Sharmain Matlock-Turner knows about the value of collaboration and cooperation when it comes to bringing about change. It’s the mission of the organization she’s led so effectively for nearly 25 years, the Urban Affairs Coalition, which works with 160 nonprofit, government, and community partners to serve the Philadelphia region. And it’s been the cornerstone of her long career, which has seen her evolve from activist to government insider to respected nonprofit executive and policymaker (she was recently named deputy chair of the Philadelphia Fed).
Here, the longtime Satell Institute member talks about the deep knowledge that community-based organizations possess; the crucial role that corporations play in supporting them; and how the Satell Institute is helping to bring about deeper relationships between these two important sectors.
When I tell people about the Urban Affairs Coalition…I always go back to our founding because it’s so impactful in terms of who we are and what we do today.
The Urban Affairs Coalition, which began as the Philadelphia Urban Coalition, was started in 1968. It was after the tragic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King that government, business and community leaders came together and said, What are we going to do? We know that people are feeling a lot of pain not only about what happened, but also about the future. How do we heal? And how do we really begin to drive change? It was obvious that you needed an organization to do that. More than 50 years later, we are still here in the Philadelphia community.
Our mission is…to unite business, government, neighborhoods and individual initiatives to improve the quality of life in the region, build wealth in urban communities, and solve emerging issues. We are a home and trusted partner to 160 nonprofits and community-based initiatives that work to provide economic opportunity to low-income families, working families, and disadvantaged businesses. And we’re still working with many of our corporate partners—companies like PECO and UGI—who’ve been with us since the beginning.
I’ve always been excited about…what can happen in communities. Even as a kid I just loved to be out in the neighborhood. I grew up as part of the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement, and that was a chance for us to be really active.
I eventually got to work in government. I just kept being drawn to community organizations and how important they were to the ecosystem of change. I got an opportunity to work for Mercy Health System. I served on the boards of several nonprofits, and I said, I think I want to be in this space.
I was chosen to be the first woman to lead the Urban Affairs Coalition. When I got here we were a little bit smaller, but our commitment to empowering those in the community to drive change was definitely there. Today, we are the largest BIPOC fiscal sponsor in the country.
Building community wealth… is absolutely a top priority for us. Because we understand the importance of empowering people to lead their own lives. It’s really hard to be in charge of your life if you don’t have the basic resources you need: food, clothing and shelter, but also the opportunity for educational attainment, a chance to see the world and broaden your perspective. Building community wealth is about dollars, but it’s also about hope and opportunity.
Finances are a constant challenge for nonprofits…and when you think of minority-led organizations, our challenges are even greater because our networks aren’t as broad or as big. We recently worked with the United Way and released a report entitled “Reflecting Forward: Philadelphia-Based Black Leaders’ Recommendations for Regional Funders.” The report calls on funders to examine their grant-making practices and biases and take steps toward trust-based philanthropy by getting to know, trusting and embracing Black-led organizations.
Getting to know nonprofit leaders…is so important for funders. And ultimately listening to what nonprofit leaders say and trusting that our experiences really matter, and that we have a good understanding about what needs to change in our communities.
One silver lining from the pandemic…was that many organizations, including Satell, immediately got together to support nonprofits, which was critical. That commitment and process helped build stronger relationships between people who didn’t always see each other or connect or understand what we were working on.
Right now I’m on the leadership committee for the Saving Lives Coalition, where the corporate community, foundations and nonprofits have come together to really tackle the issue of gun violence in our city with a focus on intervention and prevention. PECO and IBC and Comcast have said yes to initial funding, and we’re going to be reaching out to the broader corporate community as well.
The murder of George Floyd in 2020…was unbelievably gut-wrenching. That graphic murder was on all of our television screens, and it was hard for people to ignore it and say, “Well, we think things are okay with the races, right?” We all want it to be, but it has to be real. It can’t be just because we want it. I think people started waking up and saying, okay, I can definitely see that we’ve got a lot more work to do. If we want to make a real difference undoing racism in America, we have to be honest about where we are starting from.
The commitment to DEI over the last several years…really helped to fuel change as well. There’s definitely a stronger commitment and a sense of—we’ve got to do something about this. We can’t ignore it and expect that it’s going to go away.
The Satell Institute…is fantastic. I remember the first time I met Regina and Ed— just the whole idea that the social impact area had this kind of leadership was amazing.
The multi-year commitment that Satell members make to nonprofits…is so, so important. A one-year commitment drives nonprofits crazy, because it means we must either plan to replace those dollars or beg funders for those dollars again next year. And a multi-year commitment also gives a company a chance to really think about how it wants to be partnered with an organization. Satell has been a big initiator of those commitments and a big promoter of those relationships. The fact that they bring people together and share experiences and research in this area is so critically important. I am a big fan.
When I was a young activist…I wanted everything to change right away. But now I also understand how important it is to change deep—not just change across. Because when you change deep, it is harder to pull up every root. There will always be some form of opposition to doing the right thing. But if the roots are really planted well, then we can handle some of the dark nights that come as we continue to get to the light.