leadership, Rheedlen experienced significant growth in the '90s, with the number of children receiving services quadrupling from fifteen hundred to seven thousand, and the organization's annual budget growing from $2.5 million to $15 million. To what do you attribute the organization's success over the last decade?
GC: I think the one thing that has allowed us to be successful is that we have grown, over a period of time, a tremendous staff of professionals. They're a group of men and women who came to us really committed to this work, and we've given them the best training we could afford. The result is what I think is the best staff in the country right now working with young people.
My vision for the organization has always been to build an organization that could handle the needs, whatever they might be, in the surrounding community. Rheedlen was started to work with the bottom 15 percent of kids in the public schools kids who were failing and going nowhere and to get them back to the middle. But as the number of kids in that bottom group began to grow, we realized that we needed to expand our services. You know, at first we would go into a school and find twenty kids that needed help; then it was forty kids, then a hundred kids, and as the need grew over the years, we decided we had to respond to that need. But one thing we didn't want to do, even though we found ourselves doing it in the early '90s, was to say, "No, sorry, we don't have any room for you." We didn't want parents coming to us and saying, "Look, I'm having trouble, I need help, and there's no one out there to help me," only to have to say, "Sorry, the program's filled; we can't help you." We really felt the pressure from families in the community to expand our services, and that's what we've done.
PND: How many people do you have on staff today?
GC: We have about two hundred and fifty full-time employees and another two hundred or so part-time employees.
PND: In 1997, Rheedlen launched the Harlem Children's Zone initiative, which was a departure for the organization in that it established clear-cut geographical boundaries for the provision of services offered through the initiative. In doing so, it also excluded many neighborhoods and populations that your programs had traditionally served. What was the thinking behind the creation of the HCZ initiative?
GC: We started the HCZ initiative after we began to look at what was happening when we tried to get the bottom 15 percent of the kids in the schools we were working in back into the middle. And what we discovered, unfortunately, was that there was no middle. What we had expected to be a normal bell curve, with 15 percent of the children doing great, 15 percent doing lousy, and about 70 percent somewhere in the middle, was something very different, with 70 percent, 75 percent, sometimes 80 percent of the kids failing. And that shocked me. I would say to people, "I think you have schools in New York in which 75 to 80 percent of the kids are failing or falling way behind," and people would think I was an alarmist. They'd say things like, "No, it's just the schools you happen to be working in."
|...today fewer than half the children in the city are reading at grade level. In the poorest communities, you have 75 to 80 percent of the kids reading below grade level, and yet a lot of folks don't think it's a crisis....
But by the early '90s, I think people had begun to realize that, in terms of poor children and education, we were on the threshold of a crisis, not just in New York but nationwide. And today, as almost everybody knows, fewer than half the children in the city are reading at grade level. In the poorest communities, you have 75 to 80 percent of the kids reading below grade level, and yet a lot of folks still don't think it's a crisis. I happen to think it's one of the biggest crises our nation faces. I mean, what are we going to do with all these children who are not getting an education? We know what we have been doing with them: We've been sending them to jail, or they've been ending up on welfare, or homeless and begging on the streets. Let's face it: We no longer live in a country where huge numbers of folks without basic skills can compete for jobs. Those days are gone.
So when I look at the schools we're in, in Harlem, and I ask myself, What does it mean to have 75 percent of the kids not being able to read, being able compete academically with kids from other schools and communities? I always come back to the same answer: It means that those children have no chance of leading productive, fulfilling lives in twenty years. And that inevitably leads to the next question: What can we do about it? So, after some thought, we decided to address the problem in a couple of different ways.
One has to do with the issue of scale. This, to me, is the most pressing issue in American education today. We know that individual teachers in poor schools can motivate and educate small groups of children. We see it all the time, where great teachers do great work. And we know there are people out there who've been able to create great schools in poor and disadvantaged communities. We've seen it done time and time again. But we haven't seen anyone take these successes to scale. We know we can work with thirty kids and be successful, and we know that, with encouragement and enough support, people can scale those methods to maybe two or three hundred kids. But we've yet to see them work with thousands of children who are failing. That's the next big step. Our role in this is to sort of set a course and prove that it can be done; that's our mission. And to have a chance at succeeding, we think we need to do four things.
