NYCx will open urban spaces as test beds for new technologies.
Through NYCx, the City of New York engages the tech industry to solve real-world problems and call on the tech vanguard to make NYC the most fair, equitable, and sustainable city in the world.
Co-Lab Challenges invite startups and entrepreneurs to work directly with community residents to solve neighborhood challenges while aiming to scale solutions for common issues for all New Yorkers.
Moonshot Challenges encourage global entrepreneurs to think big about NYC’s most ambitious problems, propose bold solutions, and deliver groundbreaking business models that transform and improve the lives of city dwellers globally.
“NYCx will transform the relationship between city government, community and the tech industry to be more collaborative and inclusive,” says Miguel Gamiño, Jr., New York City Chief Technology Officer. “If we can test and solve critical challenges together in NYC and achieve our City’s goals, we can offer these solutions for other cities facing similar issues.”
Can private equity be a driver of positive change for the environment, social justice and healthy institutions?
Civic Consulting USA says “Yes!”
In the investment community, environmental and social impact considerations are often abbreviated as “ESG,” which is short for “Environmental, Social, and Governance” factors.
There’s an increasing body of practice and research demonstrating that social impact considerations can drive bottom line returns for large, publicly-traded companies.
In fact, it is now common for pension funds and institutional investors to say that ESG considerations are important for long-term returns in the public markets. As Swiss Re Chief Investment Officer Guido Fuerer said, “Equities and fixed income products from companies and sectors with high ESG ratings have better risk-return ratios.”
However, in contrast to pension funds and endowments, which think decades ahead, private equity firms typically seek to deliver transformational value from the companies they control within just a few years. To date, the shorter-term focus of private equity firms has precluded most ESG or social impact considerations, particularly in the lower and middle market.
Until recently, only the largest publicly-traded private equity firms, such as Blackstone, KKR, or Carlyle, have had access to the financial and social benefits of ESG analysis. Due to their scale and public reporting requirements, such firms have dedicated teams to ESG due diligence and ESG board oversight. For these firms, it began as a risk-management function and good corporate housekeeping. However, it turned into a major source of value creation at their portfolio companies.
Strong ESG programs are driving customer satisfaction, brand equity, operational efficiencies, and happier, more productive employees – with combined EBITDA benefit in the tens of millions. These large firms have also taken millions of metric tonnes of carbon from the air and saved billions of gallons of water.
We believe these “double bottom line” benefits can spread to the middle market.
“We’re now seeing quantifiable examples of ESG initiatives delivering significant EBITDA value,” says ESG Portfolio Partners Principal Ted Knudsen. “Waste diversion, supply chain resilience, employee engagement, and productivity – these are all ways that the large cap PE firms are turning ESG into value for their LPs.”
Why is this important to the rest of us?
For one, US ranked 42 out of 45 OECD countries on the UN’s assessment of sustainable development. That means Americans live with greater inequality and pollution than our peers around the world.
Third, private equity firms typically hold onto their investments for less than six years. New paradigms can take root quickly and yield benefits for American families before kids currently in middle school graduate from high school.
“If private equity firms in America take up ESG as global counterparts have, it will drive far larger and faster improvement in energy efficiency, gender equity, and fair wages than any current government regulatory effort,” says Alexander Shermansong, CEO of Civic Consulting USA. “PE firms have the money and the control over company boards to make world-changing progress on these collective impact issues in just three to seven years.”
Civic Consulting USA is committed to original research, developing toolkits and best practices, and providing custom-tailored guidance for private equity leaders. Our data-based approach will help the industry better quantify their positive societal impact for reporting to all stakeholders: investors, governments and the general public.
A lifelong resident of Throggs Neck Housing, a development where problems are met with a plethora of excuses rather than a remedy, I doubted the NYC Housing Authority’s ability or even desire to improve living conditions. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I met the members of the executive staff: I sensed a true compassion and an earnest desire to improve the standard of living for NYCHA residents through the NextGen plan.
This opportunity came when Civic Consulting offered me a fellowship in a project intended to improve NYCHA — and it was quite easy to accept the opportunity! As a political science major I generally have a strong interest in government. As a lifelong resident of public housing, I have a specific interest in the New York City Housing Authority.
