Leader to Leader: Meg Barnette

A Q&A with the executive director of Nonprofit New York

Meg Barnette executive director of Nonprofit New York.

Meg Barnette executive director of Nonprofit New York. Submitted

The news coming out of the nonprofit sector in New York these days tends toward the grim. Everyone suffers when city and state budgets are cut, but nonprofits find themselves particularly vulnerable. For example, the budget recently agreed to by the New York City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio slashes support for an initiative that was designed to help nonprofits cover their overhead costs and shrinks the pool of discretionary funding that individual members use to support nonprofits in their districts. No wonder a recent study predicted that hundreds of New York nonprofits will shutter their doors by the time the coronavirus crisis ends.

Fighting on behalf of the nonprofit sector is going to be an uphill battle for many years to come. But that’s the task that Meg Barnette has set for herself.

Meg is the new executive director of Nonprofit New York, an umbrella organization that represents hundreds of New York-area nonprofits. Formerly known as the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee, Nonprofit New York hosts training sessions, coordinates the Nonprofit Excellence Awards, and engages in advocacy on behalf of its members and the nonprofit sector generally. 

Meg joined the organization three months ago after a long career in nonprofit management, including stints at Planned Parenthood of Greater New York and the Brennan Center for Justice.

I talked to Meg by phone about her transition to Nonprofit New York and some of the challenges that the sector is currently facing. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Berman: You started at Nonprofit New York in May. What was it like to begin a big new job at this particular moment?

Barnette: I realized pretty quickly that we were facing multiple emergency situations – not just COVID and the resulting economic crisis, but the murder of George Floyd and the other precipitating events that propelled the movement for racial justice. I think it is important for the nonprofit sector to really look at the implications of upholding white-supremacist, racist structures, and to really center racial equity in everything that we're doing. Nonprofit New York had done a lot of work on this before I got there. And there was a really talented and thoughtful team of people already in place. I think the challenge now facing us, realizing how interconnected all of these issues are, is trying to figure out what our role is in advocating for the sector on the economic issues, on the racial justice issues, and on the structural issues. The advocacy work of Nonprofit New York got elevated during the crisis because we realized that people were just so desperate for information. So we really became a go-to source for information about loans and the various federal programs. And at the same time, we have been trying to do the advocacy work to make sure that nonprofits are a part of the relief effort.

Berman: New executive directors typically conduct fact-finding tours to try to get to know their new organization and establish connections with their staff. It would seem to me that this kind of task is immeasurably harder to do when you're sitting in your living room conducting Zoom meetings.

Barnette: So let me be more real about how I started. I was in communication with the team starting in April. Because everything had gone remote, I was able to participate as a listener and a learner before my official start date. That was really helpful. Then, in the first couple of weeks, I made a point to have a socially-distant meeting with everybody on staff. I have a car, so I would go to them. I met folks in the park. I went to somebody's porch. I went to someone's roof. Actually, I set up two meetings with each person. The first was let me get to know you. And then the second, which we did virtually, was let's talk about your work.

And then I had individual Zoom calls with each board member. I also had virtual meetings with the leaders of other organizations. Nonprofit New York exists in an ecosystem along with lots of other intermediary organizations that support nonprofits. It is super important for us to be working in collaboration with the Human Services Council, with United Neighborhood Houses, and with other federations.

Berman: That sounds exhausting. How do you keep it fresh when you are doing back-to-back-to-back meetings that all have a similar, "Hi, I'm Meg," kind of flavor? 

Barnette: I took notes from every conversation. I wanted to let folks know that I was going to take a couple of key takeaways from each conversation, things to follow up on. I felt a little bit like an anthropologist. A lot of these folks have been working together for a long time. There's a lot of history and a lot of subtext. When you're new, you don't understand so much. So I tried to think about it a little ethnographically.

Berman: You have been part of the leadership at a number of nonprofits including Planned Parenthood and the Brennan Center. I'm curious to hear you talk about the jump from being a staff member to being an executive director. Has that been a hard leap or was that an easy move for you?

Barnette: It’s hard. I have not been responsible for people's paychecks before. I’ve done fundraising before in other contexts, but I haven’t been the person with primary responsibility for the budget and primary responsibility for fundraising. It's not that I don't think I have the skills, but the weight of being ultimately responsible … that feels very different than being in an advisory role, there's no question. I don't want to sound grandiose, but I feel a very serious responsibility. This multifaceted crisis presents an opportunity – and an obligation. We have a chance to step up and play a role in navigating the nonprofit sector from crisis through recovery to a place that is more equitable and more sustainable. I feel like we're in a disaster and we are going to have to rebuild. And when we rebuild, we don't want to go back to normal.

Berman: You want to build back better?

Barnette: I've been trying desperately to think of phrases that are different than “now more than ever” and now I have to come up with something that doesn't sound like “build back better.”

Berman: I actually kind of like that as a slogan.

Barnette: It captures something that's real because I think that there's no going back to normal. And when we think critically, we shouldn't want to go back to normal because of the kinds of disparities and inequities which really were fundamental to that normal. I feel like we have a chance to radically reimagine what our sector can be. And toward that end, we need to be open about some of the real harms that have been caused by the ways that we have worked in the past. And we need to do some real advocacy work to garner the kind of support and respect that the sector deserves and that reflects the ways in which nonprofits are just so fundamental to who the city is and how the city operates.

