New Profit GO: Meeting the Moment with Eshauna Smith

Meeting the Moment with Eshauna Smith

By Eshauna Smith, CEO of Urban Alliance

In 2020, the intertwining and inequitable systems, from health and education to legal and democracy and beyond, in this country were laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic and the renewed and growing call for Black liberation and justice. As part of this year’s Annual Report we asked nine leaders from the New Profit community what 2020 and these national reckonings looked like for them, their organizations, and the social sector writlarge.

Continue reading to hear from Eshauna Smith, CEO of Urban Alliance, a New Profit grantee-partner that provides high school students from underserved communities with access to opportunities needed to solidify lifelong economic self-sufficiency.

To hear from the other eight leaders and to access more content from the New Profit 2020 Annual Report, click here.

What is the biggest challenge that philanthropy/the social impact sector is/has faced as a result of the events of 2020?

The two biggest challenges for the social impact sector have both been long-time trends that came to a head during the tumultuous events of this year. First, the move away from unrestricted funding made it much more difficult for nonprofits to respond in real-time to the pandemic. In a time of uncertainty, nonprofits need to be nimble and adaptable in order to best serve their communities, but restricted funding makes that flexibility more difficult. Thankfully, a lot of funders have moved away from restricted funding to best meet this moment of crisis, but this is a movement that should continue after the pandemic. When serving vulnerable populations, being able to respond to issues in real-time makes nonprofits much more effective.

Second, the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on populations of color coupled with the resurgence of the movement for racial justice spotlighted how few nonprofits are led by people of color. Though the social impact sector largely serves communities of color, its leadership looks much different. In a crisis situation in which issues of trust and understanding can significantly impact the effectiveness of services being delivered, more people of color in leadership roles across the sector is key.

What innovations/solutions did you create in response to the events of this year?

From the outset of the pandemic, we were determined to keep our students earning and learning; some 80% of our students rely on their paychecks to contribute to household expenses — and those paychecks became an even more critical source of income during this economic downturn, so shuttering our program was never an option. Recognizing the need to move more quickly and efficiently than ever before – to essentially build the plane while flying it – we changed the way our team makes decisions, moving toward a more cross-functional, collaborative approach in which our collective ability to best serve our students was more important than reporting structures, job descriptions, and job titles. It’s an innovation that has outlasted the early days of the pandemic and become a core piece of how we operate as a team moving forward.

After ensuring our students’ basic and health needs were met, we quickly reimagined our in-person program for a virtual world. Through cross-functional working groups, we moved our entire workforce curriculum online, and prepared employers and students to begin remote work, including solving issues related to unequal digital access. Our program year concluded by turning our annual in-person Public Speaking Challenge into a Virtual Interview Challenge, teaching students how to complete job interviews in a virtual environment and celebrating their successes over Zoom. In all, we graduated over 450 students from the Class of 2020 — all of whom continued to earn and learn — and were connected to post-high school pathways to economic mobility. Then over the summer, we did it all again, reconceptualizing our six-week pre-employment professional skills training bootcamp to prioritize the soft skills and digital literacy needed to become more adaptable and successful employees – all through a brand-new online platform. This program year, students are undergoing training for the entire fall semester and will begin remote or in-person internships in January 2021. We’re fortunate to have sustained over 400 of our usual 500-plus internship opportunities going in to this new program year — even during a global pandemic.

What do we need to do collectively to “Meet the Moment?”

In addition to more flexible funding structures, more collaboration is needed between nonprofits. Instead of working within silos, we should be working to create more efficient hand-offs as the populations we serve move beyond the sphere of the services each individual nonprofit provides. The issues our communities face are dire enough without having to navigate a confusing array of different human service organizations. Increased collaboration would create a more effective, symbiotic social impact ecosystem within cities that would not only better serve our communities, but help us all to collectively reach scale.

Increased collaboration would create a more effective, symbiotic social impact ecosystem within cities that would not only better serve our communities, but help us all to collectively reach scale.

To accomplish this structural change, we have to start with providing nonprofit leaders with the resources to learn from and spend more time with one another. We need to open up dialogue between leaders. Too often we have our heads down, so focused on serving our community that having the opportunity to learn from one another feels like a luxury. What we need as nonprofit leaders is the space to open that door – to be able to provide one another with more grace, lean into our relationships, and be more vulnerable in sharing our challenges and lessons learned. This work can be lonely, but it shouldn’t be.