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Investing in Systems Change for Sustainable Impact with Geoffrey Canada

This week on the Nonprofit Build Up, we’re talking with Geoffrey Canada. Geoff is a leading advocate for children and an innovator in the field of education. He created the Harlem Children’s Zone, a birth-through-college network of programs that today serves more than 13,000 low-income students and families in a 97-block area of Central Harlem in New York City. The unprecedented success of the Harlem Children’s Zone has attracted the attention of the media and leaders around the world.

In this episode, Geoff shares tremendous insight, knowledge, and practical advice for everyone listening, helping us to build and lead bravely.

Listen to the podcast here:


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About Geoffrey Canada

Geoffrey Canada is a leading advocate for children and innovator in the field of education.

Canada grew up in one of the most devastated communities in the United States, the South Bronx, raised by a single mother. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin College, and eventually went on to earn a master’s degree at Harvard University. He vowed to help children who grew up in disadvantaged circumstances to succeed through education.

Canada created the Harlem Children’s Zone, a birth-through-college network of programs that today serves more than 13,000 low-income students and families in a 97-block area of Central Harlem in New York City.

The unprecedented success of the Harlem Children’s Zone has attracted the attention of the media and leaders around the world. In 2011, Canada was named one of the world’s most influential people by Time magazine and as one of the 50 greatest leaders by Fortune magazine in 2014. President Barack Obama created the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone model across the country,

Canada has been profiled extensively in the media, including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, 60 Minutes, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and Forbes, among others. He was featured in the documentary about the dire state of American education Waiting for Superman, and has received more than 25 honorary degrees including ones from Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania.

He has also influenced a new generation of education reformers through his writings, having published essays in The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Chronicle of Philanthropy as well as two critically acclaimed books on poverty and violence: Fist Stick Knife Gun and Reaching Up for Manhood.

After 30 years with the organization, Canada stepped down in 2014 as Chief Executive Officer of the Harlem Children’s Zone, but continues to serve as President.

 

Read the podcast transcription below:

-Upbeat Intro Music-

Nic Campbell: 

You’re listening to the Nonprofit Build Up Podcast and I’m your host, Nic Campbell. I want to support movements that can interrupt cycles of injustice and inequity, and shift power towards vulnerable and marginalized communities. I’ve spent years working in and with nonprofits and philanthropies, and I know how important infrastructure is to outcomes. On this show, we’ll talk about how to build capacity to transform the way you and your organization work.

Nic Campbell: 

Hi, everyone. This week on the Nonprofit Build Up, we’re talking with Geoffrey Canada. Geoff is a leading advocate for children and an innovator in the field of education. He was raised by a single mother and grew up in the South Bronx (where I also grew up) in New York City. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin College, and eventually went on to earn a master’s degree at Harvard University. He vowed to help children who grew up in disadvantaged circumstances succeed through education.

Nic Campbell: 

Geoff created the Harlem Children’s Zone, a birth-through-college network of programs that today serves more than 13,000 low-income students and families in a 97-block area of Central Harlem in New York City. The unprecedented success of the Harlem Children’s Zone has attracted the attention of the media and leaders around the world.

Nic Campbell: 

In 2011, Geoff was named one of the world’s most influential people by Time magazine and as one of the 50 greatest leaders by Fortune magazine in 2014. President Barack Obama created the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone model across the country. And with that, HERE is Geoffrey Canada.

Nic Campbell: 

Hi, Geoff, I am really excited to have you join us for our Fast Build Leader Series. To get us started, can you tell us about Harlem Children’s Zone, your current role there, and what the Harlem Children’s Zone’s immediate priority is particularly given our current environment. 

Geoff Canada: 

So, first of all, thank you for having me as a guest. You know, I founded the Harlem Children’s Zone more than 20 years ago as an answer to what do we need to do to sort of end generational poverty in communities, historically black communities, that had this going on for 40, 50, 60 years. And we came up with a holistic, comprehensive set of strategies that begin at birth and stay with young people, the same group of young people, until we get them in college and then get them through college. But that is combined with an effort to rebuild the community; a community infrastructure where the adults are playing a much more powerful role in kids’ lives, the physical environment, because so much of what we think about ourselves is reflected in the places we live. So if your community is filled with trash and graffiti and seems to be chaotic, well, you think the adults have no power, that the likelihood that I’m not making it out of this place is pretty high, that success is the exception and not the rule. So we came up with this comprehensive strategy to try to do all of those things at the same time. And 20 years later, we have essentially accomplished those goals. We’ve got more than 940 kids in college, we graduated more than 800 kids in college, in schools that we run ourselves, we’ve eliminated the black-white achievement gap in math and ELA. So we feel like we’re an example of what needs to happen in communities of color all over this country. 