The positive culture which I experienced at the NYCHA headquarters reflects the dedication of the Chair Shola Olatoye. I was encouraged when Shola shared that some of her fondest childhood memories were of visiting her grandmother who lived in public housing. Her personal story made it evident that she did not perceive NYCHA as simply a place to store the impoverished, but rather as a place that thousands of New Yorkers call home and raise their families. The Chair also shared several initiatives that NYCHA had undertaken during her tenure, and she candidly assessed their levels of success.
My interaction with the Chair left me with the impression that NYCHA is indeed heading towards desperately needed improvements.
However, it is clear that the Chair’s desire to preserve NYCHA’s infrastructure has not yet reached all of the developments. Indeed, as I type this, I must continually stop to dust away fallen plaster which accumulates on my desk like freshly fallen snow – the ceiling has been in disrepair for nearly five years.
It was during this fellowship that I realized that individual developments have a considerable amount of autonomy in terms of maintenance and repairs. I suspect this may be at the heart of what many believe is a lack of accountability on the part of many developments. And this goes to show that, even after living at Throggs Neck my whole life, I didn’t know how certain parts work.
Undoubtedly, the most exciting and indeed the most enlightening part of my fellowship arose from the two focus groups I led at Brownsville Housing.
The first group consisted exclusively of tenants. Much of what I heard during that conversation was not unlike what I hear from my own neighbors. The residents were primarily concerned with slow repairs, sanitary conditions, and safety. The second group was comprised of NYCHA employees, almost exclusively maintenance workers and groundskeepers.
The employees voiced similar concerns as the tenants. Predictably, both sides had something of a biased slant in their evaluations of the problems, pointing fingers, yet they both expressed a willingness to be more proactive in working towards the promise of NextGen. This was very encouraging.
It would be incredibly productive to have a discussion between the participants of the two groups. This would allow both sides to have an open, honest and constructive dialogue with one another, in which the sides could discuss the best way to meet the goals of NextGen NYCHA together. Moreover, we would be able to assess more accurately where the greatest disagreements lay. Ultimately this could strengthen the relationship between staff and residents.
One of the most salient aspects of the fellowship was the opportunity to see the dynamics and quite frankly the virtues of a public-private partnership. I saw this most prominently during the board meetings held by Civic Consulting. It was interesting to watch a number of highly accomplished experts from diverse professional backgrounds pondered the issues facing NYCHA and offer advice and potential solutions that may be outside of the conventional wisdom of a government agency. I enjoyed learning about the ways in which government can incorporate tools developed by private forces to trigger organizational changes which ultimately help the government agency and its beneficiaries.
What I appreciate most about this type of public-private relationship, particularly as fostered by Civic Consulting, is that it is more concerned with genuine government improvement, rather than the profit motive.
Across America, businesses invest billions in pro bono services. In case after case, however, the civic spirit doesn’t translate into civic results. How can we fix this?
Too often, nonprofit and government executives look at securing pro bono support as an end in itself. We focus on finding a company to loan their staff, but then don’t pay as much attention to how to manage the free resources. As a result, too many projects end up sitting on a shelf. This poor implementation record has led to the common refrain: “You get what you pay for.”
The success rate is particularly dispiriting given the growing interest in pro bono work from the private sector. At conference after conference, skills-based volunteering is emerging as a hot trend. According to surveys, companies are looking for pro bono projects that are rewarding for their staff, provide professional development, and generate impact.
In any project, impact depends on a partner’s ability to deliver and also on the government agency’s skill at management. In many ways, managing pro bono resources is just the same as managing any other resources. It requires time, commitment, and honest feedback, even to the point of firing. In other ways, managing pro bono resources can be different: you need to be open with them before they’re on board, and the work needs to be meaningful.
Whoever your partner is, to translate their civic spirit into civic results, you need to be a good client for them. That means engaging them in the problem you’re trying to solve, not micromanaging their working activities. It means formalizing the relationship, just as you would with a contractor. And it means being open and honest even though it’s free. The following six guidelines spell out how to put these principles into practice.
Paint the big picture
Treat it as a “real” project
If it’s not working, speak up
Don’t get distracted
A transit authority executive noted that pro bono partners are better than paid vendors ― and not because of the price. In a typical procurement, he needs to specify the solution in detail before signing a contract. Sometimes, in the course of the work, he realizes the specifications were wrong, and he ends up paying the vendor to undo the work.