The first is to rebuild our communities. You can't have successful schools in communities where everything else is falling apart or falling down, where there are no block associations or tenant associations, where the parks are lousy and the playgrounds are lousy it simply isn't going to happen. So we've begun to rebuild the infrastructure in the Harlem Children's Zone, building by building, block by block, apartment by apartment, forming tenant associations, block associations, making sure we don't forget about the neighborhood playgrounds and parks. We don't want parents waking up in the morning and saying to their kids, "Watch out, don't go here, and make sure you don't go there because it's dangerous." We want the community to feel like a place that values its residents, especially its kids. That's the first thing.
The second thing we're doing is developing a catalog of best practices for each developmental stage of a child's life. They have to be basic, central tenets we don't want or need to create anything new, because it's all out there. You do an Internet search under "early childhood" and you're going to get a thousand hits. But when it comes to identifying best practices and then making the case for those practices, we just don't do it. In fact, in poor communities, you see the worst practices. For example, in terms of grade-school instruction, we know the best practice is to limit the number of kids in a class and to teach them all day. But what do you usually find in poor communities? Large numbers of kids being taught half the day. And we wonder why children end up failing?
Our aim at HCZ is to have a best-practice recommendation for each developmental stage of a child's life, starting with pregnancy. So we have a Baby College, where we work on a regular basis with pregnant moms and moms of toddlers, sharing information with them from pediatricians and nurse practitioners and doulas and lots of other folks about how they should be taking care of themselves, making sure they're prepared, what to do when the baby's seven months old, nine months old, and so on. Our partner is Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, the well-known Harvard pediatrician, and our goal is to develop the best early-childhood program in the country right here in Harlem.
Then we go to pre-K and Head Start. The evidence is clear on Head Start it works. We believe that all children who live in communities where most children are failing ought to be in a structured early development program, because we know that the earlier a child is touched by sound health care, intellectual and social stimulation, and consistent guidance from loving adults, the more likely that child will grow into a responsible member of the community. In September 2001 we launched Harlem Gems, a universal pre-K program for children aged four. Through a combination of hiring licensed teachers and using Harlem Peacemakers, which is a program of ours, we've created an adult-to-child ratio of one to four, because we know that the first five years of a child's life are crucial in terms of the development of the child's linguistic, conceptual, social, emotional, and motor skills.
Once kids are in kindergarten, first, and second grade, we really want to push to make sure they get a lot of attention, and our vehicle for doing that is the Harlem Peacemakers program, which works inside the public schools to reduce class size. But because we have such a high rate of teacher turnover in our schools, it also works to make sure we have an approach to literacy that is standardized and universal for all our children. To that end, we use a literacy-based software package to track kids' progress starting in kindergarten and following them right through the third grade.
Then we have a program for adolescents called TRUCE, where we use the arts and other activities to keep kids engaged and out of trouble. For example, some of the kids in the program put out a newspaper I think the circulation is up to fifty thousand and another group of kids writes and produces a TV show that goes out via the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, our local cable outlet. The idea is to use constructive activities as a counterweight to the kinds of leaders that spring up naturally in poor communities you know, the kids who say, "Hey, I know where we can make some fast money," and then go out and rob a store or sell drugs. Our program, in contrast, tries to create situations where a kid can say, "Look, I know a place where we can go in and volunteer to help children learn to read," or where they can go to create a mural or build a Web site. The problem in poor communities is that they seldom produce that second kind of leader. Most kids will follow a leader. It doesn't really matter who it is or what the end result is, as long as someone is leading. So the question becomes, Do you have leaders out there that are doing something positive? And that's where our program fits in; it's designed to create leaders who are also positive role models.
