09 Jul 2019
The Road to Impact
For David Offensend, leading a global nonprofit is the fulfillment of a lifelong dreamby Lisa Scanlon MogolovTopics:
Photo by Stu Rosner
When he turned 50, David Offensend (MBA 1977) decided to make a change. He’d had a successful career in finance, but ever since his undergraduate days of studying public and international affairs at Princeton, Offensend planned that, one day, he’d go into the nonprofit sector. And so, in 2003, he made a leap of faith. If he could just find a management position at a nonprofit, he figured, he could help direct social change. “That was my thesis,” he recalls.
Since he made that jump, he’s proved that thesis correct several times over. His career has included positions at the New York Public Library (NYPL) and the education initiative accelerator America Achieves, and he currently serves as president and CEO of Education Development Center (EDC), a nonprofit based in Waltham, Mass., that for more than 60 years has developed programs to improve education, promote health, and expand economic opportunity for the citizens of 80 countries.
Originally, Offensend thought he’d propel himself into that nonprofit career through law school. But then, he jokes, he realized what lawyers actually do on a day-to-day basis, and so instead went to business school, figuring it would give him an applicable skill set. As he was finishing his MBA, he interviewed at Lehman Brothers and learned that many people at the company had worked in government, notably former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Peter George Peterson. Offensend thought that an organization that attracts civic-minded people might be a good fit. After joining the firm, he found that he enjoyed the work and he was good at it. “It was intense, there were really sharp people, and we worked on deals, so you kind of get hooked on the sense of closure and success when you close a deal, and I just kept at it,” he says. Next he moved into private equity, eventually left Lehman to join Oakhill Partners in 1990, and then cofounded an independent investment banking advisory firm, Evercore Partners, in 1995.
And while Offensend was building his career in finance, he also stayed in touch with the nonprofit world by serving on the boards of organizations, including the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. So in 2003, when he knew it was time to finally pursue his long-held dream, he was familiar with the landscape.
“My observation was that if the organization was receptive—and that’s a big if—you could have a huge positive impact by just providing common-sense business techniques. Not Six Sigma, not One Sigma, just common sense,” Offensend observes. When he landed his first nonprofit position as chief operating officer at New York Public Library, he put his theories to the test. After the 2008 financial crisis, it became clear that the organization’s revenue would be in decline. In response, NYPL reduced its head count from around 2,400 people to 1,750 over the course of five years, without any layoffs, through attrition and retirement buyout packages. “Over that same period, we managed to get our 90 libraries open an extra 25 percent more hours per week. And it’s just because the way we staffed previously was just not efficient. Over the same period, our circulation—which had been flat for about 12 years—increased by about 70 percent.”
After 10 years at NYPL, Offensend became COO of America Achieves, a nonprofit that helps big initiatives, primarily in the education sphere, move to scale. Not long after, he got a call from Education Development Center (EDC). “I answered the call, and I said, what’s EDC?” he recalls. But, later, when he was looking over materials from the organization with his wife, he realized that it fit remarkably well with his experience. “So I dug in more, and I discovered this organization that is one of the best kept secrets in the nonprofit world,” he says.
Founded in 1958, the Education Development Center designs, implements, and evaluates programs ranging from early childhood education to suicide prevention to distance learning. The organization is largely funded on a project basis by groups like the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development. “We may have discovered a better way to teach young kids mathematics or to teach non-English speakers how to read English in third grade, or how to better inhibit suicidal patients from taking their own lives,” he notes. Offensend is currently focused on increasing the organization’s visibility and capacity. “If we don’t scale it up, it just sits on the shelf, and that doesn’t do anybody any good.”
One of EDC’s current projects is a collaboration with U.S. VETS, a nonprofit provider of services to veterans. Women vets are six times more likely to die by suicide than women who are not veterans, but they are reluctant to engage with the Veterans Affairs department, Offensend says. “Eighty-five percent of veterans are male, a third of women veterans have experienced military sexual trauma and so, guess what, they’re not inclined to trust a male-oriented, male-dominated organization. So they just drop out, and they don’t get the help they need,” Offensend says. EDC partnered with U.S. VETS to create a marketing strategy to reach out to the 19,000 female veterans in the Southern California area, through an online portal. Responding to how vets used the site over the course of several months, EDC made small adjustments—such as eliminating the need to enter personal information up front, using a chat interface, and adding details about the wide range of services available—that led to a big uptick in the number of women vets engaging with U.S. VETS.
An example of an EDC innovation that has had a big impact internationally is interactive radio instruction, which was first developed in the 1980s. “One of the problems in the developing world that continues to vex everyone is that a lot of the world’s poor people live in remote, rural communities. And, not shockingly, teachers don’t want to live in communities like that,” Offensend observes. So EDC developed a solution using interactive lessons via radio broadcasts. “We’ve been always at the cutting edge of applyingtechnology. Not cutting-edge technology, but cutting-edge application,” he says.
Offensend has witnessed the technique in action, in an elementary-school classroom in Rwanda. In 2008, the government of Rwanda changed the language of instruction from French to English, which presented a problem, he says, because many of the instructors did not speak English, including the teacher whose class he visited. Yet she was able to use a prerecorded lesson piped through a cell phone and speakers to teach English to her class. During planned pauses, the instructor engaged students in exercises related to the lesson. “I was just blown away how this technology enables the education of an entire country, in English, when you don’t have teachers who know how to speak English,” he says.
The best part of his job, says Offensend, is watching EDC’s work being used in the field and seeing its impact. One recent example thrills him. The percentage of female students who took AP computer science courses in New York City jumped from 13 percent to 46 percent in one year, thanks to an EDC program. “These little wins, when you look back and point and say, ‘Yeah, that was our work’—that’s really gratifying,” he notes.
Class of MBA 1977, Section B