Albert Ruesga, President/CEO, Greater New Orleans Foundation

August 26, 2009
Albert Ruesga, President/CEO, Greater New Orleans Foundation

Four years ago this week, a monster storm named Katrina was churning through the Gulf of Mexico with New Orleans squarely in its sights. New Orleanians who went to bed on the evening of August 28 wondering whether their homes would be there in the morning were relieved when dawn revealed a city that was battered but largely intact. Then, as Albert Ruesga, president of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, explains below, the levees broke.

The devastation that ensued was epic in scale and scope. Hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians were forced to flee their homes, while tens of thousands of others, mostly poor, were left stranded in the stifling, water-logged city by a state and federal government response that was slow, haphazard, and inadequate.

Within days, Katrina had become a watchword for public-sector fecklessness. And Americans learned, or re-learned, a painful truth: poverty based on race and class differences had not been vanquished during the long years of the boom, but rather had been hiding in plain sight, visible to anyone who cared to look.

Earlier this month, PND spoke with Ruesga about the post-Katrina recovery effort in his adopted city, the role played by foundations in that recovery, social justice philanthropy in an imperfect America, and his hopes for the "Venice of the Gulf Coast."

Much admired as a social justice advocate, Ruesga became president of the Greater New Orleans Foundation on January 1, 2009, after a twenty-year career in the philanthropic sector that included stints at the Boston Foundation, New Ventures in Philanthropy, and the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation. His blog, White Courtesy Telephone, is a must-read among savvy nonprofit practitioners and fans of sharp, snappy prose.

Philanthropy News Digest: You've been president and CEO of GNOF since January. What has most surprised you about the job and about New Orleans?

Albert Ruesga: Nothing much surprised me about the job: having worked at a community foundation, I knew what to expect. The first four or five months of the job I would come home exhausted and fall asleep over my newspaper, drooling into my lap. That's the nature of work at a community foundation.

The city, however, surprised me in a big way. The level of civic engagement in New Orleans is off the charts, compared with cities like Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston. Before coming to New Orleans, I had heard about the proliferation of charter schools in the city. I never imagined how deeply and how far public education reform had come. It's quickly becoming a model for the rest of the country.

PND: On a scale of one to ten, with ten being "fully recovered," how would you assess the city's post-Katrina recovery?

AR: You use the term "post-Katrina," but one point worth remembering is that Hurricane Katrina actually skirted the City of New Orleans and hit our neighbors further south and east hardest. Most New Orleans residents breathed a sigh of relief when Katrina passed the city by. They saw some trees come down, a few shingles blow off their roofs.

Then the levees broke.

On a scale of one to ten, I'd say we're at about a six, give or take a few....

On a scale of one to ten, I'd say we're at about a six, give or take a few. Many residents will tell you that we're not aiming for full recovery: we're aiming for something better, something like a fourteen on your scale of one to ten.

PND: Are people who had been displaced by the flooding coming back to the city? And has that made things more difficult in terms of the recovery?

AR: Well, we wish more of the folks who left would come back. I think a lot of people who left probably enrolled their kids in other school systems and might be waiting for them to finish middle school or high school before they think about coming back. Others visit their old neighborhoods and aren't convinced there is enough of a critical mass of neighbors to warrant coming back. And, of course, some people will never come back. That's just the way it is.

At the same time, we've had an influx of people, many of them younger, from outside the region. There are so many opportunities here for young people to find meaningful, satisfying work that they simply wouldn't be able to find in other cities.

PND: How are residents of the city and region feeling about the recovery effort? Are people optimistic? Tired? Do they feel abandoned or forgotten?

AR: There's an abiding anger over the city, state, and federal responses, but the folks I work with in the nonprofit sector, in business, and in government are very upbeat and hopeful. The region has come a long way these past four years. Long-time New Orleanians love their city deeply and their love has sustained the region for many generations. Newcomers like myself share their passion and want to contribute to the region's recovery. We've been warmly welcomed.

There's an organization called 504ward dedicated to helping younger newcomers establish themselves in the city. "Five-oh-four" by the way, is the area code for the City of New Orleans. The organization was founded by one of our local heroes, Leslie Jacobs, who also played a key role in saving and reforming the Orleans Parish schools in the aftermath of the storms.

PND: What have been the chief obstacles to a speedier recovery — in New Orleans and region-wide?

AR: Our region was poor before the storms. The city suffered from so-called white flight in the '70s and '80s, and the region as a whole, being largely rural, suffered from years of public underinvestment. The failure of the levees during Katrina put 80 percent of the city under water and devastated tens of thousands of homes and other structures. We lost two thousand souls to the storm. You don't snap back from that in just a few years.

