Empowering jobless and impoverished New Yorkers

New York, 20 Feb 2016

The HOPE Program empowers jobless and impoverished New Yorkers through skills training, jobs and career advancement. It combines training, adult basic education, industry certifications, work wellness services, internships and job placement with long-term support.

Executive Director of HOPE, Jennifer Mitchell won Macquarie’s 2014 David Clarke Social Innovation Fellowship in New York and used her Fellowship grant to travel to Australia and the UK to research innovative social enterprises focused on environmental workforce development. In her Fellowship submission, she proposed that “green” training and social enterprise programs have the potential to simultaneously address employment shortages, environmental crises, and non-profit funding gaps.

“There is no way I would have ever seen these parts of the world, started amazing friendships and learned valuable information from other non-profits without Macquarie’s innovative investment. I also didn't anticipate that I would have the opportunity to share best practices from HOPE and add value to the work of the places I was visiting,” said Mitchell.

Change agents are undying optimists. They push boundaries and take risks to try and find more efficient, beneficial and sustainable solutions. These goals are at the heart of social innovation.

But there’s a catch-22. Trying to convince traditional funders that their dollars are well spent on a novel approach can be challenging, particularly as non-profits also need the space to fail at the first go (or second or third) in order to refine their work.

Jennifer Mitchell, the Executive Director of New York City’s innovative workforce development charity, The HOPE Program, says increasingly non-profits are looking towards establishing their own social ventures to achieve greater autonomy and better outcomes.

In 2014, Mitchell was awarded Macquarie’s David Clarke Social Innovation Fellowship, the first awarded in the United States, to research successful social enterprises focused on environmental workforce development in Australia and the UK.

HOPE is looking at opportunities to widen its environmental jobs training beyond the standard jobs of green carpentry, energy efficiency, retrofitting and ‘smart’ roofs to meet growing demand.

“We started doing some research on what was going on abroad in terms of green social enterprise and the places that really bubbled to the top of our research were Australia and the UK as having embraced both the concepts of social enterprise and the concept of figuring out business approaches to taking care of the environment,” says Mitchell. “I think in those spaces there are some really exciting, innovative things going on.”

Mitchell, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching environmental education in Bluefields, Nicaragua, and has qualifications in environmental policy, is inspired by Australia’s track record of investing in green job initiatives through the Green Corps, National Green Jobs Corps, and now the Green Army program.

HOPE is keen to learn from Job Futures Ltd, which implements the Federal Government’s Green Army program, an initiative for youth aged 17 to 24 interested in protecting their local environment. Job Futures works with the Department of Environment and project sponsors to deploy teams working on such things as protecting habitat, cleaning up creeks and rivers and conserving cultural heritage places.

Being creative and out of the box and risk-taking and looking at best practices outside of your comfort zone all leads to social innovation. - Jennifer Mitchell

“Green Army service providers are non-profit organisations which have identified impactful projects which can successfully be completed by youth, generally a population with few technical skills, which in some ways mirrors the population served by HOPE,” says Mitchell.

Some of the other environmental social ventures HOPE is exploring in Australia include Revegetate, an emerging vertical garden business borne out of The Big Issue’s social enterprise university competition and the multi-award-winning and long-running waste management consultancy, Resource Recovery Australia, which is run by non-profit Great Lakes Community Resources Inc.

Mitchell says HOPE’s approach is achieving impressive job retention rates, largely due to its programs going well beyond interview techniques and resume preparation. The organisation uses motivational interviewing (empowering the client to decide what is best for them), long-term support beyond job placement, and innovative training programs, including a ‘work wellness’ and mindfulness curriculum and stress management techniques.

The organisation is also very employer-driven and pays close attention to labour market demand.

HOPE’s most recent cohorts achieved a rate of 72% in job placements and 91% in 90-day job retention. This puts it in the top 10 per cent of workforce development organisations, according to the 2014 Workforce Benchmarking Networking results, which measures outcomes in the sector. It is an incredible result, given some of its graduates have been drug addicts for decades or have spent years in jail, or both.

“We say repeatedly from day one that when you’re HOPE, you’re HOPE for life and we mean that. So our retention program is very structured in the first year. We’re working with people that have been out of work for years and years and they’re learning to adapt. It’s really an open door for everyone that graduates from HOPE. That long-term relationship is something that is very innovative,” says Mitchell.

Mitchell, who has been in workforce development for 17 years, says in order for non-profits to stay at the top of their game, they need a ‘change culture’, with staff who are adaptable, resilient and all in “the same boat and rowing in the same direction”.

“Being creative and out of the box and risk-taking and looking at best practices outside of your comfort zone all leads to social innovation,” says Mitchell.

“I think that so often in the business world, people are rewarded for innovation and I think in the non-profit world, people are not necessarily rewarded in that same way, so it really takes being open and ready for risk and open and ready for failure. It is important to stay focused on your goal of improving outcomes for whatever the social issue is that you are trying to tackle.

“I think there are so many of us in the non-profit field who are just trying to create cultures that provide the support and the guidance and the love that people need to maximise their potential.”

Image caption: Jennifer Mitchell, The HOPE Program Executive Director. Photographer: Alyssa Ringler.

This article is an excerpt from the Macquarie Group Foundation's book, Innovation big and small: How great ideas are strengthening our community, which was produced in 2015 in celebration of the Foundation's 30th anniversary.

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