George McDonald, founder and president of The Doe Fund (and current candidate for New York City mayor), spent 700 nights in a row during the mid-1980s feeding the homeless who lived in and around Grand Central Terminal.
“These were folks who were laying on the floor of the terminal and below in the tunnels; there were 1,500 people in the environs of the terminal,” McDonald tells Fast Company. “While I was feeding them, I was listening to what they said. They said they wanted a room, and a job to pay for it, and I thought well, gee, they want to work. I’m convinced.”
And so he created The Doe Fund, a comprehensive rehabilitation program for the homeless that provides just that–a room and a job to pay for it. Each night, about 700 formerly homeless people sleep in its facilities. Programs like “Ready, Willing, and Able” provide paid transitional work doing community improvement. These are the guys in blue jumpsuits you see picking up trash all over New York City. Eventually, participants graduate into workforce training programs and their own housing. The Doe Fund has been around for nearly 30 years and has a $50 million annual operating budget. It serves around a thousand people every day, and has successfully helped thousands transition from homelessness–which is not an easy nut to crack, as Michael Bloomberg can attest.
But it wasn’t always so flush, or sure of its eventual success. At one point, with his programs teetering on the edge of insolvency, McDonald hatched a plan to send his blue-jumpsuited workforce to one of the wealthiest enclaves of the city to do a high-profile street cleanup project.
“When we were facing bankruptcy, we were going to put people out on 86th Street on the Upper East Side. It was our last gasp,” McDonald says. “My theory was that people would see them, ask them what they were doing, and come to our office on East 84th Street and give us money.”
One of his friends and advisors, a lawyer, strongly advocated against it: Expensively shod blue-hairs would duck behind doormen and complain, he said, if a throng of former substance abusers with criminal records invaded their hallowed streets (even if they were wielding brooms).
He was wrong.
“It was the biggest piece of wrong advice I ever got,” McDonald says. “That was the critical moment of our success.”
Bottom Line: Not all advice is good advice; the most effective leaders are the ones who know how to tell the difference.
[Video Producer: Shalini Sharma, Camera/ Editor: Tony Ditata]