At MMI, we are fortunate to partner with local arts organizations who are committed to supporting and serving Memphis’ young creatives. One such organization is Perfecting Gifts, Inc. (PGI), who we welcomed into our Institute for Nonprofit Excellence (INE) this year. Click here to read the first post in our series, Capacity Building 3.0: Introducing MMI’s 2022 INE Partners.
PGI was founded in 2017 by Sharonda Kay Mitchell, who serves as the organization’s Executive Director. PGI is a creative and performing arts organization that utilizes a unique approach to developing young peoples’ talents and unlocking their potential. The organization hosts a summer camp, as well as an after-school arts academy program.
Tawanna Brown, MMI’s Community Music Program Manager, says that it has been exciting to watch Mitchell and her team grow PGI and its work. MMI, she says, has been “a funder, friend, and fan from the beginning.”
Over the years, MMI has worked closely with PGI—and all of our grantee partners—to find ways to apply grantmaking and capacity building creatively based on the gaps and goals identified by each organization. “What's most memorable,” Brown explains, “are the fruits of these resources coupled with the responsive vision of these leaders and the resilient work of the organizations and their teams.”
Brown recalls a time when PGI youth were shooting a video for their original song, "We Are One" during the #MarchForOurLives gathering that met in Clayborn Temple's courtyard. “Upon hearing the voices of the young people,” she says, “the marchers began filling the temple, which allowed PGI to have a captivated audience and the event participants to be inspired by the soul-lifting work of PGI."
We recently spoke with PGI’s Mitchell about how the organization has changed from its early days, and what she has planned for PGI’s future. Read on to learn more!
MMI: What has PGI’s journey been like since you founded the organization in 2017?
Sharonda Mitchell: When I founded PGI, I felt like a young girl with a musical passion on a mission to rescue every young performer from day-to-day activities that did not include the arts. Now, I feel more like a woman needing to catch up on paperwork so that the organization will remain in compliance. I’m being comical here, but the truth is that I have learned a lot along the way. I am not just a singer—I am a singer who is also developing as an entrepreneur. There’s a constant struggle for power between my creativity and my business practices. You read about how it works, but the organization’s more realistic trajectory is only discovered in doing the work and being present in the process. Like most organizations, we’ve had challenges, but those challenges never lacked hope. Money is always a factor when serving the community; however, I’ve learned that you can do a lot by leaning into resources that aren’t quantifiable. People help when they experience the work and passion behind your why. Not only do they help, but they recruit others to join the cause. That’s when the true work of our mission happens.
MMI: Can you share some of your biggest “wins" or highlights of the last year or two?
SM: PGI has won in so many ways. These wins have more to do with connection and consistency as much as they do finance. The students that we have served go on to be extremely confident, even outside of the arts. Just recently, we’ve had students who were failing in school decide to be as bold in the classroom as they were on the stage at the Halloran Theater and make major academic comebacks. We have students engaging in school activities like cheerleading after being timid for many years.
But I’m not encouraging them to tackle challenges and fears alone. My team and I practice what we push. This year, PGI has pursued many grants among several high-performing organizations, and have received more grants this year than any other. That’s a win. This summer, we served double the amount of youngsters than last summer despite our social pages being hacked during recruitment. We still managed to get the word out about camp through the voices of our parents. That’s a win. Every student attended camp at a reduced or free cost. That’s a win. We expanded our program to include three additional arts emphasis modules this summer. That’s a win. We served exceptional students of many backgrounds and learning needs. That’s a win. We also performed at the Guesthouse Theater at Graceland performing music from an era far before this generation’s time, giving students the opportunity to discover musicians who paved the way for them.
MMI: When did you start working with MMI's Grantmaking and Capacity Building team, and what has that journey been like for you?
SM: I have been working with this team since at least 2018, and this journey has been enlightening. I’ve worked closely with Tawanna [Brown] the longest. She knows me well, and she has taught me so much. She is truly an expert in her field. Tawanna doesn’t just advise you, but she steps into your world seeking to experience the mission and guide you in the right direction. Her questions are always centered around understanding what you do, and seeing things from your view first.
I look forward to working with Brianna [Harrington, MMI’s INE Program Manager], who has already shown me how the expansion of PGI’s foundation is limitless. The journey with MMI’s Grantmaking and Capacity Building team has prepared PGI for national attention. We are on the rise! The professional development and network of creative’s keep the momentum of our mission active. I feel that I’ve had more training and practical skill development than a person receiving a four-year bachelor’s degree.
MMI: What does “sustainability” mean to you in 2022?
SM: Being a sustainable nonprofit in 2022 means that you create a plan and work your plan. It means that you’re able to develop a team that knows where you want to go and is committed to help push you there. It takes communication and good goal-setting to build that sustainable infrastructure. It takes patience. As many creatives are, I’m also spontaneous by nature. I’ve never been a fan of proper planning, but nonprofit life changed that. I am the type to wake up and say, “Wow, it’s Monday, and it feels like a great day to have a concert on the lawn. Let me see if Levitt Shell is available today and maybe John Legend is free.” I have learned that planning is powerful. There is an old saying that says, “When you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” It’s not enough for me to set goals if I can’t communicate those with a committed Board of Directors. A good team and a reasonable plan will help sustain an organization, and a proactive mindset can outsmart any challenge.
MMI: What advice would you give to other nonprofit leaders?
SM: Organizations who are working towards sustainability should carry a winners mentality. Over the years, I had to learn this. A winner doesn’t give up; they strategize new ways to perform and drive results. When things get tough, winners just try a new way to tackle it. Find what works for your organization. This is not a one-size-fits-all world. What works for PGI may not work for another organization, and vice versa. I would also add that it’s important to find your creative niche and become excellent in that lane. I’d rather be great at one thing at a time than to fail trying to do everything at once. I believe that sustainability is a result of using good, healthy business practices.
MMI: What does the future of PGI look like? What are some of your goals for the organization?
SM: Our future is bright! PGI will expand to serve more than one primary community. We will increase our individual supporters base. We will increase our number of students. We will also continue seeking funds so that money will never prevent a child from participating. These are just a few of our immediate goals. Of course, there is a piece of that plan that I’ll have to wait to share! It’s in the works.
All photos from Perfecting Gifts, Inc.