Kela Jones has carved out a niche building the fundraising arms of Memphis-based nonprofit organizations.
“I like to go places you can start with a clean slate,” said Jones, who was recently hired as director of development at Memphis-based Peer Power.
The nonprofit organization recruits high-performing high school and college students to tutor younger public school students who need extra academic help. Tutors receive a competitive salary for their role.
Founded in 2005 at East High School, the program is now available at Manassas High School, Westwood High School, Whitehaven High School, W H Brewster Elementary School and Northside High School.
Most recently, Jones was development manager for the Memphis Urban League, where she was responsible for planning special events and recruiting annual sponsors. She also has served as the community relations manager for the Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida and worked in a variety of development roles for the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.
A Memphis native, Jones likens fundraising to selling a product that has intangible benefits for donors – which requires persistence and a mindset that isn’t easily daunted by challenges.
“A lot of organizations don’t have the financial support to go and do what they would like to do,” she said. “But I find the outcomes really rewarding. I am not the wealthiest person, so I can’t write a check and give back in that manner, but I can have a career that allows me to give back in terms of my time and volunteering.”
“When you can let a donor know that 90 to 100 percent of the dollars they give are being spent on the program – they are much more apt to give.”
At Peer Power, Jones is in charge of building the organization’s annual operating fund as part of a larger strategic plan to expand its reach throughout the Mid-South and the rest of the nation. Jones also will oversee all development activities, including foundation giving, special events and corporate partnerships.
Jones says half of the fundraising battle is selling a program with a strong financial foundation.
“At Peer Power, every dollar goes back into the program,” Jones said. “When you can let a donor know that 90 to 100 percent of the dollars they give are being spent on the program – they are much more apt to give.”
In 2012, The U.S. Department of Education named Peer Power the division winner for out-of-school programs in its National Education Startup Challenge. Since 2006, all of Peer Power’s tutors have graduated from high school and enrolled in college. Students enrolled in Peer Power also have seen their ACT composite scores climb by an average of 3.27 points.
Memphis ranks No. 48 out of the 51 largest cities in the U.S. in terms of the percentage of the city’s residents who are college graduates. About one-fourth of Memphis’ adults have graduated college with a four-year degree, compared with the national average of 32 percent.
“Peer Power works because it combines the best parts of the American free enterprise system with the tight-knit, peer-to-peer working relationships of a traditional one-room schoolhouse,” said Peer Power board chair Katherine Kaelin. “Our greatest strategic priority in the year ahead is to serve more students at more schools.”
When Jones isn’t fundraising or volunteering, she is likely watching her 9-year-old son playing baseball. A 2007 University of Memphis graduate with a degree in sports and leisure studies, Jones also loves all things related to sports and reading.
“What’s been the most exciting thing for me has been watching these students light up at the things they can do and seeing their creativity,” Jones said. “That gives me a story to tell and something to sell.”