United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey recently welcomed Jen Larkin to the role of chief development officer.
Learn a bit more about Jen and her journey to United Way:
What drew you to United Way’s mission?
I’ve always been attracted to the systems-level impact that United Way can have in our region. My background is in macro-based social work, and after completing my master’s degree, I sought a role where I could get to know the Philadelphia nonprofit ecosystem more holistically and figure out where my skills could be most useful. Over the years, I have been so inspired by what can be accomplished when individuals from multiple sectors come together around shared goals – and United Way’s unique position between the corporate, nonprofit, and public sectors provide countless opportunities for collaboration. What continues to draw me to our mission today is how grateful I am to work alongside people who are so deeply committed to improving life outcomes for our neighbors experiencing poverty.
You've been at United Way for several years. Can you talk a little about how your role has evolved?
I started my United Way career on the mission team – focusing on leadership development programming and strategic partnerships to help build and strengthen nonprofit capacity. In this role, I learned all about grant making, program development, and got to know some amazing nonprofit leaders and their work. I knew I wanted to eventually rise the ranks at a nonprofit and learned from my mentors that to achieve this goal I would need to develop my fundraising chops. To be honest, I wasn’t sure fundraising was for me – until a successful leader told me that no one goes to school for it – it’s all about developing relationships, and that was one thing I knew I was good at.
After several years working with United Way’s Tocqueville Society, leadership donors, and affinity groups, I was looking for a role where I could combine what I had learned with my passion for working with nonprofits. One thing that I was continually asked by our donors was, “How else can I be of service?” As fate would have it, our new (at the time) President and CEO, Bill Golderer, was interested in exploring the unique engaged philanthropy model of Social Venture Partners (SVP). SVP is designed to offer donors, called Partners, an opportunity to contribute their time, talent, and financial resources to strengthen nonprofits, as well as learn about the root causes of poverty and the social sector. I was tasked with leading the launch of the SVP affiliate in Philadelphia – an incredibly fulfilling role that I’ve been privileged to serve in for the past five years.
What’s something that you wish more people knew in regard to your work?
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m passionate about United Way’s mission, but not many know how deeply personal it is to me. Growing up, my parents struggled to make ends meet, and I’ve seen firsthand the devastating effects intergenerational poverty can have on a family. As the youngest of six, my father worked hard as a cross-country truck driver and my mother – who was born in a refugee camp shortly after her parents and brother narrowly escaped the Holocaust – worked low-wage administrative jobs. After putting myself through college and graduate school with the help of Pell Grants, scholarships, and loans, I arrived at United Way flat broke and deeply in debt. For years, I had multiple bartending jobs to help pay the bills, working full time at United Way and then serving drinks three or four nights a week until 2am. As luck would have it, my desk was next to the person who managed our relationship with Clarifi, an incredible nonprofit partner that offers financial counseling, education, and other services free of charge. I enrolled in their debt management program and over the next four years I clawed my way out of debt and onto a path toward financial freedom. Just last month I bought my first home – something I had never envisioned I would be able to do. Like so many in our region, I owe so much gratitude to the impact United Way has had on my life.
Do you have a favorite book or inspirational quote that resonates with you?
Too many to count! Right now, at the top of my list is Poverty By America by Matthew Desmond. I’ve never read a more accurate account of how all-consuming poverty can be for an individual, and the central theme in this book – that Americans knowingly and unknowingly keep people poor – is something that we should all feel obligated to investigate.
Do you have a hidden talent?
My bartending days taught me how to mix a great cocktail.