Leader to Leader: Rich Leimsider

The and founder and campaign director speaks to New York Nonprofit Media.

Rich Leimsider, founder and campaign director of and

Rich Leimsider, founder and campaign director of and (Photo courtesy of Rich Leimsider)

Rich Leimsider had a lightbulb moment in May of 2022.  After years of frustrated attempts to escape his student loan debt, he finally succeeded in achieving relief through the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.  

Thousands of other nonprofit and public sector workers were eligible for the same benefit, but few knew that it existed.  Leimisider saw an opportunity to make a difference on a massive scale.  “If my fellow nonprofit and government leaders don’t act fast to spread the word, our colleagues may lose billions of dollars forever,” he wrote in a commentary published in New York Nonprofit Media in June

Thus was born, a campaign designed to encourage nonprofit and government workers to take advantage of a special waiver that expired at the end of October.  Leimsider assembled a coalition that included Robin Hood, Nonprofit New York, the Human Services Council, SSE 317 and others to help educate potentially eligible federal student loan borrowers.  The coalition estimates that in less than six months, it helped roughly 50,000 public sector and nonprofit staffers access $3 billion in loan forgiveness from the federal government.  

Leimsider talked to NYN’s Greg Berman about putting together the campaign, his prior experience leading the legal assistance organization Safe Passage Project, and the unique advantages of having a master’s degree in both social work and business.

Berman: So is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness campaign officially done now?  If so, how has it gone?

Leimsider: Our campaign ended on October 31st when the federal waiver ended. The federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program still exists and there are definitely still other organizations that are continuing to do policy and advocacy work around it. And there are still individuals that are filing paperwork and finding out that they got their loans forgiven. But our work as a campaign ended on October 31st. We had a staff of six and everybody's last day on payroll was November 15th.  I'm still on part-time status just for another week or two, writing grant reports and shutting down social media accounts, that kind of thing.

Berman: How would you assess the success or failure of the effort?

Leimsider: I could not be more gratified by the amazing group of individuals and organizations that came together. Pretty conservatively, we moved 50,000 people towards $3 billion in loan forgiveness, which it is kind of outrageous. The average loan amount forgiven under this program is $62,000.  

On the one hand, 50,000 people is pretty robust. At the same time, it should have been a million. There are a million people who could have benefited and there was $100 billion on the table.  The vast majority of that money didn't move. I really did have hope that we would change the lives of a million people, but 50,000 people is still pretty amazing. And $3 billion is bigger than anything I've ever done and maybe ever will do.

Berman: One of the things that struck me about your effort was its planned obsolescence, that you chose to organize a campaign with a specific end date. You could argue that the same amount of energy that you spent getting this thing off the ground could have gone into establishing a permanent organization or an ongoing program as part of some larger organization. Did you think about those things or did you always know that you wanted the campaign to be a time-bounded effort?

Leimsider: I always knew that this was going to be a time-bounded effort.  It was really necessitated by the time-bounded reality of the opportunity. Right from the beginning, we knew that this was a one-year waiver to a government program. And by the time I really learned that it was real, seven months had already passed. So that was just the reality. But now, as I reflect on it, I am convinced that not only was this the perfect way to set up this project, but that this is something that other social entrepreneurs should consider.  

We essentially built a pop-up nonprofit.  We got fiscal sponsorship from the Fund for the City of New York. I was able to collect tax-deductible contributions within a week of deciding that this was a thing. The website was built in five days for less than $3,000. It was incredibly freeing to know that this was going to be a short-term thing. So, with the website for example, we didn't take three months worrying about building a site architecture that was sustainable and that would last for years. We knew it was going to go away, so we could move in a quick and dirty way.  This also applies to onboarding staff. During our first staff call, I said to the team that we are never going to have a retreat. We are not going to be investing a lot in our team culture. We all just need to be ready to get this stuff done and then we're going to be hopefully really proud of what we did and we're going to disband. And that was pretty much what happened.

