Ep 65: The Case of the Serial Nonprofit Founder (with Robin Steinberg)

by Joan Garry

Nonprofit founders are superheroes. Robin Steinberg is certainly one. In fact, she keeps on creating new nonprofits! And she has a wealth of knowledge to share.


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It takes a very special kind of person to launch of nonprofit. I would argue that it SHOULD. A founder does not just see the problem and feel compelled to solve it, but has some kind of superpower. They look around and see the circumstances AROUND the problem. With a kind of x-ray vision, they see a root cause, and find the gap. And the gap becomes the kernel of an idea that can lead to a new nonprofit.

Founders ask “what if”; they most definitely ask “why not?” And they do so with a unique kind of tenacity and a dose of PT Barnum. Founders are persuasive, vocal and they can be wildly effective in building a small army to bring the work to life.

Yes, I marvel at founders. We all should.

Now many of us also know the flip side. Founders can have a hard time letting go of that which they found.

Not my guest today. Robin just can’t seem to help herself. And it makes sense. If you have this kind of superpower, you can’t just shut it off, right? You keep looking around, seeing the context. Looking deeper and seeing the gaps.

About Robin Steinberg

Robin Steinberg is a leader and a pioneer in the field of indigent defense. Since graduating from the New York University School of Law in 1982, Robin has spent her entire career as a public defender. In 1997, Robin founded The Bronx Defenders, where she helped develop The Bronx Defenders’ model of holistic defense – a client-centered model of public defense that uses interdisciplinary teams of advocates to address both the underlying causes and collateral consequences of criminal justice involvement. Robin has been honored by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association for her “exceptional vision, devotion, and service in the quest for equal justice” and by the New York Bar Association for her “outstanding contributions to the delivery of defense services.” She was awarded Harvard Law School’s Wasserstein Fellowship in recognition of her “outstanding contributions and dedication to public interest law.” Robin created the Externship in Holistic Defense at Columbia Law School and is the author of a number of articles, including “Heeding Gideon’s Call in the 21st Century: Holistic Defense and the New Public Defense Paradigm” (Washington and Lee Law Review, Summer 2013). In addition to her work with Still She Rises, Robin is the CEO of The Bail Project.

In this episode

  • What you need – besides a willingness to take a leap of faith – to found a nonprofit
  • How do you identify the difference between a gap that should be a program in an existing organization versus the need for creating a whole new organization?
  • How can a founder know when it’s OK to move on to the next project?
  • How long should a founder stay (before the relationships formed become about the founder versus the organization)