Civic Champs CEO interviews the Executive Director of the Education Partnership, Josh Whiteside. The Education Partnership is Pittsburgh based nonprofit that strives to bring basic school supplies and education tools to underserved schools and communities.

Geng and Josh Whiteside discuss the complex nature of addressing education inequity, the importance of volunteer accountability, and how The Education Partnership has pivoted to meet the shifting needs of students and educators throughout the pandemic.

This interview is the third episode of The Future of Good, a series that explores the intersection of social impact, technology, and entrepreneurship.

Key Takeaways from this interview:

  • On Volunteer Management Strategy: Building volunteer accountability is probably the best thing you can do as a nonprofit leader. And it's about repeat volunteerism. It's about communication with your volunteers. It's about making sure that they understand the impact of your work. It's just about concrete scheduling and making sure that reminders go out at the right time.
  • On how volunteerism as an umbrella approach to life: And there's a lot of really good people who believe in volunteerism, not only for the giving back aspect of it. And, you know, there's certainly those civic minded folks, but people who believe in volunteerism as a way of living their life and socializing and being reminded of all the good stuff that's out there.
  • On the future of Education Inequality: You know if that problem is going to be fixed, it's probably going to have to come from the lens of policy and it's gonna come from across the board. [But] I know that it takes years or decades, or, you know, maybe it's a forever ending uphill battle for this type of policy work to get done. From Josh's viewpoint we still live in a society have has devalued the profession of educator over the past even as short as the past 10 years, so supporting the work of teachers is absolutely critical for organization.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Geng: Josh, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to us today. We're excited to discuss your role providing stepping stones for equity in Pittsburgh. How are you today?

Josh Whiteside: Geng- first of all, thanks for having me. I'm excited. I love talking about this stuff, so I really do appreciate the opportunity to be with you and I'm doing well, thanks for asking. How are you?

Geng: I am doing pretty well, better now that you're here. In 2013, you made a transition from being a district sales coordinator at Aflac, to a role as a development director at Beverly's Birthdays, which by the way, has an amazing origin story and an awesome mission of providing birthday cheer for children experiencing homelessness and families in need. Tell us a little bit about what facilitated that switch from working in PR and sales to social impact and the nonprofit space.

Josh Whiteside: Yeah, that's an, that's an interesting story. So in 2013, that's not where the story begins, but that is where I left my career in insurance and became a full-time employee of the nonprofit sector. Beverly's Birthday’s first full-time employee. But the story actually started back in February of 2012, which is when we started Beverly's Birthdays.

We started the organization on a small grant that we won, to provide birthday parties, birthday presents, birthday cheer for children experiencing homelessness and it took about a year and a half for it to get to the point where we said hey we need to hire somebody. It's really grown beyond what we had thought it was going to.

And I ended up being that person. And I think the reason behind that is multifaceted. I would start by saying timing is everything right? Sure at the time  I was leaving the insurance field anyway, and I had just accepted a new role in the financial planning firm in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, which would have removed me not only from having the freedom of being in Pittsburgh, doing insurance, but it would have removed me from being in Pittsburgh, physically to be at birthday parties every night.

So not only were we losing me as a board member, but also this key volunteer role. And at the same time we were trying to hire our first Executive Director. It turns out we couldn't afford anybody. Um, so that feels like we're little, you know, pulling all the data we can.

We're looking at the bank account, saying this isn't gonna work out. I looked at my co-director at the time and co-director for what would be the next eight years. And I said, how about this? I will tell the financial planning firm thanks, but no, thanks.

And as long as my residual income from insurance, plus whatever stipend Beverly's birthdays can pay me equals my rent. You know, at the time I was 25 years old, there's always, that equals my rent. What have we got to lose? Let's give it shot. So that transition in October of 2013 was a bit of a leap of faith.

But up until that point, I was a board member for the first 18 months, but really didn't know. The ins and outs of nonprofit governance, nonprofit fundraising, for that matter, it turns out insurance consulting and fundraising are very, very similar. So most of my knowledge gain was basically on nonprofit infrastructure. Not so much on fundraising. No, I did take quite a, quite a bit of courses in that field. But that was my jump career-wise from the for-profit side to the non-profit side, it started as a passion project that grew, grew wildly.

Geng: Serendipity.

Josh Whiteside: If you will, right. That's a much better word.  serendipity.

Geng: At Civic Champs we think a lot about business and entrepreneurship concepts and how they can be re-imagined and applied within the non-profit space. It sounds like you did actually a lot of that. Diving in more specifically, what lessons or strategies did you take from your experience in sales or insurance and apply it into your first nonprofit role?

