Local Philanthropy Gets a Fresh Face
The Greater New Orleans Foundation has a new address and a new leader, Andy Kopplin, who wants to improve the way we put our people – and our water – to work.
David Joshua Jennings
If you were to peek through one of the windows of that gleaming new building on Lee Circle between St. Charles and Howard avenues, you’d likely spot a group hard at work on a complex problem. The topic might be underemployment or water management or the upcoming GiveNOLA day, but the discussion would probably include Andy Kopplin, who took the helm of the Greater New Orleans Foundation (GNOF) as president and CEO in August 2016.
Kopplin joined the foundation from City Hall, where he served for more than six years as first deputy mayor and chief administrative officer in the office of Mayor Mitch Landrieu. His career has also included leadership positions with Teach for America and the Louisiana Recovery Authority, where he helped marshal resources for the state’s rebuilding efforts after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as chief of staff roles with Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Gov. Mike Foster. He’s a man who not only knows his way around a problem but understands the importance of gathering the right resources to find a solution.
In this interview, held in the Chevron Learning Center at the GNOF (the room you might see through those soaring windows), Kopplin talks about the role of philanthropy in the region’s development, as well as his personal goals for the foundation. This interview was edited for length.
Biz: How did your time in City Hall prepare you for this role with the foundation?
Kopplin: In many of my public sector careers, the best work we’ve been able to achieve was done in partnership with philanthropy. Nowhere was that more true than in New Orleans, where, post-Katrina, so many people from around the world were working to help us. My favorite moments before the City Council came when we had an initiative that required extra resources, extra talent, an extra push — and we found a philanthropist willing to co-invest in that. Then I could say, ‘The Ford Foundation is going to do this, or the Rockefeller Foundation is going to invest in this, or the Bloomberg Philanthropies are going to invest in this…’
When you think about a community foundation, it is really broad in terms of its mission. The challenges that we’re seeking to address are the challenges that elected officials are seeking to address. It’s just a different vantage point. The mayor often says that if you’re really going to improve a community, you’ve got to have sustained leadership from City Hall and government, from the business community, from the faith-based community, and from philanthropy. And so, after six and a half years of working for Mayor Landrieu, I told him, ‘I’ve been listening to that speech. It’s time for me to switch chairs.’
Biz: The foundation covers an incredibly extensive range of issues — many of them the biggest challenges our region faces. How can the GNOF have an impact in those areas?
Kopplin: I’ll give you an example of one of the things we’ve been doing a lot recently, which is working on this strategy of living with water. New Orleans has been fighting water for 300 years — trying to get the water out. For most of our history, that’s literally been our strategy: figuring out how to drain the rainwater as quickly as possible and pump it back over into the lake. It worked so well that we’re reducing the amount of groundwater in the water table, and because we’re built on clay, the clay condenses, and we sink.
We have to reverse that hydrology. We’ve got to make sure there’s enough water in the water table so we don’t sink, yet remove enough water so that we don’t flood. A lot of the research that’s been done since Katrina has been funded by our environmental program here at the foundation. Now we’re trying to create a movement around our planners and architects here in town, so that every building is built like this brand new one for the GNOF. This building can handle a 10-inch rain onsite, and we use the water that hits the ground on our property to replenish the water table so that subsidence is reduced.
If every building were built like this in the community, we’d actually solve that problem. So one of the things we’ve been working on is trying to show by example — to give grants, to create a movement where everybody is doing this — because our survival as a city truly depends on it.
Biz: If you had to pick an area of focus that is your top priority, personally, what might that be?
Kopplin: One of our current programs that I would love to see us expand dramatically is a workforce training program called New Orleans Works (NOW). We asked healthcare providers what positions they are struggling to fill, and we heard that medical record clerks were hard for them to retain. They were hiring the wrong people. Folks would come out of college, become a medical record clerk, and as soon as they found a job that they liked better, they would leave. At Ochsner, the turnover was roughly 50 percent.
