The Interview Issue: N.J. Pandemic Relief Fund leaders talk about mission that changes as fast as crisis, making tough choices — and why everyone in organization is still working for free

Tammy Murphy, founding chair, and Josh Weinreich, CEO, New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund

Tammy Murphy and Josh Weinreich. (File photos)

The New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund has raised more than $40 million, thanks to more than 61,000 contributions from donors who have come from every state and 11 other countries.

And, while donations from big corporations and wealthy philanthropists as well as the proceeds from a concert that featured some of the state’s biggest stars have grabbed the spotlight, the bedrock of the fund has been the contributions from private citizens — most of which are under $100, $50 or even $5.

(Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted before the NJPRF learned it had received a $20 million donation from author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.)

In many ways, those are the donations that mean the most to first lady Tammy Murphy, the NJPRF’s founding chair, and CEO Josh Weinreich.

“A lot of people who are giving money write a little something beside it,” Murphy said. “People give in the name of frontline workers; they give in the name of people who have passed away. We’ve had retired doctors and nurses who said they have underlying conditions, so they are unable to help, so please help their colleagues.”

Murphy said she tries to write as many personal thank-you notes as she can.

“It has been really moving to see,” she said. “One fraternity had a challenge where, every month that the brothers went without getting haircuts, they would donate their haircut money. There were contributions from Girl Scout troops, on Teacher Appreciation Day, from lemonade stands. It’s all over the map and it’s all over New Jersey. You name it, we’ve seen it.

“You don’t get to 61,000 donors with everybody giving a lot of money, you get to 61,000 with everybody feeling like they’re part of the tsunami of relief that we’re trying to bring — and the hope we’re trying to give the state of New Jersey.”

For all the numbers around the fund, two stand out:

100%: Every penny the fund has received has gone to relief. Everyone is working pro bono and covering their own expenses.

1: It’s the number of times Murphy and Weinreich — the entire board, in fact — have seen each other as a group. Keeping with social distancing rules, the group has met virtually from the start.

Murphy and Weinrich discussed all of this and more with ROI-NJ in a recent virtual interview for the Interview Issue, our annual year-end give-and-take with some of the most inspiring and intriguing people around the state.

Here is the conversation, edited for space and clarity:

ROI-NJ: This group started and grew as quickly as the pandemic. Talk about the beginning, some of your success and the lessons learned?

Tammy Murphy: We started off running, just trying to deal with critical needs and trying to make sure that we were supporting all the organizations we knew were going to be overextended. We then realized that we probably should take a longer-term view and try and come up with some more innovative, sustainable ways that we can impact the delivery of services. 

Josh Weinreich: From the outset, we knew the need was going to be far in excess of our resources. Our goal, specifically, was to leverage our voice and our dollars to have the maximum impact. We knew we would have to identify areas, have a targeted program — such as child care, the digital divide, the housing crisis or food insecurity issues — and then move on. 

So, we have to turn away from critical needs at some point, but I think we’ve done a really nice job of bringing other people to each of these critical areas as we’ve left. By shining that bright light, I think they’re getting follow-through donations.

ROI: The initial thought was that the fund would be depleted by the end of the summer — and certainly not last through the year. You’re still going strong as 2021 approaches. Are you still raising money? And how long do you think the NJPRF will exist?

Murphy’s favorite New Jerseyan

“Judge Esther Salas. This is something that changes all the time, but, at this moment, it’s Judge Esther Salas. She is someone I recently met when (Gov.) Phil (Murphy) signed Daniel’s Law. I cannot imagine anyone taking such strength and thinking about their fellow residents, their fellow colleagues at a time when they’ve suffered such tragic loss. And she is absolutely lovely. I mean, just lovely. So, she would be my choice.”

Murphy’s favorite thing about New Jersey

“The thing I think of when I think of New Jersey is I think of home, I think of family. I’ve lived all around the world, and there’s no place I’ve lived for longer than where I am right at this very second. If you start getting me going on diners, we’re going to be here all day.”

If Murphy were business czar for a day, what would she do?

“My magic wand would be having every single person in New Jersey find a way to help us get money out of the federal government, because nothing is going to happen in New Jersey without help from the federal government — and they, thus far, unilaterally have not done what they need to do.”

TM: We’re literally living in the moment. We’re not doing a lot of looking back, nor are we trying to figure out how we can be here forever. That’s not our goal. Our goal is to try and have an impact here while COVID is still on the rise.

JW: We actually did start out with a classic approach to a crisis (pre-crisis, crisis response and post-crisis) and then we quickly realized the pandemic goes at the pace of a pandemic, not the pace of a plan. I’d say now we’re back at the phase when we’re seeing the surge again. So, we are turning back to critical needs. We started there. We went to more strategic projects, and now we’re looking to evolve as the need is evolving. 

And the answer to your question is: Yes, we got a big donation today. People are still very much interested in what we’ve been able to do and are still stepping up. And we’re delighted to be able to continue to shine the light and bring those resources to areas of need.

ROI: How do you pick the programs you help?

TM: I think we’ve been pretty methodical in the way that we’ve tried to determine what areas are in need and where the gaps are going to be on the ground. I feel like we’ve genuinely done our research. We’ve tried very hard to make sure we’re asking questions of the people who are out there and have contact with what the needs actually are. 