We have no lack of volunteers willing to come from across the country to help us rebuild. We're deeply grateful for their generosity. I don't want to sound crass, but what we need most is money. Our nonprofit leaders are the smartest and most committed you'll find anywhere. After the failure of the levees, they didn't wait for government — local, state, or federal — to save them and their neighborhoods. They took action. But they can't survive on air. They need resources to invest in their programs and in themselves. Our local philanthropic institutions are stretched to the limits. We support many functions that are properly the domain of government. Our public institutions also need support as much as they need to be challenged to speed our recovery.

PND: Based on stories you've heard since you've been at GNOF, which organizations and agencies were especially effective in responding to the disaster and its aftermath? Which ones could have performed better? And which ones are still delivering the goods?

AR: Stories of heroism abound. In the aftermath of Katrina, many neighborhood associations sprung up whose acts of courage and generosity are legend. I think of organizations like the Broadmoor Improvement Association and the Lower 9th Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association, Mary Queen of Viet Nam, and many others. They're still doing our region a world of good. There were many individual heroes and heroines acting without the support of private or public institutions as well.

Don't get me started on FEMAor the Army Corps of Engineers.

PND: Has the Obama administration been responsive to the plight of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast?

One of the traps we have to be careful of not falling into is expecting that it's up to the Obama administration, it's up to a black president, to care for black people....

AR: We've had quite a few visits from members of the administration, and what we've seen during those visits is not only incredible sensitivity to the plight of the region, but also a very deep background in the kind of work the civil sector does. That's been refreshing. At the same time, one of the traps we have to be careful of not falling into is expecting that it's up to the Obama administration, it's up to a black president, to care for black people. It's not. It's the responsibility of every president and every legislator at every level.

PND: Katrina exposed some painful truths about New Orleans that had been hiding in plain sight — entrenched poverty, an abysmal public school system, high levels of unemployment and crime, public sector corruption, a glaring divide between the region's haves and have-nots. That that was the reality for tens of thousands of the city's residents came as a shock to many Americans. Were you shocked by the racial and class disparities revealed by the storm and its aftermath?

AR: Not in the least. These disparities are endemic to every major city in the United States. It's consistently a tale of two cities in places like New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles — wherever you go that has a significant minority population. I've had some of the most honest and fruitful conversations about race here in New Orleans, not in the cities of the East Coast. What was appalling to me, rather than shocking, was the lack of reflection and analysis in media coverage of the storm and its aftermath.

Its soul and its beauty aside, New Orleans is in many ways Every City.

PND: Why are those conversations more honest and fruitful, as you say, in New Orleans?

AR: It's hard for me to say. When you're talking about race, which is such a difficult thing to talk about, and you step in it, which we all do, the other person usually has one of two responses: they either charge it to your head, or they charge it to your heart. I think people here are more willing to charge it to your head than to your heart. I don't know why, maybe it has something to do with Southern character, or the wonderful diversity we have here, our gumbo of cultures, as we like to call it. Maybe that's made us more tolerant of differences in some ways. There are a lot of integrated neighborhoods in New Orleans, and they're integrated in a way that you don't see in other cities. The idea that somehow New Orleans had a special problem with race just isn't right; it's not accurate. And in a way I think Katrina was a mirror. Like so many people across the country, I watched events unfold from a safe distance, I was in Washington, D.C., and I was horrified by the images I saw on TV. But I also thought that same thing could have happened in Washington if the conditions had been right. And the same kinds of inequities would have been uncovered in other cities along the East Coast and in other parts of the country.

PND: How would you characterize the foundation response to Katrina? Has the foundation community displayed sufficient urgency in responding to the disparities revealed by the storm? And could foundations be doing more in 2009 to help New Orleans get back on its feet?

AR: The foundation response to New Orleans has been magnificent. We're deeply grateful to national colleagues like the Rockefeller Foundation, Ford, Surdna, Annie E. Casey, the Conrad Hilton Foundation, the blue moon fund, and others that gave their talent and treasure to help put the region back on its feet.

We're only partway through our recovery, so we could use a lot more help. More importantly, we're determined to be not just a recovered city but a model city — in terms of education reform, civic engagement, economic development, the environment and water management, racial integration, youth development, health care delivery, and other areas.

We can offer philanthropic investors a smart, diverse, resilient, and committed group of people who love their city and are not afraid to experiment.

PND: Over the last year or two, you've written extensively about social justice and social justice philanthropy. Because you've argued elsewhere that definitions matter, I have to ask: How do you define social justice?

AR: Social justice is fairness.

As much as I consider myself a disciple of philosophers like John Rawls and Isaiah Berlin, I prefer the simpler, more direct approach to that question.

