Leader to Leader: Phoebe Boyer

An interview with the CEO of Children’s Aid

CEO of Children's Aid, Phoebe Boyer

CEO of Children's Aid, Phoebe Boyer City & State

Leader to Leader is a monthly column that looks at issues of leadership in the New York City nonprofit sector. Each month, the column will feature a conversation with a different nonprofit executive who is wrestling with an interesting challenge. How do you take a good idea up to scale? What are the best ways to raise money without losing your soul? When is it time to hang it up? Leader to Leader will explore these questions and more. 

Over time, the goal is to cover a broad range of organizations in various stages of development, from start-ups to mergers to agencies in need of top-to-bottom overhaul. Leader to Leader is written by Greg Berman, who served for nearly two decades as the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation.

Children’s Aid is one of New York City’s oldest and most important nonprofit organizations. Founded in 1853, the agency helped create the field of foster care in the United States. Since that time, it has grown into a multifaceted, multi-service agency that each year works with more than 50,000 families to help children in poverty realize their potential. 

Since 2014, Children’s Aid has been led by Phoebe Boyer, the first woman to occupy the role of CEO. In many respects, Boyer was a logical choice – she communicates the poise, passion and emotional intelligence that you would expect of the leader of a nonprofit like Children’s Aid. But in some ways, she was an unusual choice. While she started off her career in direct service, including a stint at Inwood House, Boyer rose to prominence in philanthropy, serving as the head of both the Tiger Foundation and the Robertson Foundation. Very few leaders of large social service agencies come from this kind of background.

Her experience in philanthropy brackets this conversation, which took place at Children’s Aid’s East Midtown office in early March. The other theme that runs through our discussion is the challenge of managing a large legacy organization, which poses unique challenges, both internally and externally.

Berman: I'm interested in the move from philanthropy to running a direct service organization. Not many people make that move. How did you make the pitch to the board at Children’s Aid?

Boyer: When I was a funder, I had the luxury of seeing education and job training programs and social service programs and how they were often working in isolation. All of these single purpose organizations would say, “Yes, but had we only been able to do X, Y and Z, we could've had better outcomes for young people.” Children's Aid has almost all of the components in one place. It has the ability to think holistically about kids and how to remove their barriers to success. So when I saw the job description, I was intrigued. As a philanthropist, you are a step removed from being able to actually make change. In thinking about coming to Children’s Aid, there was an element of putting your money where your mouth is.

Berman: Or putting your mouth where your money had been.

Boyer: Exactly. I felt it was time for me to get back to actually doing the work. So for the board, I think as they were doing their evaluation of candidates, they saw that I knew all of the foundations and that I knew all of the government players. I demonstrated an understanding of the challenges the agency faced. Of course, I’ve had a few moments since then where I felt like, whoa, what was I thinking? This is a challenging job.

Berman: Was it hard to sell yourself to staff here since you had been away from direct practice work for some time?

Boyer: Oh, I don't know. You’d have to ask them. I think there were probably some people here who thought of me as a three-headed monster who was never going to understand programming, who was never going to understand the work on the ground.

Berman: How do you win legitimacy given that context?

Boyer: I think it's about listening and helping people understand where you've been. It's also helping them understand who you are as a person. And to show them my excitement about the mission. I was coming to do the work, not to assume a title.

I started what we're calling Fridays with Phoebe, where I meet and talk in small groups with frontline staff about what they're experiencing. What people have said to me is, “Oh, you're just a regular person.” I'm like, “Yep, I'm just a regular person. Just like you. I happen to have a different role. But we're all on this team together.”

Berman: I’ve heard you say that you see your role as primarily facilitative, that your job is about providing staff with the resources and support that they need to shine. I think that in our field there is often a cult of personality, where people expect the CEO to be a visionary and charismatic leader. What I heard you expressing was a more humble vision. Is that right? 

Boyer: 100%. I have a vision, but to get there, we have to support staff. I don't want them worrying about insurance or compliance or some report. I want them worrying about the client in front of them. I want the foster care worker who's reuniting a mom and her kids to have what they need to do that work. My responsibility is to understand what that experience is like and translate that so that policymakers and donors invest in it.

Berman: What do you think is the biggest misconception about your job?

Boyer: I don't know what’s the biggest. I think there are a lot of misconceptions. But one misperception is that somehow it’s a more glorified role than it is. The isolation is really profound. These jobs are particularly lonely. I have a great team, but ultimately I am accountable.

Berman: You talked about how hard these jobs are. Did getting an MBA help prepare you? 