Nic Campbell: 

It’s just so impressive that you had this vision years ago and it has really come to fruition. When you think back to that time, when you said I’m going to found and start this organization and you look at where you are now, is this what you had in mind? 

Geoff Canada: 

Well, you know, it’s funny because a bunch of us knew what the answer was. The answer was to replicate what’s working in the rest of middle-class America, right? Decent schools, decent housing, decent healthcare, decent nutrition, exercise, you know, places that you can play and go as kids. That’s what’s necessary. What I was told is what I believe and what I think most people believe, is that we couldn’t afford to do that for poor kids of color. Right? We just couldn’t figure out how to do it for them. So this idea that we could do all of this, they said, choose one or two, but you can’t do it all, but there’s no evidence that if you do one or two, it will actually work. And so the question became, how do you raise the dollars to do it all? Because that’s what…we actually know that works. 

Geoff Canada: 

There’s no one who I know who thinks the answer to success is to be poor and trapped in poverty, right? I don’t think anybody said, that’s how you’re going to really be successful. Right? We know the answer is to be in communities that are healthy, that have good schools, where jobs are plentiful, and transportation to work is available, whether you own a car, you can get there. All of this stuff we actually know. And so therefore, this idea became just about money. And this country has invested huge amounts of money to build the middle class, right? After world war II, we did it with the GI bill. We had low interest loans to buy housing for all groups, except one, African-Americans were excluded, and we had a free college, except that in ;45 and ’46, you couldn’t go to white colleges in the South. So we excluded blacks again, from that. This country invested literally tens of billions of dollars to build a current middle-class. The wealth gap between blacks and whites right now, it’s basically the equity in their homes that was created by government support. And now we’re saying we can’t afford to do it for kids of color. And I reject that as a theory. We raised some money privately, but this should be a public function. 

Nic Campbell: 

And just the way you’re explaining it, it’s just basic needs, like meeting basic needs. When you’re talking about having employment opportunities and decent health care and decent education. And you know, we’re in a very similar moment now. When you look around, Geoff, what are you thinking might be a start to addressing what’s happening currently, the moment that we’re in? If it’s still let’s just go back to basics, let’s just see, look, what do these communities need? And just start to reduce that wealth gap and give basic services, basic needs. Or do you think it’s something much more radical that’s needed in this moment? 

Geoff Canada: 

So we have a moment now, we have spent trillions of dollars to try to save the American economy and the American, sort of, employment structure. The group that has not benefited from that money: businesses of color, right? Everybody said, “Oh yeah, everybody, the businesses all work with the PPP, except for, oh yeah, small business of the people of color, it didn’t work so well.” Right? Well there, we have this issue about jobs and preserving jobs, oh yeah, except one group, the jobs, they’re unemployed at record numbers, depression level numbers. Oh, it’s African-Americans. So even as this country has spent trillions, not billions of dollars, somehow people of color have gotten left out of that equation. Again, when you say do something radical, I don’t want to do something radical. I want to do the same thing that we’ve done for white America, for black America. 

Geoff Canada: 

I want to make investments that protects jobs, that protects businesses, that protects education. And I want to do it intentionally. So this gets equalized among all groups. So here again, people think, well, you’re preaching an exception for African-American. I am not preaching for an exception. I’m preaching for inclusion to what’s already going on and what we’re doing for white America, that somehow keeps skipping over black America. And I think, at this time of an election, that we have to demand that this country treats people of color equally. That we have to take the blinders off, that we’ve done an equal job of preserving jobs and equity in this country. And admit not only that, it didn’t happen, but that we need to do something about it. And we need to do something significant about that and equity right now. 

Nic Campbell: 

And so when you think about the nonprofit sector and nonprofits that are raising funds, with that in mind, what kind of advice would you provide to those nonprofits? What would you say to them that they should be doing right now? What should be top of mind for them? 

