Interview with David Saltzman

After leading the Robin Hood Foundation for 27 years, Saltzman reflects on his time fighting poverty in New York

When David Saltzman was 27, he took a risk. His friends had an idea to pool their resources and knowledge and create a ­poverty-fighting superfunder focused on New York City. But nobody wanted to leave their job to run a grantmaker with an uncertain future. All other options exhausted, the founding board turned to Saltzman and asked if he would take the position. Leaving his safe government perch and recruiting his college buddy, ­Norman Atkins, to be co-­executive director, he took the leap.

Twenty-seven years later, Saltzman is finally moving on—and leaving behind a massively larger organization. Since 1988, the Robin Hood Foundation has raised more than $2.5 billion for New York City charities for the poor, and built a reputation as a leader in targeting philanthropy for maximum effect.

In his next phase, Saltzman will remain on the Robin Hood board, as well as the board of the Relay Graduate School of Education, a top trainer of charter-school teachers. In the Robin Hood offices in Union Square, ­Philanthropy met with the lifelong New Yorker and asked him about his organization’s founding, education reform, New York in the 1980s, and how he managed to stay in one job for half his life without burnout.

Philanthropy: Aside from college, you’ve lived your whole life in New York. How has the city changed over time?

Saltzman: When I graduated from college, New York was tough and seedy and unsafe. Think about Taxi Driver, the Martin Scorsese movie with ­Robert De Niro. That’s what New York was like back then. Every woman would walk around with her keys in her fist in case she needed to defend herself, and nobody I knew felt safe walking around at night by themselves. The murder rate was sky high. Today New York City is the safest big city in the country. Back then, it was one of the least safe big cities. It was also decimated by AIDS and crack and a fear of not being able to fight its way back to prosperity. All the same, there was tremendous pride, and lots of hope, and that’s what saved New York.

Philanthropy: So why did you settle in the city?

Saltzman: I was born and raised in New York. My parents were born and raised in New York. It was home, and I had an overwhelming desire to try and do whatever I could to make my hometown better. It bothered me, it angered me, it inspired me, that the biggest city in the United States of America, and an example for the rest of the world, had so many problems.

I went to Columbia University to get a master’s degree in public policy, and while I was there I started working for the city’s department of social services. I was helping homeless people, people with AIDS, and hungry people. Then I was asked to work at the department of health, where I taught adolescents about HIV.

The commissioner of health feared that prostitutes and their clients were going to spread HIV, and he asked me to help develop what was then a top-secret program to do outreach to street walkers. So from 9 to 5 I was working with adolescents, and then from 10 at night until 4 in the morning I was leading a small team trying to help the most vulnerable people avoid a deadly disease. It was the most depressing experience of my life and one of the experiences that most fueled me going forward.

Times Square at that time was a hub for prostitution. There were lots of others throughout the city, but Times Square was super seedy. We were working with people as young as 13, many of whom had been kicked out of their homes or run away, lots of abuse, and they were selling themselves for $5 with a condom, $10 without, often 10 or 12 times a night.

Each of those kids was going to die. Either somebody was going to kill them, or they were going to kill themselves. There was nothing that I could do to save those young people. I wanted to figure out what it would take to save lives.

Philanthropy: Along the way you met Paul Tudor Jones and other wealthy donors.

Saltzman: A professor of mine from graduate school was made president of the New York City board of education and asked me to be his right hand, so I was lucky at a very young age to be helping the head of the largest public-school system in the country. At the time there were 1.1 million public-school students. I helped him with policy, budget, legal, morale, press issues, etc. I imagined that that was how I would spend the rest of my life.

But my sister introduced me to the investor Glenn Dubin, and through him, I met Paul. What I was struck by when I met both of those people was how smart they were, how compassionate and caring and unlike the stereotype of successful people from the financial world.

Philanthropy: They had an idea for this organization called Robin Hood. How did they convince you to get involved?

