How This Nonprofit Continues to Build Communities Amid COVID-19

A group of young people posing at America Needs You
The students of America Needs You

These are tough times for nonprofits.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, some of the nation’s longtime, vital nonprofits have had to lay staff off, and cancel annual galas that are crucial to fundraising and serving communities that need it the most. Key findings from a survey conducted by Charities Aid Foundation of America last month indicate that of the 414 organizations surveyed, 1 in 3 responding organizations foresee that they will be forced to close down within the next 12 month period, while 1.88% are unable to determine how long they can persevere under the current conditions; 16.27% of the surveyed organizations did not receive any funding in the last month and many are struggling to manage increased need for their services while seeing a significant decrease in the size of the grants provided by long-term donors; and close to 50% of the respondents were allowed grant extensions on current projects and over 39% were able to redirect funds to other projects.

According to an April 2020 online article, the Stanford Social Innovation Review suggests “nonprofits prioritize social impact, economic viability, and the capacity to deliver in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.”   

Among those faring well is America Needs You (ANY), an award-winning mentorship program for low-income, first-generation, college students. Founded in 2009 as New York Needs You by Robert Reffkin, a then-vice president in the Merchant Banking Division at Goldman Sachs and, later, 2011 Network Journal 40 Under Forty Achievement Awards honoree, the program has since evolved into America Needs You, a national organization with locations in Illinois, California, New York and New Jersey and fellowship programs at Laguardia Community College and Borough of Manhattan Community College. 

Today, Marianna Tu, who previously served as executive director of Peer Health Exchange, a health education nonprofit, is ANY’s CEO while Reffkin serves as chairman of the board.

Recognized as a “ChangeMaker” by Ashoka, a network of social entrepreneurs committed to solving social problems; the Select Equity Group Foundation with its Excellence in Action Award; and as a New York Community Trust Nonprofit Excellence Award winner for strong management practices, ANY is currently celebrating its 10-year anniversary.

I recently caught up with Tu to see how ANY is doing. What is the mission of America Needs You?

Marianna Tu: Our mission is to fight for economic mobility for ambitious first-generation college students through intensive mentoring and career development. For us, fundamentally, in the simplest terms, we want to help students who are the first in their family to go to college, defined as neither parent having a college degree and often from low-income households, graduate from college into meaningful careers and have a pathway to economic mobility.

The reason we do this work, and the genesis for all of it, dates back to 2010 when we were seeing that progress in college access didn’t necessarily translate to equality in degree attainment and economic mobility. We all know that higher education is this great engine into  economic mobility, so, when we saw how the graduation rates are so disparate, that’s where ANY became interested and stepped in.

Nationally, the graduation rate for students who are low-income and first-generation to college is only 11 percent. There’s been a big degree attainment gap and a lot of students leaving college in good academic standing with a lot of talent and ambition having overcome a lot hurdles to get into college. To see them not have the support to get the degree and have a pathway to careers is a terrible waste for everyone, so it’s an incredibly exciting population to work with!     What is something you’re most proud of when you think of the success of the organization?

Marianna Tu: I honestly think it’s seeing the alumni community. We are now old enough where we see first-generation college graduates who were fellows when they were in college. They’ve come back and are mentoring the next generation of first-generation college students, and I think they’re also doing great work in their own companies to be advocates for diversity in recruiting; a lot are leading their industries in that way. So, seeing the ripple effect of alumni has been incredible, especially because I started with ANY as a volunteer back in 2011! This year marks our 10-year anniversary as an organization, and we just had an alumni panel where I brought back students I had worked with when I was a volunteer and saw where they are in their careers. It was really incredible to see what’s going on with them. 

It’s like building a whole community of not just first-generation right now, but also first-generation college graduates and what they’ve had the potential to do to transform our workforce.           What, if any, challenges, have you faced as a nonprofit due to the coronavirus pandemic?    

Marianna Tu: I think every industry is facing challenges. Depending on a nonprofit’s revenue model, special events can be a challenge. For us, our special events portfolio disappeared this spring. Funding has certainly been a challenge, and I know, of course, when other industries or the economy is also facing challenges, sometimes – but not always – corporate philanthropy is the first thing to go.

Another challenge, and the most important, is how our students are coping with the increased challenges of COVID-19 because we all know that health and economic crises don’t affect all people equally. For low-income and, primarily, students of color, there’s been more effect on the health and financial well-being of our students and their families, so we’ve focused more than we have in the past on financial direct stability and emergency funding. For example, we secured a grant from the Robin Hood Foundation just to help students with short-term financial stability.

Lastly, pivoting to a digital curriculum and a virtual delivery model when we’ve generally had an in-person model is a challenge; how do you build community and make sure you have strong results when you’re not in-person? But honestly, there have been some silver linings and benefits of that work even though it’s been challenging. Have these changes revealed new ways of operating that you might continue even when the pandemic ends? 

Marianna Tu: Yes, the good part is the ability to collaborate across all of our different markets, and build community across all of our different markets. You’re not limited by geography for the type of internship you might pursue, or who you’re looking to engage with as a mentor or a volunteer. It does expand the possibilities for people. And even if we were to go completely back to 100 percent in-person work, we now have a more collaborative culture across all of our different sites. What’s interesting is that we’ve actually done more programming this spring than we ever have during the periods of April and June. We’ve had panels with leaders in finance; we just had a Black excellence panel; we’ve had panels on job hunting in uncertain times; we had one on nonprofits and philanthropy in these times, and also fireside chats with leaders. And we’ve been able to do all of it across our national market whereas before we would have to find a space and publicize.

We’ve found that we’ve been able to have more people engage in conversations around things that are related to our fellows and to our work, and we’ve actually had more people sign up for our virtual volunteer opportunities than we probably would have had sign up in-person.

So, there are some big benefits that have been revealed. Even if we go back to an in-person model, we’ll probably still host virtual events and look for virtual volunteer opportunities because we’ve been able to get more people involved in the mission, which benefits students. At the end of the day, we want to help people graduate and get jobs! Any short- to long-term plans?

Marianna Tu: Yes, one is the Alumni Network. This is our 10-year anniversary, and we’re very excited about the direct impact we’ve made on the over 1,200 people we’ve served, but we’re also thinking about the ripple impact and ANY being a voice for first-generation college students and graduates in the professional community and in corporate America; we’re excited to highlight the emerging talent that’s represented in first-generation college students because some companies are really recognizing that and others aren’t. So with alumni, the narrative around the talent they’re bringing is super important to us. 

Secondly, as we are digitizing our curriculum, we see that it offers more opportunities to open up pieces of our program to our college partners, and potentially other nonprofits as well. How vital is your annual gala in terms of revenue, and will you have to cancel it this year due to the pandemic? 

Marianna Tu: It is critical! Some years, it has accounted for up to a third of our budget. This year, we’re not canceling it; we’ll just have to do it in a different way…we’ll have a virtual gala!