Geoff Canada: 

There’s two challenges. Number one, foundations and corporations have realized they’ve done like the rest of America. They’ve invested in white organizations. They built the infrastructure in white organizations. They’ve created an unfair advantage for white organizations, because the moment you say, “I want outcomes and data”, if I don’t have any data collectors, if I don’t have any evaluators that work for me, if I don’t have the resources to hire the folks to actually drive those outcomes, I can’t compete with the groups that have been invested in for decades to build their infrastructure. So folks can simply say, “Oh, they couldn’t deliver. That’s why I’m not investing in these organizations.” So now there’s an interest in what do we need to do to support these organizations of color? So my message to them is you need to do two things. One is you need to build a competitive infrastructure. 

Geoff Canada: 

And what is that? That’s development because you’ve gotta be able to raise private dollars and development people are expensive and they’re this hard to find talent. You’ve got to build data systems and evaluation. You have to build an internal evaluation capacity by hiring folks with PhDs in evaluation to help you think about how to design more effective programs and to be able to show the impact that your organizations are having. So at this moment white folks are saying, “We want to help you.” Don’t take money just to do more great programs, take money to build your infrastructures, take money that allow you to hire the talent so that you can compete more effectively when it comes to demonstrating impact right now. And you know, 25 years ago, if someone had said, “Geoff, we want to give you more money.” I’d say, “Great. I can save more kids. Give me the money.” 

Geoff Canada: 

I’d spend it right on kids. I wouldn’t have thought I need to build an infrastructure because this moment is going to pass. And two years from now, no one’s going to be coming to me and saying, “I want to give you more money.” And how am I going to ensure that these investments I’m making right now are protected. You’re going to do that by building significant infrastructures that allow you to compete on data, on evaluation, and on development, which means you have to have a strong communications department, as well as an evaluation department so that you can talk about results and framing these issues. So that would be my advice to folks. There’s a moment right now. Don’t just let people push you in the programmatic response. Yes. We need to feed more folks. We need to help folks with rent. We need to make sure that children have access to the technology. We have to do all of that, but we also have to build stronger organizations. 

Nic Campbell: 

Well, you know, Geoff, you’re speaking my love language, right? So about building the organizational infrastructure of a nonprofit to make sure that you can have sustainable programmatic outcomes. And I think that you’re exactly right, having the time and the foresight to invest in people and build your own capacity is how you’re able to then say, here’s how we’re going to go out and create this great program or deliver this amazing service. So if we look at the other side of that, now you did mention, you know, a lot of funders, new funders are stepping in and saying, “Well, how can we help? What can we do?” What are you saying to funders? We have the advice to nonprofits. Like, let’s start to focus in on your organizational infrastructure, get that stronger. What are you saying to funders? What advice are you giving to them? 

Geoff Canada: 

There are two things I’m saying to funders. Number one, we can’t expect organizations to be able to deliver the outcomes and the objectives that they agreed on six months ago, COVID has changed all of that. We’re all dealing with an online environment, a non-touch environment, and very difficult to drive outcomes in this brand new world. So they need to suspend those parts of the grants that said, we expect you to serve 300 kids by providing two hours of X, Y, and Z. Or we need to say, “Okay, okay. We realize that this is a different time. You need to come back to me, organization, you have to come back to me, funder, with a strategy of how you protect families during these sort of COVID times.” And then with a plan of how you’re going to rebuild the community infrastructures necessary for you to begin your work again. 

Geoff Canada: 

So that’s the two parts of the coin. You want to suspend right now, folks still need the money. We still have staff. We still have rent. We still have to keep the lights on. So we need the money, but we can’t be held to a set of outcomes that becomes impossible for us to deliver. So take that stress off of organizations. Tell them instead, talk to me about how you’re going to use this money right now to deal with the emergency you’re dealing with. And then once this emergency passes, let’s plan on how we’re going to do recovery. So those are the two things that I think I would say. Continue the support; actually, folks need extra support, because these communities are really in dire need, but also encourage organizations to think about how to plan now for recovery, so that when this subsides and it will – it may take you 12 months, it may take 18 months – that these organizations are able to go back on the same trajectory they were on without literally starting from scratch of where they were three years ago. 

