Can This Charismatic Pastor Rally Philly Around Its Most Intractable Problem?
Inside Bill Golderer’s big, bold — and, dare we say, revolutionary — idea for tackling poverty in Philadelphia.
Almost four years ago, I met Bill Golderer for the first time, and like many people who meet Bill Golderer, I felt moved. I can’t even remember exactly what he said — something about social justice? Maybe something about love? — but whatever it was, I recall later saying to my husband, “He’s … good, right?”
To be perfectly candid, this first interaction with Golderer wasn’t so much me meeting him as it was me just sitting there, listening to him talk. He was the preacher; I was one of several dozen people scattered in the narrow, hard-backed pews of Center City’s Arch Street Presbyterian Church. As a person who has spent more Sunday mornings than not in one hard-backed pew or another, I’ll admit that I’m naturally inclined to feel stirred by the cadence of a good sermon. But according to my not-particularly-religious husband, you needn’t be particularly religious to find the stately domed church sandwiched between the Comcast towers a stirring place in which to spend an hour. There is, for one thing, the architecture of the sanctuary, an ornate historic landmark dating back to 1855. There’s the choir, too, a small host of heavenly voices all of which, I swear, fall somewhere between Broadway and Whitney Houston on style and talent scales.
And then, of course, there’s Golderer. Anyone who knows Bill Golderer in any capacity — Bill the faith leader, Bill the founder of Broad Street Ministry, Bill the restaurateur, Bill the Congressional candidate, Bill the newish CEO of the United Way of Greater Philly and South Jersey — can tell you this: The guy’s a great talker. A gifted preacher, sure, but also an Olympic-level conversationalist. He listens like Oprah and speaks like Obama, with a boundless array of allegories, analogies, witticisms, cultural references and, yes, Bible verses that fall from his lips as naturally as rain from the heavens. One muggy day in August, he and I talked inside a big, comfortable church office lined floor to ceiling with books that ranged from antique Bibles to Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In that conversation, he touched on the following: the famous playwright Tom Stoppard, the famous apostle Paul, Richardson Dilworth, Richard Simmons, Elon Musk, Bill Clinton and his “zipper problem,” Antonio Banderas, Vince Young, Batman, and Henry Rollins circa the Black Flag years. Oh, and Philadelphia, of course. Always Philadelphia. He’s from here, you know. He gets it. He loves it. He feels its pain. And right now, as I write this, he also has hopes for it — really big hopes.
It’s those hopes that he’s talking about most these days, and that matters, because when Golderer talks, things often end up happening.
“He’s a phenomenal big-picture guy,” says Steven Cook. Cook, of course, runs the restaurant group CookNSolo with chef Michael Solomonov. Those two — both Jewish, for what it’s worth — are such big supporters of Broad Street Ministry, the nonprofit Golderer started to help feed our city’s hungry, that they actually launched the restaurant Rooster Soup to help fund it. (In the beginning, they’d simply offered to use the leftover chicken bones from Federal Donuts to make soup for the place. “Yeah, that’s not really going to work for us,” Golderer told America’s best chef. He had another idea. … )
“He has a way of connecting dots to build a bigger narrative that’s impressive and effective in getting people to buy into his vision,” Cook says. Mark Zandi, the famous economist who’s a friend of Golderer, offers a similar appraisal: “His energy and excitement and thoughtfulness are very infectious.” Zandi knows this much firsthand: “You can’t say no to Bill. In a very, very nice way, he’s persistent. So if you do say no, you ultimately say yes.”
Sometimes people are surprised by this particular attribute — the ballsiness, the inability to settle for less. That’s partly because Golderer, who’s 49 and lives in Devon, is excruciatingly humble about his role as a change-maker and partly because he looks like Central Casting’s exact idea of a mild Presbyterian preacher. There’s a Nike swoosh of brown hair; friendly, heavy-lidded eyes; a toothy smile atop a broad chin; and hulking shoulders that look swell in vestments, though he rarely wears them. “Our sanctuary brings all the high church we need,” says Carla Jones Brown, who works with Golderer as a pastor and head of staff at Arch Street. As far as Golderer goes, she says, “When you meet him, he’s Clark Kent.” Meaning that he looks to be your average nice, obedient white everyman. And then, she says, he turns out to be “none of what he appears to be in the flesh.”
