Chasing the Green: Inspiration from Central Park’s Douglas Blonsky

By: Sumeet Goel

Last weekend, HBO aired the premiere of The Deucea new series set in early 1970’s New York. They aimed for ultra-realistic in their locations and set designs and the result is startlingly grimy. Director Michelle MacLaren said she hoped viewers could “smell the show.” For most viewers, it was a sniff of a New York they’ve never experienced.

We often forget what large swaths of New York used to be like. This was made clear to me recently during a fascinating session with Douglas Blonsky, President of the Central Park Conservancy and perhaps the single biggest reason the park appears the way it does today.

When he joined the Conservancy more than 30 years ago, Central Park was strewn with trash and mattresses, a haven for drug dealing and prostitution. Today, fewer than 100 crimes are reported each year while more than 40 million visitors enjoy its pristine paths and amenities.

How did it change? Tireless effort, creative problem-solving and donor dollars. Lots of them. Blonsky is a gifted fundraiser, a task he has shouldered throughout his tenure but now his primary responsibility as he nears retirement.

We talked about his approach to the task and I’ve distilled his thoughts into four principles. Consider them and ask yourself – don’t these apply to any complex professional challenge?

  1. There are no quick sales. Meaningful gifts must be cultivated over time, borne from real relationships and earned in the context of a shared vision.
  2. Nothing sells like passion.In some cases, nothing sells but In a world of limitless opportunities to give, Blonsky’s undeniable (and borderline pathological) passion sets him apart.
  3. Know what you sell. For decades, Blonsky’s encyclopedic knowledge of the park has astounded his donors. He can tell you everything about it and conversations with him have a way of coming back to it. He is the authority.
  4. Don’t sell. The counterintuitive conclusion of the previous points is that Blonsky never sells. He doesn’t have to. He forms real relationships with those interested in the park, communicates undeniable passion for it and shares its story in remarkable detail. As a result, donors ask him how (and how much) they can give.

Blonsky’s principles add up to a way of being, a performance of leadership that creates significant financial gifts without ever appearing gift-seeking. His focus on the Park, right down to the garbage cans (visually appealing with slats too small for rodents), enables a hyper-efficient model for fundraising. In reality, the funds chase him, racing to keep up with his vision.

Douglas Blonsky is preparing to retire. Will anyone be able to fill his shoes? After spending a half day with him, color me doubtful. But we can consider what has made him so successful in transforming Central Park in the context of our own challenges. Are we patient? Passionate? In command of every detail? If not, I suppose we’ll just have to go right on selling.