At NCB Capital Impact, you helped the group begin investments in the charter school market. Why were you successful?
I brought the tolerance for risk. I helped people see that the impact piece is really important. What you enable in a market like that, where you’re giving kids an opportunity to succeed, has a tremendous shelf life in terms of impact. That’s the American story. If you get access to a good education, opportunities flow from that. It’s about staying focused on mission. It’s about the ability to decide which risk to take. You can’t take them all. You have to be really smart about it. You can’t make a lot of bad bets. We had a really great track record of credit quality.
You also headed the New Market Tax Coalition, which provides a federal subsidy to encourage private sector investment in high-risk markets. What leadership lessons did you take from that experience?
In a program of that scale, you have to really stay focused on the big picture. As a leader, that’s your role. There are a thousand ways that you could get distracted, some of which are compelling.
What strategies did you employ for yourself and the team to do that?
I used my experience as being one person in a family of 11 kids. No one ever gets their way 100 percent of the time. For the good of the whole, you have to trade off. There were others saying that it was a tax loophole and that we should get rid of it. Well, you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water.
You have to be willing to give things up. It’s this whole thing of collective impact. If we want to move needles, we have to give up the small stuff. To me, that’s what excites me. I want to move needles. It’s not enough to say you were the first organization to do X, Y, Z. Let’s move the needle.
Reading any business books?
I am actually reading a couple of books. One is “The Robin Hood Rules for Smart Giving” [by Michael Weinstein and Ralph Bradburd]. It talks about the importance of data going forward for nonprofits. I’m also reading “The Emperor of all Maladies” [by Siddhartha Mukherjee]. In terms of the medical interventions and treatment, there were some things that really took off and other things that work that don’t take off. It’s thinking through why some take off and others don’t and why it’s so much related to things that are illogical or social in nature. It makes me think that one of the reasons data hasn’t taken off in the nonprofit sector is that it’s hard to do and no one has aligned the interests of the nonprofit with the data. You can beat someone over the head and tell them they have to submit data, but it becomes a compliance burden and not something that is helpful.
— Interview with Vanessa Small