Three of New Haven’s most prominent nonprofit figures discussed leadership and innovation in their work during a conversation hosted by the Nonprofit Board Fellows program on Monday, April 9th. The program identifies opportunities for SOM students to engage with the New Haven community and develop leadership skills by serving on nonprofit boards, while being mentored by board members like Patricia Melton, Darcy Cobbs-Lomax, and Eric Clemons.
Patricia Melton, Executive Director of New Haven Promise, has worked to expand Promise’s place-based scholarship and support program. The organization advocates for economic development through education by sending more New Haven students to college and bringing them back to reinvest in their community.
Darcy Cobbs-Lomax, Executive Director of Project Access, tackles a different challenge: providing medical services to underserved patients with urgent needs. Project Access’s volunteer provider network helps patients navigate the system to address health inequity resulting from social barriers like language or financial difficulties.
Finally, Eric Clemons, CEO and President of the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT), provides job training, after school arts programs, and career advancement opportunities to give low-income residents a path to success.
Though each of these leaders drives impact through a different avenue and in a different sector, all three have had to navigate the challenges of balancing mission, practicality, and politics to creatively achieve success. New Haven Promise, which is modeled after a highly successful program in Kalamazoo, Michigan, launched to great fanfare and had the seemingly good fortune of early community buy-in and large-scale funding. However, along with this large public presence and external support came a variety of vocal opinions about what Promise should be and how it should operate. Melton has had to provide the technical expertise to enact its vision as well as display the political savvy necessary to navigate competing pressures and communicate with stakeholders.
For Project Access, deftly managing partnerships and long-term relationships is also central to success. For Cobbs-Lomax, leading Project Access means prioritizing the needs of the people they serve, even when lucrative partnerships might ease budgetary constraints and enable faster growth. Cobbs-Lomax thinks carefully about having the right fit with Project Access’s mission and clients before bringing potential major programs on board. She builds connections across partners to establish lasting community relationships, working with everyone from volunteer physicians to taxi drivers who donate transportation to the hospital.
Part of ConnCAT’s challenge has been finding sources of funding that are consistent with its mission. Clemons is adamant that ConnCAT is not about simply making the lives of those living in poverty more comfortable. Instead, it is about inspiring them with their own potential and giving them the tools they need to lift themselves out of poverty. For an organization that is focused on showing people a path out of welfare and towards self-empowerment, Clemons believes that finding alternatives to government funding is key. Being innovative in ConnCAT’s funding and structure has allowed Clemons to build the organization without reliance on government money. He also integrates ConnCAT’s vision of self-empowerment into its physical presence: ConnCAT’s beautiful, bright space transforms the way its clients view themselves, inspiring hope and innovation to revitalize the urban landscape.
All these organizations straddle two worlds. On the one hand, they must stay connected to the individuals they are serving on the ground. On the other, they must work with large players like government, universities, hospitals, and philanthropic organizations to build wider support and inject the necessary capital and technical expertise. The discussion at Yale SOM concluded with a particularly relevant concern for the Nonprofit Board Fellows program –how to make sure that both these worlds have a voice in the organizations.
All three leaders spoke about their own struggles in balancing these needs. New Haven Promise has a high-profile board, including individuals like the President of Yale and the mayor of New Haven, who contribute a wider perspective on business and community. But Melton has to work hard to include more diverse voices from different socioeconomic perspectives. Project Access’s board consists largely of bankers, lawyers, and medical professionals who similarly provide valuable technical expertise, but may lack some of the representation that Project Access wants from those in closest touch with the needs of their patients. Given the mission of ConnCAT, Clemons has made a concerted effort to find board members and staff who reflect the communities they serve – ConnCAT’s board is primarily made up of black men. However, Clemons expressed the difficulties in trying to find individuals with the type of expertise necessary in investment, housing, culinary arts, and other areas relevant to ConnCAT’s operations who also understand the issues of poverty and joblessness and truly believe in the mission that ConnCAT is working to execute.
These issues are not new, and there is no easy solution. Luckily, we have leaders such as Melton, Cobbs-Lomax, and Clemons putting their energies towards some of New Haven’s biggest challenges. Hopefully the SOM community can take these lessons to heart and continue to engage thoughtfully and creatively with these questions as we strive for impact in our own work.
By Sophie Tyack, MBA ‘19