What Bill Golderer has turned out to be is a major force in a movement that’s gathering momentum, a proponent of a Philly-style “Marshall Plan” that might actually be the only shot Philadelphia has at a future we can all live with — a Philadelphia we actually want to live in. His mission — and now, thanks to the United Way, his job — revolves around tackling our poverty rate, which, as you almost definitely know, is a staggering 25 percent. It’s the worst rate of the major cities in America. (The national rate is 12 percent.) For years now, we’ve been stuck around that level, even though much of the city has gotten better and bigger and richer, even though many people across many sectors have been working for a very long time to fix this problem. And aside from the obvious moral issues at play here, the implications of having nearly 400,000 of us struggling on a daily basis also threatens any and all progress this city has made. Just think, says Golderer, who’s always good for a clarifying visual: “Four hundred thousand people is more than five Lincoln Financial Fields of people!”
And yet, in the face of all of this woe, Bill Golderer is as hopeful as he’s ever been about this place. Why not? This isn’t the first time he’s rallied people around an insanely big idea. And even more than that, well, the stakes right now are just too high, and the timing is just too perfect, and there are simply too many intriguing people from too many surprising places on board with this mission for it not to work.
Well … that’s what Bill Golderer hopes, anyway.
The blessing and the curse of trying to interview Golderer is that with him, there’s no yes or no answer; there’s only a moving or funny or surprising story that will elucidate his thoughts in a way that speaks personally to you, whoever you are. Though you could maybe say the same thing about Golderer’s life, which is essentially a collection of crazy stories involving some combination of faith, politics and culture, woven together by a thread of defining moments that nobody really saw coming. Including him.
He was born in White Plains, New York, in 1970, to a mother who came from a long line of New Yorkers and a father whose family was as Philly as it gets, peopled with PECO guys and SEPTA bus drivers. In 1977, Bill Golderer Sr. moved the family back here, to Wayne.
“My dad was 11 when the stock market crashed [in 1929],” Golderer says. He was an older dad, 52 when Bill was born. He’d seen poverty, and — after decades as a company man at Equifax — he’d seen success. He knew what he wanted for his kid. It was the elder Bill, whose matriculation consisted of Kensington High followed by the military, who insisted that his son go to the Haverford School and that he learn to play golf — a game that gets people places. As it happened, once Bill started playing, he was exceptionally great at it.
To the consternation of both his deeply Catholic mother and his unreligious father, Golderer the high-schooler started attending Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church — mostly because his friends played basketball there. But his relationship with the church changed when Golderer was 16 and his mom, Pat, was diagnosed with colon cancer. The whys of the whole thing were a lot for her to process, Golderer says. They were, of course, a lot for him, too, and when, six months after her diagnosis, Pat died, the church community at Bryn Mawr became an increasingly important part of his life. A senior minister would meet with Bill once a month, to talk. At one meeting, he handed the grieving teenager a book called Christ and Culture — a big, rigorous tome. “I don’t know why I didn’t shy away from it,” Golderer says, but he didn’t, and the moment sparked his conversion into what he calls “a worldview of faith” — “So that started brewing.”
After high school, he’d leave Philly for 15 years. There was college in Texas at Southern Methodist University. (He was offered a golf scholarship but refused it, wary of committing to so much golf.) There was also — not in this order — divinity school at Yale and jobs in New York, D.C., Oakland and Chicago.
One of the more defining moments from that time came in 1994, when, as a fresh college grad, Golderer went to D.C. to help launch an organization called the Interfaith Alliance. The group, made up of faith leaders from around the country, was an answer to the right wing’s Christian Coalition, which drew power from what Golderer saw — at best — as partisan politics masquerading as religion. Between the “fringe” views he felt were influencing American politics and the rise of dark money, he says, “I just found it objectionable. Not as a person of faith, but it seemed like dirty pool to me.” So he went to Washington to fight.
That fight exposed him to the sharp-elbowed political world, but it also introduced him to a great many major faith leaders in this country: Catholic bishops, Muslim imams, some of the most revered African American pastors out there. “Not every member of the clergy is exemplary,” Golderer says. “But these guys were the greatest hits.” It was revelatory.
