Essay by Julius A. Boatwright, founder and managing director of Steel Smiling
The past five years have brought about some of the most pivotal, transformative and eye-opening experiences that I’ve ever grown through as a nonprofit professional. There were many moments when I felt like I didn’t have the strength or skills required to persevere and rise above complex leadership challenges. I knew that in order to overcome the obstacles that were in front of me, I needed the right group of empathic, emotionally intelligent and business-minded experts surrounding me and our budding Steel Smiling team.
Thankfully, we were blessed to have consistent support, mentorship and guidance from our trusted partners and now colleagues at Neighborhood Allies. Without them, I wouldn’t have evolved as deeply as I did both personally and professionally. With that being said, there’s a big difference between capacity building and transformative capacity building. I’ll share some context and meaningful stories to illuminate how they embody the latter.
In 2017, I attended a community engagement event that focused on diversity, equity and inclusion. As I was approaching the check-in desk, someone sitting there recognized me from a recent TEDxPittsburgh talk that I delivered over the summer. At the time, I had no idea that this particular person and I would grow to become colleagues who were both extremely passionate about improving the Black mental health ecosystem in Pittsburgh.
Over the next couple of years, Cait Lee and I would begin to occasionally meet to see how we could strengthen this work by supporting each other. While sharing space with Cait at what’s now the old Neighborhood Allies office, one thing immediately grabbed my attention. She wasn’t trying to dictate or determine what was best for Steel Smiling or me as a Black mental health professional. Cait was there to listen, learn and lift up ways that we could accomplish our shared goals together. This may seem like a small matter, but I learned that she was simply embodying what I now refer to as the Neighborhood Allies Effect. This was the beginning of what would become a magical, transformative and collaborative journey.
In 2019, I reconnected with Neighborhood Allies to learn more about their Catalytic Grant Funding opportunities. At this time in Steel Smiling’s life cycle, we had recently celebrated our three-year anniversary. While this milestone provided a contagious sense of excitement and hope for the future, we were still trying to pinpoint our identity as an organization. After speaking with Cait about their grant application process, they welcomed us to apply for catalytic funding.
When I submitted the proposal, she and her co-worker Shad Henderson invited me into their new office space to discuss it collaboratively. This was now the second time that I was able to experience the Neighborhood Allies Effect. We had originally requested approximately $25,000 for our Beams to Bridges mental health training and support program. Cait and Shad intentionally expressed their considerations with care and encouraged us to think bigger about our work.
After reconvening with our organizational consultants, we updated the proposal to a $75,000 funding request. This was a transformative, collaborative experience because not only did they see value in the proposal, they invested the time to fully acknowledge how much resourcing was necessary to catalyze its impact. After their team reviewed our revised application, they decided to grant Steel Smiling $75,000 in 2019 to relaunch our Beams to Bridges program. This was by far one of the most memorable and meaningful capacity-building moments that we’ve ever experienced. Having thoughtful partners in the nonprofit world who genuinely believe in you and your organization’s work is priceless.
In 2019, Neighborhood Allies elevated their commitment to us to another level by offering to serve as our fiscal sponsor. They had the foresight to see that we were on track to experience exponential growth and strategically stepped up to help us manage it. From 2019-2020, we began to collaboratively lay some of the groundwork necessary for a strong and sustainable future. Myself, the consultants and advisors that Steel Smiling worked with then, were graciously welcomed into the Neighborhood Allies family with open arms. They wanted to ensure that we were equipped to be a good steward of the increased funds that we were receiving, while still having the ability to deliver responsive community-based programming. This deepened level of support created that space while also giving us a chance to connect with more of their team members. While we didn’t immediately work closely with many of their staff, it paved the way for what was on the horizon in 2021.
In 2021, Neighborhood Allies and Steel Smiling lifted our conversation to an even higher level of collaboration. After many brainstorming and strategic discussions, we co-created what’s called an Organization-in-Residence model. The purpose of this process is to provide the infrastructure, mentorship and support needed for nascent Black-led, Black-centered organizations to thrive. As I mentioned many times before, the kind of capacity building that Neighborhood Allies provides for Steel Smiling is monumental and transformative. I can speak to great lengths about all of the expertise they share in the following areas: financial management, fundraising, staffing, communication, marketing, operations, strategy, programming, professional development, etc. To adequately state how each of these impacts our success and sustainability, I’ll need a bit more time to elaborate. For now, I do need to say more about the Neighborhood Allies Effect.
Over the past year, they’ve helped me grow in ways that I never imagined were possible both personally and professionally. Their consistent coaching has taught me how to manage my ego and selfish desires for the betterment of our communities. Their ability to listen without judgment has helped me heal wounds related to people-pleasing tendencies that have made me a more stable, clear-minded and strategic thought leader. Their team-driven environment has helped me learn how to embrace my role in a way that’s sustainable and fulfilling. Ultimately, through their transformative capacity-building nature, they’ve shown me how to honor my full self while contributing to life-saving work in our focus neighborhoods.
This type of personal and professional transformation doesn’t happen overnight and it needs time to truly take flight. While one-off capacity-building workshops are extremely useful and can make a strong impact in our sector, there’s no replacing long-term relationship-building that’s rooted in a person-centered philosophy. At Neighborhood Allies, we often talk about this magic and how it can be bottled up to share with as many partners as possible. When that day arrives, the nonprofit landscape will never be the same.
In the meantime, I’ll propose an explicit call to action for those of us who are positioned to make this best practice a reality. If you’re a funder in the nonprofit sector, now’s the time to double down on your investments into BIPOC-led and centered community-based organizations. Transformational capacity building emerges when long-term financial support is provided through a trust-based giving approach. As for the invaluable Black visionaries who are privileged enough to serve as leaders in our neighborhoods, your role is tremendously meaningful as well. For this depth of growth and development to transpire, you’ll want to reflect on a life-changing question; “Am I wholeheartedly willing to be vulnerable, transparent and consistently coachable along the way?”
In the words of our fearless leader Presley Gillespie; onward and upward!