Alumni Spotlight: Andrea Thomas, United Planning Organization

Andrea Thomas

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United Planning Organization (UPO) is a nonprofit organization in Washington, DC dedicated to fighting the war on poverty and building community empowerment. Since 1962, UPO has focused on changing lives — supporting and inspiring Washington, DC’s low-income residents on their journey to self-sufficiency and success. The agency offers more than 30 programs in early childhood education, youth development, job training and placement, health and wellness, housing, and volunteering. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with alumna Andrea Thomas, Executive Vice President at UPO, about her experiences working in the nonprofit sector and her time in CPNL’s Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program.

This article has been lightly edited for clarity

Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership (CPNL): Why did you want to work in the nonprofit sector?

THOMAS: I believe nonprofits found me! I was a junior in college when I went to New Orleans from California to work at my first nonprofit on a project called Summerbridge. At this agency, I fell in love with the education sector, particularly as it relates to first-generation college students. My original career plan was to become a child psychiatrist but I found that there was something exciting about nonprofit work and its immediacy to responding to social issues and challenges for people in communities. I enjoyed being a part of that immediate action and responsiveness, as well as seeing the successes of the students, families, and communities I worked with. From there, I went to graduate school to pursue a degree in Education Policy thinking I would move on to policy work to impact a larger number of young people. However, I always came back to the grassroots and nonprofit organizations.

CPNL: How did you get your current job?

THOMAS: I came to the University of Maryland to study Education Policy and they provided opportunities for me to work with the DC Community Prevention Partnership, the Institute of Higher Education Policy, and the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metro Area. They all shaped and deepened my approach to working with youth and opened the doors for me to be here at the United Planning Organization. My background working with first-generation college students and their families equipped me
to come to UPO and create the youth services division to address the need of low-income youth, particularly for post-secondary education preparation. I later became the Executive Vice President of the entire agency and we do tremendous work in all areas of the community, not just education.

CPNL: What is the most fulfilling part of your current role?

THOMAS: Helping to bring vision to fruition. There are always ideas about what we want to accomplish in our work. In my role as EVP, when new visioning starts rolling around in the CEO’s mind and we start talking about it as an executive team, I’m able to determine partnerships that need to be built, what are the resources needed, and then pull the pieces together to bring these projects to life. I like being a part of that
process! I also love being part of an agency with a legacy! UPO has been in DC for nearly 60 years now; it was the site for one of the first head-start demonstration projects, served as the employment office in the city, and was the place during the 60s where African Americans who were looking to build a professional track came to gain skills and grow professionally to do great things. It is fulfilling to see that we are continuing with
that legacy.

CPNL: What accomplishment are you most proud of?

THOMAS: At UPO, I am proud to help push forward progressive initiatives. When I worked in the youth services division, we started a program called POWER (Providing Opportunities with Educational Readiness). Our CEO wanted us to partner with neighboring college campuses to accomplish targeted educational work with kids in DC middle and high schools. POWER came together in a matter of months,
nearly a decade ago. We are now on our third cohort of students, preparing them and their families for the college experience. Our first cohort is in college and I am really proud that we were able to anchor a program like that. Another outstanding opportunity I was able to be a part of was the “sweat equity” program in partnership with DC’s Department of Human Services where homeless individuals rehabbed an apartment building and
then moved into that building. UPO was instrumental in training and certifying these individuals in construction skills and it was a perfect picture of what happens when government, nonprofit and business come together. Helping to lead UPO’s business technology systems expansion was something I was proud to survive. It was
no easy feat because there is so much change management and so many lessons learned as the process unfolds, but the positive impact of each incremental change has made the process worthwhile and encouraged me to be excited about foraying into areas that aren’t my expertise to make organizational impact.

CPNL: What was your biggest takeaway from the Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate program?

THOMAS: Nonprofit management is holistic. It was beautiful how the program was laid out because all the teachings built upon one another. The work of nonprofit management is the same way. For example, when we talk about programs, we talk about finances, and when we talk about finances, we talk about development and resources, communications, data analysis, public access, etc. All those pieces have to work in cohesion. There is a need to be cognizant of all these factors, for when one changes, it impacts all the others. We must always be strategic about how we think and approach change in any area and consider the impact it is going to have across all aspects of the agency, both good and challenging. The program made me aware of the necessity to continually cultivate this mindset as a leader.

CPNL: How did the certificate program challenge you?

THOMAS: The nature of nonprofits is that we are often juggling competing priorities. There are a number of different areas that one must keep track of when working on a project, and it is a necessity to not get caught up on one particular area, that other areas fail. This is true for nonprofit work as well, for there are so many projects waiting to be worked on but not enough resources or people to get them all done. It is vital to
remember that when leading a project, one must get above everything and look at all the pieces together rather than getting caught up in the “weeds” — otherwise challenges will arise and grow. For me, it’s sometimes easy to get caught up in the details and lose sight of the bigger picture. The program, however, trained me to start looking at my work from a broader perspective.

CPNL: How has the Certificate Program helped you in your career?

THOMAS: It gave me a toolkit that I can always go back to. Since my agency is focusing on community impact zones and very intentionally measuring impact, it’s wonderful to go to the articles and notes I took during my time at the program and share them with my team — when we come together, these tools frame our conversation. It’s been a tremendous help to have that toolkit and have the resource of people to reach
out to (as I have done) for feedback or to partner up with their agencies. These are all sources for constant professional growth.

CPNL: What advice would you give to other professionals who are considering participating in the Certificate Program?

THOMAS: Two words – do it! We always have reasons for why we cannot take out time from work, but if we do not take time for ourselves to refresh, grow, reflect, share ideas, and hear innovations from other people, we cannot be the assets we want to be for our organizations and our work becomes stagnant. The program was a wonderful experience and gave me so much rich information in such a short period. Make the time and take this course!