The third issue we're trying to address has to do with scale. We believe that in order for our theory of change to be successful, we have to work with 80 percent of the children who are two or younger, 70 percent of the children between the ages of three and four, 60 percent of the children between the ages of five and eleven, 40 percent of the children between the ages of twelve and thirteen, and 30 percent of the children between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. A massive early investment in large numbers of young people, and then providing the capacity to stay with those kid as they turn eight, nine, ten, and eleven, is critical. At the same time, we need to rebuild the communities in which those kids live. Our hope is that we will need to do less and less over time as other institutions and stakeholders in the community step forward. But we believe that if kids have to be on a waiting list, if we can't serve all those who need help, then not only are we going to end up having to make choices about who gets helped and who doesn't, we're also not going to reach the critical tipping point where we have more of our children succeeding than failing.
|...We have to be sure that we're looking on a regular basis to see whether or not what we're doing is working. And if it's not working, we have to figure out why and fix it....
The fourth thing is the issue of evaluation. We have to be sure that we're looking on a regular basis to see whether or not what we're doing is working. And if it's not working, we have to figure out why and fix it, or we have to discard it and come up with a better idea. It's our belief that we can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our programs through evaluation, so that we'll know way in advance whether children are failing or not. Too often, people use evaluation for other reasons the city gives reading tests, we get the test results back in June, after school is over, and what does anybody do with those results? Nothing. It's not like someone says, "Oh, I see that Johnny's having trouble comprehending what he's reading, let's really focus on that next year." I mean, it's just testing for testing's sake.
The way we think about evaluation is that you have to get the results back in real time, so that people can say, "Look, we understand this child's having a problem with this, let's figure out how we can intervene and help him do better." So, basically, we've hired an outside evaluator, Philliber Research Associates, to evaluate every component of our programs. We've also created an internal evaluation mechanism, so that we can see how we're doing and make the kind of corrections we need to make in order to make our programs stronger.
PND: In fact, wasn't your evolution from Rheedlen to HCZ the product, in part, of an evaluation process involving staff as well as funders? Could you talk a little about that process and what drove the changes in your business plan and strategic thinking?
GC: The process really was a wonderful opportunity to get the kind of talent we would never have been able to find or pay for to focus on what we had been doing. It was clear to us as an organization that we wanted to deal with this issue of scale, and that the best way to deal with it was with a place-based strategy. In other words, we felt that we really had to do everything if we wanted to be successful on a larger scale. Again, one of our core beliefs is that in poor communities where, literally, all of the institutions are failing children, you can't do one thing and expect that you'll solve the issue of scale. I mean, you can save some children with an early-intervention program, and you can save some children if you work with addicted mothers, and you can save some children if you have afterschool programs. But if you start talking about how you're going to save most children, you have to do all those things, and do them over the long term, and you have to make sure you can count how many children actually received those services.
Now, I certainly had some ideas about how we might do that, but I had no experience in growing an institution as quickly as we are planning to grow HCZ over the next few years. And then we were approached by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, which was one of our funders, and they said, "Do you have a plan to grow the organization?" And when I said yes, they said, "Well, how ambitious is it?" And I said, "Let's just put it this way. We're thinking about more than doubling the size of the organization in a very short period of time." Then they asked whether we would be willing to be part of a new funding initiative they were about to launch that was going to focus on growth planning and would we work with them on an evaluation process that would feed into the planning process.
So, we thought about it and ultimately said yes. And it was hard work, much harder than I ever thought it would be, and it took much more time than I thought it would. But in the end we came up with a document that exceeded my expectations so much so, in fact, that if I had known beforehand what the end result would be, I would have gladly paid for it out of our own resources. I mean, if you had asked me before we started, I would have said, "We can't afford to do it, there's no way I could take resources away from our current work and put it into something like planning." But it has absolutely transformed the organization. And as a result, we now have a plan to triple the size of the organization over the course of the next nine years.
