Leader to Leader: Bill Baccaglini

Bill Baccaglini
Bill Baccaglini
The New York Foundling
Bill Baccaglini

Leader to Leader: Bill Baccaglini

The president and CEO of The New York Foundling discusses stepping down from the child welfare organization.
December 23, 2021

In early 2022, Bill Baccaglini will step down from running The New York Foundling, one of the oldest and largest child welfare organizations in the country.  Founded as an orphanage in 1869 by three Sisters of Charity, The Foundling has grown into a sophisticated, multi-faceted organization with an annual budget of more than $220 million and over three thousand employees.  

After nearly two decades in charge, Baccaglini will soon pass the reins of The Foundling to Melanie Hartzog, who currently serves New York City’s deputy mayor for health and human services. This is, in many respects, an indication of organizational health and stability -- a story of a long-serving executive making way for a well-qualified successor after a tenure marked by organizational growth and development.  But, of course, transitions are often complicated for the people involved, particularly those who have invested years of their time and energy into making an organization successful. 

On the brink of his departure, Baccaglini sat down with Greg Berman to reflect on his tenure at The Foundling, the secrets of managing a large agency, and the challenges of stepping away from what he calls “the best job in New York City.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Greg Berman: Rewind for me: Who were you in 2002, before you joined The Foundling?

Bill Baccaglini: Immediately prior to The Foundling, I was the director of planning and policy for the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. I had been in that role since the inception of the agency. If you'll recall, back in the late 90s, then-Governor Pataki, not for the noblest of reasons, thought that he would create the Office of Children and Family Services by combining the New York State Division for Youth with the child welfare division of the state's department of social services. I was at the Division for Youth at that point. My director at the Division of Youth, John Johnson, was appointed the initial commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services and I became the director of strategic planning and policy development. 

Berman: What was it that made you want to leave government?

Baccaglini: I'll be totally honest with you. I was getting a little lazy. I had lost a little bit of edge because I had been doing the same thing for a long time. I wasn't actively looking, but I got a call from a headhunter and one thing led to another. I said to myself, "Listen, if you want to put some of your ideas into practice, a place like The Foundling has the resources to do it. Why not go there?" I was offered the job and my wife and I moved our 8-year-old daughter to the city. 

Berman: A lot of the nonprofit leaders I’ve talked to for this column have spent time in both government and the nonprofit sector.  For some people, that has been a tricky transition.  How was it for you? 

Baccaglini:  I found that cheerleading is a much bigger part of the job in the nonprofit sector than it was in government. In government, people tend not to move around a lot because the pay is decent and the benefits are good. In the nonprofit sector, people's hearts are what bring them to the office every day.  For most positions, it's not the money. So waving the flag is a much bigger piece of this job than I ever had imagined. 

The other challenges of life in the nonprofit sector are pretty obvious. I never really had to raise money when I was in government. So that was an adjustment. In Albany, we'd just go to the Division of Budget. Down here, you’ve got to go to dinners and evenings out and try to convince people that you are better than the guy next door. That was a little bit of an adjustment for me.

Berman: When you came to work in 2003 at The Foundling, what state was the agency in? Where did you want to take it during the course of your run?

Baccaglini: When I got here, The Foundling probably had 325 beds dedicated to residential care. I toured all of the programs and decided that, in order to bring them up to speed, it would cost millions of dollars. The physical plant had been allowed to deteriorate. But even if we wanted to spend the money, it would be shortsighted because residential care was generally in the decline. I've been wrong on a lot of things, but I happened to be right on residential care. So today The Foundling, I think, has eight residential care beds. So we did a total shift there.

Because of my experience in Albany, I knew that metrics were going to get more important. Quite frankly, most people couldn't talk about the effect that their programs were having. So we brought evidence-based practices to the city. I think we were a little bit ahead of the game in bringing purpose and rigor to our practice at The Foundling. That’s the thing that I'm probably most proud of. 

And I guess the other thing that I wanted to do was to carve out some space in education. I firmly believe that unless we educate young kids, everything else that we do for them is going to be a short-term fix. And so we created a charter school in the South Bronx specifically directed to kids in the child welfare world.  It was the first of its kind. 

Berman:  When you were describing the role of executive director, you emphasized the importance of cheerleading.  In my experience, staff definitely want to hear your voice when you're the leader of an agency.  But I also found that people can hear from you too often.  You can dilute your effectiveness if you over-communicate.

Baccaglini: You raise a good point. You don't want to cheapen the currency. And I think that's what happens if you're out there too much. You become the boy who cried wolf, and your message starts to get attenuated. It’s about striking a balance. When you're in direct service and folks are making $17 an hour, a $50 gift card hand-delivered by the CEO with a pat on the back goes a long way. I found that The Foundling was big enough that I never really over-exposed myself. Just getting around to all of our locations took so darn long. 

Berman: You also talked about the importance of fundraising. I'm curious to hear what you think about raising money for a large legacy nonprofit like The Foundling that has the benefit of an endowment.   