PND: As you've also written, many people view social justice philanthropy as either a hopelessly Pollyanna-ish endeavor or an inherently radical proposition, in that it aims to fundamentally restructure society. As a social justice advocate, how do you respond to those critiques?

AR: If you're a grantmaker attempting to address some of society's most intractable problems and you believe social justice philanthropy is hopelessly Pollyanna, then you're probably in the wrong business. I would argue that you're essentially doing philanthropy in bad faith. Get out of the way and let somebody else try.

As a grantmaker, you're simply hallucinating if you believe you can make a dent in generational poverty, for example, without attending to matters of race and class....

In many important areas of philanthropic work, social justice philanthropy is all about effectiveness. As a grantmaker, you're simply hallucinating if you believe you can make a dent in generational poverty, for example, without attending to matters of race and class. The real Pollyanna, in my view, triages the victims that come floating downstream never wondering where they might be coming from.

To those who say that social justice philanthropy aims to fundamentally restructure society, I say, Yes, that's exactly right and it's long overdue. But there's nothing radical about this proposition. There are many people of good will — rich and poor, black and white — who share this view.

PND: As a social justice advocate, do you believe poverty, racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination can be eliminated?

AR: No, not completely. But I do believe they can be eliminated far enough to become the experience of a few unlucky souls rather than the destiny of whole communities of people.

PND: Is it safe to assume that social justice philanthropy will become a hallmark of the Greater New Orleans Foundation's work? And if so, what will that work look like?

AR: That's my fervent hope, and that of my board which added the promotion of "equitable outcomes" to our foundation's mission statement well before I signed up for the job.

Good social justice work, in my view, begins with a framework for thinking about social justice. My framework is very simple: social justice is about fairness and equality of opportunity. After you've decided on your goals — and there's a lot involved in these choices — the secret sauce, if there is one, is the analysis on which you base your theory of change. A social justice analysis will examine all the forces — current and historical — that mitigate or abet the problems you aim to address. These forces include the effects of racism, gender oppression, and other factors. In the U.S. context, this analysis includes looking at the ways laws, policies, and institutions contribute to racialized outcomes: better outcomes for middle-income white children, say, than for poor black children. Then comes a bit of magic: translating this analysis into a set of strategies and tactics based on a sound theory of change. The process is iterative, so you need to evaluate as you go along and, if you fail, modify your assumptions and try again.

PND: Because GNOF is a community foundation, many of the grants it awards are donor directed. On the discretionary side of things, does the foundation have a theory of change and systems in place to assess, on an ongoing basis, the impact of its work?

AR: We have theories of change for specific areas of our work. We've published not just our goals, objectives, and guidelines on our Web site, we've also published the rationales for them, and we've invited the public to criticize our thinking by adding their comments just as blog readers add comments to blog posts. You can see that in action in the Community Revitalization and Environment areas of the site. We might be the first community foundation to have done that — I'm not sure. I'd love to hear from others who have tried it.

But our overall theory of change will be very much grounded in the kind of social justice framework I just described.

PND: What do you do in situations where a grant failed to make an impact?

AR: You learn something from it and share it with others. And in most cases, you roll up your sleeves and help the organization in question do better. I think it's important for grantmakers to think not in terms of individual grants, but in terms of organizations and cohorts of organizations working toward clearly specified goals. An individual organization might be the key to meeting your goals. In a case like this, you'd be a fool to abandon it because of a failed grant.

PND: Acknowledging failure is something many foundations seem to have a difficult time with. Has that been your experience, and do you think it's changing?

AR: I think it is changing, thanks to trailblazers like the James Irvine Foundation and others. Many foundations are publishing evaluations of specific programs, and many of those evaluations show clearly that not all the goals of the program were met, or that they were only partially met, if at all. That's the trend.

At the same time, I think foundations should be more forgiving of themselves. That is, when you make an investment in social change and you don't meet your specific objectives but other good things happen, you shouldn't necessarily consider that a failure. I saw that when I was at New Ventures in Philanthropy. In some cases, our work did not grow the philanthropic pie very much but it did bring in new kinds of philanthropists that had never been involved in philanthropy, philanthropists from communities of color, for example. That's a victory. Maybe we didn't focus on it or intend to do it from the beginning, but I'd hardly call it failure.

PND: That would seem to argue for creating strategic frameworks that have a certain amount of flexibility.

AR: We sometimes caricature folks who talk about strategic frameworks or who apply business models to philanthropy. But I think the caricature is that these frameworks are inflexible, that once you commit them to paper you can't modify them. That's just not the case. Very few people think about them that way.

PND: Community foundations are part of an increasingly crowded and competitive philanthropic industry. Do you worry that a focus on social justice work could scare some donors away?

Social justice philanthropy is a human thing, not a liberal or conservative thing....