Don't get me wrong. I think we have a very good program as it is; I think we know what we're doing and we're solid as an organization. But the problem most organizations face is that as they grow, their ability to maintain quality across their programs is really challenged. In order to succeed, you have to have a number of key individuals who have different skill sets. In our case, we looked at our management structure and realized it wasn't the right structure for an organization that wanted to grow quickly in many areas not least because I had all these directors reporting directly to me or my number two. So we totally changed our organizational chart, and the decision to do so was a direct result of the planning process suggested by the folks at Edna McConnell Clark.
|...We think there are places all over America where people are struggling with the fact that, instead of hundreds of underperforming kids in their community, there are thousands, even tens of thousands of kids who are underperforming....
We looked at what our funding requirements were going to be. Remember, we plan to grow from an organization with a budget of about $15 million dollars to an organization that, nine years from now, will have a budget of $45 million. Obviously, that's a major change, and it became clear very quickly that we needed to start thinking, as an organization, about how we were going to raise those kinds of dollars. So we changed our board, and we changed our development strategies, and we also began to think about how we could talk to people in the community about our work.
In fact, we think we're on the cutting edge of what we hope will be a different way of nonprofits working with community stakeholders. We think there are places all over America where people are struggling with the fact that, instead of hundreds of underperforming kids in their community, there are thousands, even tens of thousands of kids who are underperforming. You can go from one end of America to the other, from big cities like Los Angeles and New York to small towns that people have never heard of, and you'll find the same thing huge numbers of American children who are underperforming or failing. And nobody has figured out a strategy to really address the situation. So we think that communicating this idea is going to be absolutely critical, and that we have to have an evaluation component to help us demonstrate to people that we are serious about results, that we aren't just, you know, talking feel-good stuff but can show clear and demonstrable progress with young people over time.
At the same time, we feel, or felt, that part of what was going to hinder us in this process was our name. I've been at the organization now for nineteen years, and I spent the first seventeen of those years trying to get people to understand what Rheedlen was. It's impossible to spell, and if you think about it, it doesn't really connect to anything. People were always surprised when I said there was no Mr. Rheedlen, or there was no Rheedlen way, it was just a name that a couple of volunteers who helped found the organization came up with. So my board I'd love to say it was my idea, but it wasn't really pushed me and said, "If there was ever a time to change the name, it's now, as you're about to embrace this much larger, more comprehensive way of doing business." And we struggled to come up with a new name before we finally hit on Harlem Children's Zone, which captures, as well as anything could, what we believe in children and the community in which we plan to make a difference.
PND: Once you were engaged in the evaluation process, did you have to pull the EMCF folks in the direction of your vision? Or did they push you to go farther than you thought you could or were planning to?
GC: It was sort of fascinating, actually. The folks at Edna McConnell Clark came to me and said, "We want you to come up with a plan that really embraces your vision." So I sat down with my senior staff, and we came up with a plan we thought was reasonable and that had us doubling the size of our organization over a three-year period. I remember sitting with Nancy Roob, who was our program officer at the Clark Foundation at the time, and she said, "This is really terrific. But is it really what you want to do?" And I said, "Yes...this is what we want to do." And she said, "This is the vision? I just want to be clear about that, because, well, I heard some hesitation in your voice." And I said, "Well, you know, if we really were going to do this right, we would go even larger. But there's absolutely no way a reasonable person is going to think we can go from here to there, ending up as this much larger organization, in such a short period of time." And she said, "Well, this is what I suggest: Lay out what you really want to do, and we can always scale it back if, at the end of the day, you feel like it's totally unreasonable. But don't give up on the vision; just focus on the numbers for now."
And I have to tell you, I thought she was kind of crazy. But I sat down with my senior staff again, and we talked about our beliefs, and how it was one thing to go into a community and say, "We have a way of working with five hundred kids and you can expect that fifty percent of those kids are going to improve their performance dramatically over the course of four years," but it's another thing altogether to say to a community that you expect to deliver the same results for ten or fifteen thousand kids. I mean, there comes a point where, if you're thinking about ways to change the landscape of poverty for kids, the issue of scale becomes absolutely critical. And while we all agreed it was going to be a challenge, we also felt that we were looking at a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really try and do this with some rigor.
