In City Heights, a Helping Hand for the Helping Hands - Voice of San Diego

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In City Heights, a Helping Hand for the Helping Hands

Back in 2013, Mid-City CAN — a non-profit coalition devoted to improving the City Heights neighborhood — was bursting with enthusiasm. Its board of directors was eager to make a difference, and it had an executive director whose name — Diana Ross — promised a big and bold voice.

But just like love, you can’t hurry success. As it worked to embrace the future, Mid-City CAN’s staff members and volunteer leaders needed help. They wanted the organization to become more professional and embrace best practices, but they didn’t have the necessary expertise. The board members, for example, hadn’t served on boards before and needed training. And Ross wanted to learn more about how to run a vibrant organization with a wide focus.

Mid-City CAN could have spent a chunk of its budget on consultants, leaving it with less money to spend on projects to support the community. Or the organization might have tried to just wing it, a risky strategy.

Instead, leaders embraced a much more effective approach: Collaboration. Mid-City CAN sought assistance from San Diego Social Venture Partners and landed a partnership with a former corporate executive who was looking to give back.

Diana Ross

Diana Ross, Executive Director of Mid-City CAN

A Match Made in Philanthropy Heaven

SDSVP matches budding philanthropists with local non-profits that need professional insight into issues like management, technology and best practices. In 2013, SDSVP was looking to support healthy communities, and that’s a major part of the mission of Mid-City CAN. So SDSVP entered the picture and matched the organization to local nutrition consultant named Robin Pruitt, who boasts years of experience as a general counsel, vice president and senior vice president.

Pruitt met with Ross, Mid-City CAN’s executive director, and began to facilitate connections with experts and provide helpful insight of her own. Soon, Mid-City CAN improved its practices in areas like board development, financial reporting, human resources, contract negotiations and fundraising.

Learning As a Two-Way Street

“Thanks to SDSVP, we learned about good non-profit management, about how to read financial reports and tax forms, about how to manage employees,” Ross says.

In addition, board members new to the world of non-profit management learned how to provide oversight but not micromanage. And with SDSVP’s assistance, Mid-City CAN developed a budget, a proposal-vetting process, and an employee evaluation process.

Just as importantly, SDSVP provided Mid-City CAN with a helpful dose of confidence. “They really believed in us,” Ross says.

The learning experience wasn’t a one-way street. Pruitt, who served as lead partner, learned from her close-up view of the world of philanthropy. “I knew very little about the nonprofit sector when I joined SDSVP. Through my involvement with SDSVP, I have gained an appreciation for the ways in which our society relies on nonprofits, the challenges nonprofits face and the passion and dedication that they bring to the task,” she says.

Amid Collaboration, a Big Impact

It may not be a coincidence that Mid-City CAN’s community impact has grown by leaps and bounds as it’s collaborated with SDSVP.

Earlier this year, the San Diego Unified school board applauded Mid-City CAN for its efforts to bring local and organic produce to local schools. Mid-City CAN has successfully pushed for schools to offer food that meets the various needs of students, such as those who desire halal foods.

In addition, Mid-City CAN has successfully advocated for free bus passes for students, and it’s hoping to expand the program county-wide.

As for Pruitt, the lessons she’s learned from working with the organization will guide her philanthropic and advocacy work going forward. “My experience working with Mid-City CAN has opened my eyes to the immense challenges faced by members of underserved populations and the institutional barriers that make it extremely difficult to overcome these challenges,” she says. “This has both opened my heart and changed my perspective on local government priorities.”