“These people were not CEOs,” he says of the pastors. “They did not make millions of dollars. They were not university presidents. And yet they stayed in one location for 30 or 50 years and stood on the right side of the issues time and again. Their currency was their integrity, and they grew in authority by being obedient to place.”
Sometimes, even off the cuff, Golderer manages to sound like your favorite West Wing episode.
He had another realization, too, one that would lay the groundwork for him to join the ministry — something he’d struggled with even after seminary. Frankly, the so-square pastor image wasn’t something he wanted to be saddled with. “Look,” he says, “you don’t swipe — what is it, left? — for pastor. Even 25 years ago, I knew that.”
But these guys, these famous pastors — they weren’t caricatures or saints, he realized. They were complex, deeply driven change agents. And he could see himself following that path.
There are other illustrative stories we could mine here, like when he married his wife of 16 years, Julie, a commercial real estate lender with whom he has two sons. Or when he was a young outreach minister at one of Chicago’s most prominent churches — a place, Golderer tells me, a colleague described as smelling on Christmas Eve “like Tanqueray and old fur.” He laughs. “Like, be careful with the candles!” The neighboring bookstore wanted to host Salman Rushdie, famous writer, atheist and fatwa target, but decided it was too dangerous. So Golderer arranged for Rushdie to speak in the sanctuary. There was also the time he moderated a panel — again, in the church — featuring Bill Clinton’s preacher discussing, yes, the president’s “zipper problem,” and Nightline showed up to film it, with Ted Koppel interviewing from New York.
But for our purposes, the most defining moment was in 2003, when Golderer came back to Philly, ostensibly to revitalize the beautiful, derelict Chambers-Wylie Memorial Presbyterian Church on the Avenue of the Arts. The Presbytery hoped he’d be able to recapture something of the former glory of what had been a grand, popular church. By the time Bill arrived, nobody had worshiped there in years; the University of the Arts was leasing the space.
Revitalize it he did. Only the church, christened Broad Street Ministry, wasn’t a 2.0 situation. It was a totally new model built around what Golderer calls “radical hospitality,” which isn’t just about how well you treat your guests, he says, but about who even gets to be guests in the first place, and also how that hospitality can transform both the guest and the host. In essence, he looked around him on Broad Street, steps away from the shining Kimmel, within spitting distance of City Hall, and saw prosperity and promise. He also saw people walking by him with their worldly possessions in trash bags.
“It’s the greatest walking city in the world,” he says. “So you can’t hide the struggle of people.”
There was really no question for Golderer that the church would need to find its place among both Philadelphias. With much input from dear friends and the community around him (note: “much input from dear friends and the community around him” is a plot point in nearly every Bill Golderer story), he came to envision a place that might help bridge the gap. A place of worship for all comers, but also a place where Philadelphia’s thriving hospitality industry could improve the city by helping BSM learn how to serve the needy the way restaurants and hotels serve their paying customers: with a seasoned, respected chef, attentive service, beautifully set tables, and a sense of plenty for people used to scarcity. Eventually, it would be a one-stop shop where people could get legal help, fresh clothes, medical assistance and a mailbox, which could be life-changing for someone without a permanent residence.
Nothing like this existed anywhere in this city, and Bill had only $8,000 in original seed money. So a lot of people thought it wouldn’t work, including some of the Presbyterians who’d brought him here. This wasn’t what they’d expected. They also hadn’t expected him to rip out the sanctuary’s historic pews and sell them to a church in Texas. (This had been John Wanamaker’s church, for God’s sake.) How else would the dinner tables fit? “Look, no style points for me,” Golderer says. “But the idea that you’re going to methodologically get to this place without resistance … ” He shrugs.
“A lot of folks thought he was nuts, myself included,” says Brian Abernathy, Mayor Kenney’s managing director. At the time, Abernathy was working for Councilman Frank DiCicco, who also thought Golderer was nuts. “But then he created one of the best programs in the city,” Abernathy says, “one that lifted up the people in need while balancing the interests and concerns of the community.” The Inquirer’s Ronnie Polaneczky put it this way: Golderer “transformed the public’s conversation and actions regarding Philly’s hungry and homeless by building unexpected partnerships.” Today, four years after Golderer left, BSM serves 7,000 people a year.
