“The City Where America Is Going to Find Herself Again”: A Funders Conversation with Mayor Mitch Landrieu

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

By James O’Sullivan
Director, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors

On November 16th, 55 Philanthropy New York members participated in a members briefing featuring a keynote address by the Honorable Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans. In his remarks, the mayor outlined the role he sees cities taking on in the current political situation: as laboratories for innovation. He also reviewed his goals for New Orleans and connected some of the innovations and citizens’ participation in his city to philanthropy’s efforts and support.

The mayor began by asserting that “on the federal level, this country is paralyzed and cannot do big things.” With the worldwide fiscal and debt crises, fewer funds are available for governments, so cities will need to focus on innovation if they are to provide needed services. Foundations will be an important part of the emerging innovations, he thought, and private and public providers will need to forge new relationships that don’t rely predominantly on federal and state funding.

The entire past decade has been one of continual change for cities, he said, pointing to the preparations for a Y2K crisis, the effects of the September 11, 2001 attacks on tourism and travel, and the Great Recession created by the housing and mortgage crisis in 2008. For New Orleans, these trends were magnified by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Ike and Gustav in 2008, and now by the recent British Petroleum oil spill.

Despite these many challenges, Mayor Landrieu believes the last six months have been a period of stabilization in his city. In the realm of criminal justice, a police monitor has been established and police force training has been professionalized. Community input is being sought for the rebuilding of jails and juvenile justice and youth recreation programs. 88 community healthcare centers have been established; the mayor says this is the most pervasive network in the country to attempt to avoid hospitalizations with effective preventative care. And as for education, he is looking to avoid the recent controversies that reforms have brought to other cities, but also prioritize models that offer autonomy to each school.

Mayor Landrieu outlined three major points as the agenda for his administration: to restore the credibility of the government and attract more private sector investment; assure stable government finances; and create levels of accountability across city government. The appointment of chief procurement and diversity officers and the creation of a 2011 budget that does not rely on federal hurricane recovery funds were among the ways he said he is implementing these goals.

The role of foundations in New Orleans was discussed in detail. In particular, the mayor said foundations’ efforts to fund effective advocacy are bringing many voices to the discussions underway across the city. Programs that help community advocates analyze their needs and present their goals with supporting data are providing common ground for different groups in the city; he cited processes that considered how best to rebuild criminal justice systems and support women-owned businesses as examples. During a lengthy discussion period, Mayor Landrieu also spoke of the role of arts and culture in the city’s economy, as well as the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the need for environmentally sound policies to rebuild Louisiana’s wetlands.

Dr. Albert Ruesga, President of the Greater New Orleans Foundation (GNOF), and Flozell Daniels, President of the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, brought the local funder perspective to the briefing. When asked what New York foundations can do to continue helping the region, they had a number of specific suggestions, including asking the audience to share their grantmaking experiences with others to help funders learn about the strong network of local agencies and potential partners that now exists in the city. They also reiterated the mayor’s remarks about New Orleans as a laboratory—urging funders to think of GNOF as a flexible, neutral tool for assisting the nonprofit world—and thanked the New York foundation community for its support in building community capital and capacity around a unified rebuilding plan and social justice concerns. Finally, they asked the foundations present to continue to look for ways to support New Orleans, as its small local donor base is carrying an oversized burden as the nonprofit community continues to rebuild.

Special thanks should go to the group of Philanthropy New York members and New Orleans funders who organized the session, including Katie Barnett (Open Society Institute), Flozell Daniels (Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation), Josephine W. Everly (Greater New Orleans Foundation), Ashleigh G. Gardere (New Orleans Mayor’s Office), Thomas Hilbink (Open Society Institute), Erlin Ibreck (Open Society Institute), Ellen Lee (Greater New Orleans Foundation), Jerry Maldonado (Ford Foundation), Amy Morris (Surdna Foundation), and the staff at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

Jim O’Sullivan is Director of the Foundation Services team at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors’ New York office. He previously served ten years at the John A. Hartford Foundation, the country’s largest foundation focused exclusively on aging and health, where he led grants to help programs in aging and geriatrics after the September 11 attacks (in New York) and after the 2005 hurricanes (in New Orleans and Lafayette, LA). Mr. O’Sullivan has also served as Program Officer for Grants at the Open Society Institute’s Center on Crime, Communities and Culture and as Program Officer for Neuroscience at the Charles A. Dana Foundation.

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