Graduates of Detroit-based community incubator experience transformational supportThe Nonprofit Journal Project

"This cohort created a space for us to be vulnerable and transparent, and to know that if we're the best human beings we can be ourselves, then we'll be the best leaders for our organizations."

The House of Technology is almost built, and Richard Grundy, co-founder and CEO of the youth-focused nonprofit JOURNi, couldn't be more excited. It's a key piece to the vision he and his team shared when they launched their organization five years ago.

"My passion is introducing people to technology and how to create opportunities for themselves," Grundy says. The nonprofit works to build an inclusive tech ecosystem in Detroit by equipping individuals with programming skills and work-based experiences and by teaching them how to generate income for themselves.

During the pandemic, Grundy and his team have been on the front lines of inequity challenges with their Community Trust Tech program, delivering digital devices to students and nonprofits across the city who've lacked virtual access.

His small group has worked remotely for years, at schools, organizations and co-working spaces, but have long imagined a neighborhood hub where residents can come together to access computers and hi-speed internet, participate in tech workshops and classroom programs, learn financial literacy, share ideas and create.

That hub will open this December on Marygrove's P20 Cradle-to-Career Campus, just miles from where JOURNi held its first in-school program at Mumford High School.

This makes perfect sense, says Grundy, who'd hoped to return to the neighborhood.

JOURNi is one of five nonprofits who've recently graduated from the Community Impact Incubator, a 12-month personal and professional leadership development initiative founded in partnership between Strategic Community Partners and the Marygrove Conservancy, with financial support from the Kresge Foundation. Invitees also included Detroit City Lions Youth Club, Detroit Phoenix Center, Pure Heart Foundation and Detroit Youth Choir and Performing Arts.

The program was born out of community listening sessions, with a goal to strengthen and uplift Black nonprofit leaders in Detroit serving high-needs youth populations with few resources. Given the right support, the organizations chosen have the capacity to scale and provide services to a greater number of students and families in the surrounding Fitzgerald neighborhood.
"We were listening to a number of community organizations before COVID-19 hit," says Racheal Allen, Chief Operating Officer for the Marygrove Conservancy. "What we heard was that there weren't enough cohort-based programs where Black leaders especially, could learn from a collaborative and peer-mentoring kind of approach."

"I think the need for that amplified after some of the racial recognition we saw after the death of George Floyd," she says. "A lot of our communities were feeling impacted by a double pandemic. At the same time, due to COVID-19, budgets were shrinking, resources were becoming more limited, and programming was shifting because community needs were evolving. We were really grateful for the ability to shape our program to better meet the needs of nonprofits."
Racheal Allen. Photo by Nick Hagen.The incubator program, run by Strategic Community Partners who helped develop its curriculum, offers capacity building, technical assistance, professional development, mentoring, counseling, and a community of practice. It tailors specifically to the missions of the participating organizations as well as the needs of communities they serve.

SCP's Director of Equity Initiatives Alyssa Williams led the pilot program while the organization also hosted an executive-in-residence, Dr. Rita Fields. Outside of monthly meetings, participants were paired with professionals of color across the city who spent additional time with them focusing on the needs of their individual nonprofits.

"We heard our leaders say they wanted to learn from people who not only looked like them, but who've been through some of the things they've been through," says Allen. "These kinds of things might typically get overlooked in a leadership development program, but we think they've made this program unique. We wanted to create a community where people can put their armor down and be their authentic selves."

Amid the pandemic, nonprofit leaders are being asked to do more, and give more of themselves with the least amount of resources, she says, which can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. 

"We think creating programs with supports that buffer some of the experiences of these leaders, will help them ultimately treat their organizations more like a business," she says, "versus being so burnt out they aren't able to deliver the programming they desire." 

Sometimes the group meetings felt like therapy, says Grundy.

"We could talk through the challenges we're going through in real time, in a safe space, with leaders that have other challenges and get their feedback, their support," he says. "That's important, because it can be lonely when you're trying to lead an organization, and you have to make sure things are executing. Sometimes you don't have time to reflect, or reflect out loud and hear feedback. This definitely provided that."

Hearing leaders of color speak from a level of expertise was just what the cohort needed to be able to imagine their own scalability, says Sherelle Hogan, founder and chief executive officer of Pure Heart Foundation. The nonprofit provides wraparound services to youth and young people across the state experiencing parental incarceration: mental health support, academic enrichment, recreation and the arts, family reunification and mentoring.

"We were dealing with COVID-19 and trying to pivot our organizations," she says, "and to be comfortable in a space and know that people who look like you are speaking to you from their experiences, it made us connect even greater. Oftentimes, that's just not our reality. Oftentimes, when we go to sessions, and we're in different spaces, there's not a lot of people of color, especially leading those conversations."
Sherelle Hogan. Photo by Nick Hagen.
"I felt like our mental health, our leadership development skills and us being humans first was really, really elevated in this cohort. When leaders are placed together, it's often just to discuss the work and be extremely intentional with making sure we're developing programmatically. This cohort really created a space for us to be vulnerable, transparent and know that if we're the best human being we can be ourselves, we can be the best leader for our organization."