Nic Campbell: 

And what’s coming through in your response, Geoff, is flexibility, right? Encouraging funders to be much more flexible than they might have wanted to be a year ago, even a few months ago. And so for me, when I think of flexibility and funding, I think of general support. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on providing general support grants or providing project support grants during those time. And is there a significant difference in providing general support or project support with some flexibility. 

Geoff Canada: 

You know, I think it’s hard to do project support right now, unless that support is around a set of COVID relief strategies, right? That’s designed to deal with the epidemic we’re dealing with right now. Just think about how quickly this has all happened. Right? Five weeks ago, Arizona seemed fine. No one would think Arizona fine, I don’t care what your plans were in Arizona and Phoenix five weeks ago. You’re not trying to do those plans right now. You’re trying to think about how you can keep families safe, provide emergency relief for folks. We don’t know what’s going to happen three months from now. This is one of those times where the best laid plans can be just destroyed by a second wave, by a current wave, by the facts that schools do open, that they don’t open. So I think right now I’m much more in favor of general support. 

Geoff Canada: 

Even when that general support is tied to COVID relief, because COVID relief that you think is of what it is today could be something totally different three weeks from now. So my sense is…and the other thing I would the foundations is, this is a time to give organizations in particularly odd cities, more support. So if you went in for $400,000 to this organization, let them use that money for general support, but think about additional support to actually help them during this time of crisis, a mess, we are extremely unlucky. This will be the biggest crisis this country faces in our lifetime, right? It’s not like we think, oh yeah, three years from now, we’re going to face this again. In the biggest crisis of your lifetime, are you prepared to spend more money to help folks who are literally desperate? And that’s the challenge I will send out to foundations. If you can’t believe yourself, you’re stuck on some 4%, 5% spend out and therefore you don’t have the money. This is the time to say to your trustees, no, that’s not going to be sufficient. We need to spend more than that this year. It may be next year because this country is in the worst crisis it’s faced literally since world war II and we need to respond to this crisis. 

Nic Campbell: 

I really liked that challenge, just to increase funding and be flexible with grantees and with the nonprofits, we’ve talked about building organizational infrastructure to really have sustained impact. So now that we have that advice to both nonprofits and funders, with all of that in mind, what do you wish we did less of as a sector? And what do you think we should be doing more of? 

Geoff Canada: 

I think the thing that we’ve done less, or there’s something that’s not going to surprise anybody right now, organizations of color have been systematically discriminated against by a funding entities. And we might as well say what it is, it’s been systematic. And when I’ve talked to funders, I have said to them that there are all kinds of excuses, folks have come up with for why they’re going to invest in the white organization versus the next organization or the Native American organization or African-American organization. And that has gone on for decades, my whole career. So when you look around and you say, so which of the top African-American organizations in education, you keep thinking, which of the top African-Americans organizations in environment, keep thinking, which are the top African-American organizations…you can name a couple in social justice. You can, but there’s no other place that you really find the level of, I think, significant organizations at the threshold that we should have as a nation. 

Geoff Canada: 

Because so much of the work that’s being done in these communities of color. How is it that folks who are working in those communities aren’t getting any funding? And so that I think we have to do less. We just got to do less of coming up with excuses for why we don’t support these organizations run by men and women of color who are on the front lines, doing the toughest work. So that’s what you should do, less of that. Let me tell you what we should do more of. We should do more of, the kind of, what I would call, dual funding. And this is the interesting part. So most of us will say, Geoff, if you want to build infrastructure within organizations, I’m going to give 400,000 for that organization to do their program, I’m going to say, you have to spend 200,000 on infrastructure. 

Geoff Canada: 

That’s not the way we should deal with this. We just say, no, let’s give them the 400,000 and put an additional 200,000 on that for them to build their infrastructure. Don’t make an organization choose between serving desperately poor folks or building up infrastructure that’s not right now going to help save more lives. So I think this would be what we need to do more, not reduce, not split the grant in half. Okay. I hear you, Geoff, let’s split…no, give the same amount that they need, but then give an additional support for organizations so they can build this infrastructure. That I think we need to do more. And we need to do it intentionally if we’re going to make up for what we haven’t done in the last 30 years. 