In contrast, with a pro bono partner, you’re not constrained by the public sector procurement process, and you have the chance to get experts to help you with the scope and specs. When the consultant is free, you have the freedom to figure out what you really need.
Paint the big picture
Companies contribute their time because they hope to make a real difference in the community. In practice, they donate three or four months of effort, which really isn’t enough to fix a sweeping problem. Therefore, it’s important for you to communicate how the project fits into the bigger picture.
In this vein, one city hall executive has secured millions of dollars of pro bono services because she provides full information about the problem and her situation. As she notes, “Once you describe the big picture, companies get really excited. They may end up doing graphic design for a public presentation, or legal analysis for new regulations, or a database of geographical and demographic data, but they understand how their small piece contributes to the big issues they read about in the paper.”
Treat it as a “real” project
Even when top companies are donating their time, the fact that their services are “free” can lead government agencies to believe they can define a project on the fly. Since the most successful projects have a fairly focused scope, officials should resist the temptation to improvise and instead chart a clear course at the outset.
Consider this example, when a budget director was asking an investment banker for help. She explained how they got into the situation (multi-hundred-million budget gap) and some of her big ideas to fix it. In response, the investment banker proposed a six week analysis to test these ideas. They staffed the project together, so that the analysis could be incorporated in real time into the executive budget. It works so well, the bank came back to do a similar project the following year and give another round of analysts the same high-impact experience.
If you wouldn’t pay a company to do work without a scope, why would you want a free company to work aimlessly? This approach will still siphon time from you and your staff―you just won’t know to what end.
If it’s not working, speak up
It’s hard to give good feedback to people giving things for free. (As noted above, these services aren’t really free.) Nonetheless, one of the best ways to develop rapport with a pro bono partner is to give targeted negative feedback when merited. Rather than turning away or shutting down, you will likely see an increased commitment to the project.
For example, here’s a great experience that was actually a horrible situation. The project wasn’t going anywhere. The team had spent two months on the ground without anything to show for it, and the project looked like a colossal waste of time. At that point, the agency head called the company requested a new project manager. Later, the company’s office head recalled, “This call showed a level a trust, a level of commitment – it was a chance to get back on track.”
Remember that ignoring a poorly performing project will guarantee that it produces nothing of value. Since companies do pro bono work for the public good, all parties are losing out.
Don’t get distracted
One of the top complaints of those who do pro bono work (although they rarely complain) is that government agencies aren’t responsive. Maybe they’ve asked for some analysis but don’t make the time to hear the results. Or a problem comes up, but they don’t make a decision. Or the partner sends emails but gets no reply.
In contrast, when professionals describe good work experiences, the responsiveness sounds a lot like the basics: you return calls, you don’t cancel meetings, you read your e-mail. But the basics take time – particularly when many agencies are already overwhelmed with their core responsibilities. Although being responsive can seem like a huge commitment, the benefits are apparent very quickly. As one senior consultant related, “The clients we work with are used to being reactive. Our resources give them the chance to be proactive―that’s what the time is for.”
Even before a project wraps up, it’s critical is to take action. Without your decision and action, their investment will wither on the shelf.
It’s easy to name the obstacles to implementation: your staff might be skeptical, you might not have all the details figured out, or maybe you don’t yet have the funds allocated for new systems. One of the biggest frustrations is when the end result is “shelfware”: detailed reports and recommendations, representing weeks or months of work, that just sit on a shelf.
To ensure that all of the work actually translates into tangible impact, it’s critical to assign staff as early as possible to oversee the implementation. The challenge: many government agencies simply don’t have the capacity. In the era of ever reducing head counts, it can be tough to find qualified staff who are willing and able to take on additional work.
We must be realistic about their capacity: if an initiative isn’t enough of a priority to assign an effective project manager, why should a partner donate its time and resources?
When executives from top companies in the city offer their assistance, it can be incredibly difficult to turn down. Government officials, resist the temptation to accept such help unless you are prepared to match the contributions of a partner with your own strategic vision and organizational resources. When you commit to these six guidelines, you’ll enjoy both long-term relationships – and results that really matter to your constituents.