Saltzman: Glenn is also a lifelong New Yorker and he felt a moral obligation to help. Paul grew up in Memphis, came to New York, and fell in love with the city, and felt he had a moral obligation to help others, too. They were both doing their own volunteering and they were both contributing their time and money.

One night, Paul had us over to dinner at his bachelor pad along with Peter ­Borish and Moe Chessa. Peter cares deeply about helping others and was working with Paul at Tudor Investment Corporation. Paul knew Moe through volunteer work in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which was then one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country. That night, Paul inspired us to come together to start what eventually became known as the Robin Hood Foundation. The idea was simple: let’s pool our intellectual, financial, and emotional resources to help our neighbors.

As the five of us began to share our hopes with friends and family, more and more people said, “Oh, I’d like to help. I’d like to be a part of that. I want to pool my resources, benefit from the thinking of others, and try to figure out how to help people who live just a few blocks away.” Robin Hood began to grow quickly.

Philanthropy: Robin Hood is famous for its hard focus on measuring results. Was that baked in from the beginning?

Saltzman: There was always a desire to apply investment principles to charitable giving. How do we make sure that we are having the maximum impact with our charitable dollars? How do we measure our success reaching our goals?

When we started, most traditional funding organizations received narrative applications from organizations seeking support, and then a professional would read those applications and allocate the money. It was clear to us that a well-written application might mean that there was a really terrific, lifesaving organization behind it, or it might just mean that there was a really gifted writer involved. Conversely, a lousy application might indicate the group is weak, or it could mean they are too busy saving lives to create fancy paperwork.

To get around this, the first thing we did was to visit organizations, just go and see what’s happening. Meet the people who were running and volunteering at the organizations and begin to look carefully at programming models and figure out if they were succeeding. Luckily, because we were focused solely on New York City, visiting an organization meant hopping on a subway or walking down the street, rather than getting on a plane.

Then we decided it would make sense to hire independent, third-party evaluators to measure the success of the groups that we were supporting. Many of our grantees didn’t have the resources to measure their success, so having an independent team come in, paid for by Robin Hood, to help them find out if they were meeting their goals, was a tremendous gift.

By then we had a sense of how individual organizations were doing, and how organizations with similar goals compared. For two schools serving similar populations, we could look at reading scores and math scores, attendance, graduation rates, what happened to people after they graduated or dropped out. Were girls having babies? Were boys becoming fathers too early? Were people ending up in prison? We could begin to see where there was an opportunity for us to make a difference.

What was really hard for us was comparing dissimilar organizations: a school vs. an early-childhood program vs. a job-­training project vs. a shelter for the homeless. It wasn’t until a wonderful, brilliant man by the name of Michael Weinstein joined Robin Hood that we were able to develop metrics that enabled us to compare dissimilar efforts. Michael and the team that he recruited really deserve credit for that. 

Philanthropy: You’ve said before that your founding team couldn’t find anyone to lead Robin Hood.

Saltzman: We offered the job to all sorts of people, and all sorts of people said no. We were all under the age of 32, and when we said our money was coming from a hedge fund nobody knew what that was—people thought it was a company pruning hedges, topiary. There was no reason for people to leave good jobs to work for a startup with an uncertain future.

So the other people on the board, truly reluctantly, asked me if I would be interested in running it. I loved the idea of trying to grow something. People didn’t use the term “entrepreneur” at the time, but I loved the idea of being an entrepreneur. I was 27, and I was lucky enough that I had had the opportunity to run something at the department of health and liked the challenge of it.

But I also knew that I couldn’t do it by myself. Norman Atkins was, simply put, the smartest person I knew. He and I had been friends in college. He was a journalist, and he and his wife had a baby, my godson, and were living this idyllic life in Bearsville, New York. Norman was writing and life was good. I said, “You want to try something that’s completely unknown? The worst thing that happens is we try to do something noble and fail. The best thing that happens is we save a bunch of lives.” He said, “I’m in.”

