Many of us lost a friend and champion last week with the untimely death of Peter Goldberg. I first came to know Peter through his ten years of service as a board member of The Bridgespan Group. Peter shared and whetted our collective desire to help mission-driven organizations achieve breakthrough solutions for the most daunting social problems. At the same time, he also grounded this desire in the messy and challenging realities faced by the frontline staff and leaders of nonprofits working to support poor and vulnerable children and families, thereby making our vision much more practical.
Peter served as the President and CEO of the Alliance for Children and Families, an association representing the interests and policy perspectives of 350 nonprofits delivering a wide range of human services to people in great need. To run a finger down the membership roll of the Alliance is in many ways to trace the backbone of the social safety net in this country, one that is under more and more strain as it seeks to meet worsening needs in the face of declining public resources. I’ve noted elsewhere that Alliance members tend to be workhorses, not show horses. In Peter Goldberg these workhorses had both a relentless advocate on behalf of the essential role they played in our society as well as an unstinting challenger for how they needed to adapt and get better at what they did in order to continue to realize their venerable missions.
Peter was an irrepressible man whose enthusiasm for life was infectious. I learned from a friend this week that he had driven a cab in New York as a young man. That certainly fits—I can just picture him careening down the avenues, talking a mile a minute with some out-of-town passengers, asking them where they’re from, pointing out local sights and the stories behind them before screeching to a halt at their destination, leaving them smiling and a bit exhausted by the curb as he roars away. As the representative of a group of mission-rich but cash-strapped organizations, Peter had a finely honed gift as a leader for rallying you to their causes, enlisting your best efforts in support of them, and leaving you feeling grateful for the opportunity to contribute.
For all of his practicality, Peter was also a man of ideas, always seeking others’ takes on how to improve the world and sharing his own with them. These exchanges with Peter were invariably an exhilarating, live-fire exercise. He gave feedback candidly, but generously, and wanted the same in return. Through this give and take over the past few years he sharpened my thinking on the critical, but troubled, nexus between government and the social sector. Late last year, for example, a colleague and I had called him to discuss a concept we were excited about (Surely this would be a breakthrough!) and Peter listened patiently as I described the emerging best practice that warranted widespread replication in government contracting for the delivery of human services. When I asked him what he thought, he proceeded to point out all the things we were overlooking and wrapped up by admonishing, "Daniel, you are focused on putting best practices on the table, when what you need to be doing is scraping all the bulls**t off the table!" Peter was exactly right, and my colleague and I almost fell out of our chairs laughing in recognition of the impolite truth he had bestowed upon us. But he then proceeded to help us salvage the real insights that were right in front of us in our work that we had not yet seen.
For his part, when Peter floated an idea he was working on, he wanted it subjected to the same kind of scrutiny, and he would proceed to grapple with the constructive criticism in ways that manifestly strengthened his own thinking. Ours is a sector where everyone says they want feedback, but in reality most don’t really seek it or act upon it when they get it. Peter was a refreshing and counter-cultural exemplar in this regard.
In recent years, Peter was focused on the worsening disconnect between a government and society that has increasingly relied on nonprofit organizations to support its most vulnerable members and the mounting economic hardships that these same organizations face as a result of our collective unwillingness to sustain them in the work that we are asking them to do. Peter was not content to let the implications of this yawning gap go unobserved. His persistent quest to find an answer to the problem was prompted not just by the fact that his member organizations and their beneficiaries need one, but also by the fact that, as he often pointed out, American society as a whole needs one if it is going to continue to flourish.
Peter has left this world to join the next, but I’m sure he is already making his mark there as a good-natured gadfly, drawing in and winning over new friends from the margins, pointing out to the powers that be that some of their fundamental premises look to be a little shaky, and engaging everyone in a lively conversation about how to run the place better. As saddened as I am by Peter’s passing, I take solace in how he inspired and encouraged so many of us to take up his mantle.