A Conversation with Richard Buery, CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation

Richard Buery. Image courtesy of robin hood foundation

As CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, Richard Buery heads one of the leading antipoverty organizations in New York. Prior to joining Robin Hood in 2021, Buery served as the CEO of one of Robin Hood's partners, Achievement First, a network of charter schools across New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

He has also served as a deputy mayor in New York, focusing on education and managing agencies within the city, including the departments of probation, aging, and youth and community development, among others. Buery has also worked for, led and founded nonprofits.

In addition to his current role at Robin Hood, Buery is also a Public Service Fellow at the NYU Warner Graduate School of Public Service, a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School, and serves on a number of other boards.  

We recently caught up with Buery and spoke about the underinvestment in organizations led by people of color, Robin Hood's Power Fund — which seeks to address those funding disparities — and how being raised in New York shaped his life and career. Here are excerpts from the conversation, which have been edited for clarity and length. 

To start with, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

I was born and raised in New York, in a neighborhood called East New York, which is a high-poverty community in eastern Brooklyn. And a lot of my career focuses and work comes out of my experience growing up in East New York, Brooklyn. East New York is a community which suffers from poor schools and lack of educational opportunity. It's one of a few New York city neighborhoods that [account for] the majority of the New York state prison population. 

I grew up very luckily, in a household to immigrant parents. My mom was a public school teacher, and I had a lot of advantages compared to the kids in our neighborhood. One aspect of that was being able to go to magnet schools for middle school and high school. And it really sort of put my career, my life, on a different trajectory than it would have been if I had gone to my neighborhood schools.

I had this experience very early on and [saw] the discrepancy in educational opportunity as it exists in America and in New York, growing up in a high-poverty community where college attainment was rare, or where life outcomes as measured by employability and other factors are low, going to high-performing schools, including my high school, where 99% of the population [of] graduates went on to four-year colleges, where six kids in my homeroom went to Harvard. And so I had a very early and striking life experience of the different realities for kids in New York City. I think for me, it's sort of that experience that really laid the groundwork for why I do the work that I do.

How have your experiences influenced your work?

I think a lot of the reasons why I do this work come from my life experience. Seeing how having access to a great education, how having a parent who knows how to navigate the educational system, how having some luck, can make all the difference between living the life I get to live and living a life that will look very different. I've also had good role models in that work. My parents were immigrants from Panama. They very much lived the American dream. They came to America to build a better life for themselves, to build opportunities for their kids, and they absolutely did. They were two people who are always very civically engaged with the church and with the community. My mother was very much a role model for me in terms of what it meant to live your life in service to the next generation.

I had a really lucky experience in college where I started volunteering in an afterschool program in a housing project in Boston, and wound up starting a summer camp for the kids to live there because the kids didn't have anything to do in the summer. And so I think I was just lucky that I got direction from growing up about what I was passionate about, but then got an experience early on that told me that I can actually act on these passions. And I've just been really blessed to have professional opportunities to spend my time working on behalf of the community that I grew up in, the community that I love. 

You've worked in so many different sectors. What brought you to philanthropy and the Robin Hood Foundation?

My career has not been in philanthropy per se. My career has been in education and youth development, social entrepreneurship and city government. I've spent much of my career in New York, either starting or leading nonprofit organizations focused on creating equal opportunity for New Yorkers of color. I spent four years in city government as a deputy mayor and got to work on some really exciting initiatives like leading the city's Pre-K for All Initiative, which guarantees free, high-quality, full-day pre-K programs to every borough in [the] city, but also other great programs, like universal after school for middle school students. So my career has not been in philanthropy, but I've spent years working with philanthropists who support our work, including the Robin Hood Foundation. I've been a part of probably five different organizations that have been Robin Hood grantees. And so I've always admired the work of the Robin Hood Foundation. 

For me, what makes Robin Hood's approach so powerful is its sort of laser-like focus on New York City, which means we're really able to learn about the community, the infrastructure of government, the social sector and the business sector here. And it puts us in a really good place because I think the challenges places like New York face are challenges that all sectors of the city have to be able to come together to solve. We need the nonprofit sector, we need business and government, and civil society. And part of what's so exciting to me about Robin Hood is that it has deep relationships and credibility.

For me, it was not so much that I wanted to work with philanthropy, it was that I wanted to work here, at Robin Hood. And I just think that the opportunity to work with government and businesses and nonprofit leaders to move our city forward is a unique one. 

Speaking about Robin Hood, can you tell me a little bit about the Power Fund, the kind of work that it has done, and the new grantees?

We know that Black, Latin and Asian New Yorkers are about twice as likely to live in poverty as other New Yorkers. And we know that, at the same time, research shows that organizations led by people of color are typically under-invested in. For us, this is a dilemma for a couple of reasons. From a practical point of view, there is so much research and common sense that says that people and institutions that are closest to communities are often in the best position to address those challenges. And yet, we were not finding and supporting those organizations that were closest to the challenge. And then, of course, it's also a moral imperative, because as a New York institution, we want to support and be in partnership with institutions that look like our city, that reflect human diversity. 

If you looked at the numbers, that just wasn't the case. So for us, the Power Fund is really about making sure that Robin Hood is keeping its promise, the promise we made to our donors, which is that we exist to get resources and funds to the highest-performing, best-led, most effective nonprofit organizations in New York City. And we couldn't say with confidence that we were doing that simply because when we looked at the demographics in New York City and we looked at the demographics of the organizations that we funded, it was clearly the case that there was a disconnect between the organizations we fund and the communities we're trying to serve. So that's really the driver behind the work. 

When we started the Power Fund, Robin Hood spent 20% of its resources and investments on organizations led by people of color. And so we're really proud that three years later, about half of our funding goes to organizations led by people of color and about half of our grantees are led by people of color. We've increased the diversity [of] leadership in the organizations we fund and we've essentially equalized how we spend our dollars. 

One of the things that helped us do that is our relief work. As a result of the pandemic, we launched a million-dollar relief fund to bring money to people in the communities hit hardest. We do that by connecting with grassroots organizations. So we got to meet a lot of emerging organizations that we didn't know before and that gave us a chance to to work with them on a small scale, and really to evaluate their impact and their leadership. All of those things really helped drive the work that we've done, and it's meant that we've been able to invest in a range of really exciting, interesting organizations that should have been on our radar screen.

As you mentioned earlier, there's a lot of research that speaks to the underinvestment in organizations led by people of color. Do you have any thoughts on why this is something that continues to persist? 

Part of it comes down to just sort of network effects. Nonprofit boards are disproportionately white in New York City. Nonprofit leadership is disproportionately white in New York City.

And foundations and foundations’ leadership often come from the same community that those leaders and board members do, and so people give to whom they know. They give to where they have relationships. And so I think a big part of that has come from the expected network effects where giving is an investment that is very much based on networks and social relationships.

If you rely exclusively on the relationships and network of the people who are there, you simply will never get past the networks that you rely on. I think in our work, and the work of all philanthropy, that's a core challenge.  

What are some of your biggest hopes for the future of Robinhood?

My hope for the future of Robin Hood is that we continue to contribute meaningfully to our mission, which is to make New York a city that works for everyone, to make New York City a place in which where you begin life does not determine where you end in life. So we really look to build a city where every New Yorker has a chance to live the life they deserve. A city where social mobility is the norm for people of every race, every neighborhood. That's the dream.

And so my ambition for Robin Hood is to be a partner in that work. That requires us to have the financial resources to make an impact. That requires us to do better and get better at our work, do a better job of identifying those organizations and those strategies that are actually delivering on that promise for New Yorkers. And it requires us to work closely with other parts of society, including business and government, because we know that to really build a city where poverty is not a life sentence, and is not inherited, requires a deep engagement [with] the business sector, the philanthropic sector and government by adopting policies that promote economic opportunities, by ensuring that businesses are hiring here and expanding their doors to folks who can contribute to the bottom line and better their lives — themselves and their families.