Two years ago a new Republican administration came into power on Long Island and quickly moved to dissolve a trusted 40-year-old youth board and fold its remnants into a new, multi-issue, countywide department. The nonprofit sector, along with Democratic legislators, tried to convince the administration not to take this course of action but failed. Concerned, we approached our youth funding colleagues to request a meeting with the administration to discuss alternatives. Only two out of 15 agreed to sign the letter with us. Asking for a meeting was a wakeup call.
If we, who have nothing to lose, are afraid to work with or ask tough questions of our government, how can we expect our grantees or their constituents to do so? After all, they have everything to lose.
Fortunately, our donor and board president, Amy Hagedorn, has never shied away from using her community clout, family name or personal resources to fight for the issues about which she and the staff of the Hagedorn Foundation are passionate: immigration; civic engagement; and family, children, and youth. She personally signed the letter on behalf of the foundation.
The administration did indeed meet with us, negotiated with us, and merged the youth board into the bigger department but preserved what we all agreed was its core. As a condition of our support for this merger, the county agreed to get the new department evaluated to see how it could better administer and provide services. Based on that successful collaborative, the nonprofit sector, the county, and the philanthropic community formed a joint task force to improve the contracting and claims reimbursement process for every area in which the county supports the nonprofit sector.
Were the risks worth it? Absolutely. Has this initiative been a complete success? No. We have hit many significant speed bumps and potholes along the way but we continue to work through the obstacles as a community, not through independent fiefdoms. Does every foundation have a donor and board that are willing to let staff take these risks? Unfortunately, no. Of the 15 staff we originally asked to sign onto our letter, all would have done so if their institutions had allowed them—which would have added significant power to our earlier intervention and might have helped us avoid many bumps along the way.
Darren Sandow is executive director of the Hagedorn Foundation and the recipient of the 2013 Robert W. Scrivner Award for Creative Grantmaking from the Council on Foundations.