But with disinvestment from all levels of government, NYCHA has been unable to keep homes in good shape and to connect residents to community resources and economic opportunities.
“Aggressive action is necessary to deliver to NYCHA’s residents the resources and services they have long deserved, and to sustain the Authority for the long term,” according to NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye. Therefore, NYCHA developed a long-term plan to change fundamentally how they operate in order to create safe, clean, connected communities.
In the midst of planning, the non-partisan nonprofit Civic Consulting offered pro bono assistance. And the first area of collaboration has been to develop a ground-floor leasing strategy.
With 328 developments around the city, NYCHA has tremendous space on the ground floor, in fact, 2.5 million square feet that’s non-residential. Roughly a tenth is zoned commercial, and those storefronts enjoy very low vacancy. The other spaces are often under-utilized or off line altogether: former laundry rooms, management offices, community centers, storage, and more.
As NYCHA leadership – including the Chair and the Vice President of Real Estate Services – discussed these assets with Civic Consulting, it became clear that NYCHA alone did not have the resources to repair and reprogram these spaces. New partnerships would be needed.
The question is, who has both the interest and the resources to unlock the potential of these spaces?
Representatives from 44 cities gathered in Miami last week. Why were so many cities, ranging from the bucolic to the megalopolis, gathered together?
It’s part of a major rethinking of the role of the federal government in the lives of city dwellers. Instead of just giving grants (or taking them away) the federal government and city executives think through their opportunities and implement innovative ideas.
This gathering is their second annual national gathering of peer cities. As a strategic partner to this White House led initiative, Civic Consulting USA was invited to participate.
I heard 44 different accomplishment and 44 different challenges. Despite the chain-store-suburbinization of many American cities, the diversity of assets was startling:
Dearborn Michigan’s home of Ford Motor Company is a regional draw for tourists – and now they’re using that as a magnet for jobs and talent
Passaic New Jersey’s growing rapidly, thanks to immigration (as many as a three-quarters were born in other countries) – and now they’re opening several new schools
Atlanta Georgia’s made the streetcars free so people can get around easily, making downtown that much more accessible – and now they need more housing downtown
I also heard striking similarities from these leaders: every community in America cares about three or four things: good jobs (or jobs generally), educating kids and families, safe neighborhoods – and how to pay for it all.
Moreover, I heard common answers about how to “make it work.”
First off, it takes a leader bold enough to set a bold goal. In Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (newly minted president of US Conference of Mayors) announced that the city aspires to attract 10,000 families to the city within the next 10 years. That takes reversing decades of population decline. Countering the tragedies of recent headlines. Cultivating a team of civil servants willing and able to figure it out. Stimulating a community-wide effort from across sectors to solve nuanced challenges, challenges like food deserts.
Secondly, it takes data and honesty. In the past, when a mayor set a bold goal, data were scarce, so it was easy enough to wait a few months and call it a win. Not anymore. We’re barraged with data from emails to infographics to open data. So city executives like those in Dallas who are willing to confront the brutal facts of sharply declining incomes are a step ahead in finding the answer. They’ve created NeighborhoodPlus a strategic framework to unite efforts across agencies, across sectors, and across the city.
Third, making it work takes allies on the ground. It’s not just press conferences where all the business executives or community leaders can stand by the podium and lend their name and face. It’s pragmatic partnerships where community colleges offer basic computer and customer service classes for city workers, as in Meridian Idaho. It’s partnerships where business leaders stand up and invest in joint priorities, as in Winston-Salem.
While we’re all different, we’re all the same when it comes to wanting to make it work in the places where all things social, economics and culture connect: our cities. As the chief of staff of – pick your city – said, Let’s do it.
Civic Consulting Minnesota is just getting started, and already they’re making news.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman asked the newly formed public-private pro bono partnership for help getting ready for the snow season.
The city is already implementing Civic Consulting’s recommendations and aims to clear snow on 90% of major streets within 20 hours of a major storm. Tracking social media will help identify areas that need extra attention.
Business Mentor NY began working with LinkedIn and Civic Consulting to connect with pro bono professionals throughout New York State. Civic Consulting connected Business Mentor NY with LinkedIn’s Volunteer Marketplace, a site for professionals to identify and pursue skills-based volunteering opportunities.