We’ve tried not to be duplicative. So, if the government or another foundation is underwriting something, we didn’t want to go into that same space. And we give 100% of the funds that come in. Any expenses we have are underwritten by our board members, so every penny that people give goes right back out. 

ROI: For all the good work you have done, there have been criticisms. One we hear is that Jerseyans don’t know where all the money is going. Talk about that?

JW: We’re very interested in criticisms, we always want to try to do better, but to the question about communicating what we’re doing, I’m going to flip that for a minute. Where we’ve done a really good job is identifying the domain experts in the areas that we’re focusing on and getting other potential donor partners in that space. 

For example, when we identified a need in the area of diapers and hygiene products — particularly with schools closing, since many young women got their products through school — we went to the diaper banks and the distribution channels and the schools and figured out how to solve for that and then how to get partners to help support that. 

That is where our energy has gone into in terms of getting word out. And that’s why I think our programs have been very effective. I would give ourselves high marks on identifying and bringing other donors and shining a bright light on what we’re doing. 

Shining a light on ourselves? It’s not just humility — this is a pandemic, and there is no victory. Might we have better marketed ourselves? Sure. But I don’t think we put our resources in the wrong place.

ROI: Because of the notoriety the fund received early — not to mention the connection to Gov. Phil Murphy — other nonprofits felt the NJRPF had the edge on getting donations, especially early. This left them struggling to find donors at a time they needed them most. What are your thoughts on that?

JW: The math doesn’t really work. All of our money goes back to those type of organizations. It’s one thing if we funneled money out of state, so it doesn’t really make sense to me. Not only are we able to put these dollars out, but we bring additional donors to these projects. We have one instance where we made a $2.5 million grant, and it was matched by $8 million.

Weinreich’s favorite New Jerseyan

“My favorite Jerseyan also changes by the day. It blows me away, as people show up to do more and be proactive to help. Some are high-profile folks, and, some days, it’s really people who are just stretching to make a difference. It’s just so inspiring and makes me love New Jersey more than I ever have.”

Weinreich’s favorite thing about New Jersey

“The thing that comes to mind is the Summit Diner. I used to bring my oldest son, when he couldn’t even sit on a stool. I would hold him in one hand. We wouldn’t sit in a booth, we’d sit at a stool.”

If Weinreich were business czar for a day, what would he do?

“I think if I could help people to understand the linkages between how critical businesses are to making state’s work, making people able to live productive lives, and safe and healthy lives. And by better attunement to what the connections are, I feel like we’d get better cooperation. If I had a magic wand, it would be that.”

At a time like this, there’s never enough money. There are relief organizations on the ground who were here before us and will be here long after, fighting the good fight every day. And they are scrambling for dollars, and they need it. We support them and hope they get it. And in many cases, we are funneling money to them.

I think it’s OK to criticize, and I guess I can understand organizations who are looking for dollars, but all of our dollars go right back out, and with zero overhead.

ROI: Let’s turn to small businesses, which are hurting as much as anyone. Chambers of commerce across the state are struggling. You have done so much good for social services and the underserved communities, but is there more you can do for the business community?

TM: I think that both the state and NJPRF are focused on Main Street. We all know that the future of our economy is going to be dependent upon the success of all these small businesses. And I know the EDA has helped more than 30,000 small businesses to date. I would challenge you to see if there’s another state that’s done more in that space. 

I would say we’re all we’re all in this together. We’re trying to figure out how best we can support the small businesses. We just gave $4.5 million to support women- and minority-owned businesses across our state. That’s a lot of money for us.

JW: Our thought process is always to identify the most vulnerable, and that involves looking at it through an equity lens. And we are really thoughtful about that process.

We probably play ‘small ball’ in a sense. That’s why we started with women- and minority-owned businesses. Some people argued, ‘Why not go to bigger businesses who are stronger, and maybe they’ll have a bigger impact and create more jobs?’ And we thought about that. It’s not a silly idea. But, we said the most vulnerable are the ones who are women- and minority-owned. So, when we followed our thought process, it led us where it led us. 

Could you play this hand differently? Sure. Are there are other good ways to do this? Absolutely. But we have a lot of thoughtful people here; our board really has been amazing. Tammy highlighted the diversity of thought that they bring. We don’t all agree. And that’s really a great thing. But we did agree on identifying the most vulnerable and figuring out how can we have the greatest impact. And that guideline has been consistent from the beginning.

ROI: What has surprised you most during this effort?

TM: The most inspiring piece of this whole endeavor has been just the dogged work ethic and attitude of every person who has shown up. It’s people like the folks at MWW who have given us all of their services pro bono — and they picked up from Evergreen Partners, who helped us in the first part of the fund. 

It’s corporations who have lent us talent. It’s people like our CEO, who not only was found through a pro bono search by Spencer Stuart, but he then himself donated handsomely to the fund and is working pro bono. When we did the Jersey for Jersey event, it was pulled together in under three weeks and all of these artists showed up. 

There’s just something about New Jersey, and I think that this fund is really emblematic of who we are as a state and how we feel about one another.