The Doe Fund
|New York, NY and Philadelphia, PA.|
|Method||Paid transitional work and housing; occupational training and life skills|
|$50 million annual operating budget|
|Mission||To provide work and training, housing and support to individuals seeking to break the cycles of homelessness, criminal recidivism and substance abuse|
The Doe Fund is a nonprofit organization in the United States that provides paid transitional work, housing, educational opportunities, counseling, and career training to people with histories of homelessness, incarceration, and substance abuse.
Graduates of The Doe Fund’s flagship Ready, Willing & Able "work first" program secure permanent housing and employment and become taxpaying members of their communities, fulfilling the group’s mission to break the cycles of homelessness, addiction and criminal recidivism.
The Doe Fund was founded in 1985 by George McDonald during a sharp rise in homelessness in New York City. McDonald, an executive in the private sector at that time, began by distributing food to homeless people on the floor of Grand Central Terminal for 700 consecutive nights. McDonald later recalled people telling him "'…this is a great sandwich, but I really wish I had a room to stay in and a job to pay for it.' People wanted to work, and I wanted to help." George McDonald's conviction that paid work and personal responsibility could turn lives around became the foundation for The Doe Fund's "work first" philosophy. He and his wife, Harriet Karr-McDonald, developed The Doe Fund’s key programs based on their belief that most homeless individuals will seize the opportunity to change their lives if given the opportunity.
Leadership & Early History
George McDonald, founder of The Doe Fund, was working as a garment industry executive when he became conscious of New York’s growing homeless population. He was motivated to do something about it by the teachings of his Catholic school education stressing the importance of community service and supporting those who are less fortunate.
He started by handing out sandwiches at Grand Central Terminal while running for United States Congress. Though his three runs were unsuccessful, the visibility he gained from campaigning provided him a platform from which to advocate for the homeless.
In 1985, a homeless woman known only as "Mama"—whom George McDonald had fed and befriended—died of exposure, the result of spending the night on a concrete sidewalk after being ejected from Grand Central Terminal on Christmas Eve by Metro-North police, despite her pneumonia and the freezing temperatures outside. The incident drove George McDonald to redirect his executive career to focus on providing the homeless with a way off the streets. He created the organization he called The Doe Fund in honor of “Mama Doe.”
Three years later, he lost another homeless friend from the terminal. According to news accounts at that time, April Savino was a spirited and smart but crack-addicted teenager, who, having lost all hope for a better life, shot herself in the head with a stolen gun on the steps of Saint Agnes Church on East 43rd St.
Karr-McDonald, who grew up in Greenwich Village, became close to April while in New York researching a screenplay about homeless people living in Grand Central Terminal. Karr-McDonald had arranged for her to enter a rehabilitation center. Once April completed treatment, Karr-McDonald intended to adopt her and bring her home - but April hid from her on the day they were scheduled to leave New York. Karr-McDonald has said her inability to save April influenced her decision to devote her life to the homeless and move to New York to work with George McDonald. Within six months, the two were married and subsequently established further Doe Fund initiatives together.
As The Doe Fund’s Executive Vice President, Karr-McDonald presides over development of the organization’s programs and its fund-raising efforts.
Ready, Willing & Able
In 1990 The Doe Fund received two contracts from the city: a work contract to renovate low-income housing; the second, a contract to purchase and renovate an abandoned building on Gates Avenue in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn where program participants would live. To attract volunteers the McDonalds canvassed Grand Central Terminal and homeless shelters throughout the city, inviting anyone who wanted to work and was willing to not use drugs or alcohol. The work project—Ready, Willing & Able—and its formerly homeless employees were credited with doing a “great job” by then-New York City Housing Commissioner Felice Michetti.
Within four years, the Ready, Willing & Able program had graduated 90 men who had full-time private sector jobs and their own apartments, but the program’s contracts were among many other cuts made by New York City when it struggled to meet its budget in 1995 and sold much of the low-income housing that was the subject of The Doe Fund’s key work contract. Faced with an immediate need to redirect his workforce, George McDonald decided they should address the growing problem of litter on New York’s streets. Using Ready, Willing & Able’s remaining funds to buy the men rolling trash buckets, brooms, and bright blue uniforms with American flags sewn on the sleeves, he sent them out to clean a five-block area around East 86th Street. The crews quickly became so popular that neighborhood residents began to support them with private donations, enabling Ready, Willing & Able to expand. As of 2010, The Doe Fund’s community improvement projects include over 150 street miles in New York City and Philadelphia and the organization’s annual operating budget is over $40 million.
To enter the program, participants must pledge abstain from using drugs and alcohol, forego entitlements (with the exception of Medicaid), and agree to submit to random, twice-weekly drug tests. They also must sign waivers allowing The Doe Fund to identify orders for any current or past child support they may owe. Once accepted, they move into one of Ready, Willing & Able’s dormitory-style residences, and, following a month of counseling and orientation during which they receive a small weekly stipend, they are put to work for 30 hours a week starting at $7.40 an hour, which gets raised to $8.15 after six months. All are first assigned to a Ready, Willing & Able cleaning crew, after which they can transition to work in the culinary arts, as drivers, on security details, or in other assignments—most of these positions created by The Doe Fund's various social entrepreneurial ventures. All take classes in life and computer skills, job preparation and financial management. After three months, they are offered occupational training in fields that include culinary arts, green building maintenance and pest control. Graduation from the program comes 9–12 months later, once they have found full-time employment, are living in their own non-subsidized apartments, maintaining complete sobriety and, if applicable, paying child support. Sixty-two percent graduate from the program.