So after exploring with them what they needed, we decided we could help. We gave a grant to a local nonprofit to help us find folks who weren’t actively employed but who had the skills (high school diploma, GED) where a [three- or four-month] training program at Delgado could give them what they need to be successful. Ochsner was our first partner — they led the way. We asked them: ‘Will you guarantee that you’ll hire the folks that we train?’ Which, for an employer, is not usually what you do. But to their credit, they did. The end of the story is that Ochsner has now hired over 80 people. The retention rate is 92 percent. They’re thrilled. And if you ask [Ochsner CEO] Warner Thomas, he’ll say the reason it works and the reason folks are sticking around is because we’ve helped change their lives.
That program is now with a bunch of other healthcare providers —including LCMC, Tulane and others — but I want to see that program expand in an enormous way, beyond health care, into the infrastructure system. There is still this persistent problem where 44 percent of the African-American men in New Orleans are un- or underemployed. And we’re about to spend $3 billion in the city over the next decade to rebuild our physical infrastructure. So if we can find some of those men, get them trained, and get them connected to jobs, we can really make a serious impact. And it’s not just a New Orleans thing. Coastal restoration work involves similar job skills, and they’re going to spend $8 billion of BP’s money rebuilding our coast. It is a huge opportunity for folks in the Greater New Orleans region to get the jobs rebuilding the region.
Biz: Does the GNOF also help with quick hit efforts, like disaster relief?
Kopplin: Part of what we’ve learned to do — through Katrina, the BP oil spill, and other events — is what they call ‘disaster philanthropy.’ We just had this devastating tornado in New Orleans East, and within half a day, we opened up a fund. We got it onto the news, and Trombone Shorty, who’s a partner of ours in different efforts, heard about it. He said, ‘I’ll give you $50,000 to match the first $50,000 of donations.’ So in 64 hours, we raised enough to match that money. And then other folks kept joining us — the Pelicans, the NBA, the NBA Players Association, Brand Jordan — as well as thousands of folks who were hearing about us in the media and gave small contributions — $20 here, $50 there. Within the first couple of days, we had checks out to the nonprofits who were in the field supporting families with their housing and recovery needs. It’s what we ought to be able to do in a moment like that for our community.
Biz: How does GNOF ensure that its nonprofit partners are a smart investment for donors?
Kopplin: Let’s take GiveNOLA day as a start. A lot of our nonprofits have never done any kind of online marketing or online fundraising, so GiveNOLA day is really a partnership. It’s not just that we’re out there saying, ‘Donate online.’ We train the nonprofits to build their mailing lists and to send good messages out. Because it builds their capacity to be able to do this on their own.
And that is just one example. In the Chevron Learning Center at the foundation, almost every day, there are trainings for nonprofits. We train boards on governance, we offer executive director training, supervisory training, fundraising training, sustainability training… Part of that is because those organizations are doing great work, and they don’t have the resources to send their people to California to get some expert. But we can get a great trainer in front of 30 or 40 or 60 of them right here in this building and give them the assistance that they need to do well.
For our fund holders who are making big investments in nonprofits or folks who are donating on GiveNOLA day, they want to know that those organizations are well managed and that they are using wise fiscal, HR and legal practices. That’s what we call our nonprofit effectiveness division, and we’re really proud of it. Not a lot of folks around the country in community foundations do that work, but we think it’s essential to making sure we get our money’s worth when we make those investments.
Biz: GiveNOLA Day is one of the most visible initiatives of the GNOF, and this one will be your first as CEO. What are you most excited about?
Kopplin: May 2, 2017, is our fourth GiveNOLA day. We’ve got more than 700 nonprofits, and we’re going to raise $4.5 million in a 24-hour period. Every hour there will be prizes that folks can win for their nonprofits. We call it ‘Rock around the Clock.’ There’s a ticker board that shows how much your nonprofit raised so far and how much we’ve raised for the community. We’re also going to have what we’re calling the GiveNOLA Fest here on our property. Everybody is welcome to come. We’re going to have bands playing, including Rebirth and Big Sam’s Funky Nation, so we’re pretty excited about that.
