Jennifer Mitchell returns to The Doe Fund as organization’s CEO
Bringing in her expertise as executive director of The HOPE Program, Mitchell hopes to tackle the homelessness and affordable housing crisis in New York City.
The Doe Fund, one of New York City’s largest homeless services nonprofit and best known for its Ready, Willing & Able reentry program, has signed on Jennifer Mitchell as the organization’s next President and CEO.
Mitchell began her career at The Doe Fund more than 20 years ago and spent 12 years developing the Ready, Willing & Able program before moving on to the The HOPE Program as executive director. Now she’ll be returning to The Doe Fund in April, succeeding president Harriet Karr-McDonald.
Founded over 30 years ago, the Doe Fund helped nearly 30,000 homeless individuals through its “Ready, Willing & Able” program which provides paid work, housing, and comprehensive support services to homeless and formerly incarcerated men in New York City. The Doe Fund’s Men in Blue participants clean over 115 miles of city streets as part of the organization’s social enterprise project that helps individuals transition to paid career training in skilled trades and fields. Graduates of this program tend to be 62% less likely to recidivate than demographically identical peers. The Doe Fund also operates a portfolio of 900,000 square feet of permanent affordable and supportive housing, with 12 residences throughout New York City that operate as safe homes, providing on-site social services to over 1,000 individuals and families struggling with substance abuse issues, HIV/AIDS, mental illness and physical disabilities.
With the opening of Union Square Travel Agency: A Cannabis Store: A Cannabis Store, the Doe Fund recently became the third nonprofit organization to open a legal marijuana dispensary in New York City. The dispensary will be operated by cannabis retailer Harbour Community, with 51% of profits being reinvested into The Doe Fund’s programs.
NYN Media spoke to Mitchell about her time at The HOPE Program, The Doe Fund’s recently opened cannabis dispensary in Manhattan’s Union Square and initiatives she’ll take on as CEO.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I see that you began your career at The Doe Fund and then continued as executive director of The HOPE program – what made you decide to return?
When I was in college, I joined the Peace Corps and I was an environmental education volunteer in Nicaragua which was a really powerful experience. My takeaways from those two years were that it’s really hard to make caring about the environment compelling when people are struggling to provide for their families and more often than not, the solution to some of the most intractable problems lies within the people who are experiencing those problems. And so I came back to the United States after those two years in Nicaragua, with both of those revelations. When I had the opportunity in 2000, to work for the Doe Fund I came in with both of those tenets and I really loved the mission and the approach that the Doe Fund did because they were giving people the tools and the skills and the networks to get a job and to be able to provide for their families. Simultaneously, about 70% of the Doe Fund staff are graduates from the program. And so the people who have already been through some of these struggles were, in large part, helping to figure out what the solutions were. I'm really excited to return to the Doe Fund because I think it’s an amazing organization, and at this time in New York City specifically, the homelessness and the affordable housing crisis is so acute. I feel very prepared to use my skills and my networks to help solve that problem.
Which lessons from leading The HOPE Program do you wish to bring to your role at the Doe Fund?
I think one of the lessons that I always turned to is, especially in the nonprofit space, people are doing this job because they care about the mission of the organization. So to always keep the mission front and center is really important. Also, to make sure that you are leading by elevating the voices of the community, the communities you serve, and the staff that you serve, and be an active listener to make sure you're being both cognizant of the strategies but also cognizant of building a strong, vibrant, professional and compassionate culture. I've continued to be a data-driven person and I've learned how to keep outcomes strong which continue to impact the organization and balance that with the individual stories of everyone that comes through our doors.
Would you mind speaking a bit more about the importance of being data-driven within nonprofit management?
I think data tells its own story, making it really important to have at your fingertips. You need to have really good data so that you are not making decisions just based on one-off stories or anecdotes, but you're looking at trends, you're looking at what's happening and you're able to reflect on pain points and different processes. But it's also important to have data on how much board members are contributing and how much they're tapping into their networks, and how much different events are bringing in. Looking at financial data is really important – having it clear so you can know the trends and what cash flow looks like, when you need to pull back on a program or revisit something. So, I really believe data in every single area of nonprofit operations is critically important to running a successful organization.
The Doe Fund has opened up a cannabis dispensary – how will this impact the community?
The Doe Fund’s first cannabis dispensary opened on Feb.13. It's called Union Square Travel Agency. This is a really amazing model because what New York state is doing and how they're rolling out this legislation, is they're saying that people that were punished by cannabis criminalization should benefit from cannabis decriminalization. So this model is about equity and it's about making sure that people are given opportunities, and the Doe Fund will benefit by being in a partnership where we're 51% owner of the dispensary. Which means that 51% of the profits from that dispensary, we will be putting directly back into programs to benefit all the homeless individuals that we serve. My biggest interest is the people in our programming that will benefit from the profits made by the dispensary. No one who is a client of the Doe Fund or a participant in the program currently, will be working at the dispensary. It is operated by an experienced retail cannabis operator, and as partners we’re benefitting by getting 51% of the profits and then reinvesting it in improved program services, reinvesting it to hire additional housing specialists so that people can move out of the shelter system into housing, reinvesting it in program services so that people will have access to very specific certifications and trainings in certain sectors that the labor market identifies as growing in the future.
In your new role at The Doe Fund, how do you intend to integrate equity into your management and into internal structures?
The HOPE Program since June of 2020, has really prioritized diversity, equity inclusion, we have a whole diversity equity inclusion initiative. And it has it has focused on doing things like looking at hiring processes to make sure that they’re equitable, looking at promotion processes, making sure the language that we use in both internal and external communications reflects our commitment to equity and developing metrics and doing job trainings for both frontline staff and managerial staff on diversity, equity and inclusion. The whole program not only focuses on diversity, equity inclusion on a staff level, our board has a very vibrant and engaged diversity equity inclusion committee that has focused on board recruitment, that has initiated doing book clubs to have board members reading about issues that bring them closer to the to the population that The HOPE Program serves. And so I'm really a strong proponent of integrating diversity, equity, inclusion and all aspects of work in the nonprofit sector. And I look forward to bringing a lot of what I learned at HOPE to The Doe Fund where I think there's also big focus on equity so that we can ensure that we're elevating the voices of our participants, elevating the voices of our frontline staff and also making sure that how we communicate and what we communicate, always has considered equity in it.
What are the main priorities that you hope to tackle as Doe Fund CEO?
I think that The Doe Fund is a quintessential New York City organization. It has a long history of having significant impact and so I want to continue to build on that and make sure that The Doe Fund continues to be a strong voice for how best to serve those who are struggling with homelessness. And I’m going to continue to do that by listening to the voices of the participants, by listening to the voices of the staff at kind of going full circle to when I came back from the Peace Corps, two of the things that I learned were one that more often the solutions to problems that seem intractable come from the people themselves that are struggling with it. I love New York City and I love The Doe Fund and I am fully committed to making sure that together we continue to build the best organization possible that serves homeless individuals in a way that is dignified, respectful and compassionate.
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