Janice Nittoli *85, left, and Helene Lauffer *86
Courtesy Jeanne Haws *86
She Spent Her Years Advocating for Workers and Families

MAY 29, 1961 | JUNE 30, 2017

JANICE NITTOLI *85, A PROUD DAUGHTER of working-class Queens, never forgot where she came from. 

During a 30-year career in government and philanthropy, Nittoli found temporary homes for babies born addicted to drugs in the Bronx, helped devise management methods to improve the lives of children under the care of New York’s child-welfare agency, and focused Rockefeller Foundation grants on strengthening American workers’ economic security.

Nittoli, who died of frontotemporal dementia at the age of 56, “had a very fierce sense of social justice,” says her husband, Richard Tofel, the president of the nonprofit news organization ProPublica. “She wanted to try to make sure that working people and their families got a better break and a fairer shot.”

Nittoli, who earned an M.P.A. in the Woodrow Wilson School, began her post-Princeton career in New York City government, working in a range of departments. Eventually, she moved into philanthropy, serving as a senior executive at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and, later, as associate vice president and managing director at the Rockefeller Foundation. From 2011 until illness forced her retirement in 2014, she was president of the Century Foundation, a New York-based progressive policy think tank. 

Her policy work wasn’t always glamorous, but it got results. In 2006, Nittoli helped develop New York City’s ChildStat, a management system modeled on the city police department’s famous CompStat program for tracking crime rates and prevention strategies. ChildStat, launched after an abused 7-year-old girl was killed by her stepfather, applied similar data-driven methods to child protection, reducing the number of child-protection cases closed without offering services from 40 percent to 10 percent. The model was later adopted by child-welfare agencies in New Jersey and Philadelphia.

In op-eds for national newspapers, Nittoli proposed ideas that could help working people, children, and families, often before others were taking up the cause — writing back in 2009, for example, of a “blue-collar Great Depression” among workers left out of the changing economy and proposing ways to address it. 

“She was always a few steps ahead of everyone else in terms of getting who was who, and what was up, and what’s the bottom line here and what’s the big picture,” says Nittoli’s friend Helene Lauffer *86, associate director at Catholic Charities Community Services of the Archdiocese of New York. “She just was super-smart and super-strategic.”

But she wore her brilliance lightly, charming friends and colleagues with her clarity, directness, and humility — as well as her striking and expressive fashion sense. Clothes were Nittoli’s only indulgence, Tofel says, but not her only source of fun: She was a passionate fan of modern dance, a committed practitioner of ashtanga yoga, and a valued friend and mentor.

In late 2013, Nittoli began to struggle with memory and decision-making as her illness took hold; by the end of 2014 she had moved into a New York City nursing home, where she gradually lost her ability to speak and to recognize loved ones. An examination of brain tissue preserved after her father’s 1990 death showed that he had died of the same disease.

But it is Nittoli’s vitality and life of service, rather than her sad and untimely death, that those who knew her prefer to remember. “She was so emotive. She would be joyful and happy, or angry if there was injustice, but she was always so positive,” says Nittoli’s friend Jeanne Haws *86. “She always believed there was a chance to make a difference.” 

Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer based in Princeton Junction, N.J. Her most recent book is Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom.