From right to left, Patricia Jenny, Saline Richards, Kelly Lucas, Jason Perkins Cohen, Corey Smithm, and Bill Kamela

The panelists, from left to right, Patricia Jenny, Saline Richards, Kelly Lucas, Jason Perkins Cohen, Corey Smith, and Bill Kamela

Working at a foundation and working with a foundation are two different concepts. At the Council on Foundations, our staff focuses on the latter. Among other services, we answer requests for information, host conferences and other events, and keep our membership informed about the latest news from Capitol Hill.

Every once in a while, we glimpse, or rather, get a sense of the former concept: what it would be like to work at a foundation, and to see and feel how philanthropy positively affects lives.

I experienced this a few days ago when the Council hosted a briefing on Capitol Hill, “Innovation at Work: Philanthropy’s Role in Preparing Americans for the Jobs of Tomorrow.” Because employment and job creation are likely to be issues that concern public policymakers, the Council felt this was an opportune time to highlight the innovations of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions (NFWS). We invited several NFWS partner foundations to share their examples of and achievements in workforce investment programs—a silver lining in the current economic crisis.

Patricia Jenny, program director of Community Development and the Environment at the New York Community Trust shared how private foundations have joined forces in New York City to develop a better public system of workforce development services and skills training for job seekers.

To tell her story and to drive home the success of these New York City programs, Jenny came with Saline Richards. Richards is a radiology technician at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and a recent graduate of a health care training program—one of the initiatives that receives workforce investment dollars from private and public sources.

Richards story was heart wrenching. Not too long ago she was in what can only be described as a nightmare situation: she lost her job at a bank; her landlord evicted her; and she was forced to rely on public assistance. Even in this dire situation, Richards realized that she needed to reinvent herself and find a job—and eventually, a career.

Her days volunteering at a local hospital piqued her interest in the medical field and through a 24-month radiology training program, she received a basic education and counseling.

“Before this opportunity came into my life I was faced with a choice: I either go back to school or I work to support myself. I couldn’t do both,” Richards said at the briefing. “The program paid for me to go to school and focus on getting this qualification. It helped me financially and psychologically.”

Similarly, another panelist, Jason Perkins Cohen, executive director of the Baltimore-based Jobs Opportunity Task Force (JOTF), was accompanied by Corey Smith. The JOTF is a nonprofit grantee that receives foundation funding from the NFWS. The organization’s goal is to develop and advocate policies and programs to increase the skills, job opportunities, and incomes of low-skill and low-income workers.

Smith is a participant in JOTF’s JumpStart program—a construction training program that prepares Baltimore’s residents to become a licensed carpenter, plumber, or electrician. Students attend classes two nights a week for approximately 13 weeks and once they graduate, are placed in construction jobs.

When it was his turn to speak, Smith spoke movingly about how when he was laid off from a previous job, he turned to JumpStart to receive training and thus, improve his chances of securing a job in the future. (Smith has a new job where he tests and removes lead in houses.) The point being: there were opportunities—like JumpStart—for Smith and he in turn was determined to work hard and pursue them.

A personal story is an effective and powerful communication tool and one that lingers in the mind. If I, as a Council staff member who is surrounded by philanthropy-related information, news, and stories every day, was deeply affected by what I witnessed, I can only imagine the effect on the Congressional aides and staffers who were present at the Hill briefing.

To me, watching and listening to Richards and Smith was akin to feeling philanthropy’s power and reach.

Sarita Venkat is manager of Public Relations at the Council on Foundations.

[The National Fund for Workforce Solutions is a national funding intermediary that strengthens and expands high-impact workforce development initiatives in the U.S. At its core, the initiative seeks to improve employment, training, and labor market outcomes for low-income individuals.]

1 Response to The Power of Personal Stories

Cheryl Mahoney

December 30th, 2009 at 3:28 pm

Sarita, thank you for these thoughts on how profoundly moving a personal story can be. I was especially interested by your initial comment about the distinction between working at a foundation and working with one–the latter creating a layer of distance from the on-the-ground stories. In my work, I experience much the same thing. UniversalGiving connects people to quality opportunities to give or volunteer all over the world–we help people find the NGOs who are doing the work on the ground. We’re not in the African village ourselves, so there’s that same extra layer. I know whenever I do have the opportunity to hear a personal story, it’s always profoundly affecting–maybe in part because I don’t hear it constantly! It’s a powerful reminder of how important those stories are to hear and to share.

Cheryl Mahoney

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