Alumni Spotlight: Veronica Nolan, Urban Alliance
The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership sat down with Veronica Nolan, a 2004 alumna of the Nonprofit Executive Management Certificate Program, to discuss her two decades of experience with Urban Alliance. Urban Alliance works to connect high school seniors from low-income schools in DC with job training and internships at over 300 organizations such as the World Bank Group and Bank of America. Veronica started as the Program Director in 2002, later taking on the role of Executive Director and CEO. In 2015, Veronica transitioned to a board position before being invited back to take over as interim CEO in 2022. During the visit, she spoke about her lessons over the years, what she learned from the Nonprofit Management Certificate Program, and how she helped Urban Alliance grow from one high school in DC to serving students in Chicago, Detroit, and Baltimore. Veronica now plans to return to a board position at Urban Alliance, while leading the Baltimore-based nonprofit, Dream BIG.
CPNL: The nonprofit sector is vast with so many important causes to champion, what drew you to the nonprofit space and Urban Alliance more specifically?
Nolan: I was super fortunate that my first job out of college was Teach for America. I knew I wanted to impact communities that were low-income and I knew economic mobility was always something that drove me. So, for me, education and workforce development ended up being the “how.” I was assigned to Eastern Senior High School and that experience has informed every single day of my life. I was able to take the four years of teaching at DC public schools and bring it to Urban Alliance. I understood what high school students needed in that transition period and our board members were committed to making their businesses accessible to high school students. So, we were able to make a partnership that allowed us to grow together, using my understanding of development coupled with the board’s access to resources.
I came to Urban Alliance in 2002, first as the program director and then as the executive director and CEO from 2003 to 2014, before serving as a board member. I was honored that the board asked me to step in as interim CEO last year, and I feel like my historical context and intrinsic understanding of the program was really beneficial. The experience has reinvigorated my belief in the mission and what we do. Being able to see the kids’ names again and hearing their stories was super impactful. I also really admire this team and it’s such an honor to know every single person in the organization across all five regions. I think I’ll be helpful in advocating for them as a board member and I’m excited to serve in that capacity.
CPNL: Urban Alliance began by working with just 42 kids and now UA is serving over 3,000 students across the DMV, Baltimore, Chicago, and Detroit. You’ve previously mentioned that the Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program aided this expansion. Can you speak more about the process of scaling up the organization? What did you learn about your own leadership in the process of expansion?
Nolan: When I came to Urban Alliance, I was 27 years old, I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know how to run a nonprofit, I never managed staff, I never fundraised, I didn’t know what a budget looked like, I knew nothing. What I had was a commitment to helping young people. I learned along the way by having mentors and talking to people who have done this. I read everything that you could imagine. I made mistakes along the way and I share my mistakes now. In this process, the Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program provided me with best practices from experts, a real mentorship capacity-building opportunity, and a strong peer network.
At Urban Alliance, I was super comfortable starting small. It was more important for me that ten kids had the best experience with three really good job partners than trying to initially serve 1,000 kids. Every year, I’ll have a list of twenty things I wish I could do, and I pick three that I can realistically do and focus on those. When you start off small, you can control and maintain the quality; you then have a ripple effect which is when you get the stories and brand awareness. Scaling up was really disciplined and methodical. I’ve been attached to this program for twenty-one years, so this stuff really takes time.
I think you have to be aware of what you can do, I never oversold my capabilities. I had to know what I was good at and what I wasn’t good at, so I could hire people whose strength was my weakness. In that way, we complimented each other. My job wasn’t to be an expert in all things, my job was to create a strong culture, a clear vision, and to get us there with a plan.
At Urban Alliance I like people who are down to earth, work hard, and have fun with what they do; if we’re going to be here all day, might as well have a few laughs. I want a cultural fit and our culture is based on five core values. The first is that youth comes first, that is unapologetic. The youth we serve are the first, primary focus. Number two, we take care of each other as a team. Number three, we have high follow-through, meaning if you are going to work with a job partner, you have to be on top of your A-game. Number four, let’s have open and direct communication, let’s have real honest exchanges with each other out of respect. Number five, we stick to our mission. We serve low-income kids, they have lots of needs – health, housing, education. We can’t do it all. Instead, I’m going to partner with other nonprofits, while I’m focused on youth employment.
That’s one of the best things I’ve done actually, creating these five core values with my staff and they have guided all the tough decisions. Who you hire to represent you and the service matters greatly. Those core values, that culture, is how I get my team. I only hire people that can do those five things, same thing with the board.
CPNL: Urban Alliance has partnered with more than 200 employers to fight the systemic barriers that restrict underserved youth from the job market. UA has also developed partnerships with national and international organizations, such as the World Bank. How have you developed your strategic partnerships and how have they sustained your mission in the long term?
