The Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City plays a major role in the city’s philanthropic infrastructure. It helps to disseminate millions of dollars to advance city health, education and community initiatives. Last year, the fund brought in more than $27 million for 74 different city programs, from soccer fields and internships for young adults to disaster recovery. As its executive director, Darren Bloch works to foster public-private partnerships and build sustaining connections with funders. (Being that it’s a small world, he’s also a former publisher of the publications that later became City & State.) This interview has been transcribed and condensed from the NYN Media Insights podcast.
NYN Media: How does the Mayor’s fund work and what is its relationship to City Hall?
DB: The model was quite innovative when it launched twenty plus years ago. It’s a model that really stands at the intersection of where philanthropy and civic investors look to deploy their resources and where public officials, city officials, agency heads, are trying to explore how to solve the problems that they’re seeing every single day. And so what we do is we spend a lot of our time trying to marry those two sets of partners and spending our time sitting with government agencies and governmental players – understanding what are they trying to solve for and why and then socializing these ideas with philanthropy that are trying to use these precious private dollars to really bring about innovation and change in communities who are underserved.
NYN Media: How does that process work – who reaches out to whom?
DB: We tend to work on the funding side – organizations as diverse as institutional philanthropy, to high net worth individuals, local companies and business eaders, so high net-worth individuals as well as companies that have a CSR – corporate social responsibility program. And so we’re spending a lot of time understanding what do they see and what are the priorities they are setting for their dollars. And so sometimes they’re reaching out to us and saying, “What are you identifying in these key areas that we’ve set as priorities?” And sometimes we’re working with government to understand really critical needs and then we’re reaching out to philanthropy or other individuals who we think or know or believe would find that interesting and then really just trying to do some shuttle diplomacy between all those different partners to understand how to bring a program or a project forth. … It’s time consuming and it takes a lot of patience to bring everybody to the table and not just to the table initially, but then how to walk down the road together so that the programs that eventually do get funded and launched, everybody who partners in that is feeling a sense of ownership, a sense of responsibility and really is able to take what we’re doing and understand their role – and how to then get to the ultimate goal which is how to find a model that replicates, a model that can scale.
NYN Media: How do you determine your priorities?
DB: Our board, which is appointed by the mayor, really asked us to take on the challenge of looking at where the administration and the city was going to be making large investments. And the idea there was wanting to see any kind of public-private and philanthropic work that we did working in advance of those key initiatives and priorities. … Part of our philosophy, part of our mantra is that we affirmatively don’t just do budget gap filling. We don’t look at where the city’s budget process maybe left a project or initiative a little bit short, but what we tend to look at is what is a unique role that private dollars can play. And what that means to us is – is that creating a system that could then be sustainable on its own? Is that demonstrating a model that city agencies and the city could then adopt and build and scale?
NYN Media: How do you measure success?
DB: So lots of great work going on around the city, around the country, trying to innovate in a space, but I think the unique role that we play is we’re doing that work literally in partnership and hand in glove with a city agency that has an opportunity for scale. So the way we think about this is ... private sector and philanthropy is the innovation and innovative funder in this, but government is the impact funder. It’s the scale funder. … A lot of what we also try to do is look at where there are already promising programs or some evidence already and so a lot of what we try to do is not simply bring innovation to the city or through the Mayor’s Fund simply for the point of innovating, but understanding where knowledge has been gleaned or where data or information or measures have been gathered and then understanding how we can model or deploy it here in the city as opposed to just simply using the city as a petri dish for new knowledge in and of itself.
NYN Media: On the federal level, where do you fit in as it relates to helping to maintain funding for city programs?
DB: We see our role as just being a strong advocate for city programming – and by the way other city’s programming – that is creating effective and cost efficient solutions to these stubborn challenges. … The core of what we try to do is shine a spotlight on programs that are evidence-based, measurable and getting outcomes.