Head and Heart: A Few Questions for Amy Houston of the Robin Hood Foundation

Amy Houston is Managing Director of Management Assistance for the Robin Hood Foundation. She is among the nearly 50 social sector leaders that Vivien Hoexter and Linda C. Hartley interviewed for their new book, Big Impact: Insights & Stories from America’s Non-Profit Leaders

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What is the greatest misconception about you?

A misconception about me personally and about the work we do at Robin Hood is that we value data more than the human aspect of our work. The misconception is that you must choose between head and heart. This is a false dichotomy. I believe the two things inform, push and balance one another. They can exist in the same space.

What is the most important thing you tell young people who are thinking about making careers in the nonprofit sector?

It is much harder to find resources than it is to find ideas. Fundraising is not for the faint of heart. Smart people understand how challenging it is to build sustainable revenue models in our space—and every new social change organization must tackle this question head on.

Related, everyone who wants to do this work has to sell. Everyone needs to talk compellingly about the work and why it matters. Marketing, messaging and public speaking are all critical. As a result, everyone must get really good at this.

For people thinking about career development, go deep on one thing and gain a real skill set. Work for someone who is really talented and really energizing. The nonprofit sector still has so much to learn from what the best private sector organizations are doing in terms of talent development. If you can find a nonprofit that lives and breathes a commitment here, sign on fast.

What new opportunities do you see for your organization in the next five years?

We have been in this business for almost 30 years. The model has always been to take this year’s funding and invest it the next year. But complex problems take longer. Testing and perfecting takes more than a year. The question is how do we keep the direct and urgent nature of the current model and balance it against moving the needle on longer-term issues?

This is also an interesting time for collaboration. The problem in the sector is we have all these different people with great ideas. Robin Hood is really a collection of a couple thousand of these people who say that fighting poverty is the goal and we are going to invest in that together. But how do we do that in an even more significant way with donors? For so long, we have done the thinking, and our donors have provided the capital. But now we are doing a lot more co-creating. We are increasingly the place where folks come to see their big ideas brought to life, made stronger by our experience and the skills of the team. So the big question: How do we deepen and magnify the best ideas out there?

How are the choices of very wealthy private philanthropists influencing traditional foundation giving?

Robin Hood’s donors focus laser-like on those who have less. It’s that clarity of mission—and collection of talents and energy—that gives Robin Hood its power. Every donor knows they can do more collectively than alone. Because of this, Robin Hood is one of the best continuing experiments in collaborative social change.

What is the one thing you would say to your colleagues who are leading nonprofits seeking foundation funding?

People with clear vision win the game. Have confidence in and clarity about the product you are delivering. Robin Hood and our funding peers are far more pliable than folks realize and far more flexible in working to support great models. We are at our best when we are listening, learning and then hustling in response.

Do one thing incredibly well versus trying to do a little bit of everything. The biggest mistake people make is being too focused on problems and less focused on effective solutions. We have direct conversations with organizations seeking funding—and the biggest reason we turn groups down is because the program doesn’t do enough. The program may make life better for someone in poverty—but it is not responsible for changing a life trajectory. With so much at stake, it is imperative that we focus on the programs that actually change a life.

Hartley and Hoexter are principals of H2Growth Strategies LLC, which provides strategic planning, fundraising and governance counsel to mission-driven organizations. H2Growth has partnered with more than 100 organizations to raise over $1.5 billion. For more information about the book and the authors, please visit http://www.h2growthstrategies.com/book.