Leader to Leader: Richard Buery

Richard Buery.
Richard Buery.
Submitted
Richard Buery.

Leader to Leader: Richard Buery

A conversation with the president of the charter school network Achievement First.
June 3, 2021

The social entrepreneurs who create new community-based nonprofits don’t often keep company with the administrators who lead large legacy organizations. This makes sense: The kind of bureaucratic savvy required to manage multimillion dollar budgets and hundreds of people operating in multiple locations is very different from the creativity and adaptability that grassroots start-up ventures demand. Very few people are capable of bridging these two worlds. 

Richard Buery is one such nonprofit leader.

Rich’s career has run the gamut -- from co-founding a small, community-based nonprofit in Brooklyn, Groundwork, to running one of New York City’s largest and oldest organizations, Children’s Aid Society. 

Rich currently serves as the president of Achievement First, a network of three dozen charter schools serving 15,000 students in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island. This assignment follows on the heels of his work for the KIPP Foundation, where served as the chief of policy and public affairs.

Despite working for some of the nonprofit sector’s most important organizations, Rich is probably best known for his work in New York City government. He served as the deputy mayor for strategic initiatives from 2014 to 2018. In this capacity, he was responsible for the rollout of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature initiative to create universal prekindergarten for 4-year-olds in New York City. 

I talked to Rich about the lack of political power in the New York City nonprofit sector, the imposter syndrome that plagues many nonprofit leaders and the pressures of being a semi-public figure. The following conversation has been edited for both length and clarity. 

Berman: A few months back, you did a great podcast with Errol Louis where you said that nonprofits in New York are kind of the unsung heroes of the city. That phrase stuck with me. I’m wondering why you think nonprofits in New York are unsung. I’m also wondering if you share my concern that nonprofits tend to punch below their weight politically in New York City.

Buery: So the hero part I think is probably obvious. Communities are relying on nonprofits more than ever. It has become crystal clear how much we bring value. 

I would say a few things about the unsung part. People don't really think about the nonprofit sector as a force. Part of it is a branding question. We are just not in the minds of people, which is weird when you consider how much of the fabric of life in many communities would be impossible to navigate without the support of the nonprofit sector. I don't think people think about us as a thing, even though a large percentage of the city’s economy is driven by nonprofits. 

I think the other part of it is exactly what you said: We don't punch our weight. And there's many dimensions to that. Part of it is political. Unions obviously have a clear and powerful political voice. Businesses have a clear and powerful political voice. But the last time I checked, nobody was rushing to the Human Services Council to try to get an endorsement for mayor.

Even our relationship to our partners is fundamentally one of supplication. The relationship with business is to ask for charity. The relationship with government is to be underpaid for the services that we deliver. And the mode of service delivery is often dictated in ways that are not appropriate, because that's the nature of government contracting.

So there are all these ways in which I think the sector is under-known, undervalued, under-resourced and organized in a way that necessitates a lack of relational power to the other sectors on which it depends.

Berman: I sometimes fear that the competition among nonprofits for scarce dollars prevents them from forming together like Voltron when they could be stronger together. Is this part of the problem?

Buery: There’s certainly competition. But that doesn't strike me as the core source of the problem. For-profit businesses compete over contracts all the time. But businesses would never bid for a contract in a way that the revenue they received was less than the cost of the service they rendered. If you were a business and you told your peers that you were selling all of your product below cost, they would laugh at you when you go out of business. That’s not the case for nonprofits. If you are in government and you tell a nonprofit that is providing critical services to families that you're going to cut their costs, their first response is to continue to meet the needs of these families. Because our mission is in the work. It doesn't really put you in a great position when it comes to bargaining with your vendor. Because the vendor knows that he could pay you 10% less and you're going to continue to try and do right and deliver your service anyway. So I think it's about more than just the competition.

Berman: Fair enough. As you say, the real estate industry competes against each other but then it comes together in a very powerful way to influence public policy in my experience. I wonder whether there's more ideological contestation among nonprofits that gets in the way of collaboration in a way that isn’t true of the real estate industry.