While the program sought to elevate leaders personally and professionally, it also helped them to transform their budgets. Those that participated in the pilot program received subsidized facility space for one year as they work to become rent-paying tenants. As there's now a waiting list to lease space on Marygrove's campus, future cohorts will have access to a variety of office amenities and co-working and events spaces, rather than full organizational facilities. 

"For most organizations we've talked to, they don't always need full-time programming space, but they require a lot more flexibility," says Allen. "We've been working over the last year especially, to be more collaborative and creative with organizations to help them deliver their programs, but keep cost down and better support their actual needs."

While the initial nonprofits were invited to apply, Allen says there are plans to expand the number of participants next year. Applications will go live in early 2022. 

"Now that we've built out more of the framework for the program, we know there's a greater interest across the city," she says. "We definitely want to open up a more inclusive application process to potentially support more organizations. Our alumni community will be able to come back in year two and provide support to new leaders, particularly because they've just spent the last year navigating campus, understanding how things work, and learning a lot about their organizations."

And learning what they're capable of leaders, says Hogan. Over the past year, she's been able to take Pure Heart from an event-based nonprofit that partnered with larger institutions to create memorable experiences for young people to a staffed and fully operational organization. Participating in the cohort has opened many doors to funding and more development opportunities, she says.

"It's just being elevated and having the credibility to not only say I'm an incubator recipient, but I'm also a part of the Conservancy," she says. "The Conservancy is establishing a mark in the community with giving back and creating a space for youth of color and leaders of colors to elevate their organizations and missions, and for the community to receive services that they need."
Students walk the halls at Marygrove. Photo by Nick Hagen.
Allen says collectively the five nonprofits raised at least $500K in new funding during the cohort, which ended in June. Pure Heart Foundation has raised nearly $2 million in grants and donations since joining the incubator, Hogan says, with most of that over the last six months. 

"Not all of the funding opportunities came from being in partnership with the Conservancy or the incubator, but building capacity and having that cohort really helped me develop as a leader. I was able to hire additional personnel that gave me the ability to fundraise very aggressively."

The Pure Heart space at Marygrove, set to open in January, includes an arcade-themed boys' lounge complete with mini barbershop and a fashion, haircare and affirmations-filled girls' room. The facilities also support a mental health wing, resource and donations rooms, a food pantry, computer lab and tutoring and programming space. 

Hogan's goal is to create a service model that can be replicated nationwide to combat the cycle of incarceration. Ultimately, she'd like to have a Detroit-based school that welcomes children of incarcerated parents from across the country, that elevates social and emotional learning and provides residential stay. 

Grundy is also experiencing new opportunities. 

"The fact that we have a physical space and support now makes a better case for someone wanting to invest into that idea of the House the Technology or the Community Tech," he says. "Our whole infrastructure's just a lot better."

This played a role in JOURNi becoming a 2021 Gucci Changemakers Impact Fund grantee, he says. The prestigious award of $50,000 went to 15 organizations "led by diverse non-profit leaders working across the fields of social, cultural, and economic issues impacting communities across North America." JOURNi was the only nonprofit in Michigan to win this year. 

His team's also recently acquired donations of over 125 new devices to add to the 100 initially gifted by Quicken Loans for the Community Tech Trust project. The tech library now lives at Marygrove and is maintained with the help of their IT Support Services. Partnering with JOURNi has opened up grant opportunities around youth tech programming and tech entrepreneurship for the Conservancy as well, says Allen, helping to increase their impact on young people in the community.

"One of the things I learned with the cohort, is there's people who think we're doing good work, and think highly of us," says Grundy. "We're a small team, very lean, and we tend to keep our head down when we're doing the work, trying to do things right. I didn't go to school to run a nonprofit or to be in this space, so I'm kind of learning as I'm doing, and I'm conscious of that."

Working with people is his getting to know people, he says. Being in close proximity to the other cohort leaders, seeing the work they're doing in real time on campus is what's inspired him most. He talks about Devon Buskin, founder and CEO of The Detroit City Lions Youth Club, who is frequently on campus serving hundreds of kids. 

"This is during a pandemic," he says, "and they're finding creative ways to serve a large amount of youth with their program. A lot of times we see other leaders in the in the news. They win awards, they receive accolades, but to see the actual work, for me, that's a little bit more inspiring. And we've gotten a chance to do that up close here."

Building a community of trust and people who are invested in your success because you've been in the trenches together is a tangible benefit of this type of program, Allen says. She challenges the cohort to collaborate with one another and with the other 55 organizations on campus, particularly around program and service delivery. Before creating programs, tenants are encouraged to seek out who at Marygrove is already doing it, could do it more efficiently or how a partnership might scale the impact. 

Having a program that's flexible enough to be responsive to the needs of the community is important moving forward, she says. Over the last year, they've heard from resident and students about what offerings are still needed in the neighborhood.

"So in our pool of applicants for the next cohort, we're going to continue looking for those child and family serving organizations," she says, "and we'd love to be able to look for organizations that align with what the students and community here want to see."

JOURNi will be hosting tours in mid-December for it's soft grand opening. Registration will be available here soon. 

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.