Beyond its success, it bears mentioning that the place has always just been cool, sitting at the unlikely intersection of the arts and LGBTQ communities, the do-gooders, the private sector and the civic wonks. The diners, volunteers and congregants come from all walks of life; the sanctuary has hosted edgy Fringe shows; the partners, funders and board members Golderer assembled came from places like Four Seasons, the Union League, Comcast and more.
In 2007, big-league New York City director Lear DeBessonet visited BSM with her Philly-based boyfriend and was so enchanted that she lobbied Golderer to co-produce a version of Don Quixote right there in the church, starring a few professional actors but mostly the regular guests.
Obviously, Golderer — the man who once told me that the best part of Jesus’s repertoire was his performance art — was in. This was so BSM! So new and human and chaotic and inclusive! And then, of course, there was the play itself, which debuted in 2009 and whose animating theme, as an enamored City Paper writer put it, was this:
What’s more insane — to see the world as it is, or as it should be?
With Broad Street Ministry, it became clear that Golderer’s gift isn’t just talking, but thinking in outsize, aspirational ways. Actually, no, pastor Carla Jones Brown says: What he’s really good at is thinking in outsize, aspirational ways and then assembling a team that shares his vision to help execute that outsize, aspirational plan. He’s the opposite of a micromanager. “He gets the 3 a.m. call from God: ‘I want you to build an ark,’” she says. “Then Bill sends me an email: ‘God says we’re going to build an ark,’ and I say, ‘Okay, I’m on my way to Home Depot with the shopping list.’”
This role, assembler-in-chief, is one Golderer has embraced, from putting together his various staffs to inviting people to the BSM dinners where, say, a finance titan might befriend a homeless veteran. (As Golderer would tell you in poignant detail, there’s much Biblical precedent in the idea of issuing invitations. Also, the finance-guy-and-veteran thing actually happened, and when Golderer tells that story, he gets misty. As do I.) His title at BSM was literally “Convening Minister.”
Since 2008, Golderer has served as lead pastor at Arch Street Presbyterian, another historic church that was struggling when he arrived. He’s since convened a new team, including the warmly dynamic Jones Brown as a pastor and a sought-after musical minister who now leads that incredible choir. The congregation has grown. In 2011, Golderer wanted to start a preschool in the church — and not just a preschool, but a school with a model of funding that allowed “the children of the people who occupy the corner office to go to school with the children of the people who clean those offices. Wouldn’t you want to live in a world like that?” Again, he turned to dear friends and the community as well as to his wife. (“Julie did it all,” he says.) Again, there were doubters. “This will forever be known as ‘Golderer’s Folly,’” one congregant tartly predicted. But no. Seven years after its opening, the $3 million preschool Golderer envisioned is thriving. (Disclosure: My kid went to that preschool, which is how we came to the church.)
There have been other experiments, too, including the 2015 launch of Rooster Soup. Golderer, Cook, Solomonov, and a trio of other backers raised a reported $180K on Kickstarter to get it launched; the restaurant raised $16K its first year for BSM, all while garnering national press. Right after that got off the ground, there was another big idea in the works for Golderer: What about a run for Congress?
The thing is, Golderer says — and he knows this sounds terribly antiquated — he just deeply believes in the power of institutions, in the “great handiwork and crafting of people who have worked on things for generations.” And look, maybe he had something to offer this particular institution; maybe he could make some change in a different realm. So he left BSM to run in the Democratic primary in the 7th Congressional District, hoping to take on Republican incumbent Pat Meehan. He stayed at Arch Street, where, according to Jones Brown, some congregants had mixed feelings about their pastor running for political office. Which was a little surprising to her, she says, because in the black churches she’d grown up in, this was the drill. “A lot of black political leaders were also pastors,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, this is what we do.’”
And Golderer did: He raised the money and took on the more politically established Democrat, Mary Ellen Balchunis. And then he lost. By a lot.
“Were you heartbroken?” I ask.
“Oh my God, humiliated,” he says, throwing his head back to emphasize the force of the pain. “I mean, you question everything.”