Nic Campbell: 

I really liked that, Geoff. So just having this idea of infrastructure funding plus the needs, right? Because infrastructure funding is so critical to the organization actually doing what it says it wants to do. So just being very deliberate about that really resonates and doing much less of, you know, providing excuses as to why you can’t fund organizations that are led by people of color. But that makes me think Geoff, like when you think about Harlem Children’s Zone, how did you do it? You did it in a time, you know, some might argue it was even worse than now or just another repeat of now. And you were able to build something sustainable, something that is being modeled around the nation. What did you do that you think that others can learn from? 

Geoff Canada: 

So a couple of pieces to this. The first is that we became focused on data. At the time that we did this, we thought we were doing a great job. And when we began to really get serious about data, we felt like we weren’t doing a great job. And I was stunned. I spent 10 years championing how wonderful we were. And we began to look at the data we should share about. And we found out kids who were fine when they were 12, weren’t fine when they were 17. So that’s the first thing, data became critical. Second is we built a board. If there’s an area that I think these communities or organizations of color struggle, they not have kinds of boards that will allow them to have access to folk who can help both programmatically and financially with their goals. I don’t feel like…look, I grew up a poor black kid in the South Bronx. 

Geoff Canada: 

I don’t believe I’d have one. So there was no way for me to go and ask a friend, any friend I asked on the board, I’d have to have the loan them $50. They weren’t going to give me any money. So what we find in so many organizations is that they are looking locally for board members, which is great. Seems like it, but it excludes the ability to go into areas that you don’t have any contacts. So my board was built by folks who had contacts into wealth and into expertise. And you know, there was a trade off because a lot of folks thought, yeah, Geoff, but that’s a lot of white men and you got to worry about diversity. I want a black organization, white men have money. I can do the math. I’m sorry. People don’t like it, whatever, but I know what I needed. 

Geoff Canada: 

I could find all the help I needed. What I needed was literally tens of millions of dollars. And that’s what we focused on. And I never felt the pressure, right? My board was saying, you can’t say black kids, or you can’t do it this way, or you can’t do it that way. I’m not saying people need to replicate what I do. I’m saying that all in all, the ability, I think, to raise significant dollars so that you have the flexibility to do what’s right means that you have to think differently about how your board gains access into wealth in your community. So if it’s in Kansas city, guess where the money is in Kansas city, if it’s in Minneapolis, guess where the money is in Minneapolis. I don’t care where you go in this country. If you want to tap into private dollars, you’re going to have to use your board to do that. 

Geoff Canada: 

And I think that’s intentional and we built a board to help us do that. The last thing I’m going to say, if people have always thought oh, Geoff,, no, you’re wonderful. You did this. I built a team of folk that I would tell folks, I would match my team against any fortune 500 team in this country. These were smart, talented men and women. They will very diverse. White, black, Latinx. We all were focused on this work. And when I looked at my team, there were about 20, 25 folk who were serious senior members of this team that did this work. People think you can do this with one or two people. Not possible, just not possible. So if you, yourself, as the leader find it difficult to give up responsibility. I mean, there’s no way I can manage 20, 25 people. I’ve got to hire really smart people and let them do their job. 

Geoff Canada: 

Right? And if you struggle with that because you micromanage or you find it difficult to you, don’t like somebody, you don’t necessarily want them being part of your team. You can’t do this kind of complicated that we’re doing right now. I built a team, one of the things I was really good at and we help use the data to hold everybody accountable. And everybody understood. You kept your job if you delivered for kids, you lost your job if you didn’t. I didn’t care…it didn’t matter whether Geoff Canada liked you or not. If those numbers weren’t going in the right direction, you couldn’t stay part of this team. And I think that’s, what’s critical in doing this. 

Geoff Canada: 

I’ve got to go. I’ve just got a call, so I literally have to go right now. I’m sorry. Hopefully you got enough. 

Nic Campbell: 

No worries! 

Geoff Canada: 

Thank you for having me. 

Nic Campbell: 

Thank you. 

Nic Campbell: 

Incredible. Geoff shared tremendous insight, knowledge, and practical advice for everyone listening. And that’s how we learn how to build and lead bravely. So, thank you again for your time, Geoff.

-Upbeat Outro Music-

Nic Campbell:

Thank you for listening to this episode of Nonprofit Build Up. To access the show notes, additional resources, and information on how you can work with us, please visit our website at buildupadvisory.com. We invite you to listen again next week as we share another episode about scaling impact by building infrastructure and capacity in the nonprofit sector. Keep building bravely.