Donnie Charleston recently joined Social Finance to help lead its growing public sector partnership work. In this interview, Donnie discusses his background in local and state government and his vision for supporting public sector institutions seeking to spark change.
Your career has focused on bridging the gap between research and implementation for governments and nonprofits. How did that experience lead you to Social Finance in your current role?
Charleston: Social Finance occupies a very unique space in this larger body of organizations trying to help solve problems for government and for America, broadly speaking. Social Finance’s fusion of evidence-based practice and financing innovation, combined with its ability to leverage the tools of consulting, is a unique mix that really appealed to me.
Government distrusts a lot of the firms that operate in the same space as Social Finance. But because we’re adaptable and have a track record of innovation while using data and deep analysis to address big social problems, we have the opportunity to form strong partnerships in the public sector. That’s really what brought me here.
You’ve joined Social Finance at a moment when we’re particularly focused on scaling our public sector work. Why do you think these partnerships are important, especially now?
Charleston: Because of the way state and local governments’ work is changing. We went through this phase of decentralization in the ’70s through ’90s, when everything was pushed to state and local governments. Now we’re starting to question some of that and I think we’re thinking about restructuring these relationships across the gamut. It’s a great time to be in conversation with government because we can help reshape programs and address social challenges with a fresh lens.
We’re facing so many challenges as a country right now and looking to government for answers, but our elected officials and administrators are dealing with a tension between addressing short-term needs and taking on larger, more looming issues. How do you see Social Finance helping here?
Charleston: In most cases, you’re dealing with two variables: one is financing, particularly when you’re talking about state and local problems—because unlike the federal government, state and local governments have finite budgets. The time horizon is the second variable. The funding commitments you make today, versus the money you have tomorrow, never marry with 100% consistency. We can use our innovative financing tools and modeling to inject some predictability there, and that’s a big value-add for our state and local partners.
Secondly, we can help governments move beyond their tendency to view social issues as funding problems towards thinking more about social issues as investment imperatives that have a quantifiable payoff. That’s a huge conceptual switch, but once you get public leaders to start thinking about investments rather than allocations, it completely changes the way they consider challenges and solutions. That opens the floodgates: government becomes more able to not only address today’s problems but to also consider the contextual factors that give rise to those problems in the first place.
You have extensive experience working in state and local government agencies. How does Social Finance’s approach differ from that of other organizations that approach government with potential solutions to social issues?
Charleston: The financing models that most governments currently use are limited in their ability to solve our problems—bonds and tax levies, for example. Some of this is related to the disconnect between funding models and politics. Those same financing models are also often very disconnected from the rigorous process of data inquiry and the question of driving outcomes for communities.
Social Finance brings a very unique set of tools and solutions to address these issues. We have the ability to get people thinking about problems and financing in a different way that helps them move past politics. That, along with our technical skills and track record, helps us support state and local governments so that they can get to a place of tackling problems versus admiring the problem.
How does your experience impact the way you think about your work now that you’re on the other side of the table, so to speak?
Charleston: Early in my career, I had the opportunity to be in conversation with directors of government programs and to really be challenged on what I knew. Years later, having worked in a number of state and local agencies and in state legislature, I understand the nuances and complexities institutions face, from data limitations and regulatory issues to legislative barriers. I also understand the culture of these institutions and the legacy impediments they face. For example, many government agencies are very siloed in how they think about social programs, and some of this is driven by their assumptions about the dictates of funding streams, and in other cases it’s a function of their historical context.
So, being able to understand all of that context is something I bring to the table, and I aim to help our public sector partners build a suite of outcomes-based tools and approaches to accelerate their work.
Before starting your career, you served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. Do you still tap into that experience today? Are there any connections to what you’re doing now?
Charleston: If nothing else, I would say the commitment to something greater than yourself is a connecting thread. The reality is, a lot of the people here at Social Finance could work for big consulting firms but they have an interest and a drive to make an impact on society. Each day we work with people who have the same sense of commitment to doing something for the greater good. That makes everything so much easier because we understand where they’re coming from and what drives them. It makes things click from the standpoint of finding solutions and driving success.
You’ve been here for three months now. As you begin to dive more deeply into the work, are there any specific projects or work streams you’re particularly excited about?
Charleston: I’m most excited about just being able to penetrate new areas. Like our work in early childhood health or public safety and reentry—being able to take our innovations in those spaces and make headway into areas like the American South could be really impactful. I’m also excited about our work with the California Department of Social Services on a guaranteed income pilot. It’s a novel idea and I’m interested to see how we can make that work given our track record of success with innovative financing mechanisms. I’m excited to see where this exploration leads and whether it’s an issue we can push the envelope on.