So we brought it to the board, and, with their input, decided to implement our vision in three phases. We launched phase one, which we call the infrastructure phase, earlier in the year. In phase two, we plan to expand the area of our activities up to 132nd Street. When my board saw that, they said, "Phase two takes us to $24 million, right? That's pretty serious, Geoff, but if that's what you want to do, we'll support you." Then we laid out phase three, which calls for us to become a $46 million organization, and the board said, "Well, let's focus on one phase at a time. We're not saying we're not going to do phase three, but it truly is ambitious. Do you really know what it would mean, in terms of fundraising and the day-to-day operations, to be a $46 million organization?" But we have every expectation of doing this, because, as I've said, we have to deal with this issue of scale. Our greatest hope is to some day get back to our original mission, which is just to work with the bottom third of kids who are failing. But we also believe that, without our intervention, at least half the kids in the HCZ will fail to perform at grade level and will miss out on the opportunities to succeed in an information-based economy.
PND: As a result of the process we've been talking about, your organization now has a detailed planning document covering a nine-year period. Isn't that an unusually long period for any business or organization to plan for in detail? What happens if circumstances force you to re-write the plan at some point along the way?
GC: It's sort of interesting, because we could've tried to do phases one and two in four or five years. But there's no way we would've pulled it off. I mean, it just isn't possible, in my opinion, for an organization our size to grow to that level and still maintain quality across its programs. Yes, the issue of scale is important to us, and we really think we have to be there for the community. But no one does a plan and lives with it for nine years; we understand that. Which is why we decided to do this in three phases. Now, if we find in 2005, at the end of phase two, that it's not reasonable for us to go on to phase three because we're not able to raise the money, or keep qualified personnel on staff, or maintain the quality of our programming, we will simply say at that point, "You know what? Doubling the number of children in our programs is terrific, it's great, and we'll just simply stay where we are." We're not going to risk the health of the organization by going a phase too far.
In other words, if we find that it's simply not realistic for us to try and grow any further, then I think we'll be fine; we'll say to people that we serve twelve or seventeen or eighteen thousand children whatever the number is and that's a good number for us. Maybe a larger organization could do more, but this is what we can do, and this is what it costs. But it's my strong belief that we'll be able to go right through to phase three; that certainly is our intention. But we'll have a couple years before we have to make that decision.
PND: Edna McConnell Clark, which has been through a transformative process of its own over the last few years, plans to reduce the number of its grantees from two hundred and fifty to roughly thirty-five. Your organization is one of the thirty-five. Are you concerned that that fact might scare other funders away? Or do you think it will have the opposite effect?
GC: That's a good question. To some degree, it's uncharted water for us. Edna McConnell Clark is, as you probably know, one of three big foundations that fund HCZ the others are the Robin Hood Foundation and the Picower Foundation, here in New York. And yes, we worry about what other funders might think. You might have a foundation that's giving you a million dollars a year, and another foundation might think, "Well, a $50,000 grant from us when they're getting a million from them, you know, they probably won't even appreciate it." I'll be honest with you. Trying to explain our plan for growth and having to explain that we're going to have to raise three times the amount of money we're raising right now in order to achieve that plan has been a bit of a struggle. But I think a number of foundations understand the risk we're taking with this expansion. They understand that this isn't a lay-up, and that we haven't become this nice fat organization with all this money lying around. They understand that by saying we're going to go from a $15 million organization today to a $24 million organization by 2006, we're really trying to push the fundraising envelope. That's a lot of money to have to raise on a day-in, day-out basis. And I think when people begin to see that our plans are backed up by hard numbers derived from rigorous evaluation, that this isn't simply an exercise we cobbled together out of dreams and good intentions, other funders will be willing to step up to the plate.
PND: Is earned income part of your funding picture?