Outwardly, at least, Golderer emerged unscathed from his political gambit, and he certainly doesn’t come off now as someone who questions the big picture. Consider his take on last summer’s closing of Rooster (née Rooster Soup), a decision Cook and Solomonov reluctantly reached after the place began losing money rather than raising it. Firstly, Golderer says, how inspirational was it that those two “used their platform and fame to do something deeply, deeply sacrificial”?
And secondly? Just because the place didn’t last forever doesn’t mean it’s not still a model. “Is Sam Cooke not great because he didn’t have a 30-year career?” Golderer says. “He captured it for a minute, and it was magic.” Organizational leadership is sort of like that, he thinks. Like rock-and-roll. “You only have to get it right for a while.”
In late 2017, the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey (UWGPSNJ) was at a crossroads. The nearly 100-year-old nonprofit — “the institution’s institution!” in Golderer-speak — had recently decided to narrow its approach to giving in order to more effectively put a dent in Philly’s inter-generational poverty crisis. They’d focus their attention (and funding) on three areas: childhood learning, career pathways, and economic empowerment for families. And they were looking for someone new to lead the charge.
For Golderer, or anyone deeply committed in the anti-poverty world, this was the ultimate opportunity. This branch of United Way has about $40 million a year to fund programs, a donor base of 78,000 people, and access to countless businesses and on-the-ground service groups. It’s quite a perch for a guy with a vision. “I think we each concluded that we were finding one another at a very important crossroads,” offers Gordon Cooney, the UWGPSNJ board chair and longtime board member.
You can see how Golderer — mission-driven, entrepreneurial Golderer — was the jackpot candidate. A disrupter with experience and social capital to spare, but also the fund-raising chops to help refresh and revitalize a funding stream that has seen a shift in recent years, in part because more corporations have started their own foundations. (In 2017, the group reported $52 million in revenue, down from $60 million in 2016.) As it happens, Golderer already has a few wins under his belt in that respect, including a United Way partnership in a major childhood literacy campaign with Chris Long, former Eagle, NFL Man of the Year and, as Golderer enthuses, “one of the best guys I’ve ever met.” (You see, he explains, they were both on a panel once and just connected. … )
One thing, though: The regional United Way’s top leadership, headquartered in Philly, had traditionally been pretty, well, white for a city where about 65 percent of us aren’t. This was an issue raised by Otis Bullock just before Golderer’s hiring. Bullock is the well-known director of Diversified Community Services, a nonprofit in Point Breeze known for impactful work with low-income families in that area. In a 2017 Inky op-ed, he wrote: “[I]f the mission is to eradicate generational poverty, and the local United Way’s biggest beneficiary is a largely black and Latino population, why are no people of color represented in the leadership?” He suggested that the organization “aggressively recruit people of color as candidates for their executive staff and membership to their board. Its search for a CEO would be a good place to start.”
So what did Bullock think when, five months later, Golderer was hired as CEO? The white guy? The golfer? From the ’burbs?
He laughs. “My reaction was, ‘So, that was tone-deaf.’” He laughs again. “But at the same time, I’m thinking, ‘If they’re going to hire a white guy, Bill’s the right white guy.’” And if it hadn’t been Bill? “I might have been pissed off.”
They’ve been friends since the early BSM days, Bullock says. “So I know Bill’s commitment to diversity and his commitment to providing service on a very humanitarian level.” (Similar assessments are made by more than one associate of Golderer’s regarding the issues of whiteness, maleness and privileged-ness.) “I mean, he’s made changes to the United Way already,” Bullock says. “It’s much more diverse in senior management than it had been.”
Speaking of changes: One of Golderer’s first moves once he settled into his new post was to fire 37 of his employees. It was one third of the staff. The “bold and painful step” was necessary, he said, given the newly focused organizational mission. Not surprisingly, though, the cuts — combined with a pre-Golderer change in the funding model that saw 111 organizations lose UWGPSNJ money — mean that not everyone is besotted with the organization or its new leader. One former manager told Generocity it was “a great unknown, what this thing is turning into. … It certainly doesn’t seem like a United Way.”
