Jessica Leinwand – UNICEF USA
There’s nothing like total immersion to appreciate the mission of a new employer. All the better if it enables one to make a difference at a most critical juncture. So thought Jessica Leinwand upon becoming the first general counsel of UNICEF USA in March 2022.
“The war in Ukraine had begun a few weeks earlier,” she recalls. “Immediately, I had volumes of new partnership agreements crossing my desk. Sometimes 10 or more in a week and all necessary to review and expedite so we could get resources where most needed.”
Following the outbreak of that war and the worst refugee crisis since World War II, quick relief was contingent upon Leinwand overseeing fine print and completing protocols necessary for the nonprofit, nongovernmental organization to raise and distribute funds while maintaining compliance with U.S. law and applicable 501(c)(3) requirements.
Global crises only intensified later that summer, with Pakistan deluged from June to October by monsoon rains and catastrophic flooding, and again this year, with the devastating earthquake in Syria and Turkey. In addition to its emergency response work, UNICEF supports communities globally through education, routine immunization, health systems strengthening and reduction of child marriage, among other priorities.
“As a UN agency, UNICEF is uniquely positioned to help because of its cooperation with governments and our presence before, during and after emergencies,” Leinwand tells Vanguard in February from one of UNICEF USA’s satellite offices in Washington, D.C. “Impact is our overall focus and that is what motivates me.”
There’s something else that motivates Leinwand. Her late grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and her father was born in a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany. UNICEF was founded as a New York City-based international relief agency in the aftermath of World War II, and she says she’s intent on honoring her family’s legacy through her work.
As the first general counsel for UNICEF USA, the 40-year-old Leinwand is among those responsible for sustaining partnerships that now include 17 multinationals committed to annual contributions of at least $5 million. Other partners include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Eleanor Crook Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation.
Leinwand says some of her most interesting work comes through supporting the Impact Fund for Children, which is UNICEF USA’s impact investment arm. The Impact Fund addresses the timing gaps that emerge between the commitment of a donor’s support to UNICEF and the actual receipt of pledged cash. The Fund has fast-tracked over $500 million to UNICEF since its inception in 2011.
Last year, UNICEF USA raised $1 billion in impact revenue with Leinwand responsible for ensuring transparency, accountability and compliance. Among her initiatives has been enhancing the organization’s enterprise risk management framework and ensuring controls are in place to mitigate risks to the organization.
She is also the child safeguarding focal point for UNICEF USA, which means she is responsible for ensuring no harm comes to children resulting from UNICEF USA’s operations. This includes ensuring children’s physical safety during volunteer and advocacy activities, guarding against emotional harm during UNICEF program visits and maintaining respectful standards when using children’s imagery for fundraising and marketing purposes. Leinwand has developed policies and procedures to ensure the organization complies with child safeguarding standards and works with the organization’s leadership team to embed safeguarding within the culture of UNICEF USA.
Seeing the work in action
Much like UNICEF’s work, Leinwand’s role has global, national and local impact. In April, she got a first-hand look at the organization’s efforts in Madagascar.
UNICEF has a longstanding presence on this island nation off Africa’s Eastern Coast, having started working there in 1984. Leinwand visited and observed UNICEF’s child-protection programming, which incorporates some of the same principles as her child-safeguarding focus at UNICEF USA.
“UNICEF Madagascar’s child-protection efforts are an inspiration,” Leinwand says. “Staff work daily to address challenges related to child marriage, child labor, violence toward and exploitation of children. This is a significant undertaking—Madagascar has some of the highest rates of child marriage of any country.
“But it also has also a thriving civil society and dedicated UNICEF country staff who relentlessly pursue a more equitable world for all children. I’m so thrilled to have visited the country office to deepen my understanding UNICEF’s programs and impact.”
A career journey
Upon graduating from Columbia Law School, Leinwand joined the Department of Justice and later, the White House Counsel’s Office. She further honed her legal skills working at a global law firm and serving as strategic counsel to the chief legal officer of Meta, Inc.
Prior to Leinwand’s arrival at UNICEF USA, an external general counsel provided support to the organization, but it became clear that in-house expertise could grow UNICEF USA’s capacity, create efficiencies and drive impact.
“Jess has been a huge asset to UNICEF USA,” said Michele Walsh, executive vice president of UNICEF USA. “She helps protect the rights of children by developing key organizational policies that set the bar for child safeguarding.
“She brings a caliber of experience and professionalism that has given rise to the kinds of strong governance practices and legal and regulatory compliance we require as a growing organization with complex needs. She has also strengthened critical partnerships that provide essential funding for UNICEF’s global work. We are grateful for her incredible contributions.”
Leinwand says she’s grateful to have landed in a role that is both fulfilling and challenging.
“This work aligns with my values and professional goals—and I’m learning new things all the time,” she says. “I’m fortunate to work with a passionate and dedicated team and excited to continue to expand the organization’s impact on behalf of the world’s children.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Spring III 2023 Edition here.
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