GC: Yes, it is. In about a year and a half, some time in 2004, we're going to start something we call the Practitioners Institute. The idea for it really started after Rheedlen got a lot of national attention as a result of our involvement with the Beacon School movement, which was started by people like Richard Murphy and Michelle Cahill at the Fund for the City of New York. Our Beacon School, up on 144th Street, attracted a lot of visitors from around the country, which gave us an opportunity to talk to different people from the foundation world and from the worlds of politics and business, and they all wanted to know how you set up a Beacon School. Even though people still come to us to learn about Beacon Schools, we think even more folks are going to want to know what's involved in starting and running something like the Harlem Children's Zone. Right now, when someone does, they come up, stay a few hours, and then go home. But that's not enough time to learn how to do this stuff. It's enough time to see some things and maybe learn a few things, but if you really want to understand how to develop the kinds programming we're developing, on the scale we're talking about, and how you do evaluation and so on, you need to spend four or five days with our senior staff. So that's something we plan to launch to help offset some of the costs associated with our expansion.
PND: Can you talk about outreach how do you bring your programs to the attention of kids, parents, other nonprofit organizations in the community? What do you do to get them to understand the risks inherent in this new direction and approach? And how do you get them to buy into that approach?
GC: Again, it's sort of interesting, because the Harlem community is known for community-based organizations and activists who stake out their territory and defend it until the last word has been spoken. But we've had a pretty straightforward approach to dealing with folks in the community, and that is to make clear that our focus is on children. We're very clear about that. When we do outreach, we literally go into every apartment building we can, we knock on as many doors as we can, and we talk to people about the services we offer. Right behind you is a map of the Harlem Children's Zone. The green stripes represent the block associations we've organized; the yellow and red and brown squares are buildings we've organized; the blue is churches and other institutions of faith we've organized.
Our services are also right on the street, in storefront locations where people can walk by and see them. In addition, we sponsor a number of large community events, things like the Harlem Children's March for Peace, which we do every summer to alert folks to the fact that young people are really interested in having peaceable neighborhoods and peaceable schools and peace in the streets.
|...everybody wants community-based organizations to collaborate, but you don't get really good collaboration unless people understand what's in it for them. People don't collaborate just because it's a good thing or the right thing to do....
And I'll tell you, once people understand what our motivation is and why we're doing what we're doing, they are, without exception, supportive of our goals and programs. Everybody recognizes that children in the community are at risk; everybody recognizes that something has to be done. And we try to reach out to those folks. We try to reach them through something we started called a Community Advisory Board, which brings community-based organizations together on a regular basis and let's them know what's in it for them. You know, everybody wants community-based organizations to collaborate, but you don't get really good collaboration unless people understand what's in it for them. People don't collaborate just because it's a good thing or the right thing to do. Businesses will collaborate if there's money to be made, but even that's a struggle. So if you want real collaboration among not-for-profits, you have to think about how other people collaborate, you have to think about what drives them to collaborate. For us, it's figuring out what's in it for our partners. And if we can't figure out at the end of the day what they can expect to gain from the collaboration, we know it's not going to work.
At the same time, we try to make sure that when people come to the table, they know we're not trying to put them out of business, that we're not trying to take anybody's money or resources. They might think we've got a great idea, but if they think that idea is going to drive them out of business, they're not going to want to work with us; no one's going to want to work with us. So we try to be really clear about our funding sources and how we can help other organizations that kind of transparency is absolutely critical to building successful collaborations. In the course of the last year, we've probably held two hundred and fifty meetings at our offices. Some of those have involved two or three people getting together; others have involved a hundred of us getting together. But they happen every single week, and the end result is a constant flow of communications between us and other activists in the community.
PND: Can you share with us two or three lessons that other nonprofits can take away from your experience with the strategic planning process you've just been through?
