Melanie Hartzog is used to having a lot on her plate. As the former Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services under Bill de Blasio’s administration, she was responsible for helping to coordinate New York City’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. After just a two-week break, she began a new job as president and CEO of The New York Foundling, one of the city’s oldest and largest child welfare organizations.
Hartzog recently talked with New York Nonprofit Media thought leader columnist Greg Berman about the transition, including why she chose to join the Foundling, how to find a balance between preserving what is great about an organization and charting a new path, and what makes her anxious these days. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you think about the arc of your career? What led to you joining The New York Foundling as the new president and CEO?
In college, I volunteered at a domestic violence shelter. It made me decide to switch my major and go into social work. After graduation, I started working for the Bronx Borough president (Fernando Ferrer). And it was there that I met Dr. Vincent Fontana from The Foundling. And that just kind of launched the trajectory of my career. I always wanted to focus on health and human services. Growing up in poverty, that was always in the back of my mind as a driving force.
How did you move from being deputy mayor to The New York Foundling? What was the process like?
I was in the middle of rolling out the city’s vaccine mandate. I was very steeped in that work, which I’m very proud of. Bill Baccaglini approached me and asked me about what I was thinking about my next step professionally. And I told him, “Honestly, I haven’t thought about it.” In general, I just put my head down. But I knew that my run in government was coming to an end. I was ready to move on, but I didn’t know to what. And Bill said to me, “Well, The Foundling is a place where you can do a lot of great work.”
Before talking to him, I had not realized how much The Foundling had grown since my time working with Fontana back in my 20s. Bill had really grown the organization and had brought it to the next level. As he often says, The Foundling is not just about the services that we contract with city government – The Foundling is fortunate to have the resources that can really help lift up the sector in general. That was a big draw for me. I had run a nonprofit before, but the scale of The Foundling was a new challenge and it really got me energized. And most certainly, towards the tail end of my time as deputy mayor, I was tired. I worked seven days a week from the height of the pandemic until I left.
The Foundling is fortunate to have the resources that can really help lift up the sector in general.”
Leadership transitions can be inflection points for organizations. How are you managing the transition at The Foundling? I know Bill is staying around for a bit. What is the division of labor at this point?
Bill has moved into a senior advisor role. The Foundling is a very large organization. As I learn the organization, he's been so good to me in being a resource where I can call him and ask, "Bill, give me some history and context on this particular initiative." He also has a number of discrete initiatives that he's working on. He's not doing day-to-day operations, but he’s there as a resource. As you know, transitions can be difficult and sometimes there's too much micromanaging happening because it's hard to let go. But Bill has essentially said to me, "Here's the keys. I'm moving into a different role and you're taking The Foundling to the next place." The process has been very smooth. He's been very gracious. I think that really speaks to his leadership.
To the extent that I can discern, The Foundling seems like a highly functional organization. Assuming this is true, how do you think about getting the balance right between preserving what has been successful for The Foundling up until this point with the imperative that I think all organizations face, which is: you can't just do what you've always done. How do you get the balance right between the instinct to preserve and the instinct to innovate?
I don't know if anyone ever gets the balance right between them. As you said, I'm not walking into an organization that is financially unstable. I'm fortunate that The Foundling has the kind of resources that I am able to think about innovation and what is the next thing. At the same time, I'm a new CEO and I'm learning the organization. I would say that all nonprofits are rethinking how we do business at the moment. A great example of that is our workforce. Moving forward, as we come out of the pandemic, we are all having to think about remote work, hybrid, full return… it has great implications for how you run an organization. Many of us have a lot of office space and we've got to rethink and reimagine it.
Do you have a strong point of view returning to work? I know many agencies face the challenge that they have some employees who can easily work remotely, while others have jobs where a face-to-face presence is essential.
You’re right: for some roles, there is no choice. Like our developmental disabilities residences. The people who work there are heroes. They have shown up to work and risked themselves for our clients. We are very, very thankful that the state has given out longevity bonuses. That will really give these individuals something of a thank you for all that they've done.
But I do think it's a balancing act. We have to be careful and really watch and learn as a sector. And I don't think this is just the non-for-profit world. I think it's the for-profit world, as well. I think everybody's struggling with it. At The Foundling, we have decided to do hybrid for the moment, but we continue to evaluate.
Like a number of the CEOs I have spoken with for this column, you have gone back and forth in your career between government and the nonprofit sector. What are the differences between those two contexts and how, if at all, do you feel like you've had to adapt as a leader from one to the other?
In government, you're having to pivot very quickly from issue to issue. It is very much a day-to-day thing. Some days, you wake up and you have to deal with whatever the current headline is. Your job is very much driven by the moment. I think running an organization is a different mindset. I'm looking at the future in a much more proactive way.
For me, it has been a big shift. Being the deputy mayor and managing the overall pandemic response was about moving from one issue to another, from one wave to another. I was dealing with responding to each wave. We had mandates coming down that we had to implement. We had to help prepare the mayor for his next avail. That's not my life anymore. My life now is about learning about this great organization and all of the evidence-based, innovative work we've done. How do we want to move forward? That's where I'm at.
One of the things that has come up a lot in my conversations with non-profit EDs is their frustration with government and the challenge of ensuring that nonprofits are paid on time and in full for their costs. Do you have any thoughts for the sector about these issues?
We didn't get all of it right during my time in government, but we increased the advances that we gave to nonprofits. We did do COLAs. And we did other investments as well. But it's a whole different world now. And whatever was done at the beginning of this last administration, it is now time to go back and refresh and take a new look. I know a lot of people have put in a tremendous amount of work already, whether it's the Human Services Council, or the advocacy and organizing of the sector in general. It's been a strong and needed voice, both in Albany and here. And I think they've been extremely effective. They've been heard. But it takes time and energy. When I worked on the Raise the Age campaign, we didn't get it done the first year, but we held the coalition together and kept going.
When I was named the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation, I felt like I was inundated with unsolicited advice. Some of it was good, some of it was bad. I'm wondering, what's the best piece of advice you've gotten in recent days and what's the worst?
Well, I will say I have not gotten unsolicited advice. One of the things that is wonderful for me, that I didn't have my first time around as a nonprofit ED, is the amount of support from my colleagues and peers at other nonprofits. The level of collegiality is just wonderful. You always want folks who are willing to be in your kitchen cabinet. I haven't had any bad advice. I've had some good advice from people who know me very well, which is to pace myself. I feel a sense of urgency. I'm always wanting to run out the gate and get things moving.
As you look back on your career, who are the people that have influenced your leadership style?
I mean, there's so many people that have impacted my leadership style, some of whom are my mentors to this day. But you don't do these kinds of roles without a team. That idea has driven a lot of my approach to leadership. I might be the leader, but all of you on my team, you are the experts. You are great, and I take in everything that you're telling me and we move forward. We build together. That’s an approach that I've learned from a lot of people, that has served me well, especially in the pandemic. It does take a village to get things done.
Does it feel after helping New York through the COVID-19 pandemic that nothing phases you at this point? Does anything make you anxious these days?
What makes me anxious is that I've got two kids in middle school and making sure that they're feeling supported, and that I actually get to spend time with them. That makes me anxious as a parent. I don't think of anything at The Foundling in an anxious way. This is a tremendous organization. Bill has done an amazing job of growing it. How do I want to move forward and lead it is the question. It doesn’t make me anxious exactly, but what I’m focused on is making sure that our workforce feels that the new leader coming in is supportive and appreciative of their work.
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