But Golderer has plowed ahead, making new connections and assembling his leadership dream team, a 10-person roster of civic-minded talent from around the region that includes Michael Banks, former executive director of the local African-American Chamber of Commerce, and Jordan Schwartz, whose résumé includes organizing the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
I could easily go on here about this team and the new energy, new initiatives and new money that are animating the United Way right now, because all that stuff is literally going to change people’s lives around the entire region. And also because, like Golderer, the United Way team is both intriguing and highly quotable. (For example, Banks on Golderer: “He has good swag for a preacher.”) But this isn’t a story about how United Way is going to fix Philadelphia’s poverty problem. This is a story about how the United Way can’t fix our poverty problem. Not on its own. This is a story about how it is almost universally acknowledged among people who talk about such things that it’s going to take a big cross-sector, regional effort to move that needle. And that is what Bill Golderer, convening minister, is trying to do.
Golderer believes that with enough buy-in, this city can break out of our impossible rut. It would, he’s pointed out, take moving the needle down at least four percentage points for us to “catch” the next closest city, which is either Dallas or Houston, depending on which data you look at. That would shift roughly one Lincoln Financial Field of people from living below the poverty line to living above it. (By the way, the federal poverty line for a family of four is $25,750.) In September 2018, Golderer went public with his plan for how we might move on this in an op-ed for the Inquirer.
Other cities, he wrote, have made progress with their “intractable social problems.” They’ve done it with “leaders from philanthropy, government, the private sector, and citizen leaders” who “put aside grievances, partisanship, posturing, and pettiness” in order to get to a “clear vision, an achievable plan and — here’s the missing ingredient — a deep commitment to execution so that the burden can be shared and progress made.”
To some of us, this grand vision might sound … easy? Is there anyone who doesn’t want to fight poverty? Actually, that’s part of the challenge here: Lots of people want to fight poverty. Council has a plan. The Chamber of Commerce has a plan. City Hall, some philanthropies, a hundred disparate community organizations — all have different plans, different goals, different (if any) metrics. Most of them don’t include one another. Which leads to the bigger issue: Philly itself. You know, the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection and egos and silos and pessimism and fealty to the way things have always been done.
“We’re not short on aspirational vision,” Golderer says delicately. “But if you were talking in terms of a business proposition, it’s how many and by when and how much. And until we get there, well, the tone of everything I’m trying to bring forward with the United Way and everyone that’s a part of this is that we need each other.”
There’s no shortage of playbooks from places — Detroit, Cincinnati, Dallas — that have launched citywide initiatives, he says. Actually, one of the items on the United Way docket in coming years is a prosperity summit for Philadelphia, not unlike the Impact Summit in Chicago, which brings together thousands of city leaders to connect, “build knowledge on key issues,” and plan. Sort of like a Continental Congress, Golderer says. By the by: “A lot of those people didn’t like each other very much, but they put that aside to make a nation.”
Anyway, that’s down the road a bit. And so is any actual blueprint for what Golderer sometimes refers to as a Philly-style Marshall Plan — you know, a big, long-term, bold, sacrificial, expensive, definitely not easy plan for rebuilding. This leads us to the other big challenge, which is that Golderer can’t really get more specific than that.
“I need this to be crystal clear,” Golderer says. “I am not the man with the plan.” Do we see? He’s just one man, and this is bigger than him, bigger than any single organization or source of wisdom or type of experience. He isn’t into the whole solo-maverick-brilliant-Elon Musk-Steve Jobs narrative as a model of progress. He completely rejects that narrative (even though that might be an easier sell).
Instead, from and through his perch at the United Way, he’s issuing the call, working to assemble that “unlikely mash-up” of regional players who want to help formulate the vision and make it happen. It’s still early in that work, he admits. And yet already, the mash-up of supporters he’s amassed is both highly unlikely and deeply compelling. There’s Mark Zandi, for instance, the economist at Moody’s, who met Golderer during his run for Congress. Now, Zandi is leading a Moody’s team looking to understand, in a macroeconomic sense, what it is about Philly that has led us to have a higher poverty rate than our counterparts and exactly what we should focus on to address those problems.
Data is crucial, Golderer believes, not just as a way to understand what’s going on, and not just as a shared metric for progress, but also because maybe you’re someone who’s more moved by the economic aspect of all this than the social aspect. Maybe you’re more inclined to listen to Mark Zandi — who’s on Bloomberg, who’s advised U.S. presidents — than Bill Golderer. Bill Golderer gets that. Anyway, it’s not just Zandi on board. Deloitte, the massive management consultant firm, is a player, too, helping to shape that analysis and offer further insights (pro bono). And the city itself has jumped on the data-dive wagon: They’re the ones who shared the immense store of specific Philly numbers with Zandi.
