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Robin Hood GC Aims Arrows at Poverty
Joanna Pressman helps her employer take from the rich and give to the poor, and she does it out in the open, not by skulking around Sherwood Forest. As general counsel of the Robin Hood Foundation, she is a one-woman shop for all the legal work at the highly regarded charity, which fights poverty in New York City.
With the help of a roster of benefactors that reads like a who's who of the financial, business, and media worlds, Robin Hood last year invested $146 million in more than 200 poverty-fighting programs in New York City. The board pays all staff salaries and other administrative costs, so 100 percent of the donations received go directly to projects that the charity funds.
Before joining Robin Hood, Pressman spent four years as associate general counsel at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The 40-year-old attorney graduated from Harvard University and received her J.D. from New York University School of Law.
Corporate Counsel: How did you end up in the nonprofit sector?
Joanna Pressman: I'd always been heavily involved in dance and theater, and when I went to law school, I knew I wanted to focus on nonprofit law, but I thought I'd eventually return to the arts. After law school I went to Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett so I could work with Victoria Bjorklund, a top expert in nonprofit law. After four years I went in-house at Planned Parenthood, where I focused on public policy and learned a lot about campaign finance and lobbying law. After four years I wanted to move on to broader work, so I called Victoria, who is on Robin Hood's board. It was good timing, because the organization had just decided to hire its first in-house general counsel. I've been here now for five years.
CC: What are your primary responsibilities at Robin Hood?
JP: Anything from contracts with vendors to questions about grants or internal operations. My role here is to know about everything, and if I don't, to learn it right away. I have to be able to move quickly while still managing risk.
CC: The Robin Hood Foundation has been heavily involved with Hurricane Sandy relief. What has that meant for you as GC?
JP: We all knew we would have to mobilize quickly. Right away, we reactivated the relief committee, which was formed after 9/11. My first role was to make sure the governing documents were up-to- date so we had the corporate authority to do the work. We had to simplify our grant contracts so we could get them out by email and get money to groups that needed it, fast. We are also the sole beneficiary of the 12-12-12 Concert for Sandy Relief, and we've made grants to more than 300 organizations in the tristate area so far. We've raised $67.5 million to help people affected by Sandy, including $51 million that came from the concert.
CC: Robin Hood is also known for its hugely successful annual benefit, which attracts celebrities and top business people and raises millions of dollars each year. What is that like for you as GC?
JP: Our gala is a gathering of about 4,000 of our closest friends at the Jacob Javits Center. We're in the run-up to this year's benefit now. That means I have a lot of vendor contracts to review. I have to strike a balance, focusing on numerous details without losing sight of the big picture.
CC: Are you happy you chose this path?
JP: Yes. I'm a native New Yorker, and it's especially rewarding to know I'm helping the city I love. I didn't experience poverty when I was growing up, so being at Robin Hood has been an eye-opening experience for me. I see the impact we're having, and I know there's still so much we can do.