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Forward Focus: Valerie Johnson on amplifying the voices of Philadelphia’s homeless population

November 5, 2020 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose
“Providing direct services are not easy during a stay at home order. We have shifted quite a lot in the last seven months in order to ensure the health and safety of our participants and our staff.”

Valerie Johnson joined Pathways to Housing PA in 2018 and is the organization’s director of institutional advancement. Prior to that, she was the director of advancement for Council for Relationships. Johnson holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Drexel University. As a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals since 2012, she serves on their board of directors as vice president of education and professional development. Johnson has been a featured speaker for the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations, NTEN, AFP GPC, and AFP Brandywine, and is a Generocity columnist

Generocity: Generocity’s ADVANCE focuses on “advancing” both your mission and your career. What are the benefits of hearing from other organizations in the Philadelphia social impact sector? How have professional development experiences helped you deliver on funding goals for your organization?

Johnson: Part of the reason I love Generocity so much is getting to see what other organizations are up to in the social impact sector in our community. Working at a nonprofit often feels like you’re pushing a rock up a hill all by yourself; it’s hard to see the impact of your day-to-day work, and the demand for services seems never ending. You don’t always remember to take a step back and see the impact your org has on the community, or to pay attention to the advances that others are making. I personally get so much from seeing what others are up to — what’s working, what’s not, what’s new, it all helps to inform my own growth and my strategy for fundraising for my organization.

Generocity: 2020’s economic turmoil has significantly impacted, largely in a negative way, the livelihood of our socially-driven organizations. Has your organization found any creative ways to preserve budget, raise donations, or acquire new funding? We understand this is a sensitive topic; please do not feel obligated to answer.

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Johnson: The best advice I’ve seen is that you should not stop asking. Don’t make decisions for your supporters. Continue to present them with information about what you do and the impact of your services, and continue to provide avenues to give. They will give if they can, and if they can’t they’ll appreciate that they’re not treated differently now that they’re unable to give. It should not be a transactional relationship; your supporters are there because they care about your mission, and that doesn’t go away when their financial circumstances change. All we can do is keep on keeping on and looking for ways to keep our supporters informed so that they will continue to think of us for funding opportunities as they arise.

Generocity: Did you attend ADVANCE 2019? If so, what was your biggest takeaway? What did you learn that you have since implemented in your own organization, and what were the results? If not, how can ADVANCE 2020 help your organization solve one of its current dilemmas?

Johnson: My biggest takeaway from last year’s conference was that the world would look like a very different place if women like Markita Morris-Louis and Tiffany Tavarez were in charge. I’ve heard them speak before, and since, and never fail to walk away energized by their insights. I end up ruminating on what they’ve said long after hearing them speak, and it always challenges the way I see the world and the way nonprofits are helping, and hurting, those we’re here to serve. Looking forward to more thought provoking sessions in 2020!

 Generocity: In July, Generocity launched TRACE (Toward Response and Community Equity), a year-long initiative tracking Philadelphia’s response to a pandemic, an economic crisis, and systemic racism. In the midst of COVID-19, how has your organization adapted to meet the changing needs of your stakeholders? What do you hope to learn at ADVANCE that will help you better serve our community?

Johnson: Providing direct services are not easy during a stay at home order. We have shifted quite a lot in the last seven months in order to ensure the health and safety of our participants and our staff, and it seems we’ll continue to have to be light on our feet for the foreseeable future. We’re always interested to hear how others are adapting and what we could adopt to better serve our participants and staff alike.

Generocity: Our nation is currently grappling with the many ways systemic racism infiltrates our society: it affects our policing system, our education system, housing, health care, and more. Through your work, how do you advocate for racial equity? How can ADVANCE help you create a more diverse, inclusive, equitable organization?

Johnson: We provide housing for those who have experienced chronic homelessness. Nationwide, Black people make up 13% of the population but 40% of those experiencing homelessness. Similarly, Black Philadelphians make up 44% of the population but 79% of those served in housing crisis and assistance programs. Homelessness also disproportionately affects other people of color as well as other marginalized populations like the LGBTQ and disability communities.

As an agency, we don’t only advocate on behalf of those we serve; we support our participants in learning to advocate for themselves. Their lived experience provides them with the most insight into where the system is broken and how it can be more inclusive and equitable, and we work to give them a platform and elevate their voices to advocate for the systemic change they want to see.

 Generocity: During these physically isolating times, innovative technology has become increasingly important. How has your organization used technology to solve the unique challenges posed by COVID-19? What has helped you, your team members, and your stakeholders stay connected?

Johnson: We, along with many, many other people, signed up for Zoom accounts right away to help our staff to continue to communicate face-to-face. It’s been a great way to feel connected by seeing each other’s faces despite not being in the same room together, though staring at a screen all day has its challenges. Switching it up by using break out rooms, scheduling in breaks to longer meetings, and adding relief items to agendas like ice breakers or activities has helped us to stay connected with stakeholders without the monotony of listening for extended periods of time. We’ve also begun to use slide decks for meetings that typically wouldn’t use them, so that we have more visuals to support the discussion topics.


Johnson is the third profile in our Forward Focus series, a series of stories highlighting the experiences and work of nonprofit leaders in Philadelphia. The goal of the series is two-fold: 1) to provide insight on shared challenges in the social impact sector and 2) to help nonprofit professionals get the most of Generocity’s virtual ADVANCE conference on Nov. 12.

Learn more about ADVANCE and register for the free conference today. Subscribe to Generocity’s email list to stay updated on Philadelphia’s social impact sector.

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