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An interview with Sharmain Matlock-Turner of the Urban Affairs Coalition

The Philadelphia based organization, run by Sharmain Matlock-Turner and its board of advisors, has become the nonprofit that serves other non-profits by providing back-end business support. By doing so, non-profits can focus on their “craft” and realize the organization’s mission.

The Philadelphia based organization, run by Sharmain Matlock-Turner and its board of advisors, has become the nonprofit that serves other nonprofits by providing back-end business support.  By doing so, nonprofits can focus on their "craft" and realize the organization's mission.

This year Sharmain is celebrating her 15th anniversary with the UAC and through her leadership, the organization has been able to effectively coordinate the efforts of nonprofits, government and corporate sponsors for the good of the community.  In the interview below, we discuss how she got involved with the UAC, how she's able to lead effectively and her proudest moments with the UAC.  Enjoy.

CC: What were you doing before working with the Urban Affairs Coalition and what lead you down this path?

SMT: I tell people all the time that I'm just a little girl from West Philly.  I was always active in the community.  If there was something going on, I was always out trying to see how I could get involved.  I went to West Philly High School and then went on to Penn State but graduated from Temple University.  I worked on my first political campaign in high school for Milton Shapp's first campaign and Reverend Small's campaign for State Representative.  Although neither one won, I had fun getting out and talking to people and trying to understand why people wanted to run for office and what it meant to make a difference.

I thought about running for office but then I realized that there's an election every six months.  But to really drive change, you have to dig in on a couple of things and that requires organization over a long period of time.  That's why I never ended up on the electoral side.  I always thought more about how I can make this block better or how we can create a community development organization.  How do we figure out how to effectively communicate with the community and understand what they need?  And what do we need to build around that to get that playground built or to drive down crime in the community?  I served on several community boards so I started to see what poorly run organizations looked like and what well-run organizations looked like.  That's how I ended up here at the Urban Affairs Coalition in 1999.

CC: I was told that leadership is based on influence as opposed to position.  You have the position and the influence to lead others.  How were you able to develop that influence?

SMT: I've seen a lot of people who have done it poorly.  When I was growing up, there were people who helped but there were also people who were like, "I got mine," "Wait your turn" or "We don't need young women to do that."  So as I went through it, while trying to learn how best to do a job, I promised myself that if I ever got a chance to be in a leadership position, I would never do anything like that.  I was going to make sure that I gave as much as I can and shared as much as I can.  I believe that if your hands are open, you can receive and if your hands are closed there's nothing anyone can give you.  So I never felt that if I gave, that I would be losing anything.  I figured that by giving, you create great relationships.  When you work and help other people, they remember it because that's what matters.  I also figured out how to connect people to other people.

CC: You talked about well-run organizations and not-so-well run organizations.  What are some of the mistakes you've seen from the latter of the two?

SMT: I think a lot of times people have a really strong social mission and they really care about wanting to do good.  But in order to do those things, you need an effective organization.  First and foremost, it has to be transparent.  It should be very clear as to what you are trying to accomplish.  Then you have to say, what are the systems and structure that needs to be in place in order for me to do that.  You have to have the finances together.  You have to have talented people and a great board of volunteers to work with you.  You have to be willing to ask for help.  And you have to have money.  Sometimes people will try to bootstrap everything with the best intentions in the world but it's just not possible.

Now the beauty of the Coalition is that we are known as a fiscal sponsor.  We give people a chance to accomplish something while giving the professional support.  We take care of the finances, the human resources, health insurance, risk management, and all the things that you don't think about while trying to change the world.  If you don't have enough resources or the right structure, or someone like the UAC, you can find yourself completely eaten up by the operations and you don't get to fulfill your mission.  Even if you're an established nonprofit with systems in place, with the help of the UAC, you can focus more of your resources on finding even more funders and essentially do more with more instead of doing more with less.

CC: What are you most proud of in your 15 years with the UAC?

SMT: One thing is that when I first got here there was no retirement plan or 403(b) type of plan for employees.  There were women who had worked here for twenty years and didn't have a retirement plan.  So we created a 403(b) plan so that for anyone who comes to work here, they can contribute and we raise money to contribute as well to pre-tax dollars for employee retirement.

The other thing was coming up with a signature fundraising event.  I had done a lot of fundraising when I worked on different political campaigns so I had a good idea about some of the do's and don'ts of fundraising.  First and foremost, it's a "fund" raiser, not an event where you give away half of your money to a hotel.  It's about sponsorships.  Sponsorships drive a fundraiser, not ticket sales.  You need different sponsorships at different levels and you start with your board and the people close to you, and work your way out.

So the first event we did was a breakfast, which is the cheapest meal of the day.  Also people's time is just as valuable as their money so we decided to do the Friday morning before the week of Thanksgiving.  We've been doing the event every year since then.  The first year was sold out.  Every year we've had to raise almost a million dollars and I'm proud to say that we've done that.

Another thing that I'm proud of is some of the signature programs we've created.  When the whole issue around foreclosure and the housing crisis was at its peak, we created a committee for Community and Economic Development.  It's one of the few organizations of its kind in the country where community development organizations, banks, and government sit at the same table and try to figure out how best to re-invest in low and moderate-income communities.  And there are a lot of things that we can disagree on but at that table, we try to find the places where we can agree to really push hard on things we see as really detrimental to communities.

So we were able to see this whole issue around predatory lending early on.  Councilwoman Tasco did a great job with highlighting the issue.  And then we were able to not only highlight the issue, but identify that at the core of the issue, people would still need money for things like home repair.  So we created something called the PHIL Plus and the MINI-PHIL loan program that is a home-improvement loan for people with less-than-perfect credit through banks with a subsidy from the city to help us manage the program.   So we were able to say don't go to a predatory lender because here's another solution that's fairly priced and available to you.

And I'm proud to be a mentor.  I love meeting young people and doing whatever I can to help young people connect, stay connected and stay excited about driving change.  And hopefully I can make it easier and help them not to make the same mistakes I made.