Exclusive interview with Keith Gordon, president & CEO of Fight for Children

I had the pleasure recently of sitting down with Keith Gordon, president and chief executive officer of Fight for Children.  Mr. Gordon is no stranger to this organization.  He joined the non-profit in 2015 as the chief operating officer.  The story of how Mr. Gordon became associated with Fight for Children is fascinating.

Mr. Gordon was working in Washington, DC as president of the National Football League Players Incorporated, which is the for-profit subsidiary of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA).  He was in charge of all business units including player licensing, sponsorship, marketing, events, and procurement.  In his six years in this role he grew the NFLPI to become a $150 million enterprise.  Also around this interval, Mr. Gordon moved his wife Mary and 18 month old son Matthew to the area from his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, where he soon welcomed a daughter, Mia, to their growing family.  While he absolutely loved the job, he soon found that the travel demands including constant air and train trips became very disruptive to his family life.  As Mr. Gordon says, “my wife and children were growing and learning how to live without me, and I had a choice to make.”  After six years of trekking around the globe on behalf of the NFLPA, Mr. Gordon made a bold decision, announcing that he would leave the NFLPA following the Super Bowl in Phoenix to spend more time with his family.  At that moment, Mr. Gordon did not commit to another firm, opting instead to consult for a variety of organizations while exploring opportunities in the area.

During this period a recruiter contacted him about an opening at Fight for Children for a chief program officer.  Having attended Fight Night over the years, Fight for Children’s annual fundraiser, he was already familiar with the event and parent organization.  He vividly remembers attending Fight Night in 2014 after his conversation with the recruiter, and viewing the fundraiser now through a very different lens – that of a producer. Through his prior experience at the NFLPA and his sports marketing background with several advertising agencies, combined with seven years at the marketing and business operations group at the National Basketball Association (NBA), he began to imagine the opportunity and the strategic direction in which this gala could grow, in particular with Under Armour as the presenting sponsor.

In addition, as if the stars were aligned for the future direction of his career, Mr. Gordon had been active for several years with YPO, a global networking and educational membership community of chief executives.  Fight For Children’s founder, Joseph E. Robert, Jr., was also associated with YPO, along with several of his close friends including Raul Fernandez, the current chairman of the Fight for Children board of directors.  With these connections in place, the recruiter convinced him to have a conversation with Michela English, then president and CEO of Fight for Children.

Ms. English and Mr. Gordon met and had what Mr. Gordon described as “an honest conversation” about where Fight for Children was and where it was going, although not everything was mapped out at that point.  He was hired into the role of chief operating officer as Ms. English recognized the need for a professional manager and business person who could also build upon Mr. Robert’s vision for the entity whose mission is to “fight to ensure low-income children in Washington, D.C. receive a great education and stay healthy so they can learn.”

I inquired of Mr. Gordon what it was like to work with Ms. English, who retired as president and CEO at the end of 2016.  He answered without hesitation.  “The importance of Michela to Fight for Children cannot be overstated,” Mr. Gordon responded forcefully.  “After the passing away of Mr. Robert in December 2011, the company could have simply vanished.  Instead, she provided stability and credibility to the organization, and between Michela and Mr. Fernandez they successfully transitioned a family foundation to a lean, purposeful, smart nonprofit.  She taught me that there is much more that we can do to help people.  Michela has an amazingly positive attitude and outlook.  She has more professional relationships than almost anyone you’ve ever met. Everything she did was intentional in protecting Joe Robert’s legacy as a philanthropist.  For her, it was all about others and she was never self-serving in any manner.”

According to Mr. Gordon, over the last two years Fight for Children has focused on strengthening early childhood education and supporting children so that they have a path to success.  He pointed out that Washington, D.C. is already leading the United States in providing access to education for kids between the ages of three and eight, so now the issue of the quality of learning has become paramount.  “We know that if we are going to eliminate the academic achievement gap we have got to start early,” Mr. Gordon asserted.  “We now have 70 percent of the city’s three year olds and 84 percent of four year olds enrolled in school.  However, research such as The Office of the State Superintendent of Education 2016 report entitled “The State of Pre-K in the District of Columbia” and articles from the think tank New America continue to demonstrate that there is more to be done to improve Pre-K instructional quality in the District.”

Mr. Gordon reminded me that four years ago Fight for Children created their first of many programmatic initiatives with the vision of making “early education in Washington, D.C. the best in the country.”  As part of the recently released three-year strategic plan, the FFC CEO detailed that there are now three areas of concentration for the organization.  “The first,” Mr. Gordon elucidated, “is to improve the quality of instruction taking place in the schools.  Our second aim is to provide specific student supports that will increase the probability of future success.  Our third goal is to build a solid community commitment to early childhood education.”

As far as specific actions that are tied to the realization of these targets, Mr. Gordon provided examples including ongoing improvement in the quality and impact of programs like Joe’s Champs, providing highly targeted interventions directly for students where they are in their schools, exploring opportunities for high quality summer learning experiences, and advocating for the continued support of early childhood education from the community.

One of Fight For Children’s longest running programs, Joe’s Champs, has already had a tremendous impact.  Since inception in 2013, more than 30 schools have taken advantage of the program which includes 55 educational partners who have received 80 hours a year of professional development and coaching.  There are currently 14 schools enrolled in Joe’s Champs including traditional, charter, and private schools.

As Fight for Children continues to refine its programs including Joe’s Camp’s, the organization plans to conduct a longitudinal study to help measure the impact of these initiatives.  In the fall, Fight for Children will also start a new social issues forum called Coffee Conversation and Controversy which several times a year will tackle challenging issues facing the education sector.

Mr. Gordon is exceptionally proud of his eight-member team that is pushing hard to reform education in the nation’s capital and is not afraid to take risks.  He spoke passionately about the intentional and carefully aligned efforts that are agnostic to school sector be it traditional, charter, or private.  All of this is being done because, in the words of Fight for Children Founder Joseph E. Robert, Jr., “every child, regardless of his or her circumstances, deserves an equal shot at a great education.”

My take, after spending a couple of hours with such an energetic and upbeat individual, is that Fight for Children is in extremely competent hands.

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