Buery: It's an interesting question. I honestly haven't thought about that, but it's not where my mind would go to first to explain the difference. Where I might go to first is much more blunt than that. REBNY has money, and the Human Services Council members don't. They have money to influence the political process that we don’t have. The money part is fundamental and the mission part is as well. 

Berman: I do think the mission orientation of nonprofits is often weaponized against them. 

Buery: God forbid all those nonprofits actually got together and stopped doing the work. The city would fall apart. 

Another factor in all this is that nonprofits are reluctant to engage in lowercase P political activity. This reluctance is wildly disproportionate to the actual legal limits on doing so. In my experience, everybody is more conservative than they need to be legally when it comes to engaging in advocacy. 

Berman: I have read that you are a science fiction buff, so I want to ask you a sci-fi question. Imagine that you're the Terminator and you can go back in time. What would the Rich Buery of today want to tell the Rich Buery who was just starting out and launching iMentor or Groundwork? What wisdom do you wish you had then that you have now?

Buery: It’s a good question. I guess part of what I would say is that at that point in my career I was probably too focused on growing things big instead of doing them well. That would be my self-criticism of the earlier part of my career. I think particularly with Groundwork I would've been less worried about trying to get to some level of scale. Even as I say that, I hesitate, because it's hard to do things well unless you have a certain scale. So maybe that's overly critical, but that is one thing that I would certainly have in my mind.

I also might encourage myself to get some more management experience, to find the best leader you can think of and just go work for that person for a year or two. I could’ve gone to work for someone and tried to learn more about what a great organization looks like before trying to build one myself.

Berman: Which do you think is more challenging, establishing a new institutional culture from scratch at a place like Groundwork, or coming into a large organization like Children’s Aid Society that's been around for dozens of years, and trying to tweak an existing culture? 

Buery: In terms of culture, the second is clearly more challenging. Driving change at an established organization is much more difficult than establishing culture in a new organization. But running Groundwork on a day-to-day basis was 100 times harder than running Children's Aid Society. At a place like Children’s Aid, you have the ability to pay people what they deserve and attract the best talent. You have the support you need to do program development. 

One of the fundamental differences between coming into a legacy organization versus being a founder is definitely the sense of authority and self-confidence that you have as a founder. I think I was a better leader at Children's Aid Society because I had the experience running Groundwork. 

Berman: What impact has being a lawyer had on your approach to nonprofit leadership? Often, going to law school trains people how to identify risk, but in my experience a hyperawareness of risk can often be a hindrance as a nonprofit leader

Buery: I think that being a lawyer has been helpful to me. I think the ability to identify risks is important. 

There are meetings when we're talking about something and I'm the one who says, "Has anybody checked this with counsel?" And oftentimes, people haven't. I don't know whether it's my personality or being a lawyer, but I have learned to be hyperaware of the legal pitfalls that come with anything you might be doing. But I actually don't think it makes me more risk averse. I think being a lawyer can sometimes help me do my job better. What I've seen happen is that when a lawyer says you shouldn't do something, often that will end the conversation. I think my training gives me the ability to engage with lawyers in a way that sometimes non-lawyers will not do because people are understandably deferential to counsel. I mean, I'm deferential to counsel too. If my lawyer says you really shouldn't do this, I'm probably not going to do it. But I think it's a lawyer's job to minimize risks. Whereas my job as a CEO is not to necessarily minimize risks, it's to manage them. And so I have a slightly different tolerance for risk. That's appropriate. That's healthy. They're doing their job, I'm doing my job. 

Berman: You have operated at a high level in both the nonprofit sector and in the public sector. I'm wondering whether you had to change your approach as you moved from one sector to the other?

Buery: I don't know. That's a good question to ask other people. I don't know that I felt like I led fundamentally differently, but the context was certainly different. I think one key difference between the nonprofit sector and the government sector is the role of the press and how that impacts behavior. And the sheer number and range of stakeholders is very different. When I was running a nonprofit, you have boards, you have clients, you have families, you have neighbors…you definitely have a range of constituents. Sometimes in government it's like that, but times a hundred. So I think in a lot of ways the operating context of government is much more challenging. The other thing that was different was that I wasn't the mayor. I wasn't the boss. So that's fundamentally different. 