AR: Not in the least. Social justice philanthropy is about effective grantmaking. Moreover, the individual donors and donor families I've met share a regard for fairness and equality of opportunity. They understand, no less than anyone else, that social factors like race and class can affect the fates of individuals and families, and, by extension, whole communities of people. This is a human thing, not a liberal or conservative thing.

PND: How do we get others to see it that way?

AR: It's a matter of...of communications, and also a matter of undoing certain habits of mind that prevail in the nonprofit sector. I'm constantly amazed by groups of nonprofit organizations that shoot themselves in the foot by not, for example, seeking out partners in the business sector or in the government sector, so that from the get-go it becomes a kind of oppositional effort, or an effort that is hampered by not having all the people around the table who should be at the table. We tend to separate ourselves into camps rather too easily, and that keeps us from being as effective as we could be.

PND: That's also true of public discourse in this country, which seems to have been trapped in a negative feedback loop for decades. Do you have any ideas as to how we might reverse that trend?

AR: Actually, that has been one of my obsessions. To be honest, I've been worried about the effect of the Internet on public discourse. I know that, in the eyes of many, the Internet is supposed to abet constructive public discourse. But my experience from participating on a lot of social media sites is that the discourse tends to be rather fractured and seldom amounts to anything I would call deliberative. In fact, I think deliberative discourse is rare in public settings; we're losing the ability to agree, disagree, and debate reasonably in public. And the Internet and television are contributing to that erosion. We desperately need more media literacy training for our kids. People think they get it by watching a lot of YouTube videos or spending a lot of time in front of the TV. That's just not the case. Media literacy is something that has to be taught and thought about and exercised. You know, if I had my own foundation, that would be one of the areas where I'd be making big investments. It's critical to our future as a democracy that we have young people who have those deliberative and analytical skills.

PND: If 2008 was the year the great American credit bubble burst, 2009 is looking more and more like gut-check time for nonprofits. Do we have a bubble in the nonprofit sector?

AR: Some nonprofits will fail, sure; they'll likely fail at a faster rate than before. But nonprofit organizations have always been underresourced and under siege. In this economic downturn, gifts from assets will be more strongly affected than gifts from income. The much maligned "checkbook philanthropists" will be the salvation of many organizations vital to the health of our communities.

PND: What do you tell grantees caught between the rock of soaring demand and the hard place of declining funding streams?

AR: The best advice I can give is remember. Start planning for the next decline now. Grow your reserves. Don't put every discretionary dollar you get toward your programs: invest in yourselves. This is easier to say than to do, given how hard it is to come by those discretionary dollars, but it's essential to meeting your mission.

There are many wonderful resources on the 'Net for organizations struggling in this economy. The Association of Fundraising Professionals, for example, has a very good Survival Kit on its site.

PND: What do you think the sector will look like in five years?

AR: Pretty much the same as it looks now, I'm afraid. I know there are consultants who specialize in convincing gullible foundations that a new philanthropic world is just around the corner, who prey on foundation presidents who are always looking for the Next Big Thing.

But the fundamentals haven't changed, nor do I expect they will anytime soon.

Maureen Robinson, the mom in the 1960s TV series Lost in Space, is the perfect metaphor for the future of philanthropy....

I've argued elsewhere that Maureen Robinson, the mom in the 1960s TV series Lost in Space, is the perfect metaphor for the future of philanthropy. The fact that she travels through space represents our futuristic fetish. The fact that she stays home and makes meatloaf for her husband and kids represents our resistance to changing what needs changing most.

PND: What do you hope to be able to say about the Greater New Orleans Foundation in five years?

AR: We gave our all to this "impossible but inevitable city."

PND: That's catchy. Who coined that phrase? And what's "inevitable" about New Orleans?

AR:I  think, though I'm not positive, it was Pierce Lewis, who wrote New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landcsape. The inevitability of the city has something to do with its position at a crook in the Mississippi River that catches all the richness flowing down from the heart of the country.

But for me, New Orleans has always been our Venice. I have this wonderful photograph of Venetians buying bread and cheese at a store that's filled with two feet of water. They have their waders on, and they're completely oblivious to the fact that they're standing in two feet of water. Now, of course, that's not what I want for New Orleans. But I do think it speaks to a tenacity and love for their city that is very much a part of this city, with its wonderful built environment and cultural richness. I mean, you can go into some of the poorest neighborhoods in this city and gaze on wonderful nineteenth-century structures that have withstood storm, fire, and all sorts of other assaults. Your jaw will drop. And it makes you realize how much has been invested in this city, this jewel on the Gulf, and makes you believe it's going to be around for a long time to come.

PND: Well, thank you, Albert.

AR: It was my pleasure.

Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, spoke with Albert Ruesga in August. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at