So the Atkins family moved to ­Brooklyn and he spent seven years here being the co-director and brains of the place.

Philanthropy: My impression of the Robin Hood board is that it’s a lot of successful people with strong wills. How do you avoid fractures?

Saltzman: People choose to serve on Robin Hood’s board because they want to be a part of a highly effective organization. We debate the best ways to help needy citizens based on objective data. We’ve been lucky over the years that Robin Hood has attracted people from left, center, and right.

Philanthropy: Tell us a little bit about some of Robin Hood’s early failed grants. What did you learn from them?

Saltzman: Our failed grants taught us the importance of using data. It’s not the only tool, but an important tool. More often than we would’ve liked, we made grants based on a seemingly strong, charismatic leader who had a great story to tell. Sometimes those charismatic leaders succeeded and other times they did not. The lesson that we learned was gather data, analyze data, and use data as a tool in grantmaking.

Philanthropy: You’ve spent a lot of time applying business principles to the nonprofit world. Does the road travel the other way? What can business learn from nonprofits?

Saltzman: Nonprofits recruit and motivate an extraordinary group of people without money as a major tool. I marvel at how much money some people are paid in the business sphere. We don’t have that privilege in the not-for-profit world, and yet we manage to recruit some of the most amazing human beings on the planet to the cause. That’s something that businesses can take note of.

I’ll also say that one of the great takeaways for me from my years at Robin Hood is that working together provides opportunities to be more effective than working alone, and that being part of a community that cares for distressed people brings great joy that we could never capture on our own.

Philanthropy: Why did you get involved with education reform?

Saltzman: When we started Robin Hood there were about 1,400 public schools in New York. Other than the elite schools that people have to take tests to get into, only a handful were good schools, just a handful. Yet all of us at Robin Hood, certainly Paul Tudor Jones, our current chair Larry ­Robbins, and other board members, knew that a strong education was a path out of poverty.

So from the start we’ve been anxious to fund effective schools. We are agnostic about the organizational structure of the schools, so we fund traditional public schools, charter schools, parochial schools, and Protestant schools. What we care about is funding great education. Norman Atkins and Emary Aronson deserve the real credit in this area.

Norman left Robin Hood to start a charter school in Newark called North Star Academy which then grew into Uncommon Schools, one of the best charter networks in the country. Emary, who is absurdly smart and insightful, has led Robin Hood’s education team for the past two decades. She was an early backer of some of the great charter networks in the country: KIPP, Uncommon, Achievement First, Success, and others.

Philanthropy: Robin Hood was also instrumental in creating the Relay ­Graduate School of Education. Why another graduate school?

Saltzman: One of the great things about the not-for-profit world is that nothing is proprietary. If somebody has a better solution, they are excited to share it with anybody and everybody and to give it away for free. So it’s not surprising that Norman Atkins and Dave Levin, both great education innovators, would cook up over a meal the idea of starting a new graduate school of education to train teachers not just for their two networks of schools, Uncommon and KIPP, but also for any other schools that wanted top teachers.

Relay has been wildly successful and is now in 12 cities across the country training thousands of great principals and teachers every year. They’re going to charter schools and having a profound influence on kids’ lives.

Philanthropy: There are worries today that the right-left coalition behind education reform is splintering. Does that keep you up at night?

Saltzman: Far too many poor children in New York City and across this country are denied great educations—even though we now know what it takes to provide them. That’s what keeps me up at night.

Philanthropy: The tagline at Robin Hood for a while was “fight poverty like a New Yorker.” What does that mean?

Saltzman: It means to help your neighbor with true humility, some swagger, as much intelligence as possible, and with all the tenacity you can muster. That’s why I am thrilled that Wes Moore is Robin Hood’s new CEO. Wes is a mighty force for good who will help lead Robin Hood to even more success during this time of unparalleled need.