Learning in Place

Thursday, July 14, 2011

By Maria Mottola, Executive Director, New York Foundation

I am an ambivalent traveler. I get anxious about leaving things that are familiar—it’s disorienting. But once I arrive someplace new, I feel exhilarated; finding yourself in strange surroundings can be jarring, but in a good way.

Just over a year ago, the New York Foundation’s board of trustees allowed me to spend some time on a “sabbatical” of sorts, during which I worked as an executive-on-loan to Gladys Carrión, the Commissioner of the New York State Office of Children & Family Services (OCFS). On top of all my other responsibilities, why take this on now? In the way travel can invigorate you, I was excited by the idea of exploring another sector. I was also unsure whether the skills I had honed over 16 years were useful for navigating any place outside philanthropy. And being a generalist, I wasn’t sure I had the capacity anymore to digest one issue in depth.

Also, I was tired of hearing myself talk about foundations being more proactive as advocates in the public arena, with only a vague idea of what that might look like. It’s easy to pontificate about a hypothetical scenario. It’s harder to advocate for and carry out a realistic approach once you know the landscape.

Public policy thinkers write extensively about the murky lines that divide the government, corporate, and philanthropic sectors and many of my esteemed colleagues explored those relationships in interesting ways. I can’t do the topic justice in a blog post and I can’t pretend the experiment answered all my difficult questions, but like all good experiences, there were lessons learned and new questions raised.

Trust is critical. Someone asked, at the beginning of this experiment, to what extent the success of the model was dependent on the particular commissioner involved. Commissioner Carrión was leading her agency through an ambitious reform agenda and welcomed the executive-on-loan idea—in fact, the suggestion came from her initially. But more important in some ways than her individual commitment to the idea, it was clear she had provided her senior staff with a warm and reassuring explanation about my work with the agency and why I was there. This left me feeling trusted and welcomed by each person I interacted with. I can easily imagine a different scenario where her staff might have felt confused or even threatened by an outside person; the experience would have been far less rewarding on both sides.

What I didn’t know helped me. I am of two minds about maps when I travel. They can be helpful (you don’t look so lost) or constricting (you only see that which you set out to see; you’re less likely to explore). Though I needed guides to help me become familiar with terminology, process, and policy issues at the state agency, in many ways my lack of knowledge helped me. I did not come with any preconceptions that might have left me less open to learning. A specialist with a set direction may have felt more compelled to validate his or her own thinking about the field rather than being open to seeing things in a new way.

Embrace a sense of urgency. Though I had originally conceived of dedicating a specific day each week to work at OCFS, I quickly realized that it would be impossible. If I wanted to be useful, I needed to be flexible about availability and “on call” when required. It was a contrast to my experience in philanthropy, where we are more likely to have the luxury of ruminating over process and planning. On the government side, things tended to unfold quickly and change in unpredictable ways, requiring a willingness to switch gears, respond on the fly, and work when work needed to be done rather than on a well-thought-out timeframe. The legislative session, budget negotiations, staffing changes, and other factors could force a course correction sometimes from one day to the next.

Develop clear lines of allegiance. For the most part, I think philanthropy is sheltered from the intense negotiations of strong personalities and shifting alliances that people in government deal with daily. This dynamic called for establishing from the onset what it meant to be part of the “team” and setting ground rules for myself about confidentiality and loyalty. My work coincided with an election cycle, creating a level of uncertainty about how initiatives set in motion under one administration would fare over time. That people were willing to forge ahead in an uncertain and shifting environment was inspiring.

Acknowledge how much there is to learn on both sides. Outside our field, people have very different (and often poorly informed) ideas about how philanthropy works, how we are held accountable, and how we do our work. Like many people, the government staff members I met imagined foundations as homogeneous; they were unaware of how varied and complex the sector is. The same can be said of the philanthropic community—we vastly underestimate the complexity and scale of government. Too often, foundations forge ahead without an understanding of what mandates city and state governments have for a particular agency, or the in-house research and expertise of practice that exist within the political sector. We assume our grantmaking role makes us somewhat equal partners, but it does not. In order to ensure its accountability to the public, the government sector adopts processes that can seem byzantine compared to how foundations answer to their trustees or donors.

Overall, my time at OCFS helped me see my work in a different context. I felt changed by the experience, the way I do arriving home from someplace far away. Even what’s familiar takes on a certain clarity. I especially see our nonprofit partners through new eyes. I have a clear picture of the world they inhabit—and the obstacles they navigate to make policy change are more tangible. These advocates and their constituents, because they inhabit this work every day, will be my best source for remaining grounded about what might be effective and possible going forward.

Maria Mottola has been the Executive Director of the New York Foundation since 2003; she served as a Program Officer from 1994 to 2002. Prior to joining the Foundation, from 1989 to 1994 Ms. Mottola was Executive Director of the City Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a housing advocacy organization that promotes the reform of New York City’s Housing Court. As the Task Force’s founding director, she managed the group’s transition from a volunteer activist campaign to a fully staffed and funded organization. From 1984 to 1989, Ms. Mottola was the Director of Neighborhood Programs and a community organizer at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, a settlement house on the East Side of Manhattan. Ms. Mottola has taught community organizing at New York University’s School of Social Work and has been an adjunct instructor at the Hunter College Graduate School of Urban Affairs and Planning since 1996. She was a Co-Chair of the Neighborhood Funders Group, a national affinity group, from 2003 to 2006, and is currently a member of Philanthropy New York’s Philanthropy Connects Committee. Ms. Mottola received her undergraduate degree in Liberal Arts at the University of Toronto and a Master’s degree in Social Work from Fordham University.

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