Berman: I think that the not-for-profit sector is one of the hidden strengths of New York City. It is one of the things that distinguishes this city from other places. The sector is incredibly diverse. It runs from small start-ups that may have no professional staff to organizations that are global in their reach and are as sophisticated as any for-profit enterprise. I'm curious about Nonprofit New York’s membership. How representative is it of the diversity of the nonprofit sector in New York?

Barnette: We obviously exist to serve our members, but we also do work on behalf of the entire sector, which includes lots and lots of folks who are not our members. We have about 1,500 member organizations, and they range, as you said, from very small start-ups to very sophisticated organizations. The majority of our members are somewhere in the middle. One of the reasons why we work so collaboratively with other intermediary organizations is because we can't represent everybody's interest directly. We want to identify gaps and figure out whose voices are not getting heard.

Berman: Nonprofit New York recently did a report with Scott Stringer's office that highlighted the economic importance of the not-for-profit sector to New York. I thought the report was valuable, but I did come away from it wondering why the not-for-profit sector punches so far below its weight in terms of political power in New York City, particularly when you compare it to the real estate industry or Wall Street.

Barnette: This pandemic has made us revisit the question: Who's essential? Nonprofit organizations are essential to the provision of direct services and to the provision of emergency relief. Our cultural institutions are essential to building community – when they're not around and we can't participate in them, it feels awful. So our organizations are essential, and they are on the front lines, and they are overlooked and disrespected and taken for granted over and over again. Our elected officials need to feel some accountability to us. When I think about our advocacy work, and I think about what role can Nonprofit New York play, maybe we can be a voice for the sector when independently each agency feels too vulnerable to just speak up.

Berman: My own sense is that competitiveness is as much a problem as a vulnerability. I see a lack of unity in the field. I think it is probably human nature, but each agency is focused on fighting for itself. I think the sector's weaker because of that.

Barnette: I think the current moment may help change that. There have been so many examples of resilience and collaboration in the midst of this crisis. So many things that we are told could never happen get done pretty quickly when it really, really has to. I'm reminded of Rebecca Solnit's book “A Paradise Built in Hell.” She writes extraordinarily eloquently about the ways that communities can come together after a disaster. So many barriers and differences that seem so important before a disaster seem so much less important post-disaster. I do think that we are in a disaster right now, and I feel charged with trying to help us come together in a different way after this disaster. I think greater solidarity in the sector could provide so much benefit for the communities that our nonprofits serve and also for the organizations themselves.

Berman: I have read some of the reports that suggest that many nonprofits will close in the wake of the coronavirus. I think there is obviously huge financial stress on nonprofits at the moment. But that’s not the only stress. More and more demands are being placed upon nonprofits. One of my concerns with the sector in recent years has been how the playing field has tilted towards larger organizations just because of all the demands of reporting and compliance and the city not paying people on time. All of these things essentially legislate against mom-and-pop shops.

Barnette: Look, there's no question that nonprofits are asked to exist in a regulatory environment that has extraordinary burdens. The nonprofit corporation law imitates the corporate law. And we've had this one-size-fits-all approach, so that the smallest nonprofit has to comply with the same things as the largest nonprofit. I don't think that model works. When I talk about rebuilding in a different way, I think we need to think about how we might put some different structures in place to address disparate needs, and to recognize the inequities that define our current structure.

At Nonprofit New York, we are not in the business of saying, "The city should fund group A and not group B." That’s not what we do. But we are in a position to say to the mayor and the City Council: Look, you're talking about eliminating all member items for discretionary funds. And those dollars typically go to the smallest nonprofits, the groups that don't have the capacity to participate in the labyrinth-like city contracting process. And so you can't just cut member items across the board because those are the organizations that are closest to the community issues and the one most likely to be led by people of color. You can't do that.

So yeah, we worry about smaller organizations getting lost, about the large organizations taking over, and that has all kinds of potential ramifications for increasing the racial leadership gap in the nonprofit sector and in taking services farther away from the grassroots level. Those are all things that I think would be really detrimental.

Berman: Are you engaged in the fight over nonprofit indirect rates with the city right now? That seemed to me like a real victory for the not-for-profit sector, and so fundamental to effective management. While one understands the fiscal realities that the city is facing right now, it is also disappointing to see the city walk that back.

Barnette: Nonprofit New York is not taking the lead on this issue. As we think about our advocacy work, we are always asking ourselves: When do we step up? When do we stand next to others? And when do we cheerlead from behind? The indirect cost initiative was a tremendous effort on behalf of the city and a lot of nonprofit leaders to get to a point where there was an acknowledgement of what it really costs for us to provide these critical services. And now the mayor and the council are saying, “Okay, we're clear that this is the real cost for you, but we need you to do it for less.” It is just another example of the ways in which nonprofits aren't treated as real partners.

Berman: It feels to me like the city is weaponizing the mission-driven nature of nonprofit organizations against themselves.

Barnette: I think that that's a really good way to frame it. And it's not just the city. At the state level, we have lots of members and coalition partners who have been doing work since February and haven't been paid. There's no transparency. There's no clarity. There’s a complete lack of certainty. It’s just an incredibly challenging environment. Most businesses couldn't operate effectively in that kind of environment. But nonprofits are expected to.