In a survey, 82% of LinkedIn members stated that they wanted to volunteer their skills.
“Business Mentor NY is a great opportunity for LinkedIn members to do just that, use their professional skills for social good,” said Alison Dorsey of LinkedIn.
The relationship with LinkedIn’s Volunteer Marketplace is a huge win for Business Mentor NY, enabling us to discover and connect with professionals who have expressed interest in high-quality, skills-based volunteering opportunities. And there are quite a few, as over one-million LinkedIn members have indicated that they would like to do skills-based volunteering!
Professionals are actively seeking out volunteer opportunities to leverage their skill sets make a positive impact on the world outside work. LinkedIn members also love Business Mentor NY, with hundreds of professionals applying to mentor our businesses.
Skills-based volunteering is good for your career, too.
Volunteering is a great way to develop leadership skills, expand your professional network, and obtain new skills by trying new approaches. In a LinkedIn survey, 42% of hiring managers stated that they consider volunteer work equivalent to full-time work experience. And 20% said they had hired someone because of her or his volunteer experience.
Try your passion on for size.
Everyone dreams of earning a living from what they love doing. Volunteering is a great way to test-drive your passion as a career. It’s an opportunity to do what you enjoy in a low-risk setting and also highlight your talents, which could prepare you for that dream job.
You never know who you’ll connect with.
Volunteering exposes you to people you would not encounter otherwise. Who knows, maybe you’ll help the next cronut-maker or Steve Jobs get off the ground!
With the help of pro bono partners, Chicago created a single, unified voice for all the great things you can do and see in the city, and tourism is growing.
Like many cities, Chicago used to have separate entities focused on attracting different types of tourists. This appeared to make sense: leisure tourists and business tourists were different animals (so the thinking went), and you needed different strategies and messages to attract each. But Chicago was not competing well in comparison to other cities like New York, and the City leaders wanted to know why.
They reached out to the Civic Consulting Alliance to help them estimate Chicago’s performance against other cities, and better understand the best practices in bringing tourists (and tourist dollars) into Chicago.
With support from the Civic Consulting Alliance and pro bono partners Griffin Strategic Advisors LLC and Jones Day, the City of Chicago looked at ten comparable cities (including Philadelphia and New York), and what they found surprised them. It appeared that cities with unified marketing strategies were more successful at attracting all kinds of tourists.
With this in mind, in the summer of 2012 the City of Chicago merged two separate marketing entities creating a single organization, Choose Chicago, charged with promoting both leisure and business tourism to the city. Since Choose was created, tourism has risen significantly, with record hotel occupancy of more than 75 percent and record visitation of more than 46 million visitors in 2013.
Indeed, Chicago’s efforts have been so successful that now they are getting noticed. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently highlighted Choose Chicago as a model that Philadelphia (one of the ten cities Chicago initially used to compare itself) might want to emulate.
They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, and why wouldn’t another city want to copy a success like this? Bringing together public and private partners to seek new and practical solutions that help cities grow is at the heart of the Civic Consulting model. Kudos to the Civic Consulting Alliance, and to Philadelphia for knowing a good thing when they see it.
It’s refreshing to step out of the corporate world for a bit and do a pro bono project. There is a lot that the public and private sectors can learn from each other.
When the new mayor of NYC was coming into office, I had the chance to work with the transition team as a pro bono consultant. Our team (drawn from a few different firms) was part of shaping the future of one America’s greatest cities, with a large and diverse population.
Honestly, I was unsure of how the partners from other firms would come together, but Civic Consulting USA did an excellent job of providing structure and leading the team to accomplish a lot in a short time period.
In this case, each member of the team worked with a subcommittee, and I was in charge of technology. This subcommittee was filled with leaders of some of the city’s largest technology companies, tech entrepreneurs and investors, and academics.
I was able to strengthen my executive communication and leadership skills by planning and conducting workshops with this influential group. I also built a great network of professionals that I still keep in touch with since the project has completed.
At the beginning of any major transition there are lots of big ideas and goals. One of the areas that Civic Consulting USA along with their pro bono partners excelled in was bringing a pragmatic and thorough approach, prioritizing and creating action plans to bring these big ideas to life.
We left the mayor’s new team with a solid start to running the largest and most complicated city in America – and if you can do that here you can do it anywhere!