Boyer: Absolutely.

Berman: What did you get from the MBA that you wouldn't have gotten otherwise?

Boyer: I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. I went to Columbia and focused on nonprofit management before that was even a thing. The management training, the marketing, the framework, the accounting… all of it I use every day.

Berman: Children’s Aid has more than 2,000 employees. It's going to take a lot of Friday with Phoebe sessions before you know the names of all those people. At some level, you can’t know what the vast majority of these people are doing on a daily basis. How do you get comfortable with that reality? 

Boyer: I did a few things when I first started which might have been perceived as trying to get into the weeds. You learn pretty quickly that you have to delegate when you operate at this scale. If you have a tendency to lean into the details, the scale here can quickly become overwhelming. People here have been doing their jobs and doing them well for many years. My job is to listen to them and trust them. I also trust my Spidey sense when something is off.

Berman: Now you're just pandering to me. I’m a big Spider-Man fan. 

Boyer: The first couple of years here I didn't sleep really well, but what I did for a period of time was have every head of every division report to me directly, so that I could understand who they were and how they thought, and they could have a sense of what my expectations were. It was hugely helpful to get me grounded. You mentioned the cult of personality. I learned on the philanthropy side that sometimes you’d get these unbelievably dynamic nonprofit leaders and when you looked into how the organization was functioning you’d find out there was no there there. When I took this job, I vowed that that would never be me. I try to give folks space. In return, I need them to be honest with me and strategize with me about what's working and what’s not and how we can fix it together.

Berman: Children’s Aid has been around for more than 165 years. Talk to me about your relationship to the history of the organization. I can imagine it cuts both ways. How do you think about getting the strength of a long history without being weighed down by the negative aspects?

Boyer: I’ve been wrestling with this a lot. I feel like as a society, we seem to be systematically undermining our institutions. And Children’s Aid is an important institution in New York City. And with that comes huge responsibility. What I've come to see is that what makes Children’s Aid powerful is the relationships we have built in the communities that we serve. I think that trust is critical.

If you look back at our history, we were founded by a group of individuals who said, “We have kids living on the streets of New York city. This is unacceptable.” It was a time where there was no safety net, there was no government answer. It was a bunch of citizens standing up and saying, “We're going to make a difference for kids.” At some level, our mission hasn't changed much since then. But the methods, the approaches, are very different. Some of the things that we used to do – the residential schools, the orphan trains – none of those would you do today. We have evolved and we continue to evolve. Today, we place more kids in kinship care than we do in traditional foster care. The whole system is evolving.

Berman: There is a desire in the nonprofit sector for there to be more grassroots organizations, more community-driven organizations, more organizations led by people of color. And there’s a critique that the playing field right now is tilted in the direction of large agencies like the one you run – that the regulatory burdens, the legal burdens, and the financial burdens that are placed on nonprofits really make it very difficult for smaller nonprofits to get air space. Does that resonate with you? Do you think that's fair?

Boyer: Oh, absolutely. I think sometimes we're considered Goliath. I feel very strongly that we have to partner with other organizations. And we do in many, many places. For example, we co-lead, with Phipps Neighborhoods, a collective impact strategy in the Bronx called South Bronx Rising Together. Over a hundred different organizations have come together to articulate goals that they want to see for the community. And the idea is that all of the different organizations will work together and we serve as facilitators.

Berman: Your former world, the world of philanthropy, is also the subject of a lot of critique these days – that it engages in a form of reputation-laundering for wealthy people, that it places unnecessary demands on nonprofits, etc., etc. I'm curious whether those criticisms resonate with you.

Boyer: I worked pretty hard when I was in philanthropy to address some of these issues. I think often there’s a fundamental lack of understanding of what it really takes to run places like Children’s Aid. Some of the requests by philanthropy and government come from a lack of understanding. But we should also acknowledge that sometimes there are bad actors in the nonprofit community. There’s nothing worse than making a grant and then finding out afterwards that everything that person told you was not true. That’s terrible.

Berman: Final question. Is there advice you offer when people come to you and say, “I want to be an executive director of a not-for-profit?”

Boyer: I generally tell them that’s great. Because I think we need the talent. But I want to understand why they want to do it. Because I think these are super hard jobs. You’ve got to be in it because of the actual work. For me, what motivates me, what gets me up in the morning and enables me to deal with all of the mundane and the challenging issues that we confront is the interaction between a client and one of our staff. Making a difference in the life of a young person – that is why we are all here.