Leader to Leader: David Nocenti

The Executive Director talks to NYN Media about his work at Union Settlement, stepping down and his next steps.

New York City apartment buildings.

New York City apartment buildings. Lewis Tse Pui Lung//Shutterstock

Union Settlement is one of East Harlem’s oldest and largest social service agencies. The organization’s roots go back to the 1800s and the settlement movement, which was led by Jane Addams and other progressive reformers. The early settlement houses sought to transform low-income neighborhoods by providing childcare, English classes and other necessary services. More than 100 years later, Union Settlement is still doing similar work under the leadership of David Nocenti. 

Nocenti was appointed executive director of Union Settlement in 2009, following a long career in government, including acting as a counsel to three different governors: David Paterson, Eliot Spitzer and Mario Cuomo. Under his leadership, Union Settlement has moved to expand its reach. The organization now serves more than 13,000 local residents each year and operates out of 18 different locations.

Nocenti recently announced that he will step down from leading Union Settlement at the end of the year.

NYN Media caught up with Nocenti by phone recently to talk about his run at the helm of Union Settlement, the advocacy campaigns he has worked on, and his take on how the nonprofit sector in New York City can become stronger and more effective. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

I want to start with the news that you're stepping down. How did you come to make that decision and why now?

I've been here for almost 13 years. It's been a long run and I think it's been a good one. I love Union Settlement. I love dealing with all the program participants and the employees, seeing their strength and their resilience. I think the organization is in a good place. We are definitely much stronger financially than we were when I got here. I built out some of the organizational infrastructure, like HRand finance and other areas. I think the programs are in a good place. I just felt that it was time to hand the baton to somebody else who can take it to the next level. Union Settlement has been around for 126 years, and I'm only the 11th executive director in that time period. People in this position tend to stay awhile, and I want to make sure that I hand it off to someone who can give it a good run for a good period.

Do you know what you're going to do next?

I don't know. As you know, in these types of positions, it's essentially impossible to look for a job while you're working 24/7. I'm just going to step away and get a little distance, and then figure out what my next step is going to be. I’m not ready to retire but I want to pause and reflect a little bit before jumping into the next thing.

Your career before joining Union Settlement was spent in a series of high-level legal positions within government. Walk me through your transition to the nonprofit sector. Was that a tricky transition to make?

Well, I'll answer in two ways. From a mission approach, it was very easy. I was in government because I felt the government has an obligation to help people in need. I felt that thegovernment has the capacity to lift people and to empower them and to give them what they need to be successful. When I decided it was time to leave the government, I was really only looking in the nonprofit world and specifically only within the social services world. Because again, that's what gets me up in the morning.

The distinction between working in a government agency and working in a nonprofit that's funded by the government … Some of the day-to-day stuff is similar, because a lot of what we do could be done by the government. There are also big differences. The need to fundraise is one. Also, there is the fact that the government does not fund nonprofits well and gives us less money than we need to perform these essential services. I think the government largely undervalues the work that nonprofits are doing. When you're working in government, you're never really worried about organizational survival. In a nonprofit world, you definitely have to worry about that. 

How do you feel like your approach to management changed, if at all, during the course of your run at Union Settlement?

I think my approach to management has evolved and hopefully strengthened from 30-plus years of work. I'm a lifelong learner. I can't even remember when I first started managing people. And then over time, the number of people you end up managing grows. It grew significantly when I came here, with the caveat that you really can't directly manage more than 10 or 15 people and you should try to keep it under 10. But of course you need to manage people to manage other people. Certainly, I think I'm a stronger manager than when I got here. There's a lot to management that I've learned over the years. I still have a lot to learn. I don't know that you should ever say, "Well, I'm the perfect manager." You get better at it, but things evolve and change. 

How has the nonprofit sector in New York changed over the decade-plus that you've been doing this? One of the things I have observed as of late is a certain narrowing of the ideological spectrum, which I have some concerns about. I'm wondering whether you share that analysis.

I have to say that I haven't noticed that. We're all in our own ecosystems. I’m deeply involved in the social service, settlement, health, multi-service, direct-service, community-based provider world. That's who I talk with. I don't know that there's been a big ideological shift there. 

I do think that the nonprofit sector needs to evolve further. Frankly, I think it needs to be more aggressive in challenging the actions that the government takes. There's always a "don't bite the hand that feeds you" mentality in the sector. But, having been in government, I can say that a lot of people in government recognize that they’re going to be criticized. As a sector, we could be more vocal and more aggressive. Union Settlement sued the Department of Education earlier this year, because we felt that something they had done on a contract, they shouldn't have done. But you almost never hear of the sector getting together to bring litigation against the government. Sometimes, the government's doing things that lack a strong legal basis. As a sector, we should be more aggressive in using legal avenues to ensure that the communities that we're serving are protected. 

There's no right or wrong answer to this. Certainly, as individuals, you have to play the inside game as well as the outside game. You definitely want to keep good relationships with the government and with individuals who hold power. But I think you can criticize and be vocal while still maintaining those relationships and working on the inside as well. 

One of the themes that runs through many of the conversations that I've had for this column is that the nonprofit sector in New York is essential to the healthy functioning of the city but that it punches under its weight politically. Is your argument essentially that in order to wield greater political power that the nonprofit sector has to be willing to be more adversarial with the government?

