Q & A with Joseph Bruno
Long Island Business News
Q & A with Joseph Bruno
By: Adina Genn July 1, 2016
Joseph Bruno knows how to navigate challenges. Having led New York City’s Fire Department, and later its Office of Emergency Management, Bruno is now president and CEO of Helen Keller Services, which has a presence in Sands Point, Hempstead, Ronkonkoma and Brooklyn. There, he oversees a $29 million budget that serves the blind, visually impaired and deaf-blind, and those with combined vision-hearing loss, enabling them to live, work and thrive in their communities.
When did you start in this position? I started Feb. 1 of this year. I have about 16 years on the board of Helen Keller Services and developed knowledge over that period of time.
What initially drew you to the board? [People] I knew from the fire department and OEM came to me and said, ‘Helen Keller Services is looking for board members – would you consider it?’ I hadn’t been on a not-for-profit; I got it cleared through city government. I was interested in working with a charity.
What drew you to this position? The past president, Thomas Edwards, was retiring. The board was in the middle of program development [and looking at] future endowments. The board took the opinion to bring in new leadership…and asked, ‘Would you be willing to do this?’ I have the energy for it, so I said I would. I had a lot of experience with the group.
How is your current work different than as a board member? Boards look at the overall health of the organization and…the budget and how the organization would operate and continue into the distant future. Today I know when the lightbulbs are out. I get to see the nuts and bolts. On the board you don’t quite see that.
How does your experience as commissioner of the New York City Office of Emergency Management and also the Fire Department help you in this position? As commissioner of the Office of Emergency Management and Fire Department – they are not think-tank driven – they handle issues in real time. This is a similar type organization – not on the scale of the city, but in helping people that are underserved.
How so? We’re caring for people from almost birth with early intervention and children who are blind – we put them in pre-k school and are supported by the New York City Department of Education. They graduate from our program and go on to the New York City Department of Education and are monitored to see where they are. We help them with the future, with college, living independently, or through vocational education and help them get trained, have a job, buy food, cook – all the things you have to do in a sighted world. We help adults [with] activities and help them deal with blindness. We pick them up, bring them to our program or wherever they are going. There are a lot more seniors who lose sight. We get them back in the kitchen, into live-in residences. With the deaf-blind, [people] assume they are being taking care of by families. Sometimes that’s true – but sometimes it’s not true.
What are the similarities between city agencies in terms of staff and budget? I’ve spent 45 years in government. I’ve run all kinds of entities, law departments, fire departments, OEM. With the budget in the City of New York, the [challenges with] deficits are the same as what we deal with here. The mayor says reduce the budget…that could translate to a lot of money. You have to figure out how to do it: You don’t fill a vacancy, or eliminate costs, don’t graduate a class, negotiate. Here, we’ve almost completed our budget, and like every charity, we run at a deficit. It’s my responsibility to tackle that and do something with it. We’ve reduced it dramatically, and also enhanced programs…I’ve asked people here to raise more revenue in the development area, and meet with donors. My job is also to develop funding sources. Agencies like mine have to fight and continue our services. We went to the federal government and got grants. We talk to people about what we do. We show them these are people that need help. We go to the federal government and say, ‘We need support to run this program. We’d like to enhance it and work with young children.’ Mainly here we go to the state government, to the legislators, assembly, state senate, councilmembers, federal government agencies and the state commissioner for the blind and say we can do more. We meet with the Department of Education at the federal level and ask to enhance our budget. It’s like everything else. You look everywhere you can. People are very generous when they see what we’re doing for people. It’s very similar to what you do in government.
It must help to have meaningful contacts. I know so many people. As a commissioner, I’ve worked together with them on emergencies. It’s a nice icebreaker – it’s helpful. We’d try to provide to elected officials whatever information we could when we were dealing with train derailments, power outages, Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Irene, when an airplane landed in the Hudson River – those relationships are very helpful. When something bad happens, you work together and develop a bond that never goes away.
Which New York City mayors did you work with? I worked with five mayors: Lindsay, Beame, Koch, Bloomberg and de Blasio. For…six months, I stayed on as the last commissioner from Bloomberg [for de Blasio]. He wanted a new team but did ask me to stay in case there was a new emergency. That was a good thing – there was an explosion in uptown Manhattan that killed a number of people; there were snowstorms. It was important I was there. They appreciated it. The relationship between the mayor and OEM is very strong, and lasts to this day. OEM has an overview and knows the impact and what agencies are out there with a particular weather event – and then [the mayor] looks to agencies for details with the police and fire commissioner, etc. Then the mayor could walk out and say what he learned from us.
Which mayors were most inspiring? Everyone who worked with Ed Koch found him inspiring. He was New York City’s mayor in every way. He was an energetic, smart, trusting guy. He gave me great opportunities – he made me fire commissioner. It was an opportunity to run one of the most historic agencies in the United States and the world. I was friends with him till the day he died. Bloomberg was a great mayor – tremendous intellect – he hired the best people he could find and wasn’t a micromanager.
What’s your advice for someone wanting a leadership position at a nonprofit as a career? If you want to be a leader in a nonprofit, don’t equate operational excellence with fiscal excellence. Get an understanding that you can only do what you can afford to do. Hold staff meetings on a regular basis. Have people take responsibility for programs. We hold meetings every week in a formal way and have an agenda when we talk. I write the minutes because that way I know what I want to follow-up. Nothing gets lost. That’s an organized way of doing things – it’s a structure for me that helps [everyone] get done what they have to get done.