I think I probably wasn't in government long enough to fundamentally change my behavior. And I think that some of the things that helped me feel like I was relatively successful in government were the orientations that I brought with me from outside of government. I have always questioned myself about what I was doing. 

Berman: Speaking of self-confidence, I was listening to the Nonprofit Lowdown podcast and I was surprised to hear you talk about suffering from imposter syndrome. Dude, you have one of the best resumes I've ever seen and you suffer from imposter syndrome? I guess in some ways that’s good for the rest of us to hear. I’m curious to hear how you have wrestled that to the ground, to the extent that you have.

Buery: Well, that’s really kind of you to say. I'm fascinated by anybody who doesn't have imposter syndrome. I'm fascinated by anybody who just says, “I got this.” I've never experienced that level of self-confidence in my life, so I envy anybody who has it. 

I don't think I've ever wrestled imposter syndrome to the ground. The best I can say is that I go to work and try to do the best I can anyway. Over the years, I’ve gotten good at asking questions. And I try to be honest about not understanding things. I try not to pretend I know the answer when I don't. I don’t think you should try to over-compensate by pretending knowledge and clarity when you have none.

Berman: Not long ago, you had an exchange on Twitter with lobbyist Patrick Jenkins, who I know a little bit from having served on a board with him, about the specialized high school admissions test. I thought both of you made good points. But I found myself kind of frustrated by the exchange, if I'm honest. I was very aware of the constraints of the medium. I wonder whether Twitter was the best forum for making the arguments that you were trying to make and whether that was a good use of your precious time. 

Buery: No, it's definitely not the best forum. Was it a waste of my time? I was out for an early morning walk, so it didn't take me away from anything important. It was like a discussion that we would have had if we were in a bar or something. I respect Patrick. I think he's a smart, interesting person. Obviously Twitter is an imperfect medium. But it does force you on some level to try to make clear and concise arguments. And there's value to that. 

Berman: I don't know how you think about yourself, but I would describe you as a semi-public figure. Do you like engaging in the thrust and parry of public life? How do you think about the burdens that come along with being a semi-public figure?

Buery: I think semi-public is about as much as I can handle. I am trying to make the world a better place. That requires some level of public engagement. At the same time, public engagement is hard. Press stories are great when they're good, but when press stories are bad, it hurts. I have had some bad press. You can know something is not true and still it's painful. So I probably don't have the right temperament or thickness of skin to really be more than a semi-public figure I guess. But I wouldn't want to live in a way where I was just trying to keep my head down, because that would mean I wasn't engaging in things that matter to me. I haven't really thought about this too intentionally, but I guess you have to find the place and the space that works for you and sort of balances your need to protect yourself against the desire to feel like you're making an impact and having a contribution. 

Berman: I'm interested to hear your take on the New York City mayor's race with regard to charter schools. It doesn't feel to me like charters are a super hot issue in the race. Maybe that's because a lot of the oxygen is being sucked up by the specialized high school test. 

Buery: I think that’s definitely true. It is not a hot-button issue at all. I think that's a good thing mostly because the heat related to the subject has always been out of whack. Charter schools are part of the educational landscape, and they're going to be. No one is going to tell thousands of students and parents that your school is going to be taken away from you. I think that fact certainly takes some wind and heat out of the conversation. And this is a place where what we need is actually meaningful, thoughtful engagement but where every public conversation tends to look like a Twitter feud or a Twitter beef. Too often it's a fight where people are saying, “You're evil” and “Why do you hate kids?” I'd love to get away from that. I would love to move tje conversation to a different space where people can really talk to each other.

Berman: My older daughter is going to work as a sixth grade teacher at a charter school in the fall. I'm wondering what advice you would give to a young person starting out as a teacher at a charter school.

Buery: Well, I think I would say that teaching is hard and that you're not going to be a great teacher in your first year. But you should bring your true self, bring your love of children, bring your openness to learning. Hopefully she's in a school where she will get the kind of coaching and mentoring and training and support to grow in the profession. But there are few jobs that are both as difficult and as rewarding. I could tell you who my favorite teachers were from elementary school, middle school and from high school. I wish her the best. 

Greg Berman
Greg Berman is the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. Part of the founding team that created the Center for Court Innovation, he served as the organization’s executive director from 2002-2020.
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