Biz: What does this new building represent for the organization?
Kopplin: I was not a part of the organization at the time they did the capital campaign, but I think what they discovered is that the GNOF, which was started in 1983 but has a history dating back to the Community Chest in 1923, was a great asset for our community, but no one knew what we were doing. And part of that was that we had no address. Our board leadership at the time said we need to increase the prominence so that we can be more effective. And we can revitalize a blighted corner of Lee Circle.
As they developed these plans, they got excited about developing in ways that matched our vision and our values. We have a green LEED-certified building. It’s 42 percent more efficient than the city code requires. We co-host events here all the time with organizations that are doing important things in the region. We tell folks that it’s our home, but it’s the community’s building, and we want to make it available and accessible to our partners as often as possible.
Biz: Where would you hope to see the GNOF in a few years’ time?
Kopplin: For us to be playing the role that we should play, which is for folks to think of us as the go-to place for strategic philanthropy in in the region. If they’ve got a challenge, if there’s a real opportunity to make a difference in our region, that they come to the foundation as a partner who’s going to be able to help identify the solutions and convene the people to help sort things out — and then gather the resources and momentum to get something done.
If we can build, success by success, our way into that role, then the foundation will be able to meet its mission and really be a valued partner throughout the 13 parishes that we serve in the Greater New Orleans region.
“Imagining Argentina,” by Lawrence Thornton. A great but obscure novel about how the mothers of those who were “disappeared” by Argentina’s dictators used the power of their imaginations to create a movement that changed their world. I’m always reminded of this when I think about how visionaries—from Ben Franklin and MLK, Mandela and Vaclav Havel, to my old boss at Teach For America, Wendy Kopp—inspired great movements with their ability to imagine a very different future.
Favorite TV shows?
I rarely watch. But I love catching up on missed sketches from late night comedy shows online. I like Samantha Bee’s quick sarcasm and satire through a feminist lens. James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” from “The Late Late Show” is a favorite.
Who do you look up to?
Dr. Norman C. Francis, longtime Xavier University president and chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. He’s the definition of a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner. He leads with wisdom, grace, and love and has had the steely-eyed courage and determination to fight through more insurmountable obstacles than we will ever know.
Biggest life lessons learned?
When I was the parent of teenagers, I learned my greatest life lesson. Don’t punt on the hard stuff. Don’t just leave it for my wife. Men often get a pass on engaging in the emotionally painful, the unpleasant, the awkward. Living through several challenging years, I learned to truly listen to what’s being said, to work to understand and acknowledge where they are coming from rather than constantly focusing on “what I think.” Sometimes what seems like a “teaching moment” is better served with a hug or a smile. Requires daily commitment.
Best advice ever received?
Mayor Landrieu always told us to do what is hard for the sake of doing what is right.
And from one of my friends: You don’t have to make peace between Israel and Palestine to change the world around you; you just need to smile.
Cycling around on the 100+ miles of new bike lanes we have in New Orleans, playing in the Uptown Softball League, going to see live music. April is the best month for that between French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest!
I’m addicted to reading politicalwire.com. It’s the best national political news blog, started by a friend of mine from graduate school.
Negativity. I try not to waste time or ruin a good mood by getting aggravated about things I cannot control.
What would you say is our region’s biggest strength?
We have a history of reinventing ourselves as required by the times, the post-Katrina period of dramatic, entrepreneurial change being the most recent example. I think our ability to do this has always depended on, and will continue to depend on, our openness to ideas and innovation, to entrepreneurs and artists, and to the contributions of those whose families immigrated here and those whose families were brought here against their will.
Click here to see Andy Kopplin's Beyond The Magazine video interview.