I think it was also refreshing for our funders.  There were absolutely organizations that were supportive of the idea but totally unable to consider writing a check because they have a six-month process to make a decision.  But for other folks, it was really appealing for me to say, “I am never, ever coming back for more funding for this. I'm really just asking for one check. We're going to do something incredible together and you don't have to worry that I'm going to be added to your portfolio for the next three years.”

Berman:  Your campaign reminded me in some ways of the very first thing that I worked on in New York, which was helping the New York Foundation create the New York Common Application to expedite the grant proposal process for nonprofits, a reform that was ultimately institutionalized by Philanthropy New York.  I often find myself drawn to technocratic fixes.  But many foundations these days seem to be focused on supporting systemic change.  Did you feel like this limited your fundraising in any way? 

Leimsider: I actually didn't find that to be the case.  As I've experienced my entire career, when you want to put your best foot forward, there are different elements of the work that are more or less appealing depending on who you're talking to. And so while there absolutely was a technocratic element to what we were doing, there was also a finance element to this idea.  And there was a public-private partnership element.  And then there was the thing that got me the most energized, which was the racial justice implications. 

A lot of the funders we approached were familiar with what is known as “benefits access.” Our campaign was kind of a perfect case of benefit access because $60,000 on average is just a massive, life-changing amount of money. But also the biggest opportunity was Black women. That is the group that bears a disproportionate burden of student loan debt in this country. I guess that's a long way of saying that there were enough great things about the project that I don’t think the technocratic aspect of it turned anybody off.

Berman: You stepped down from leading the Safe Passage Project in 2021.  What was it like to go through a transition like that in the middle of a once-in-lifetime global health crisis?

Leimsider: Safe Passage had sort of weathered some real hits and intense moments during the Trump administration. Organizationally, we had doubled in size.  Most of our staff had fewer than a year's tenure when COVID hit.  I actually had a colleague who had one of the first cases of COVID in early March of 2020.  Staff were terrified about what it meant to be in the office.  It was all really intense.  At the end of it, I was in a place where I just needed a break. And thankfully the board felt that the organization was in a good place. In fact, they wound up taking an entire year before they brought a new executive director on, which I think was a vote of confidence that the organization was in strong hands. I stayed on contract for a few months to aid in the transition. 

Berman: You left Safe Passage without having a firm plan of what came next. One of the things that I admire about your career is your willingness to take risks, to try new things and to learn from failure. That doesn't come easy to a lot of people. 

Leimsider: It definitely doesn't come naturally to me, but I've had some really formative experiences. I worked at a place called Echoing Green, which was all about supporting start-up social ventures. And so I kind of got to watch all of these people start things like Teach for America and Freelancers Union. Watching these folks take an idea from nothing and turn it into a world-changing enterprise in some cases, made me realize that it was possible. It definitely made it seem a little bit more normal to do something like that. I'm incredibly lucky.  My kids are in good shape.  My wife has health insurance.  So I know I can stick out periods of not being entirely sure what comes next. 

Berman: You are one of the rare people I have met who has a background in both social work and business. How did you come to make that particular choice and how have those two educational experiences shaped your approach to nonprofit leadership?

Leimsider: My first job out of college was working at the New York City Department of Homeless Services through the New York City Urban Fellows program. When I was working at DHS, it felt to me like everybody who worked in the main office was either a lawyer or had an MBA, and everyone who ran a homeless shelter was a social worker. And as a 21-year old kid just kind of watching it all, it really felt like they didn't know how to talk to each other. It felt like both had really important perspectives on how you should serve homeless folks in this city. But there was a real disconnect by vocabulary, by culture, and by presumption of what one could do or couldn't do. I really liked the idea of speaking both of the languages that I saw being spoken at Homeless Services. 

Berman: Talk to me a little bit about the Urban Fellows Program.  I'm a product of a competitor program, the Coro Fellows, which had a big impact on my development. Would you say the same thing about Urban Fellows?

