UnidosNow Shows the Community What Is Possible: An Interview With Debra Jacobs, CEO and President of The Patterson Foundation

by Sandy Chase

Since its inception, only 10 years ago, UnidosNow has proved itself as a role model for other community nonprofits.

During a recent interview, CEO and President Debra Jacobs of The Patterson Foundation (TPF) attributed this Latino organization’s success to its “magic sauce,” consisting of leadership, willingness, readiness, capacity, and culture—“spiced” by its passion to ensure that Latinos achieve their potential.  

An inexperienced organization, UnidosNow had to establish itself by building its reputation—one program at a time—especially focusing on improving opportunities for college-bound teens, which has come to be known as the Future Leaders Academy, the model for other showcase programs.

As it evolved, UnidosNow defined its mission of elevating the quality of life of the growing Hispanic/Latino community through education, integration, and civic engagement.  Debra points out that during her tenure as president at the William G. and Marie Selby Foundation, she was fortunate to be a sounding board for Kelly Kirschner, an UnidosNow co-founder and current chair.

Collaborating with TPF, most notably by having been chosen as one of five nonprofits to benefit from Margin & Mission Ignition 2018 (MMI), UnidosNow continues to learn how to develop and implement revenue-generating ventures.  

TPF also supports UnidosNow through the Giving Challenge and by posting Executive Director Luz Corcuera’s recent blogs on TPF’s website:  one about the recent census; the other, MMI.

(See here)

Luz says, “The leadership and support that The Patterson Foundation provides in our region is exceptional.  Behind many successful, important initiatives is Debra Jacobs, encouraging us to collaborate and look at best practices.  A role model and mentor, Debra is an amazing leader.”

The following interview with Debra also shines a light on TPF, as it, too, celebrates its 10th anniversary—proving that “the world moves at the speed of change, and change happens at the speed of trust.” 

As is evident by Debra’s examples, TPF helps individuals, organizations, and communities thrive because of five C’s:  Caring, Connecting, Collaborating, Contributing, and Creating—not unlike what UnidosNow continues to foster. 

Describe TPF’s relationship with UnidosNow.  

First, let me provide some context about The Patterson Foundation.  Rather than traditional grant making, we don’t fund organizations; instead we invite them, and they choose to work with us.  In that way, we foster wide participation—believing that individuals, organizations, and communities are the best architects for their own future. 

Through our collaboration—whether with Margin & Mission Ignition initiative or The Giving Challenge—UnidosNow personifies its mission.  

Let me give you a few examples, starting with MMI.  We may start with 100 organizations participating in learning labs.  With each lab, the number of participants dwindles—indicating which organizations can develop a plan to do earned income. 

Five characteristics for developing this plan are critical to igniting thrivability:  leadership, willingness, readiness, capacity, and culture.

I’ve now described UnidosNow:

  1. An incredible, “award-winning” staff and board leadership team—wanting to strengthen the organization and lift the potential of others.
  1. Willingness to look at new ideas—passionate about exploring ways to improve the lives of those they serve—providing avenues for individuals to reach their potential.  
  1. Ready, even though they might face challenges, such as COVID-19.    
  1. Capacity to achieve their mission. 
  1. Culture to grow and change

Always looking to work with others, Unidos Now shows up “to be in the conversation.”  It’s evident when we do a “pop-up” neighborhood event—a surprise visit to a laundromat where TPF  pays for laundry services that day—UnidosNow comes with a joyful heart, which I believe comes from the leadership setting the tone that they care and want to create new futures. 

Debra Jacobs, President and CEO of The Patterson Foundation.

What has impressed you most about UnidosNow?

What has impressed me most is that over the years UnidosNow has focused on what can they do with excellence—bumped up when Luz came on board.  I applaud her style and integrity.  Her honesty is a magnet for volunteer leadership.  

Achievements of their college-bound teens, now shared by elementary and middle-school children—and their families—continue to improve our communities.  

Another noteworthy attribute of UnidosNow is how they realized that when the pandemic hit, they had to pause and rethink their MMI solid business plan based on marketing to raising money for Beyond College Now (BCN).    

Originally, their program was intended to help all Sarasota-Manatee students gain admission to “best-value” colleges.  By offering college-advising services for a fee, the nonprofit had planned to share their college-preparation expertise—reinvesting the proceeds in their core mission:  to empower Latino students to succeed through higher education. 

Rather than plowing ahead, they’ve learned to adjust their focus because not everything works the way you envision.  And as we speak, UnidosNow is demonstrating their innovative skills—not stymied by an obstacle—demonstrating forward thinking. 

What have been some challenges UnidosNow has had to face?  

As with any startup, financial stability is key.  Ideas are no good without money.  In the beginning, UnidosNow sought supporters and grants.  But it was a struggle until Luz came on board, leading the nonprofit toward incremental successes, credibility, and visibility in the community.  

UnidosNow has proved itself repeatedly that it exemplifies a strong organization.  We believe that their collaboration through the Margin & Mission Ignition initiative has also boosted their status, even during COVID – 19.

Besides Margin & Mission Ignition, what are other examples of TPF collaboration?

We’re also proud that we have matched donations given to UnidosNow during every Giving Challenge, sponsored by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County—proving the nonprofit’s determination to raise money to better the lives of individuals and strengthen the community.  

Another recent endeavor was during one of the many Seasons of Sharing:  support organizations participating in a joint philanthropic partnership between the Herald Tribune Media Group and Community Foundation of Sarasota County.  TPF catalyzes funding from donors to help support the most vulnerable.  Money is then distributed through organizations that are part of the network, UnidosNow being one.

To celebrate this latest Season, we invited those organizations to a Zoom get together, awarding one-time honorariums to all participants, showing our appreciation.         

How does UnidosNow encourage learning and sharing and help fortify this community?

During our knowledge-sharing workshops with other nonprofits, such as TPF’s Thrive and Dine, UnidosNow inevitably is asked to be a presenter for a particular theme.  Always knocking it out of the park, they create a beehive of people who go over to speak with their representatives.  

UnidosNow is committed to learning.  Luz and her team are always about what is the “best way we can do this?”  In return, UnidosNow is becoming the go-to place for other organizations who want to know what they should do.  

Because of their expertise, UnidosNow has become the “oracle” where others seek answers.  A case in point is the recent census, where other communities “borrowed” UnidosNow best practices.  TPF worked with the Herald-Tribune to create a Spanish primer and coloring book related to the census, which UnidosNow shared, helping Latin communities in four counties:  Sarasota, Manatee, DeSoto, and Charlotte.

Helping people understand, Luz and her team build relationships—contributing to a stronger community—affirming that everyone has potential.  In return, UnidosNow has earned the respect of the region.

How can UnidosNow continue to contribute to community?

As they mature, UnidosNow must invest in themselves. There must be continuous improvement, never losing sight of their mission—being an exemplar—all for the purpose of improving community.  
The next 10 years will provide that opportunity for UnidosNow, an organization that represents what is possible.