Ariel Zwang Wields Private-Sector Tactics To Create Safe Horizon For Women & Children

Safe Horizon, the largest nonprofit provider of domestic-violence aid services in the U.S., is thriving under CEO Ariel Zwang, thanks to shrewd tactics she's taken from her experience in the private sector.

Ariel Zwang, the CEO of Safe Horizon, the nation's leading victim assistance organization, is used to working on a grand scale.

After earning an MBA from Harvard, Zwang’s career took her to Morgan Stanley, one of the world's largest diversified financial services companies; the White House, where she was a fellow at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; the New York City Board of Education, the largest public school system in the country, to serve as special assistant to the Chancellor; and to the helm at New York Cares for seven years, where she helped the organization double the number of volunteers and programs to touch the lives of 400,000 New Yorkers in need. 

So it’s no surprise that when she stepped into her role at Safe Horizon in 2008, that she’d continue to do big things. Safe Horizon has an operating budget of $50 million and serves more than 250,000 people affected by crime and abuse annually. 

But Zwang also had to jump some sizeable hurdles to keep the 33-year-old organization on a growth trajectory. Here’s what she told Fast Company about the challenges, the lessons she took from the private sector, and the business case for generosity.

The Big Idea

Safe Horizon provides advocacy, case management, legal services, mental health counseling, training, and practical assistance to victims of crime and abuse in all five boroughs of New York City. With 725 beds in its emergency and transitional shelter network for victims of domestic violence and their families, and three 24-hour hotlines for victims of domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault and other crimes, Safe Horizon is the largest nonprofit provider of domestic violence services in the country. It’s also provides access to a comprehensive array of additional services, such as  community and court programs, and partners with police precincts throughout New York.

The Personal Connection

Though she doesn’t work directly with Safe Horizon’s clients, Zwang says there is no shortage of times she’s felt that her work is making an impact. “There are incredible stories that renew my commitment every day,” she says, recalling a recent example of a homeless youth who went from selling herself on the street to having a job and apartment. “Those are the things that make me glad I’m here.”

Zwang had a brush with how things could go wrong that has given her a deeper empathy for the families that benefit from Safe Horizon's programs. 

When Zwang’s eldest daughter was about 8 years old, the child contracted a rare strain of meningitis that stumped doctors and landed her in the hospital. As she got sicker, Zwang says the only thing that brought her family comfort was knowing that she was receiving the best health care possible. Her child made a full recovery and Zwang, nearing the end of her time at New York Cares, vowed that she would work to make a difference for children and families. 

That episode was brought back when Zwang went to tour Safe Horizon’s new center for young victims of severe abuse. There, she encountered a young family with two daughters about the age of her own. The younger one had been sexually abused by an intruder and the family was there to receive counseling. “I knew they would get the comfort and care they needed for them to recover,” she says, drawing a parallel to her family's own experience. 

Making Opportunities Out of Challenges

Within a month of her arrival at the agency, both the Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer moved on to positions at other organizations. At that same time, she was faced with a major budget reduction. 

“Many people in senior positions had been there for 10 years and this was great time to do something new,” says Zwang, emphasizing that she didn’t come in with a set vision and those who didn’t fit in were out. 

Instead, Zwang took heed of the experience of an executive search professional she knew and braced herself for the possibility that it might take up to two years to build her own team. In the interim, without staff in key positions, Zwang simply took charge of finance and operations herself. 

She invited input from staff and made the necessary cuts while preserving and streamlining critical programs and services. "By immersing myself in the organization's finances and operations and listening to employees, I was able to assess enterprise priorities effectively and fairly," she says. "Our efforts in 2008 laid the groundwork for the budget and planning processes that have guided all of our subsequent strategic decisions."

Management Style 

“We are not running a portfolio of grants or programs,” Zwang says, even though the sheer size of Safe Horizon, with its 650-person staff, over 100 government contracts at any given time, and 57 program and service channels might make it seem easier to do so. Instead, Zwang maintains it’s necessary to manage the agency like a private-sector enterprise with centralized IT, human resources, and fundraising, to optimize performance as a whole. 

Another is to keep a trained eye on the balance sheet, something Zwang says many nonprofits don’t do. Managing the balance sheet as well as the income statement not only helps keep an organization from running a deficit, but also may prevent the “urge to spend every penny on programs,” she says. “As you grow you need more working capital.” 

Now that she’s got her executive team in place, Zwang says she’s starting to let go. “I’m very hands-on in the beginning but the more [an employee] proves themselves, the hands are off more,” she says, admitting that she splits her time equally between the office and going out to meet with donors, legislators, or others outside the organization.

“My basic philosophy is to get obstacles out of [my employees’] way and then let them go,” she adds. “I can’t think of the best program or marketing idea, but I can listen and make sure the staff is taking the organization in the direction we want to go.” 

The Plan

The single biggest challenge Zwang would like to tackle in the next decade is funding. “Without more money you can’t do anything,” she says. Back in 2007, Safe Horizon made Stanford’s list of the 150 fastest-growing nonprofits. “The way you get big fast is get good at one source of income,” she explains, and Safe Horizon is really good at attracting government support. But because of constraints about how that money can be spent, government grants can be limiting. "We can’t provide staff training or invest in IT and do all the things that take you from just shuffling forward and delivering service.”

Right now, Zwang says private revenue supplies 10% of Safe Horizon’s operating capital and the challenge is to grow that donor pool. “We want every donor to know we’ve gone from begging for money to demonstrating that every dollar makes the most change. That is critical because private funding allows you to use your own judgment to provide the excellence and forward thinking that takes the organization to the next level.”

PR is another priority. “When Chris Brown beats up Rihanna, these stories [about domestic violence] get news coverage," she says. "But the Center for Disease Control says 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. That is not a fringe problem. We want people to understand it is important to help folks.”

The Business Case for Social Change

“There are real economic costs of domestic violence,” Zwang says. "There is $6 billion lost in [corporate] productivity each year from abuse following victims in the workplace." Additionally, child victims of abuse have difficulty concentrating in school, which sets them up for a lifetime of problems. Investing in therapeutic services allows communities to heal and contribute to a more productive workforce, which in turn helps build a healthier economy.

Unlike a balance sheet, Zwang says she can’t produce an overall metric to illustrate the impact Safe Horizon’s had on the victims it serves. However, she doesn’t discount the somewhat unquantifiable benefits of the programs. “If someone using our hotline feels safer and knows they have options, or a homeless young person accepts psychiatric help and begins to trust an adult, that can be an enormous success.”

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[Image via Shutterstock]

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