Josh Whiteside: Well, like I mentioned, you know, insurance and fundraising, very similar games. It’s a numbers game as far as I'm concerned. And that's the way that I approached it from the insurance world.

So I was able to take with me from my insurance expertise, basically just the knowledge of how to go out and market yourself, market, a nonprofit organization. And then ask. You know, that, that's what it's all about the ask,  for supporting your costs. And rather than selling a life insurance policy or health insurance, I was selling the idea of helping a child in a family in need. That fundraising piece wasn't nearly as difficult because of the similarity to insurance.


Geng: Great. That makes total sense. And I love the fact that you started off as a volunteer, right? Obviously volunteerism is, is near and dear to our hearts. At both Beverly's Birthdays, but also now where you're at with the Education Partnership, volunteers are sort of a critical component of these organizations.

In the years since you've been running these programs are there key lessons on best practices for managing and inspiring these volunteers? Or any special stories that you've seen?

Josh Whiteside: Yeah. So let's see, there's a lot of facets to dig into there.

Across the board volunteerism plays a vital role in the non-profit sector, right or wrong. Maybe that's a discussion for another day as well, but volunteerism plays a critical role. And certainly at Beverly's birthdays, when we were a volunteer run organization, any entirely unstaffed volunteer run organization, clearly those people play a critical role. A Beverly's Birthdays that was both in the capacity as a board member, but then also we were this service-based organization providing birthday parties, providing birthday presents, providing experiences for kids around the city. So on top of the governance and leadership aspect, volunteerism at Beverly's Birthdays was very much a so every night of the week, we were at a different emergency shelter, transitional shelter, parklet, you know, you name it anywhere.

There were kids and families experiencing homelessness. That's where we were every night of the week. So volunteerism, you know was everything for Beverly's birthdays in those first 18 months. Once we got paid staff that changed a little bit, because you could have program managers to be at parties.

But we quickly outgrew the ability for staff to do everything. Volunteers play a key role in that. One thing that you mentioned in the question was anything I’ve learned. I don't know what it was you said, but the word that popped into my head was accountability. Building volunteer accountability is probably the biggest the best thing you can do as a nonprofit leader. To make sure that your volunteer task force is available for you, the best ability is availability. Well, if your volunteers ended up canceling the day before on a consistent basis, that that can really be crippling in Beverly's birthdays.

That hit us a couple of times, more than a couple of times. If you only have two people registered to throw a birthday party and one of them cancels, that’s crippling. So I think building accountability with your volunteers and doing it in a way that makes them feel that they're part of the organization is really the key.

And it's about repeat volunteerism. It's about communication with your volunteers. It's about making sure that they understand the impact of your work. It's just about concrete scheduling and making sure that reminders go out at the right time.

But having that volunteer you can count on is worth 10 of the volunteers who may or may not show up because all it takes is that one no-show and you can really be stuck in a hard place. But I think what I've learned most of all is that there's a lot of really good people in this community.

And there's a lot of really good people who believe in volunteerism, not only for the giving back aspect of it. And, you know, there's certainly those civic minded folks, but people who believe in volunteerism as a way of living their life and socializing and being reminded of all the good stuff that's out there.

So you really get to meet some, some awesome people in the world of volunteerism.

Geng: I've always thought of volunteerism as acts of kindness. And people that choose to provide acts of kindness are generally pretty pleasant to be around.

Josh Whiteside: Exactly. Exactly. I was with them all weekend and, you know, You ended up working all weekend, but it doesn't feel like work.You know, you're hanging out with these people who were giving their time and that's it, that’s contagious. So, you know, you're right. You hit the nail on the head and you end up with the people you want to work with.

Geng: absolutely. And speaking of people, you actually transitioned to the education partnership and that's presumably the weekend of volunteering that you did this weekend withTEP, so another great organization that provides school supplies to lots and lots of kids and parents in need. How did you think about that transition? And if you want to provide just a little bit of a background for our listeners on the impact that TEP has.

Josh Whiteside: Yeah. So just to ground set for anyone listening- The Education Partnership now, We're about a seven to eight million dollar receivable organization. We're local to Southwestern PA. So we started the eight county region and we provide school supplies to as many under-resourced low-income schools throughout the region that we can. Everything from basics, pencils, pens, and crayons, all the way up to the things that it takes to actually run a school facility like air conditioners, furniture, technology, and hygiene items.

So that's what I do now, that education support role throughout Southwestern, PA. The transition from Beverly's Birthdays to the Education Partnership that took place? Well, it took about nine months. It started in July of 2017 with a phone call, and then it ended in may of 2018.

