The Backbone of Just About Everything
Where We Go From Here
Sheena Wright, First Deputy Mayor, New York City
New York City nonprofits provide crucial services to ensure the health and economic well-being of millions of New Yorkers. They’re also an essential part of the NYC economy: 1 in 5 workers in the city is employed by a nonprofit, providing healthcare, housing, and early childhood education among other services. Accounting for a huge share of the city’s procurement, NYC nonprofits shouldn’t be seen as vendors providing a service for city government; they’re partners in building a stronger, more equitable city.
“Nonprofits are on the front lines, and they are the backbone of just about everything,” says New York City First Deputy Mayor Sheena Wright. She brings two decades of nonprofit leadership to her work in the Mayor Eric Adams administration, insight that has the potential to shape New York City’s nonprofit landscape – and the city – for the better.
Join Sheena and NFF CEO Aisha Benson as they explore the importance of nonprofits to a functioning city, the challenges nonprofits face around pay and reimbursement and how the city is addressing them, and how the administration is reimagining nonprofits as essential partners in the work.
In this video:
- Sheena’s role as First Deputy Mayor: “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” (0:22)
- How Sheena’s two decades of nonprofit leadership shape her understanding of the sector and its importance to New York City. (1:32)
- How the mayor’s office is addressing reimbursement backlogs, increasing transparency, increasing pay for NYC human services providers, and setting up the Mayor’s Office of Nonprofit Services as an advocate and resource for nonprofits. (3:09)
- Understanding the root causes of inequities that NYC human services providers seek to address – and moving from treating symptoms to addressing causes. (7:50)
- Insights and advice for funders and nonprofit leaders: Covering full costs, leaning into collective impact, increasing advocacy, and investing in nonprofits led by people of color. (9:33)
- Sheena’s admiration for NYC nonprofits: “There’s nothing that they can’t do and that we can’t do together.” (12:50)
AISHA: Well, hello! How are you today?
SHEENA: I’m doing great. How are you?
AISHA: I’m doing well. It is such a privilege and an honor to share space with you today.
AISHA: Well, let’s start with you. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Briefly describe your work and what brought you to the Adams administration?
SHEENA: Sure. Well, I’m a born and raised New Yorker, one of these people who really absolutely loves this city through and through. I grew up in the South Bronx and now live in Harlem with my family. I started out as a corporate lawyer, really learning the corporate sector, the business community, and then started my real journey in the nonprofit space for 20 years.
SHEENA: And in addition to the work, just as a citizen, I’ve always been super engaged. Right now, my role is the first deputy mayor of the City of New York, and that is the title of that movie, “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Like that’s the job. And it’s exhilarating and exhausting. But, as I said, a blessing.
SHEENA: And so some of the things that we’ve done in the administration – I think a direct correlation to my lived experience and the lived experience of many of the leaders.
AISHA: You have substantial experience in nonprofit leadership. You were president and CEO of Abyssinian Development Corporation. You were also president and CEO of the United Way of New York. So I’d like to hear a little bit about how your experience as a nonprofit leader has influenced your priorities in New York City government.
SHEENA: Nonprofits are on the front lines, and they are the backbone of just about everything – right? – and what makes everything work. And so deeply certainly appreciated that from my tenure about 20 years, a little over 20 years, in the sector.
SHEENA: And so coming into government, a couple of the things that I brought from that experience: One, pay the people, right?
SHEENA: You know, like it was always baffling to me that government, right? Nonprofits are probably about almost 40% of all procurement of the city government – right? – providing all of the services that the agencies are not necessarily providing them directly, but they’re working through nonprofits – and would have contracts registered really late. People will be working for a year or more and not getting paid.
SHEENA: It just makes absolutely no sense. It destabilizes the sector, it destabilizes the institutions. And people know that nonprofits are going to do the work because they’re mission focused. So it was disrespectful. It was taken advantage of. It was destabilizing, it was terrible.
AISHA: I have to tell you, you are singing my song. This is my platform. And, you know, really, it’s so exciting to know that we have a partner in government that really understands the challenges of nonprofit organizations and really, you know, just to be able to say that paying the staff is important. You talked about COVID-19 and how that’s really exacerbated the challenges of human services nonprofits, which is such a critical, essential part of the social the social safety net for millions of New Yorkers in New York City.
AISHA: And so what can be done to address some of the challenges that the Adams administration inherited, where nonprofits are constantly being faced with the challenges of being under-funded, of having delayed contract payments? And we know that this puts a strain on staff. They’re often just sometimes not able to be paid on time. And so what’s the administration doing to support nonprofits at this time?
SHEENA: Absolutely. And these are challenges that we are taking head on. Like you said, they are systemic, and they have been in place for generations. So before even coming into the administration, we launched a task force in partnership with the comptroller to really dig deep into these issues. And one of the first things that we did is we launched an effort to clear the backlog.
SHEENA: There was over $6 billion of payments that nonprofits had been owed for years before we came into the administration. And in 12 weeks, we cleared about $4.5 billion of those past due payments, and to date have really cleared almost every dime that was owed to nonprofits. But what we want to do is make sure that we’re not having a backlog every year, that the systems, the business process that had been in place needs to be completely reimagined.
SHEENA: How do we dismantle this very dysfunctional system and recreate it with nonprofits not as vendors, but as partners? And so we want to reimagine the nonprofit sector, human services, how government thinks about it, because they’re not vendors. They are partners. Right? And so we have to have a much more respectful relationship and really kind of re-engineer how we do business.
SHEENA: A third thing that we are doing to really put a level of transparency on government – and pressure – is to release something called “Contract-stat,” where it will be very transparent. If there is a contract for services that is going to be rendered during a certain time frame, it will be public. Once people put in their paperwork, is government doing what it needs to do to register the contract and to get the payments made? And so that’s going to be – you know – sunlight helps to solve a lot of issues. Some people in government might be a little uncomfortable with it but it’s important that we have that.
