NONPROFIT BEST PRACTICES: Q&A: Sharmain Matlock-Turner, President and CEO of Urban Affairs Coalition

March 13, 2012

Sharmain Matlock-Turner is a seeker of solutions. “No matter where I am I’m usually talking what we can about doing something to fix a problem,” she says. “It’s just a part of me.”

From successfully selling Girl Scout Cookies during elementary school, to the Black student movement in college, to her current leadership of more than 400 staff at the Urban Affairs Coalition – she has a knack for getting things done.

A nonprofit for nonprofits, the Coalition started more than 40 years ago as an outgrowth of the tensions that existed in Philadelphia between the African American community and the power structure in town.

Today, with a budget of $29 million, it aims to strengthen grassroots nonprofits, develop partnerships for the underserved, improve conditions for young people, and elevate wealth levels in low income communities, through developing efficiencies for its constituent groups.

More than 75 groups fall under its banner, from Philadelphia and beyond, including Baltimore and most recently Pittsburgh.

During her career, Matlock-Turner worked for a number of political figures, among them the late Sen. Roxanne Jones – an outspoken advocate for the poor – and founded the West Oak Charter School.

Today, endlessly energetic, she serves on numerous boards and commissions and co-hosts a weekly financial radio show all on top of her work with the Coalition. Most recently Mayor Michael Nutter named her co-chair of the city’s Advisory Committee for the Office of Economic Opportunity.

Remarkably she also seems to squeeze in time for her grandchildren, her late night public television fix – and short vacations.

We asked her to grapple with some of the tough issues facing the community.

There have been boom times and bust times for nonprofits in the past 15 years. At a time when there’s unprecedented demand to offer assistance to so many people, how has the decline of support hit the nonprofits you work with?

First and foremost we are here to provide opportunities, support - inspiration - all kinds of things that say to people who maybe have less than others, there are some opportunities to get to that next level. The recession has just affected all of us hard.

Besides the fact of not having enough money, it’s how long the recession has gone on and the continued uncertainty of what’s going to happen next. No one likes to have less than what they had before, but if you know you’re going to be at a particular stable place for some time, you can work with that. We’re all operating within that. I’m an optimist at heart. I always believe we’ll find a way to help someone and to make a difference.

A lack of solid wage-paying jobs is one that’s at the heart of so many problems in communities around the country. Is job creation and retention work done by non-profits an issue that’s strictly financial or social?

One of the most dangerous times for young people, especially young males of color are those teenage years. With continued cuts and cuts in services and support, that job really makes a difference. One of the things I’m still very concerned about is that at the height of the federal recovery money we were probably double that amount. We had 1400 jobs but now we’re down to 700 this year. [In part to cut in federal funding]

I would just urge people if you can only do one thing is try to try to figure out how you can support an organization, whether it’s the coalition or someone else to make sure a teen gets an opportunity to get a summer job. They get money in their pocket, they can say no to an awful lot of temptations in their own communities when they have their own money and it begins to create connections and relationships that can last a lifetime.

How are urban and minority-led nonprofits dealing with some of the hurdles they face?

Unfortunately in our society even though we’re no longer legally separated from each other it’s still not always easy to make all the connections you need to make in order to try to drive change. When people look at organizations and I think of the Urban Affairs Coalition I think we’ve been able to do quite well.

We have a very diverse board, but when I look at small organizations, especially grassroots organizations, a lot of times they don’t have money to get press releases out or the time to really go out and find all the donors they need. Sometimes they can’t respond to or know every funding opportunity that’s out there.

It makes it a little harder when there’s not someone that can say hey, here’s an opportunity or a contribution for you, which gets right into why Generocity is such an important tool. It allows organizations that maybe aren’t going to be able to identify or link to all the resources out there. Technology plays a role and Generocity lets us be able to make those connections.

Working in politics, naturally you made many connections and built solid relationships. What did you take from your time working with the late State Sen. Roxanne Jones?

First and foremost it taught me to be humble. Secondly just because you have a college degree it doesn’t mean you’re the smartest person in the room.

And now that you’re sort-of on the other side of the table, what did you learn in politics that you’d urge new nonprofits to keep in mind when they’re getting started?

You have to be well prepared; you have to know your case. You can care an awful lot about people and communities, but you still have to be able to collect data and understand the issue. You have to understand that the solution that you’re proposing is really going to have an impact and give a sense of how long it’s going to take in order for you to drive some of the changes. Ultimately you have to be able to convince people you have the wherewithal to get the job done.

Having sat on the other side, I know when I go to the table I know I better have those things lined up. You can care and be extremely passionate, but you better make sure you have all those other things too.

The UAC carries a $29 million budget. It seems we’re always hearing the same mantra of “doing more with less” in government as well as in industry and even in our own homes.

People in the nonprofit world are used to doing more with less, but I think as a group we have to push back a little bit more on that. It’s like a no win situation. If you agree to take less than what you need to get a job done, and if you don’t get the job done, then you’re criticized for not being good stewards of the resources you’re given.

Even in this really tough time, and believe me it is hard, hard, hard, it’s tough to say no to money. When you know you have a budget and you have to meet it and you have people who are asking for help and support, you’re trying to make those things happen.

We have to be able to say to people - “look I’d really like to be able to help you do that or design that project or work on that problem, but I can’t do it either for this number of people or I’m not going to be able to have a professional team work on it.” Pushing back, even in tough times, even when people are doing more with less, we can’t accept the fact that we should just take anything and try to make anything work.

More than 75 nonprofits are part of the coalition. What would you say to people who may be critical of the overlap of services they provide?

To me I err on the side of people in communities feeling like and knowing that they can solve their own problems. Once you make it a macro system that’s outside of that community, it may appear to be more efficient, but in the end it doesn’t drive change, because people in their own neighborhoods drive those changes. The Coalition creates efficiencies by consolidating back offices and dealing with all the things that could be considered duplicative from a business side, but then we keep the people who are out there doing the work.

The Coalition was formed from unrest in the late sixties. It provided short-term relief for issues in the community. How do (and have) those short-term achievements affect long-term change?

The work we do here at the Coalition is really about helping people today, but the real impact will always be on the next generation, on the kids who are being born now. We create a better community if we help parents find a better job. If the cultural connections or programs in their communities help them understand who they are and feel better about who they are to build positive self esteem so they can work past some of the negative forces in the community.

You have multiple degrees, sit on many boards and committees and have been a driving force or lent a hand to causes all over the city. Is there one thing that has brought you to where you are today?

I’m on a lot of things. I try to stay active but I’ve never forgotten in the end I’m a little kid from West Philly who had some great opportunities and some people who reached out to me and cared about me. My mom let me do things that were pretty crazy like running campaigns. All of that gave me the sense that I could continue to do things. I could get people elected. I could sell Girl Scout Cookies. I could start a social club. If I can do those things as a kid from West Philly, anyone can do them.

The Urban Affairs Coalition and will be co-hosting a networking event Wednesday, March 14 starting at 6:30 p.m. at the Coalition’s headquarters located at 1207 Chestnut Street. For more information, click here.

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Luke Murray