Kelly Sweeney McShane, president and CEO for Community of Hope

Joanne S. Lawton

By Joseph Coombs  –  Contributing Writer

Sep 27, 2017, 16:46pm Updated Sep 28, 2017, 10:23am

She did not realize it at the time, but Kelly Sweeney McShane’s two-year stint in the U.S. Peace Corps primed her for the turnaround she engineered at D.C.’s Community of Hope.

“I was in a tiny village in Sierra Leone. There was no running water or electricity,” said McShane, Community of Hope’s president. “I worked with farmers’ groups on agriculture, and it was a powerful experience. I learned how to help people individually, and at the same time, how to create system change to solve issues surrounding poverty.”

Community of Hope was “struggling” when McShane arrived in 2001, she said. There were no formal systems for budgets, job descriptions or strategic plans for the provider of health care and shelter services for low-income families in the District. She began with a budget of $1.5 million and 39 employees. Today, she has a staff of 207 with a $19 million budget, and the organization is thriving.

“When I started, my thought was I would come in and clean it up or close it down,” McShane said. “Part of the reason I got my MBA was, you can’t achieve your mission if you can’t manage the money and the people. In the first couple of years, we tackled all aspects of the operations.”

The organization has benefited not only from McShane’s business acumen but from good timing, as well. The Affordable Care Act provided funds to expand Community of Hope’s health centers, and the District government has focused heavily on family homelessness in recent years, she said.

One program that McShane is particularly proud of is a homelessness prevention effort. Families who are on the cusp of losing their homes can receive a variety of services to address the problem before it occurs. Of the 500 families served by the program in 2016, 90 percent avoided entering a shelter as a result.

“These parents are just trying to help their children have a better life,” she said.

What’s your biggest current challenge at work? Tackling the shortage of affordable housing for low-income families and the huge disparities in income and health outcomes in the District. I am passionate about creating a more equitable city for all who live here.

Tell me about the people you serve at Community of Hope: Our focus is residents of D.C., particularly families with children involved, who are either low-income or homeless. They’ve been hit by hardships, violence, poverty, health issues and so many things. On the housing side, a significant proportion of people we serve are African-American, and on the health care side, it’s African-Americans and a good number of refugees. I’d say 10 percent are Spanish-speaking, and we have many from Ethiopia, as well.

What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you? I make really good chocolate chip cookies.

What’s an obstacle you faced early in your career and how did you overcome it? At 25 years old, I became executive director of a very small D.C. nonprofit [Hannah House, a 24-hour recovery shelter for women]. I learned a lot, but it was really challenging to get to scale. I went back to school to get my MBA and build my skills.

How has the organization changed over the years? We have grown to have a big impact in the areas of family homelessness and health care, with about 200 staff. But I still do orientation and try to regularly eat lunch in the staff lounge.

Which female icon in your field have you looked to for inspiration? My inspiration comes from the resilience of the women I’ve met who have overcome homelessness and huge challenges in order to ensure their children’s success. I am also inspired by the commitment of my fellow nonprofit leaders and co-workers, many of whom are women who juggle demanding jobs and families.