SHEENA: Another thing that we have done since we’ve been in office is to increase the cost of living adjustments for nonprofits to make sure that people are getting more of a fair wage for their employees.
SHEENA: Also, the indirect costs, which have always been not really totally recognized – and in ways that quite frankly didn’t make sense to me as a nonprofit leader – you know, really codifying that government will regard and respect people’s overhead, which is not a bad word. You need the resources to pay the rent and to kind of do all the things. And we should not – that makes a healthy organization. So that’s in place.
SHEENA: And the last thing I’ll say is we’ve created the Mayor’s Office of Nonprofit Services. We’ve never had that in city government. Nonprofits often have to deal with half a dozen agencies – it could be the Department of Education, the Department of Health, you know, all these different agencies – in order just to function.
SHEENA: And now there’s going to be a central internal advocate for nonprofits. It’ll be a clearinghouse. It’ll be a place where they can get technical assistance, capacity building, can help them access loans and other capital. And so we’re really excited about that as well. So it’s one of the biggest priorities for this administration.
AISHA: So it’s great to see that sort of sister entity for the Department of Small Business Services.
AISHA: That’s wonderful. Thank you. And so all of this is really impressive. And at the same time, you’ve stood up the Reimagining Human Services Task Force. Can you tell me a little bit about that task force and the root cause analysis work that’s being done?
SHEENA: So it’s Health and Human Services, Economic Workforce Development, and First Deputy Mayor. So it’s a pretty significant constellation of leadership in city government. And the goal is to say, “When we think about human services and all of the work that nonprofits provide, but also that government provides in human services: Are we just treating the symptoms?” Are we really trying to understand how did people come to be where they are when they engage with us for a variety of services and supports?
SHEENA: And that’s really the goal of Reimagining Human Services. Let’s go upstream. Let’s understand what is the root cause. And it’s – a lot of it is systemic racism, right? It is about undervaluing and underpaying people of color, women in particular. It is about communities that have been redlined and disinvested in for generations to ensure, quite frankly, that people are in need of services and support. And if we’re just addressing the symptoms and not the root causes, we’re never going to really progress in the ways that we need to.
AISHA: And that’s so critical because you can never really make any kind of transformational change until you get to the root of any problem.
AISHA: Do you have any insights for nonprofit funders and leaders? What’s on the horizon in the coming years?
SHEENA: You know, I think nonprofit advocacy is really important. So just, the kind of continued push for appropriate funding, whether it’s indirect costs – not only from government but from the philanthropic community, the private philanthropic community.
SHEENA: You know, nonprofits have been judged for years on having a very, very low percentage of overhead, which is just a terrible measure of success. It should be enough resource to make sure that you have a healthy institution so the work that can be done. And I think making that case, and really continuing to make the case in the philanthropic community, is going to be something that’s really important to just kind of change that dynamic. I know there’s some funders – like the Ford Foundation, you know, like in a revolutionary way said, “Listen, we’re just going to give folks X percent across the board, no questions asked.” I think that’s really important.
SHEENA: I think really leaning into collective impact, really appreciating that you can’t do it alone. And how do we connect the dots and leverage what each other is doing and mutually reinforce the work in a neighborhood, in a community, or for a population? So if there’s more cooperative and collective work of nonprofits, I think that’s going to be extremely important to maximize the output and the impact of those organizations and partnership with government. I think that’s going to be really important.
SHEENA: And I think that, you know, more resources for nonprofits that are focused on advocacy – I mean, those are some of the most under-resourced nonprofits – is also going to be something that’s really important. It’s not necessarily something government can do, but it’s something that I think the broader philanthropic community really needs to lean into.
SHEENA: The last thing I will say is that there needs to be much more prioritization and investments in nonprofits led by people of color. And just to acknowledge that – whether it’s corporate boards or any other sector that has really been not open and reflective of the community, the nonprofit sector really has to openly acknowledge that and really set a course to correcting that.
SHEENA: And one of the things that we’re looking at doing: Just like government has a goal and priority to work with Minority Women Business enterprises for private businesses, we want to think about how do we think about that in the context of the nonprofit sector as well, whether it’s people of color/BIPOC/women leaders leading nonprofits, whether it’s looking at the board composition. You know, if you have 100% or 90% or 80% of people on the board for a nonprofit that’s serving a community that’s 80% people of color, there’s something, you know, something we’ve got to think about there.
AISHA: So tell me, Deputy Mayor Wright. When you look at New York City nonprofits, what gives you hope?
SHEENA: Wow. Everything. You know, I ... Nonprofit leaders and the people that work in the nonprofit sector are some of the most creative, entrepreneurial, incredibly passionate, brilliant people that we have. To run a nonprofit or to work at a nonprofit where you’ve got to figure out how to make ends meet, and serve the people that are standing in your doorway, and be innovative, and all the things all at once – there’s no other sector where you have to do all of those things. Right?
SHEENA: In government people get paid every two weeks [LAUGHTER] and they’re not really worried about it. In the private sector, they’ve got resources upon resources. And I think people don’t really appreciate the grit, the scrappiness, the entrepreneurialism, the brilliance that exists in the sector. And so since I know that so well, and I know that it’s just a phenomenal group of committed people, that as long as people continue to have their shoulders to the plow, that there’s nothing that they can’t do and that we can’t do together.
AISHA: That’s so inspiring. Thank you so much for your time and joining us for our Where We Go From Here series. And I wish you the best as you continue to work with Mayor Adams and other leaders in New York City government. You really are making a difference.
SHEENA: Thank you so much, Aisha. Thank you, Nonprofit Finance Fund.