A Harvard University study by criminal justice expert Dr. Bruce Western which tracked Ready, Willing & Able's formerly incarcerated clients for two years after their graduations, found that they were 45% less likely to be reconvicted than other parolees. A follow-up study by Western found that they were 60% less likely to be convicted of a felony than other parolees within three years. The resulting savings in social service and criminal justice expenses exceeded the program’s costs by 21%, the study found.
- Back Office of New York, a full service bulk mailing, data and document imaging fulfillment operation.
- Pest at Rest, a commercial and residential pest control service that prepares trainees to take a state licensing exam as pesticide applicators.
- RWA Resource Recovery, a business that collects waste cooking oils from restaurants and food service businesses to be converted into biodiesel fuel.
- Culinary Arts Program, which provides trainees with training and job experience in food handling and preparation, hospitality and basic nutrition. Participants cook and serve 900 meals a day for residents of The Doe Fund’s four facilities and cater events in Greater New York.
While some of The Doe Fund's projects are self-sustaining, the charity also receives funding from major corporations, foundations, and private individuals. It has received multiple grants from the Carnegie Corporation, which has supported more than 550 New York City arts and social service institutions since its inception in 2002. In June 2011, The Doe Fund was one of seven organizations to receive a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) through the Enhanced Transitional Jobs Demonstration program. The $5.6 million award was given to support the Ready, Willing & Able transitional jobs program and was earmarked to help parolees—many of them non-custodial parents—gain employment and stay out of prison. The DOL set a goal for the funded programs to cut their participants expected criminal recidivism rates by half.
The work of The Doe Fund and its founder has received numerous awards and honors. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has given it multiple honors, including HUD’s first-ever Award for Best Practices, instituted in 1999.
The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research awarded the William E. Simon Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Social Entrepreneurship to George McDonald in 2008 for his work-based programs to reduce homelessness and criminal recidivism. The institute credited George McDonald with “changing the way the problem of homelessness is understood, going far beyond the provision of shelter to help former street people and prisoners regain their self-respect and become productive citizens.” Also in 2008, St. John’s University awarded George McDonald its Spirit of Service Award and the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness presented The Doe Fund with its 2008 Innovator of Special Merit Award.
Early in The Doe Fund's existence, George McDonald got in disputes with New York's Coalition for the Homeless for whom he used to volunteer. At issue was requiring Ready, Willing & Able facility residents to apportion part of their earnings to support program expenses, a policy which the Coalition called exploitation but McDonald believed helped prepare them for self-sustaining life outside the program.
In 2006, the U.S. Department of Labor conducted audits of each of its Welfare-to-Work contracts, one of which had been awarded to The Doe Fund. The initial audit report stated that approximately $1.6 million of a $5 million grant was improperly allocated, though this finding was revised in a subsequent 2008 review, which determined that more than two-thirds of the previously disallowed funds had been properly administered.
The New York Daily News charged George McDonald with blurring the lines between his personal and professional life by pocketing the $100,000 honorarium accompanying the 2008 William E. Simon Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Social Entrepreneurship. The Daily News claimed it was intended for his charity, though The Doe Fund's board voted to award it to him for his leadership. The Manhattan Institute issued a clarification stating that these honoraria are awarded to individuals "in the tradition of Nobel Prize and MacArthur 'genius' awards" and that the money was intended for George McDonald individually. The Manhattan Institute has since presented honorarium checks in the name of the award winner, as was customary before they began administering the prize in 2007.
In 2009, the New York Post criticized the charity, questioning the compensation it paid Founder and President George McDonald. In a response letter, the chairman of The Doe Fund's board of directors wrote that their executive compensation is comparable to other non-profit organizations of a similar size and complexity. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) reports that The Doe Fund meets all 20 BBB Standards for Charity Accountability, and that George McDonald's salary is less than 1% of the organization’s operating budget.
A 2010 report by the New York Times questioned whether donations to The Doe Fund by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg or his charities were an attempt to influence testimony in support of Mayor Bloomberg's 2008 bid to overturn term limits. After Mayor Bloomberg's requests for testimony from charities he supported, George McDonald and about 20 Doe Fund employees testified in City Council hearings in favor of easing term limits. Mayor Bloomberg had been a Doe Fund supporter since "long before he first ran for office," according to a mayoral spokesman, and had made large contributions in the years before and after the hearing. A Doe Fund spokesman quoted in the report said George McDonald had given continued "vocal opposition to term limits" for city officials since 1993 when he supported the Coalition for Voters Choice in its unsuccessful efforts to prevent the term limits measure from becoming law.
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