“We were excited for that partnership,” managing director Abernathy says of the Moody’s work. “I could talk for a long time about how this administration is completely focused on lifting people out of poverty. But we can’t solve this on our own. We need this civic dialogue and civic voice, and that’s what Bill is trying to say. When we talked early on, he said, ‘I don’t know if this will be successful, but dammit, someone’s gotta try.’ And I completely agree.”
“It’s been a long time coming, where somebody is willing to step out and say it’s time to be bold and swing big,” Bullock says. “So far, we haven’t had leadership do that. Especially coming from a place with as much clout as the United Way.” Among the hundreds of community-service providers like his own group, Bullock says, there’s long been a sense that a guiding light — a common goal, common strategy, common metrics — was needed. “They’ve been waiting for leadership for a long time.”
“It’s been a long time coming, where somebody is willing to step out and say it’s time to be bold and swing big,” Otis Bullock says of the fight against poverty in Philly. “We haven’t had leadership do that.”
Then there’s Golderer’s focus on the private sector, which, along with the philanthropic world, has a lot to offer in terms of expertise and — let’s be real — cash. (Like the actual Marshall Plan, a poverty strategy is going to “cost more than we want to spend,” Golderer says. “They didn’t fix Europe with a fixed budget.”)
Jeff Brown, founding CEO of Brown’s Super Stores and founder of Uplift Solutions, a nonprofit that assists workforce reentry, is a close ally of Golderer’s. He tells me that long before Golderer ever joined the United Way, the idea of a cross-sector coalition to tackle poverty was an ongoing conversation not just between them, but also among other business bigwigs. “I think you’d be surprised at how many successful people are concerned about this and want to make a difference,” Brown tells me.
“We agreed in our meetings with each other that we wouldn’t say unless those people chose to be named,” Brown says. (Note to my editor: Please let the next story I write be about Philly’s poverty-focused version of the Skulls.)
One CEO who doesn’t mind going on the record is Nick Bayer, social impact entrepreneur and founder of the coffee giant Saxbys. “It’s one thing to like Bill,” he says. Everyone likes Bill. “It’s another thing to be totally down with this cause.” And Bayer has always been about this particular cause. “I can’t sit on the sidelines for this. It’s an incredibly audacious idea, and it can be pivotal for the city, the region, and people generationally, and I want to be a part of that.”
So they’re gathering steam right now — Golderer, his team, and acolytes of the vision. Making the rounds. Issuing invitations. They’re out, as Golderer has analogized more than once, sending up the Bat Signal. “You know,” he clarifies. “‘Gotham is in trouble. Will you come help?’”
If Golderer comes off as impatient, well, it’s because he’s certain that this is the moment — right now! — that the city has to seize. There are so many more people who understand this threat (“and the opportunities!”) than there were a decade ago, and so much progress in the city, and so much new blood and millennial chutzpah. Zandi agrees with him. It’s the vibe, for sure, he says, but also the current economic backdrop of prosperity that makes this a “very, very good time to crack the issue.”
During our chat in his office, Golderer mentions that he recently read John F. Kennedy’s famous “We choose to go to the Moon” speech, which Golderer paraphrases thusly: “We’re going to the Moon. We have no idea how. We know it’s going to cost a lot, and we know it’s going to take a while, but we’re doing this thing.” And how it was like, Man, if that doesn’t happen, you’re going to look dumb.
Golderer isn’t afraid of looking dumb. What scares him is this: “If we know that there is opportunity, and that with the right amount of grit, determination, will, capital and courage, something could happen, and we just decide not to … then what? What is that? How do my kids look at me? Which is what I super worry about.”
He doesn’t dwell for very long on this, though. Existential risk sort of comes with the gig. And if this particular moon shot stays true to the path it’s on, it wouldn’t be the first time Golderer the convening minister managed to gather together an unlikely, unwieldy group of Philadelphians so we might better love our neighbor or better love our city. Which is really the same thing.
Published as “The Pastor” in the November 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.
Philadelphia magazine is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and economic mobility in the city. Read all our reporting here.