And from my perspective, if it just came down to, am I going to stay with the organization I started or helped start, or am I going to go with the new organization?

It actually became some larger than that. And it was about what do I really want to accomplish here, here in Pittsburgh? And why did I come to the nonprofit sector? And I think it might've started with, Hey, here's an opportunity to do something really fun and really good, you know, in the form of birthday parties. And it became “how can I move the needle in this city that I grew up in?” And if you're going to move the needle in any way, when it comes to, regional economic success, if you're going to move the needle in terms of generational poverty for individual families, for individual students, it has to be done in the classroom.

And here, here was an opportunity to have a really concrete, direct impact. On tens of thousands of people locally a year. And I said, that's worth exploring. So after how many months of back and forth with TEP we landed on a decision and we started in May of 2018.

Geng: Awesome. And I know that given your development background now, everyone always talks about going back to the mission of your company and that's what sells and is compelling. In this case, it sounds like you came back to steer your personal mission and sort of found your way which is awesome to see. That sort of being a guiding light.

Now, obviously there is a lot of change in the last year in the classroom with COVID-19.  I'm sure that impacted what you did with your mission, talk to us a little bit about that.

And do you see that continuing this year or are things sort of back to normal in your world?

Josh Whiteside: Well, I don't know if we want to go back to normal. I don't think normal was great for a lot of people. But we did find solutions to navigate, uncertain waters in terms of being a resource distributor.

So, there was some of the basic things like, okay, we had to close our shopping center and we had to create some form of online ordering curbside pickup, we were able to accomplish that.

Actually before that it was about addressing the larger community. You know, there was this larger medical need; lives were on the line and it was PPE, things that weren't ever school supplies before, but clearly we had this capacity and this ability to distribute the necessary items. We were deploying health items and it's not that dissimilar from what we always deploy, but we know if a student isn't healthy, if they can't be in the classroom, if they can't be present and attentive for their learning, they're not going to be a successful student.

What we've always done is we try and maintain a pulse of what the schools need and our job is to meet whatever that pulse is telling us. So if it's PPE, that's where we went out to try and find if it was laptops that's what we went out to try and find by the end of the school year, it had bounced back.

We figured out PPE. Now I'm knocking on wood. We figured out laptops. And we had figured out how to deal with, with hybrid and remote learning. And then it came full circle. And by the end of the year, teachers were saying, no, our students need pencils and pens and markers, those manipulatives that, you know, those tangible things that you can't quite learn on a computer.

So we just made sure that we were saying in contact with schools too, to know that we were serving them in the right way. What we learned is that we're capable of quite a bit as a small organization whose volunteer pipeline was essentially cut off with COVID. Hmm. We learned that we can be very efficient just within the ecosystem of our 12 bodies that was TEP over COVID and we did so, to great results.

Geng: Got it. It sounds like volunteers were a big part of TEP that sort of stopped and you're now sort of looking to re-engage them again, in sort of a quote-unquote normal world, what is the role that volunteers play at TEP?

Josh Whiteside: Yeah. So, like I just mentioned, we have a staff of 12, but on any other given day, should you visit The Education Partnership in the West End of Pittsburgh, you're likely to find 10 to 15 other volunteers and volunteers play a lot of roles. It can be anything from running our shopping center to cycle counting product, so that come audit we're prepared, to packing up school supplies in the inventory and staging area to make sure that when teachers come by, everything is packed neatly and in the quick grab and go kits.

Volunteers. Can just do heart filling tasks in the form of grading, [and writing] encouraging notes for students. Every school supply kit that goes out has a note in it from a volunteer or a sponsor donor. So there's anything from manual labor to customer service to creative art. And without those volunteers, we just really had to figure out, okay, If we don't have to run the shopping center, how do we pivot those resources, to an online order fulfillment type of organization.

If we can't do group volunteers, how can we re-space our facility so that we can have individual volunteers in a safe way? Being a physical organization, dealing with inventory and product and deploying we knew if we were going to be effective, the building had to be open to do our work.

We have to be physically there. Our building closed for maybe a week when COVID first started, but by the time we had figured out, you know, distancing works these thing called masks might be effective. We were able to open the building in a safe way so that essential staff could get in.  

Geng: Sure. You talked a little bit about equity within the education space. It’s something I can sense you're really genuinely excited about, you know, if you were to think about the vision of the future, if we were to get to a more equitable educational system….What does that look like? What things need to happen? Maybe it's on the policy side, certainly there's things that you and other nonprofits can do. What else needs to be done in your mind?


Josh Whiteside: Well, this'll be a very region, state to state, county, to county type of problem. You know, I could speak a little bit towards the issues here in Pennsylvania, in our inequity.