Leimsider: It was incredibly transformative. I think it also has been transformative for the city. The program brings together a wonderfully diverse group of recent college graduates. Many of the people I met are still my best friends 25 years later.  Over the years, there have been so many incredible Urban Fellows who have contributed enormously to the infrastructure of the city. Bill de Blasio was a New York City Urban Fellow, although he never liked to talk about it. 

Berman: You've been engaged with the nonprofit sector for the bulk of your professional career. I'm interested in how you would assess the state of play in the sector at the moment. What do you feel good about? What makes you worried?

Leimsider: I can't help but start by saying the nonprofit sector is sort of a weird concept. It’s weird to define something by what it's not. When we say the “nonprofit sector,” we're mostly talking about organizations that are incorporated as 501(c)3 organizations under the tax code.  And then there’s the reality that the nonprofit sector contains multitudes, including huge hospital chains, churches, and universities. 

Most of my experience has been with human service-oriented nonprofit organizations. The nonprofits that I care the most about are trying to solve problems that capitalism isn't solving on its own. So it's not a shock that there's not a great earned income way of funding most of those organizations.  So that leaves philanthropy and government contracts.  I think the nonprofit sector has always had a weakness for trying to fashion itself around whoever the latest philanthropists are. In my career, I've seen nonprofits try to describe themselves in the terms of venture capital, big data, and artificial intelligence among other things.

Berman: That’s an interesting observation, that nonprofits tend to take on the coloration of their funders.  It reminds me of all of the emphasis that was placed on metrics and evaluating impact during the first part of my career, which I think was at least in part an effort to get nonprofits to think more like the businesses that were the source of some of their revenue.  

Leimsider: My MBA experience really informs how I feel about all of this. That training allowed me to understand how much BS there is in the business world. One of the reasons I wanted to go to business school was I wanted to be able to be in a room with anybody who would say, "Why aren't you running this nonprofit like a business?" and to be able to say, "I know that a lot of the so-called precise analysis that happens in investment banking is really just some 24-year old making some assumptions on a spreadsheet somewhere."

I definitely feel comfortable pushing back on this idea of running nonprofits like a business. I think there's a lot of nonsense tied up in that.  At the same time, I love numbers and data. I have not always done the best job helping my colleagues understand that, from my perspective, efficiency is a social justice issue. I absolutely believe that if we can serve 10% more children with the budget we have by finding inefficiencies in how we operate, then that's more lives actually served. So to me the idea of talking about efficiency in operations was never a shameful thing.  It was about real human beings. 

I care a lot about data and metrics, but what gives me pause is when the numbers are made up for partners or funders with of a wink and a nod on both sides.  I do think there's a lot of pretend evaluations that would never be considered academically rigorous. Friedrich Hayek, the economist, when he gave his Nobel Prize-winning speech, talked about what he called the “pretense of knowledge.” I think there's a lot of pretense of knowledge in the nonprofit sector.

Berman: Social entrepreneurialism is obviously a through line in your career. Do you think it has become easier for new initiatives to emerge in the nonprofit sector?

Leimsider: The technology, and the availability of consultancies and outsourcing makes it much, much easier to start something.  Starting up this PSLF project, I didn't have to be good at accounting or finance. I didn't have to be smart about legal issues.  All of these kinds of things, I could bring on partners for. I didn't have to invent Twitter or social media. There’s off-the-shelf tools like Squarespace that will help you make a website really quickly. Stuff like that used to take you a year. We kind of got it going in two weeks. All of that is pretty new and massively helpful.

At the same time, I have to acknowledge that the combination of the relationships I have built over a pretty long career and the realities of race and gender privilege in our society make it much easier for me than it might be for somebody else. I'm glad that I was able to raise the money that I did for the PSLF campaign. But I don't think it's as easy for people of color to walk into a room and have somebody hand them 50 grand or 100 grand based on an idea. Things like money and access still matter a lot. And those things are still not fairly allocated in our society.