No. You have to remember that you can cause hardship by taking the most aggressive action. As an example, there are a couple strikes that are going on right now in the corporate world. In the for-profit sector, employees can get together and say, "We're going to go on strike and we're going to shut our company down even though it's going to hurt us personally." 

It isn’t so easy to do that in the nonprofit world. It is hard for us as a sector to say, "All right, we're going to stop providing childcare," because that's going to harm the parents and the children. Even if you're 100% sure that eventually the government will cave and they will give you what you deserve, there's a huge reluctance to put that hardship on populations that are already underserved and underappreciated.

But I do think that using all the tools in your toolbox is important. There's definitely power that's left unutilized or unused. I think through the courts or other ways, we could put greater pressure on the government to do what's right, essentially. As an example, early childhood education is incredibly underfunded. The salaries that the employees in early childhood are paid are abysmal. They're embarrassing, they're unconscionable. The fact that my employees get paid less than similarly credentialed employees in the public schools doing essentially the same thing, there's no rational basis for that. In a perfect world, the contracts would be funded appropriately. The salaries would be equivalent. How do we stop things like that from happening?

How do you think about balancing the social service side of Union Settlement's work with the advocacy side? Are these activities ever in tension? 

I think it's hand in glove, honestly. You can move individuals out of poverty one person at a time, but by advocating for systemic change, you can have a broader impact. Take the minimum wage. Ten years ago, when they first came up with the fight for $15, it was like"Are they crazy?" It just seemed like an exorbitantly high number. But, over time and with great advocacy, $15 became the reality in New York. 

It is still too low. $15 an hour, for a full-time worker, is something like $30,000 a year. It is almost impossible to live in this city on $30,000 a year. It should be higher. I wrote an op-ed earlier this year that it should be $17.50, and the Human Services Council just came out with their wage effort for $21.

But just think of the benefit that raising the minimum wage to $15 has had for individuals who are suddenly able to put food on their table and can afford additional care for their children or for their elderly parents. It makes a difference. 

At Union Settlement, we're not here just to provide services, we're here to empower individuals and families. We do that in a multitude of ways -- by providing childcare, by providing English language classes, by providing Meals on Wheels. But we also do that by getting policies changed as well.

I was slightly surprised to see Union Settlement move into the police reform space. Did that feel like a step outside of your lane, or do you view that as a natural progression from your other advocacy work?

It's not a step out at all. I mean, Union Settlement for many years has had a strong youth services department. We do work with disconnected, criminal justice-involved youth. We're funded by the Manhattan DA's office to do the East Harlem Youth Opportunity Hub. The impetus for our police reform efforts came out of our work with youth. We were strong opponents of the way that stop-and-frisk was implemented for many years. There's a lot of low-hanging fruit in NYPD reform. It was pretty natural for us because our community is being disproportionately impacted by law enforcement activities that need to be reformed. 

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Eric Adams wins the election in November. What would you want to see from his administration in terms of better serving the nonprofit sector?

In terms of the nonprofit sector as a whole, I would just say: treat us as a true partner, listen to what we have to say, and don't treat us more poorly than for-profits. Why does the government cap the indirect rates that it provides to nonprofits? Government buys a lot of stuff. They buy police cars and school buses. They buy crayons for school. They buy asphalt to pave roads. They never ask businesses what their overhead rate is. They never say, “I'm going to cap you at 10%, or 12%, or whatever.” Why are we, as a sector, treated differently than the for-profit world? 

You wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Philanthropy a few years ago critiquing the idea that people would continue to donate to Harvard and other well-heeled nonprofits, as opposed to looking for more needy organizations. Did you get any backlash to that piece?

I didn’t get any backlash, but I don't think things have changed any. I went to an Ivy League school, but I don't give to that Ivy League school, because I don't think they need the money. There is such great need out in the community. A lot of what's happening here on the ground is life or death. I think when donors are looking for a place to invest their funds, they should be investing those funds somewhere other than somebody’s big endowment. There are social service nonprofits that have endowments in the hundreds of millions of dollars. You just have to wonder, where is the dollar that you're giving going to be used in the most impactful way? Now, I'm not arguing against endowments. I've been trying, since I've been here, to create one for Union Settlement. But it does seem like there are a lot of extremely wealthy people who continue to give extremely large amounts to extremely wealthy organizations. It just is a disconnect from my worldview.

What advice would you give a young person starting out in their career who wants to be the head of Union Settlement down the road? 

I don't want to knock the value of leadership, but I think the first question I’d ask is: What do you really want to do?

On Friday, we're having a going away event for someone who's been an early childhood teacher for 40 years. She's been helping two, three, four and five-year-olds her entire life. That's an incredibly valuable thing that she's done. She's impacted way more people in her career than I ever will. 

So the first question I’d ask a young person is: Why do you want to be in leadership? What got you into the nonprofit world, and what is it you love about it? What’s driving you? A lot of people who work in social services are doing it because they want the one-on-one contact. When you become an administrator at a high level, you lose a lot of that. I know that I can't claim to be close to our program participants. I'm not teaching anybody to speak English. I’m not helping a four-year-old get ready for kindergarten. There's no need to necessarily “move up” the ladder. Because it's not necessarily up. The teacher who's retiring after 40 years has had a phenomenally fulfilling life teaching young people.

But if you've decided that you want to get involved in management, you definitely need to continue your lifelong education. Take advantage of whatever professional development opportunity you can to learn management skills. And then keep your eyes open and look to see how other people act and behave, and try to find leaders and mentors along the way.