I think Pennsylvania is very local property tax base tied. I want to say 50-55% of Pennsylvania school budgets come from local property taxes. And if you are in a zip code has a lower average property value and lower property taxes, it ends up hurting your students.

Now the funding formula is supposed to be built so lower-income students get a higher percentage of state and federal funding right. In practice. It doesn't work out that great. So there's this great initiative between schools because of your zip code, because of the locality of it. You know if that problem is going to be fixed, it's probably going to have to come from the lens of policy and it's gonna come from across the board. As any non-profit leader would say okay what I'm trying to do is put myself out of business, you know, wouldn't it be great if my problem didn't exist. I think with education, yes, that would be great. [But] I know that it takes years or decades, or, you know, maybe it's a forever ending uphill battle for this type of policy work to get done.

Otherwise there would be states in our, in our United States of America that have figured this out, but we're one of 43 organizations across the country, all doing the same thing. Resource redistribution back into low income classrooms because there's inequity everywhere. Right. Even if we did figure it out, I think what we've learned is there's still a role for the education partnership to play in supporting the teaching profession.

You know, there's another problem going on here. And it's why a lot of the work at the education partnership is so hyper centric to supporting teachers. And their role is that even if we fix the funding formula and students had all the resources that they needed, we still have a society have devalued the profession of educator over the past even as short as the past 10 years. Pennsylvania has seen a decrease of 62% of people enrolling in as education majors in college or in teaching certificate programs. So, you know, we also need to, as society, we focus our lens on the importance of educators, because if we run out of them, the complaint can't be class sizes are too large.

So if the funding formula would get fixed, we would still find a way to support teachers and make sure that they're not spending money out of their pocket. So I'm learning, that's impossible. You can give teachers everything in the world. They're going to love their students.

And if they see a cool game that they think is going to add a benefit to their students, they'll buy it. What I'm trying to do is make sure they don't have to buy the essentials that should be provided for basic learning.

Geng: That's well put and certainly as my family are mostly academics, I'm sure they would appreciate your viewpoint. Final questions to wrap up for today. What's next for you and the education partnership?

Josh Whiteside: Well, we just had a meeting the other day, we’re going to have some expansion on the horizon. So currently the education partnership is serving 157 schools in Southwestern, Pennsylvania. There's about a hundred more that fit our prerequisite for service, which is that at least 70% of the students are enrolled in the national school lunch program. You know, those are our schools of most need. Currently we're serving 157. The average enrollment in that program of those schools is 96%.

There's still a hundred more that fit that baseline criteria. We got to get to them before we can expand any further to do the most good with what's available. So what's next is probably a new warehouse and cultivating some space, in the area behind us. But then, you know, also there's more than just, the breadth growth of the organization.

So we want to serve more, but there's also the depth component. We just finished a strategic plan and we know we could do a better job. Providing more specific materials to teachers, more, more materials in general to teachers with larger classes. So we're also trying to better hear the voice of the people that we're serving.

Geng: That's awesome. And, yeah, that leads to my last question, which is, you know, how can I list, how can our listeners support your work and you know, how can they be involved with TEP?

Josh Whiteside: Yeah, that volunteerism let's go back to the volunteer piece. You know you can sign up right through our website or you can email us, but we're open six days a week, Monday through Saturday, and we always welcome helpers. Whether you have the pencil counter in the back or you're the front facing teacher greeter, you know, we’ve got a spot for everyone, so I would encourage volunteerism.

But then of course, you know, part of the compelling,  ROI of the education partnership is we can take a dollar and I'll turn it into $8 worth of school supplies. Our team is just really effective at procuring, inventorying and then redeploying. If someone would feel compelled to make a donation to the organization, you can do so very easily through the website, the education partnership.org, that's the education, partnership.org, or very simply, text the word pencil to four, one, four, four, four on your phone.

And it'll take you immediately to the donation page of our website. Um, so yeah, I would encourage other volunteerism or anything you can contribute really goes a long, long way.

Our data would say it takes us $25 to support one student for a full school year. So if you want to feel like you're making a splash, 25 bucks really gets a kid from point A to point B.

Geng: That's awesome. Well, thank you so much, Josh again, for all your insights on education, especially here in Pittsburgh, volunteerism and nonprofits.I know I speak for everyone here at Civic Champs. When I say that,  we're eager to keep following everything that you do and, truly best of luck with it.

Josh Whiteside: Thank you so much. I appreciate the kind words, the encouragement, and of course this opportunity for awareness we know in Pittsburgh, if you talk to a few people, pretty soon everyone knows. I really appreciate the opportunity to be on here with you.