Leading Across Boundaries: A Conversation with GNOF’s Andy Kopplin

In 2016, after over twenty years in leadership roles in state and local government, Andy Kopplin became President & CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation (GNOF), a community foundation with nearly $350 million in assets under management. In this interview with Makiyah Moody, Senior Consultant at La Piana Consulting, Andy reflects on the power of partnership between philanthropy and the public sector; the work required to create a vibrant, sustainable, and just region for all; and GNOF’s markers of success.

Congratulations on the success of Give NOLA Day! $5.6 million is quite a feat.  Andy Kopplin

Thank you. It’s very exciting and was great to surpass our goal of raising $5 million for local nonprofits. (Andy Kopplin pictured right.)

What’s the most exciting thing about being President and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation?

Putting the community foundation to work in creating transformative civic leadership projects and seizing opportunities in the region. In the last few decades, the best community foundations in the country have focused on using their perch as the philanthropic aggregator of funds in their region while also using their voice, convening power, and grantmaking to take leadership in addressing broader community-wide issues.

For instance, GNOF has been doing a lot of work-related to urban water management. We are addressing a problem that is not unique to New Orleans, but that manifests in unique ways here. Given how New Orleans is situated, drawing water out of the water table creates a dry sponge effect; we increase subsidence and become more vulnerable to flooding. The solution to that is greener infrastructure so when it rains the water doesn’t have to run into our over-burdened drainage system, but instead goes into porous spaces: parks, pervious pavement, bioswales. The water is absorbed by green infrastructure, minimizing flooding from rain and reducing subsidence by replenishing the water table.

We are about to embark on a strategic plan for an area adjacent to downtown New Orleans, which entails the redevelopment of the Charity Hospital building, a sacred and iconic building in New Orleans.

It’s been shuttered since Katrina twelve years ago and the neighborhood around it is dying a slow death. The opportunity exists for us to catalyze significant job creation from this plan and spur growth in the region, and to do so in a way that is equitable and inclusive. Our plan is to get ahead of the job growth so that New Orleanians have access to this new innovation district through job training programs, access to affordable housing, public transportation, etc., so that everyone can be part of this success. It’s not just the economic development, but how that can be maximized for the benefit of the entire community. When businesses come here, they figure out how to hire people; they don’t necessarily figure out how to hire people who have previously been left out of opportunities.

After more than 20 years working in government, you transitioned to your current role. What are the similarities compared to your role as First Deputy Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer for the City of New Orleans?

The similarity is that we are broadly working on the same problems. We are working less in philanthropy on fixing potholes than when I was at the City, but we are focused on education, job training, the environment, inclusive economic growth, etc. The problems are largely the same that public sector actors worry about.

Our best work in government occurred when we partnered with philanthropy. I always recognized how that interaction looked from the public sector side of the table. I tell people all the time that there was nothing I liked more than walking into a City Council meeting with a colleague from philanthropy giving us a grant to launch or expand an exciting program. We were able to do innovative things that the City Council didn’t want to fund but philanthropy would take a risk to fund. Now I can play that same kind of role by using our resources in partnership with the public sector to create policy changes that influence the spending of public dollars.

I imagine that your insights from City Hall inform your approach to work at GNOF given the front row seat you’ve had to the interdependence and complexity of the problems facing New Orleans. Can you share a specific example about how your work at City Hall impacts your decision making at GNOF?

Philanthropy should never attempt to replace government spending. We just don’t have enough money — even Gates and Bloomberg don’t have enough. We can be very influential in innovating, funding pilot projects, and inspiring new ways of thinking about public expenditures. 

I’ve gone from being a decision maker to an influencer. I am the decision maker for a staff of 26 with an operating budget of $3.5 million; we give out $20-30 million in grants each year, compared to the City’s 4,000 employees and $600 million in expenditures. If I want to solve community problems from a chair at the Foundation, it’s usually by influencing others to take action rather than taking direct action myself. We can’t write a big enough check to solve those problems — but we can use our voice to influence the outcomes sought.

Considering your roles as First Deputy Mayor and President and CEO of GNOF, are there differences in how you build agreement toward action? Are the tools at your disposal as a foundation leader different or the same as in your previous role? 

Influencing is the key. I worked hard in my government leadership roles to be a consensus builder and persuade people of my point of view, but I also had the ability in those executive roles to make the ultimate decision myself. In this foundation role, at least with regard to larger initiatives, I don’t hold all the control. The ability to persuade and influence is critical to our success since we don’t have unilateral, decision-making authority.

People think of foundations as sources of financial support, but community foundations that have bigger impact often look at how they use their position to frame issues, convene the community (at various levels) around those issues, and how they leverage their dollars in the process. How would you describe GNOF’s role(s) in the community? Which tools do you see as most valuable in fulfilling that role(s)?

We are most successful when we utilize our tools in unison. People think of us as a grantmaker — and we are. In the area of water management, we have given lots of grants to organizations focused on green infrastructure. We are now working together with them as part of an advocacy community of practice focused on influencing public policy around land use, around green infrastructure and water management. At the Foundation, we are also exercising our own vocal chords and advocating in public for the kinds of changes that advance our goals and help our grantees be more effective. We are harnessing our grantees’ impact by putting our voice and muscle, as well as convening power, behind them.

We just hosted a forum with and The New York Times around water issues. Also, we gathered about 100 citizens from various cross-sectors of the city and briefed them on the challenges we face and solutions that may help change the public policy. And, we are simultaneously spurring policy change and enhancing the effectiveness of our grantees. If we were only giving grants, we would be less effective.

Having lived in New Orleans for six and a half years, I know it’s a special place with heart, soul, and a rich history. With respect to some of the environmental challenges affecting the state (i.e. coastal restoration, climate change, hurricane recovery, etc.) what role does GNOF play in developing a sustainable region?

There are some interesting things we’ve done that reflect our unique value proposition. One example of a leadership role we’ve taken is that we funded a FUSE Corps Fellow to develop a climate action plan for the City. A clear action plan, including adaptation measures, now exists. It cost some money to develop the plan, and that plan is now leveraging tens of millions of dollars in public and private expenditures in a more thoughtful way.

GNOF prides itself on bringing people, ideas, and capital together to help create a thriving community for all. How does GNOF define success — and are you reaching it?

Our vision is to create a more economically vibrant, environmentally sustainable, and just region for all. A few years ago, we set up an LGBTQ fund which we saw as an important opportunity for the Foundation to take a public stance around the important work that many LGBTQ agencies are doing in the community. We’ve also been hosting workshops from the Campaign for an Equitable New Orleans, working to address racial inequities in our region. Every day we work in areas that bring us closer to our vision. We are all aspirational, so there’s never a final victory.

Comment section

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *