Bringing a Nonprofit Into the 21st Century: An Interview With David Greenfield

David Greenfield

David Greenfield served two terms on the New York City Council before accepting a position last January as CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, commonly known as the Met Council. Though most famous for its food distribution, the Met Council provides a range of other services and programs: Holocaust survivor services, benefits access, volunteer program, senior services, crisis intervention, domestic violence, home repair, affordable housing, and the JCC network. Several days before Rosh Hashanah, Mr. Greenfield spoke with Hamodia, reflecting on his eight months as chief of an organization with an annual budget of $40 million, servicing more than 200,000 people annually.

What is the history of Met Council? What is this organization all about?

Met Council is a unique organization. It’s approximately 50 years old. It was originally established to be the voice of the Jewish poor in New York City, and it has evolved. Today we are the largest Jewish tzedakah in New York.

Essentially what happened was that 50 years ago there was a recognition that in every single community in New York where there were Jews, you obviously had poor Jews as well. Communities tried to respond to that in different ways. Some had a Tomchei Shabbos, some would have the equivalent of what today we will call a JCC or a COJO. Some had a Rav who had a tzedakah fund to help people out. As a whole, the community realized that it’s important to be organized and to make sure that this community of Jewish poor has a voice throughout New York. That’s why Met Council was created 50 years ago.

Like all organizations, you evolve and end up turning into something else, something more comprehensive. Today, we’re the largest Jewish communal social safety net in America. We serve 225,000 people.

Half of the work we do through our main office at 77 Water Street in Manhattan. The other half we do through our network of 16 local JCCs. Every community in New York where there is a Jewish community, from the Lower East Side to Washington Heights to the Bronx to Queens to Brooklyn to Staten Island, we have a JCC that we are affiliated with. We support these 16 JCCs. We give them funding, staff, resources and food. That allows people to come directly to those offices.

For example, if you live on the Lower East Side, you don’t have to come to my office downtown; you could just go to the local JCC. If you live in Flatbush, you go to COJO Flatbush. If you live in Boro Park you go to Boro Park JCC. They are all affiliated with us. Half of our staff of approximately 300 people work at these local JCCs and the other half work centrally for people who, for whatever reason, prefer not to go there and also for the other comprehensive services that we provide.

We are also supplying, every day, food for 35 kosher food pantries in New York, which serve 50,000 people. Every kosher food pantry in New York gets their food from Met Council. Every kosher distribution that happens on Yom Tov or Shabbos, whether it’s Tomchei Shabbos, Satmar or Masbia, they’re getting support from Met Council.

There are 560,000 poor and near-poor Jews in the New York area, our catchment area, the surrounding area of New York, which includes Long Island, Westchester, and Rockland. It’s surprising to people, and the reason is that, in our community, your neighbor could live in a house just like yours but you may not be aware that he lost his job and he can’t put food on the table. Or his wife has cancer and she lost her job, or they now have tens of thousands of dollars in medical expenses.

The nice thing about living in a community is we all daven in the same shuls, we all go to the same yeshivos and we all shop in the same stores. But at the end of the day, people have very different incomes. It’s tough for people to wrap their head around the idea that there is a lot of poverty in our community.

There are 10 services that we provide. For example, we have the largest comprehensive domestic-violence program in the Jewish community in America. This past year we served 841 clients. We do that through our central office. Our typical JCC is not equipped to deal with that, because that requires very sensitive, complicated and sophisticated work.

Or housing — that is something we do in our central office. We are one of the largest Jewish providers of affordable housing in New York. We own 21 buildings in the five boroughs that provide 100 percent affordable housing. A one-bedroom apartment we are renting for between $200 and $700 a month.

That’s almost free.

Yes, we’re not making any money off it, we’re just trying to cover our expenses and make sure people are living in nice buildings. We have 1,200 units of affordable housing across the city of New York.

We serve over 3,000 needy Holocaust survivors. That’s run out of our main network as well.

Then, of course, our most famous program is the Kosher Food Network, where we provide kosher food to nearly 200,000 people a year. We spend over $10 million a year on our kosher food programs. We are the largest distributor of free kosher food in the world.

This is paid for by a combination of private and government funding?

Yes, absolutely. Around a third of our budget is privately raised, which is pretty significant. Two-thirds comes from a combination of city, state and federal funding. What people don’t realize is that today it’s very difficult to run a tzedakah at a high level and rely on government funding. If we only relied on government funding, the services we provided would not be up to par, and that is not acceptable for us. I am very proud, I tell people, “You can come to any one of my 21 buildings in the five boroughs of New York, and you’d be happy to have your mother, grandmother, aunt or uncle living there,” that is how nice these buildings are.

We’re very proud of the fact that we run our programs at the highest standards. That’s the most important thing. I tell my staff we are in a customer-service business. A lot of people look at charity and say, “You are poor, I am doing you a favor.” For some organizations it is true, but not us. We treat every one of our clients as if they are paying customers, even though we don’t charge any of our clients anything.

The reason is that we need to treat clients with dignity and respect. If the philosophy is that we’re doing you a favor, you’re going to have sub-par services, buildings with peeling paint where it smells in the hallways. But if the philosophy is that we are going to treat you like a paying customer, even though you don’t pay, you are going to have the best level of service. I think that’s an incredible ethos in terms of how we operate Met Council.

Can you discuss your background, what you did before Met Council.

I was a New York City Council member, and worked my way up to the leadership of the Council. I was the highest-ranking Orthodox Jew in the history of New York City government. I was on the Council’s leadership team, I was on the Council’s budget negotiating team. I also chaired the Land Use Committee which, depending on whom you ask, is either the most important or the second-most important committee in New York, which means that we were responsible for all zoning and land use decisions in New York City. That is an area of expertise that I still hold: I teach at Brooklyn Law School as an adjunct law professor for zoning and land use.

Prior to the City Council I ran an organization called the Sephardic Community Federation, which is the umbrella group that represents the Sephardic Jewish Community in the greater New York area. I also founded an organization called TEACH NYS, which, I’m very proud to say, is still a very robust, successful organization that advocates on behalf of yeshivah parents across New York State. Before that I worked in government; I worked for Senator Joe Lieberman. Before that I was a corporate lawyer in New York City.

I feel like I’ve been preparing for this position my entire professional life. I use all of these experiences combined to be a successful CEO of the largest Jewish tzedakah. We have a $40 million budget. We have nearly 300 employees. We have 22 buildings — the 21 affordable-housing buildings, plus an assisted-living facility — which is hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of real estate..

You rose pretty quickly to become a powerful councilman. Was it a difficult decision to go to the Met Council? Why did you ultimately decide to accept the job?

From the outside looking in, it certainly could look like it was pretty quick. But, baruch Hashem, I will tell you that everybody who works for me knows that I routinely put in 70- and 80-hour workweeks. I pride myself on working hard and working for my community and my constituency. By working hard and by being an honest broker, people recognize that and that is how I was able to be promoted quickly through the halls of city government.

I was recruited for this position. I was happy in the City Council, I could have served two more terms, and I certainly was not looking to leave. I got a call from Eric Goldstein, the CEO of UJA-Federation. They are the largest Jewish charity in the world, and they reached out to me and asked me to consider running Met Council.

The opportunity to serve hundreds of thousands of needy people in our community who traditionally are neglected and ignored and overlooked was something that I felt very strongly about. I really believe that we need to treat people in need with respect and with dignity.

It is unfortunate that people don’t realize that poverty is the exact same thing like someone having a medical condition: It is beyond their control. It is something that was willed by Hashem, just like someone being sick.

I feel very passionately about this. It’s not something that I’ve come to on my own. I go to the shiurim of Rav Aharon Kahn in Brooklyn, and one of his big themes is the need not just to give tzedakah but the need to treat people who are poor like everybody else.

This is one of the reasons why it is important to go to shiurim and have rabbanim and get guidance from them.

Something I spend a lot of time on: How can we improve the services? I try to figure from my perspective as the CEO, a combination of two things: What do our clients want, and also what do they need? And to try to merge the two, streamlining it, making it more efficient, trying to figure out what the problem is and how to solve the problems.

Let me give you an example of our newest initiative, which we are very excited about, which is a project that we are doing together with UJA-Federation.

Here is the idea. We have 35 kosher food pantries in New York City that we provide food for. The problem is, we are running our food pantries the same way they have been run for thousands of years, which is: food comes in, people wait in line for hours, then they go and get their food. That doesn’t make any sense because it’s not the way the normal world works. If you look at it from a business perspective, we said, “Okay, what is the best way to distribute food?” The answer is you should distribute food like a supermarket distributes food, which is that the client should be able to come in and pick the food that they want.

So the first innovation is that we moved all our food pantries to a client-choice model. We also try to have variety. It sounds like it’s not a big deal, but you want to keep it close to a supermarket. So we’ll try to have two kinds of tuna or three kinds of cereal. You want to give them the same variety as they would have in a supermarket. We can’t do as much, but we want to certainly give them variety. That’s the first thing.

But then we thought about it and said that even the client-choice model is a problem. Because what is happening is that people are coming, and while they are waiting to get food, the lines are backing up. We are the first Jewish organization in the country that has adopted a pilot digital food pantry. It’s very exciting.

Of the 35 pantries we supply food to, we now have brought four online with our digital food pantry system. You have an option now where you can go online.

If you have a smartphone or internet access, you can go online and log in. We create an account for you. We give you points instead of dollars and you can pick the food in the pantry that you want. We pre-package it for you. Depending on your ability, if you can, you come and pick it up just like you would at a supermarket. If you can’t because you are homebound, we will deliver to you.

We did this for the first time this year on Pesach at one of our food pantries, the Shorefront JCC. Last year at the Shorefront JCC, the line Erev Pesach was four hours long. This year we moved to a digital food pantry. The average wait time was 15 minutes! People pre-ordered the food. All they had to do was come, wait, get the box and leave.

We are hoping to roll this out more and more over the next few years. It’s a very expensive proposition, we have already invested with the UJA over $2 million in this initiative.

David Greenfield
David Greenfield loading Met Council’s kosher food boxes at Boro Park JCC YomTov distribution.

You need many more volunteers to package it.

That’s true. But why hasn’t this been done before? The reason is that people don’t look at it like a business. People say, “Oh, you know what? I’m doing you a favor. So what that you should wait in line.” I say that’s outrageous.

To that end, and speaking of how we run it like a business, one of the first things that I did was I looked around and said, “What kind of talent do I have to bring on?”

Traditionally, in a non-profit you get a job and stay there for 50 years. But that’s not the way we run our organization. We have metrics, we have analysis, we look at our programs. I looked and I said, “What programs could I expand, because there is more of a need in the community?” The first was food.

We also give out $1.5 million a year — it’s something we do that almost no one does, which is embracing technology in emergency American Express food cards. We have a deal with American Express: We get an American Express card, it’s coded to only work in food stores. We give you a list of stores where it works. You go in to shop like everybody else and you just swipe a credit card.

I think that’s really the theme: It’s no longer acceptable to run a major tzedakah like you’re working out of a garage. If you want to run a tzedakah successfully, you need to be bottom-line oriented. We’re in the business of serving people and we need to serve them like clients.

I tell all my staff, “If you get a complaint, I want to see the complaint.” They say, “What do you mean, David? We have 225,000 people that we work with a year. People are going to complain.” I say, “Okay. And I will review that complaint with you and we will see whether it was justified or not. If it is justified, we’ll fix it. If it was not, then that’s okay. We’ll respond to those people.”

That’s really the only way to do it.

I beefed up my data department. I now have a full-time staffer; all he does is track the data. What’s coming in, what’s going out. We are tracking, from the time you call Met Council and say, “I have a problem. I lost my job and I need help,” how long it took for someone to call you back. How long it took you to get the first service? The second?

Another thing that is critical is social media. We get 1,500 volunteers a year. Many of those volunteers come through our social media efforts. We are getting our message out through social media. We are now fundraising through social media. We’re taking out ads online, we’re on websites, we have a digital platform. It’s important because you need to embrace technology.

We run the only summer kosher free lunch program in New York. The only one in the country, really. For the one week between camp and school, there are a lot of needy kids and they are not getting a nutritious lunch.

We have a mobile food truck, we get prepared food, glatt kosher, Tartikov hashgachah, which works for everybody. Lou G Siegel, excellent-quality food.

We bid it out. And for the first time, we did a taste test. It wasn’t just about the money. I had my staff sit there and say, “Give us samples of the food. I want to make sure it tastes good.” And we promoted it through social media as well.

In Boro Park and Williamsburg, neighborhoods with the highest numbers of low-income children, we had 5,000 children. In Boro Park we actually got a sponsor, a family who is making a bar mitzvah in Manhattan and wanted to sponsor a chessed project: We gave out prizes and balloons, and we had rides and face painting. We made it fun.

David Greenfield
L-R: Assemblyman Joe Lentol, Rabbi David Niederman, Councilman Stephen Levin and Met Council CEO David Greenfield distribute 5,000 free kosher lunches this summer to kids in Boro Park and Williamsburg.

Like a day camp.

Exactly. It was open to everybody, so there was no stigma.

People were waiting in line, but they weren’t embarrassed to wait in line because while they were waiting in line, they were getting balloons and they were getting their face painted, and they were able to jump around and have a good time. We gave out raffles. It was a fun, interactive event. That is how you are supposed to treat people, and that’s really the ethos of what it is that we are trying to bring over here.

When I looked at my programs, I asked myself, “What are the programs we need to expand?” Specifically, food was number one. Now remember, we do 10 different things. Of my 10 different departments, we are in the process of expanding four, and very excited we are going to start an eleventh new department, im yirtzeh Hashem, next year, which I will tell you about as well, which also responds to our need.

The first program we are expanding is food. We are giving out more food, better food, to more people in more neighborhoods, than ever before.

The next program is domestic violence. It’s not something that people want to talk about, but we have it in our community like any other community. We have a comprehensive domestic violence program and we have a fund where we can pay to help people.

What is some way that we can help people in the domestic-violence community? My staff said that something we don’t provide right now that we should provide is summer day camp. Let’s send some of these kids to day camp. During the year, they have something to do, they send their kids to school. But in the summer it is very difficult. Think about it. One-parent households, they don’t have money, a very challenging time. I went out and I raised $100,000 and I sent 100 kids to day camp this year. One hundred kids who were victims of domestic violence this year.

You mean whose mothers were victims of domestic violence?

In many cases, unfortunately, the kids were as well.

Another program we are expanding is our housing program. There is a need for more affordable housing. We are the largest provider of affordable housing in the Jewish community, and we are going to make an effort over the next few years to expand it, because we think there is a big need. We are aggressively looking at opportunities to provide more housing.

And our Holocaust Survivor program. There are a lot of needy Holocaust survivors, and we are expanding those programs because we want to make sure that after all the horrors they have suffered, they live their lives in dignity.

David Greenfield
David Greenfield supervising the distribution of Met Council’s Flatbush distribution of food to over 500 families before Rosh Hashanah with COJO Flatbush.

You mentioned that you are the largest tzedakah in New York. How do you define that?

It’s simple. We serve 225,000 people every year through our 10 different divisions. Nobody serves more people than we do.

Our next big venture that we are hoping to launch in 2019 is, we’ve realized it’s not enough to simply help needy people, we need to help needy people move up and be self-sufficient. If we are serving 225,000 people a year, a certain percentage we should be able to help lift out of poverty.

You mean job placement?

Exactly. Our next big initiative is to copy the Kemach model. Kemach is an organization in Eretz Yisrael that was started a few years ago, specifically targeting the chareidi community. It helps train and place the chareidi community in high-paying jobs. That is our next big venture for 2019.

You took office January 2. After eight months in office, what are you most proud of, and what do you think has to be most improved going forward?

The two things that I’m proudest of — number one is that we have become a customer-service organization.

The second thing that I’m proudest of is that we have brought on fantastic new staff. We have five superstar staffers that we recruited from across the country who are running different departments. They believe in this ethos as well. We’ve also promoted five staffers from within. We had good people who were stuck. We examined that, we found them, and we promoted them to a higher level. So we have 10 new superstars in the organization who are working very hard, as hard as I am, every single day.

The future involves two things. One is identifying where the needs are. For me, the future need is to help poor people get out of poverty. The way we do that specifically in the chareidi community in New York is by providing professional job training, and by helping people who are underemployed but want to work to get better jobs. The second initiative is embracing technology through our digital food pantries, social media, American Express cards, and digital fundraising. We need to embrace technology through the data we are utilizing to identify where there are issues and how we can improve. The metric for us is: Are we improving people’s lives and are we treating them with dignity and respect like any other customer who would be paying for their service?

That is the future, I think, of every tzedakah. The future of what we should be doing is not that we are doing you a favor, but that this is our privilege. Anybody who works in our industry, we are fortunate that we have a zchus to work on behalf of the klal. That is why you merit the brachah that is given on Shabbos: Kol mi she’osek b’tzarchai tzibbur b’emunah, Hakadosh baruch Hu yishalem s’charam.

A lot of people forget the key word over there: b’emunah. You have to faithfully work for the public. You need to do it professionally. You treat people with respect and dignity. If I was running any other company, this is how I would run it. And that’s the way I’m running Met Council.