Nolan: The vision is to use intentionality and resources to get people out of poverty. Part of my job is making people understand that it is our job as a society to help low-income people who do not have access [to resources]. I have to reach into them and tell them why this matters, like this is the outcome you’re going to have: you’re going to get someone out of poverty, how amazing is that?
It’s ultimately about figuring out your network – who you went to college with, who you’re neighbors with. The world is small, so in these partnerships, trust is huge, honesty matters, and having a relationship helps. When people give you money or sponsorships, they want to know what you’re going to do with it and that you’re trustworthy. You have to prove yourself and show “This is what happens when people have trust in me.”
It’s also crucial to have honest conversations with people about how long they’d be interested in engaging with this work, whether it’s a one-year sponsorship or a five-year partnership. I will gladly take a one-year partnership and then go back to my cultivation plan. I make sure every month I know exactly who I’m reaching out to and in what format – email, in-person coffee chats, Zoom. I have to know what they want for communication and how often they want to hear from me to continue their sponsorship. The only time a sponsor hears from me can’t be just when I’m asking them to renew their sponsorship. I also have to think through what they want to hear; do they want to hear data, evaluation, stories? You have to know why someone is giving you a sponsorship and what they want to see because that will determine longer-term commitments.
We are also very fortunate that we have a really strong board of directors. I make sure my board members are really connected people in the companies and then I go back to the companies with stories and data about why this works. That’s why tracking our alumni is a huge part of our evaluation.
CPNL: Are there any new upcoming initiatives or new programs you’re especially excited about?
Nolan: We have a new CEO who just started, so I think the three things I think about for the next season of growth for Urban Alliance are: number one, supporting new leadership and really getting behind this amazing leader. I think one of the troubles in the nonprofit sector is the handoff and the transition. I really want to make sure that it is thoughtful and that we’re setting them up for success.
Number two, we are in the midst of recommitting to our programmatic identity. We hit our twenty-five-year mark during Covid, so we should be reexamining how we fit in this space.
To do this, we are looking to make our post-high school planning more robust and really invest in our alumni services. We’ve realized high schools have shifted and they all say ‘college, college, college,’ which is great. But because college is considered the thing to do, what happens is that students are choosing to go college and it’s 3,000 miles away from home and after one semester they are homesick, they’re in debt, and they drop out. So we have to get past the idea of “Oh just go to college.” We are also finding that now students aren’t necessarily interested in college right away. For those students, we are creating certified tracks for property management, healthcare, IT, and finance, so, if they want to go to college they can do that at some point. But they also have a better financial trajectory with a high school diploma because they’re getting certified in specific fields.
The third thing we’re doing is investing in the nonprofit infrastructure to support the team. I’ve always been a big believer in infrastructure. You can have this great program and this great team, but you have to have a strong infrastructure that’s supporting them. And as we are investing in the infrastructure, I think we’re about to enter Urban Alliance’s strongest season yet and I’m really excited to see that firsthand.
CPNL: How do you think the certificate program has impacted or helped you in your career? What advice would you give to professionals who are considering participating in the certificate program?
Nolan: Oh my god, I love it. First of all, my capstone at the time was about how to grow Urban Alliance city-wide, outside just Anacostia High School. For me, the program was a safe space to learn from real experts in their field. It was so helpful to hear experts share best practices collectively, but then I also received consultation on my capstone. I took that advice very seriously and made it come to fruition, allowing me to grow [the organization]. That is what happened from my Georgetown experience. I learned how to grow from an infrastructure standpoint.
We had such a blast. A few of my peers from my cohort came to my wedding, we went to each other’s weddings. There was this shared comradery, it was like college again. You have people you’re in the same walks of life with, not in regard to age, but by having a shared interest in learning and growing in the nonprofit sector. The peer network I gained, not just friends but thought partners, even years afterward was amazing.
The Georgetown Nonprofit Program is the only formal training I’ve ever had in my career. Back in the day, there was no such thing as a nonprofit undergrad degree and I was a career changer; I was a classroom instructor previously. So, for me, the Georgetown program was the only training ground I had where I could become an expert in my craft. I love the fact that I get to work in a sector where people are passionate and committed, but it really does take business skills to make these dreams come to fruition. Too often in the nonprofit sector, we rely too heavily on people’s passion and commitment. We drain them and burn them out because we’re not giving them the actual skill sets about how to run an effective, organized, and professional organization. The more that we can be organized and have real infrastructure and a framework for finances, development, staff management and HR practices, and strategic planning processes, then the higher quality services we can provide to whatever mission we’re committed to.
Finally, just logistically, the program was mindful that I was a full-time working professional. It accommodated that. You need opportunities to learn and grow that are intense, which it was, but it wouldn’t have been humanly possible to go back to school full-time. Through the program, I still feel like I got a full-time degree’s worth of knowledge.