Leveling the Playing Field: Inside a Low Profile Anti-Poverty Foundation

What's in a name? Well, the Pinkerton Foundation in New York City draws its name from what was once the nation's oldest and largest security company. For those versed in U.S. history, you might remember that Pinkertons were hired guns involved in strike busting, as well as the forerunner of the Secret Service. Years later, Robert Pinkerton II, using the wealth he amassed steering the agency started by his great-grandfather, established a foundation to, as he put it, "prevent juvenile delinquency."

The Pinkerton Foundation has since shed its ties to the firm and boasts a nine-figure endowment and annual grantmaking of around $35 million. Pinkerton has a preference for supporting direct-service, community-based programs for children, youth and families in economically disadvantaged areas in New York City. Last year, the foundation funded some 300 organizations.

In other words, this is a major funder on the nonprofit scene in America's biggest city. But if you didn't know that, join the club. 

Despite a long and active history, the Pinkerton Foundation has done much of its work under the radar, though in its 50th anniversary year, is perhaps starting to shed some of its low-key ways. In that regard, I recently spoke with Pinkerton Foundation President Rick Smith and Senior Program Officer Julie Peterson. I also had a chance to speak with Alex Griffith, a former Pinkerton Community Fellow, who now works for a Brooklyn-based organization that aids youth involved in the criminal justice system.

In conversation with the trio, I was able to get a good sense of not just how Pinkerton operates, but how its impact is felt through New York's five boroughs. (Again, the foundation is squarely focused on the Big Apple). Smith tells me that a majority of Pinkerton's grantmaking targets "level-the-playing-field programs," and be believes that because of its relatively narrow geographic focus, Pinkerton is able to get more bang for its buck. Smith also reminds me that one in every 300 Americans is a New York City public school student, so the impact of Pinkerton is felt nationally, as well. 

The programs Pinkerton supports include after-school enrichment, college access and job readiness. The foundation tends to support programs that combine an engaging activity—say, building boats or squash—with an academic component.

A half-million children in New York City live below the poverty line, and many others struggle just above it. About one-third of the Pinkerton Foundation's grantmaking funds programs that focus on kids who face the biggest challenges. Here, Smith is talking about youth involved in the criminal justice and foster care systems. Pinkerton's Julie Peterson is especially on the lookout for organizations that believe in transformative mentorship and utilize what are called "credible messengers"—the men and women who are best equipped to help at-risk youth are those who've been touched by the criminal justice system themselves. By tapping people who have similar backgrounds and life stories as these youth, Peterson thinks one can slowly move the needle on seemingly intractable issues.

"It's far more effective and just," Peterson tells me, to tap these communities. When organizations hire people who have the same experiences as the people they’re mentoring, "that's more philanthropic dollars into the pockets of the most marginalized."

Consider Pinkerton's support of H.O.L.L.A.! (How Our Lives Link Together) , a youth development organization in Brooklyn that uses the credible messenger model. The foundation also just launched a training institute on transformative mentorship for credible messengers at the New School. In effect, Peterson thinks that a "new workforce" might be created here, where people with troubled backgrounds can hone their skills and then thrive in social service networks. 

As well, even if these mentors don't continue working in the social justice context, they are building foundational skills they can use throughout their lives. On some level, Peterson seems to be rethinking the very social work model, which she believes is too often about boundaries.

"As long as you can’t get personal," she asks, "what’s the point?"

The Pinkerton Foundation also runs several flagship programs. Its Pinkerton Science Scholars program serves students from under-resourced high schools in the city and connects them with hours of one-on-one mentorship experiences with an actual scientist. The program started at the Natural History Museum and has since expanded to a number of institutions. Pinkerton's John Jay Initiative, meanwhile, pairs John Jay College of Criminal Justice students with a dozen nonprofit youth justice programs chronically short of staff. 

One of these students was Queens native Alex Griffith, the son of Guyanese immigrants. A focused young man, Griffith punched a ticket to John Jay and had a strong interest in the law and criminal justice. One day, he received an email about a new fellowship program with the Pinkerton Foundation. After what he calls "an intense period of speed dating," he was paired with exalt youth, an organization 20 minutes away from his Brooklyn home. For the year-long program, Griffith essentially functioned as a program coordinator and got to see the whole ecosystem of the criminal justice space. These practical experiences augmented his classroom time at John Jay, hammering home concepts like the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration. 

Still, as he puts it, nothing could prepare him for the emotional impact of the fellowship. One of Griffith's mentees was a young woman who also had her eyes set on John Jay. According to Griffith, she did well at exalt, coming to class on time and contributing actively. But as it turns out, Griffith also didn't know the magnitude of this young woman's legal troubles, which included a serious charge that made the press. When Griffith accompanied her to court one day, he was shocked when the judge remanded her and forced her to cease her involvement with exalt.

At the next court date, Griffith and some of his exalt colleagues were optimistic. Instead, the young woman was sentenced to seven years. "The entire courtroom fell silent." Griffith was sitting next to the young woman's mother, and they both broke down in tears. 

This was the part of the interview when I, too, fell silent. After a while, I asked Griffith how the story ended, hoping for a happy ending, and he told me that after two and a half years or so, she was released. Griffith, however, is unsure of her current status.

These days, Griffith works as a full-time, paid senior program coordinator and lead teacher at exalt, where he fields referrals from attorneys, judges, social workers, and others, assessing a candidate's readiness for the program. Overall, Griffith says that Pinkerton did a great job really thinking about an ideal melding of academic and practical work and many of the fellowship's other organizations fit with the interests and passions of his colleagues. 

I asked Smith what was down the line for Pinkerton in the coming years, especially in light of current events, and he reminded me that youth development is really a timeless focus, not really attached to any particular political moment or sociological trend. In the big world of philanthropy, he believes Pinkerton Foundation occupies a key niche.