GC: Sure. The first lesson has to do with vision. If you aren't really clear what it is you're trying to do, you'll usually have to settle for something that's pretty good but isn't what I would call a win. At HCZ, we're trying to win. We don't want to just do a good job; we want to have a real impact and reverse the cycle of generational poverty in which children in ever-increasing numbers wind up in jail or institutions or special education programs. Now, I've been in this field a long time, but this is the first time I can remember when all the forces seem to be aligning in a way that makes it possible for us to disseminate our vision to large numbers of people and actually have a chance of winning. So the first thing I would say is, don't be afraid to dream. But don't stop there. Be sure you know why you got into whatever it is you're doing in the first place. What is it that drives you and motivates you to do the kind of work you're doing? If you can't answer that question, it's going to be very hard for you to really make a difference.
The second lesson has to do with being honest about what is and isn't working, and, if it's not working, figuring out why it's not working. You know, everybody talks about how important it is be honest about your failures, but no one pays you to fail. It's hard to go to a foundation and say, "Yep, we took half a million dollars of your money, and even though we didn't accomplish much in the end, we learned something." That's a prescription for going out of business. And that's a huge problem for our field. I've seen it with my own staff. We'll do an event, and once it's over I'll ask, "How'd it go?" And they'll say, "Great." And I'll say, "Well, tell me about the numbers." And they'll say something like, "Well, it was a big success. There were two hundred people there." Okay. Now I know this particular event was targeted at, let's say, mothers with children between the ages of zero and three. So I'll say, "How many mothers of children between the ages of zero and three were there?" And the answer will be something like, "Eight." And I'll say, "Well, how could it have been a big success if there were only eight members of the target population in the audience?" And they'll say, "No, you don't understand, all these other people came, and"
The point isn't that I take pleasure in criticizing their hard work or effort or anything else. It's about me saying, "Look, you did a great job, but we missed it. We just didn't nail it." It's about getting folks to think smarter and getting them to understand that in order to be a successful organization, we have to admit our failures right up front so that we can talk about them and strategize about how we can do better the next time. And by the third or fourth time you go through the process, people start to understand that if they come in and say something didn't work, they're not going to lose their jobs, they're not going to be demoted, they're not going to get a nasty letter or a lousy performance review. Instead, they begin to realize that it's part of how we're going to make the organization better. It's a tough thing, but I think the whole planning process we went through with the Clark Foundation pushed us, as an organization, to do it, and we're a much better organization for having done it, because now we're solving problems and fixing things that don't work.
The last lesson I would offer has to do with attracting and keeping talented people. There's a real talent gap in our field. The people who are capable of doing the kind of high-order thinking and managing and planning we need for initiatives like ours cost much more than most nonprofits can afford to pay. I used to think they didn't even exist, until I met a couple of smart young lawyers who were doing some pro bono work. I mean, they were sharp, intelligent, compassionate people and they were making $160,000 dollars a year, at twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six years of age. They're not going to drop everything to come work at the Harlem Children's Zone, thank you very much.
|...What we need are the people who are going into medicine, the people who are going into law, the people who are going into finance. We need the best that America has to offer....
So, finding the talent to go expand and grow organizations is a key challenge in this field. We grow a lot of our own talent at HCZ, but this is the first time, because of the planned expansion, that we've had to really go out on the market and try to hire talent at the level we need to pull this stuff off. And it's been a rude awakening. There are lots of good people out there, but not necessarily with the skills we need, and lots of folks with the skills we need whom we can't afford. There's a real mismatch, I think, between the needs of the field and the skills we're providing to the folks who do this work. What we need are the people who are going into medicine, the people who are going into law, the people who are going into finance. We need the best that America has to offer. And the fact that we're not getting them, the fact that they're not even thinking about our field as a place to make a career, is going to be one of the major issues our country faces going forward. We're going to have to solve it; we're going to have to figure out how we can attract bright, young, intelligent people to the field, people who really have a commitment to the larger work, which is very complicated and complex. And until we do, I think we're all going to feel a bit like we're swimming against the tide.
PND: Well, Geoff, on that sobering note, I'm afraid we'll have to leave it. Thanks very much for your time this afternoon. And best of luck with your ambitious plans.
GC: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, interviewed Geoffrey Canada in September. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.