Adela Smith, Vice President & Partner, relies on social work values and a keen understanding of the challenges and opportunities nonprofit leaders face when planning for their future. She develops business, fundraising, and board development strategies for Fairmount’s clients that are at once ambitious and achievable. Adela earned her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice.
FV: What does a typical day look like for you at Fairmount Ventures?
AS: One of the reasons I love my job is that there’s no such thing as a “typical day.” I go in every morning with a general sense of what my day will look like—I have meetings and calls scheduled, I have a plan to write – that kind of thing—but I seldom know the exact shape it will take. Right now, I’m part of teams working with a local university, two organizations that provide services to older adults, an historic cemetery, an immigrant legal services nonprofit and a mental health education nonprofit. Each represents a unique set of challenges, opportunities and lines of business—fundraising, business planning and strategic planning—so I’m bobbing and weaving in all directions, all day, every day. What I can count on, though, is that each day has a mix of focused thinking and writing, and engaging with my colleagues to come up with the best strategies for our clients. I cannot overstate how much I turn to my teammates daily for energy and ideas.
FV: You have an extensive background in social work—in what ways do you apply what you learned at school and in past jobs to your work at Fairmount?
AS: I love this question. Professional degrees aren’t cheap and I decided early on in the pursuit of my MSW that I wasn’t cut out for the clinical route—I spent over a year on the job market explaining what a “macro” concentration was and wondering whether this degree would serve me. Anyway, there are more ways than I can count, but there are two applications of my social work background that I’m reminded of almost daily: interpersonal dynamics and systems thinking. Don, Fairmount’s President, told me early on that the business solutions we’re known for often aren’t the hardest; it’s understanding the people involved. Social work couldn’t have prepared me better for that. Social work also taught me that nothing—an organization or department within city government, a recipient of services, you or I—exists in a vacuum. We and the organizations we serve are products of the policies and environment that shape our behavior and beliefs about what’s possible.
FV: What’s one of the most memorable projects you’ve been involved in, and why?
AS: Tough question, but I’ll go with Shared Prosperity, the City’s strategy to reduce poverty. It was the biggest, hairiest project I’d worked on at that point. We engaged hundreds of residents, nonprofit providers, City officials and philanthropies to think about how we all work together to solve a problem that, frankly, only has so much to do with us and a whole lot to do with systemic racism and marginalization of poor people. That plan really energized the social work side of me. It was also my first collective impact project before “collective impact” was a thing. I really enjoyed learning about a theory and applying it. And I’ll never forget presenting the plan to Mayor Nutter. We were in a wood-paneled board room in City Hall and he was splitting his attention between his phone, laptop and a PDA-type device, with the printed draft in front of him. I remember thinking, “there’s no way he’s hearing what I’m saying or buying what we’re selling.” But at the end, he stood up, went into the adjacent bathroom, got a paper towel and squashed a thousand-legger before he sat down and said, “I think this is right, but let’s talk a little bit more about the evaluation piece. On page 32…” That interaction floored me. He remains the single best multi-tasker I’ve ever met in my life.
FV: You earned both your undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania, and you’ve worked in Philadelphia ever since. What are some of your favorite things about the city?
AS: In May, we closed the office for a day and our entire team went on a tour of some of our favorite projects. We visited the future site of the Discovery Center, Smith Memorial Playground, the Promise Neighborhood, The Woodlands and Bartram’s Garden. That tour encompassed my favorite things about the city: special places that represent our past and possibility, and special people working hard to learn from the past so they can help shape our future. Philadelphia has a proud reputation for being negative and down on itself. In my 20 years living here, I’ve taken pride in that more times than I can count. But I’ve been thinking lately about how we reframe that narrative. I think we’re actually optimists—we believe we can change things. We’re fighters. We’re a city that won’t settle. I love that.