OECD Local Development Forum: Practitioner of the Moment
Practitioner of the Moment
An interview with Irene Branche, Chief Development and Evaluation Officer, The HOPE Program
How has COVID-19 impacted your work within the Hope Program and how have you responded?
The HOPE Program is now fully remote, with the exception of field-based transitional employment. In the immediate wake of COVID-19 and continuing to today, HOPE actively reaches out to hundreds of graduates to offer case management addressing such needs as support with applying for unemployment insurance, referrals for food, housing, childcare and other supports, mental health support, and, through dedicated partnerships and fundraising, over $215,000 in direct cash support.
We are simultaneously recruiting new trainees through biweekly online informational sessions, organizational partnerships and word-of-mouth. These New Yorkers engage in six weeks of synchronous and asynchronous remote learning opportunities, with a focus on essential skills, such as goal-setting, professional communications, conflict resolution, resume and interviewing skills and others. We now offer essential certification classes remotely. Knowing that many of our jobseekers live WiFi deserts across New York City, we have provided 215 ChromeBooks and WiFi hotspots (and counting) to New Yorkers. New students also receive 2-3 days of pre-training on email setup, Zoom and Google Hangout use, and general troubleshooting.
While the majority of our programming is remote, we conduct community-based greening work which serves as transitional employment. We hire HOPE graduates to water hundreds of street trees in the Bronx; maintain community assets such as a bioswale, parks and street medians; and participate in paid internships in solar installation. Beyond environmental projects, we employ young adults through remote internships in Census outreach, voter registration, and tech support for incoming classes of trainees. We’ve paid New Yorkers nearly $200,000 in wages since the beginning of COVID-19.
Despite increased unemployment rates, HOPE continues to connect graduates with employment, with 130 job placements since March 16. This includes recent graduates as well as connecting graduates from prior years with new jobs following COVID-related layoffs.
In my specific work of fund development, I have found that this environment opens opportunities for deeper engagement with donors, a long-standing goal that is coming to fruition now. We more actively update institutional and individual donors on our work, engage new prospective funders in dialog on the future of work, recruit corporate volunteers to partner remotely and much more. While there is uncertainty with regard to future revenues, we are proud to have leveraged this moment to improve our practice.
What are the main lessons learnt from the Hope Program in terms of achieving local impact for the community?
HOPE thrives in this “new normal” because of our focus on building community and our embrace of innovation.
Helping New York City and our most vulnerable community members build a sustainable and equitable future cannot be done in silos. We actively seek opportunities to share client experiences in COVID-19 and to contribute to citywide planning conversations alongside the Mayor’s Labor and Workforce Sector Advisory Council and the New York City Employment and Training Coalition’s New York Workforce Recovery Strategy Group. We are also continuing to lead in forward-thinking community partnerships which meet the needs of New Yorkers in the most highly impacted communities. We co-lead an initiative of 13 peer organizations called YES Bed-Stuy, aimed at connecting out-of-school and out-of-work young adults with education and workforce opportunities in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. These partnerships are essential to ensuring that the New Yorkers who walk through our now virtual doors have their voices heard in the recovery and that we learn and share best practices with peers to continue our work.
We are focused on building internal community, ensuring that staff morale remains high. This takes the form of monthly community meetings, an unprecedented level of transparency with regard to future plans for the organization, and celebrating all of the wins that we achieve as a community. This includes a weekly celebration of all job placements, small (and tasty) gifts from HOPE to the full team to mark milestones such as 100 days of working innovatively from home, and other strategies.
Further, as described above, we have innovated. Not only is nearly all programming offered online, but we have also identified efficiencies which improve our work, such as online intake forms which streamline and reduce redundancies that clients also experience during intake processes; remote corporate engagement which extends our reach; stronger processes for financial access, which allows us to provide cash assistance to clients who lack bank accounts; greater access to upskilling opportunities for populations who would not otherwise have access, such as parents with young children at home.
What would be your suggestions for someone wanting to start a similar programme somewhere else?
These times of scarce resources are forcing many nonprofit organizations to consider strategic partnerships, such as mergers and acquisitions. In fact, La Piana, a leading nonprofit consultancy, estimates that two-thirds of workforce organizations (based on a small sample size), are considering mergers and acquisitions. Further, 26% across all nonprofit organization types are thinking about mergers, an increase from 1% in non-COVID times. Given the uncertainties that the sector is currently facing, I would advise a comprehensive community scan for programs doing similar or complementary work with reputations for strong impact and exploring opportunities to partner or build on existing work.
We have also found considerable value in building partnerships with local employers to inform our work and serve as hiring partners for our graduates. A strong workforce program will leverage these conversations at the outset and will build in mechanisms to continuously understand the evolving labor market and adjust accordingly.
Finally, much of HOPE’s strength lies in our comprehensive approach and our focus on “HOPE for Life.” We not only offer essential job skills, but also comprehensive support services that empower HOPE students and graduates to thrive in their lives and at work. This model also builds deep relationships such that HOPE graduates know that they can turn to us for support at any time in the lives of their careers - an approach that has never been more critical than in these uncertain times.
Published: October 2020