Baccaglini: I take very seriously the idea that, by the luck of the draw, I'm at a place that doesn't have to worry about next week's payroll. And that really has driven us to always think about our sector first. I have gotten calls from foundations asking us to apply for things and I have said, "You know what? We're going to sit this one out. There are a lot of other organizations out there that are smaller and need your resources more than we do at this point." Our sector's healthy when there's a mix of providers. So we've made a big point of being selective as to who we aggressively pursue.

Berman: What’s the secret to successfully managing a shop as big as The Foundling?  

Baccaglini: I was very, very fortunate to have found very good people. Let me give you a couple of examples. Our developmental disabilities business was probably $10 million when I got here. It's now $90 million. The only way we were able to do that was that I got a seasoned veteran who had spent a ton of years in Albany, as well as a ton of years in the not-for-profit world. I had another very smart woman heading up child welfare. I've gotten very, very good people. And I think that they would tell you that I don't micromanage at all. First of all, I couldn't in a place this size, but I trust the folks that I bring in. It's bitten me a couple times, but by and large, it's actually worked. I would say that's been the secret to the success. I don't think there's anything magical about it.

Berman: You mentioned metrics earlier. I think the introduction of metrics a generation ago was an important development for the non-profit sector. But I also feel like we're seeing a backlash to metrics now. Some people argue that we’ve gone too far and that the emphasis on metrics can lead us to miss the forest for the trees and to become overly bureaucratic. 

Baccaglini: I think the conversation has moved to a good place in that the field has largely embraced evidence-based practice. And now it's important to recognize where it fits as well as where it may need to be modified. Context is important. So we remain very sensitive to how we apply metrics and we spend a lot of time worrying about the desired program outcome. To be honest with you, I don’t share some people's thought that we've gone too far. I don't buy that. But I do think that metrics have to be introduced by government in a way that makes the concept more palatable to those who have to implement it.  But we need metrics because the end game has to be achieving better outcomes for kids and families.

Berman: One of the things that I've been trying to get across through this column is that the nonprofit sector is absolutely essential to the health and functioning of New York City, but that it somehow punches below its weight politically.  The fact that an organization as strong and stable and important as The Foundling finds itself operating programs essentially at a loss seems to me an indication of a sector-wide failure. How have we gotten to this point? And do you have hope that things will be different in the Adams administration?

Baccaglini: I think toward the end of the de Blasio administration, the work that was done on nonprofit indirect rates was favorable. But I do think generally there's been an exploitation of the not-for-profit sector by government. The Foundling has run deficits for decades, but The Foundling can afford to run deficits. Other agencies can't. It's just not right. I am hopeful that the incoming administration will take a fresh look at it and build on the work of the outgoing administration around indirect rates.  I think in the past, government has been able to divide and conquer, perhaps not intentionally. The agencies, we never stand together shoulder to shoulder and say, "You know what? We're not going to apply for that until it's fully paid." Because at the end of the day, our heart brings us to this work. I think this has allowed government to get away with underfunding us. It's unfair.

Berman: Are you planning to retire or do you think you have another job in you?

Baccaglini: I have the best job in New York City.  I’ve gotten calls about other agencies, but why would I ever leave The Foundling to take a job at another agency? This is an unbelievable place and they have been unbelievable to me. If I have another real job in me that requires full-time effort, it would probably be in the education world and certainly not in New York.

Berman: What is the transition going to look like at Foundling?

Baccaglini: Melanie Hartzog joins us in mid January. I will stick around for a little while but she doesn’t need a long runway. The Foundling has to think about tomorrow now. And she's a great tomorrow.  I'm yesterday, she's tomorrow.
Berman: Have you thought about what it's going to feel like the first time that The Foundling makes a move that you disagree with? 

Baccaglini: I've thought about it.  It’s inevitable. I don't know how I will react. I’d like to think I’d react with clear eyes and a clear head, but I'm not going to lie you: I don't know how I’ll react. This place is in my blood. This place has been my life for 19 years. It's probably not going to be easy. 

Berman: I love hearing your passion for the organization. Running a nonprofit can be an all-consuming job. At the Center for Court Innovation, I tried hard to preserve some distance from the organization, which I thought was important for both my mental health and for the health of the organization. Did you try to do that or were you all in, all of the time?
Baccaglini: I had lunch with Sr. Paulette LoMonaco today. I think what she experienced at Good Shepherd and what you experienced at the Center for Court Innovation were radically different than my role here. I joined a place that was 135 years old with a rich history. Sr. Paulette built Good Shepherd. She is Good Shepherd. You built the Center for Court Innovation. You were the Center for Court Innovation. I'm in a little bit of an easier place. It's a little bit easier for me to divorce myself from the organization because by the time I came here, this place had already done a lot. But I don't know, maybe I’m grasping at straws.

Greg Berman
Greg Berman is the distinguished fellow of practice at the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and a founding editor of Vital City. He previously served as executive director of the Center for Court Innovation.
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