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Nonprofit Leadership Spotlight: Anna Verdiyan, America Needs You

By Common Impact | February 21, 2023

Common Impact is proud to highlight some of the outstanding nonprofit leaders we collaborate with and the ways they’re driving social change and equity through their organizations’ work.

Today we hear from Anna Verdiyan Chief Operating Officer at America Needs You an organization that “fights for economic mobility for ambitious, first-generation college students by providing transformative mentorship and intensive career development.” 

Learn more about ANY’s student programs and volunteer opportunities.

This is the time to reevaluate and expand philanthropic approaches to provide more strategic investments for nonprofit organizations.”

You’ve served as Chief Operating Officer at America Needs You since 2018, prior to that you served in director-level and manager roles. Tell us a little about your path to leadership and the key points in your career that shaped your leadership style.

Looking back, almost 20 years ago, after completing my second graduate degree as an international student in the United States, my first management role was to oversee a state-wide Medicaid enrollment program for a national economic intermediary. Since then, every new leadership role I have taken on has been in areas I had no previous knowledge of. By gaining new skills and deeper knowledge of the company and the industry with each new role, I also gained a broad perspective of my challenges and opportunities as a growing professional and built new competencies. 

There was not a “eureka” moment when I suddenly knew I wanted to be a COO of a national nonprofit organization one day. I did not plan a clear path toward each of my promotions throughout my career. But I intentionally looked for role models to shape my ambitions and boost my confidence. I think, from an early age, I learned to have high personal standards. I remained open to new possibilities, and wanted to take new risks. These principles have guided me through a satisfying career that has continued to keep me passionate about what I am doing, even at the most challenging times.

How is America Needs You fighting for economic mobility for ambitious, first-generation college students? What victories has your organization achieved despite these challenging times? 

The mission of America Needs You (ANY) is to fight for economic mobility for ambitious, first-generation college students – a long-term goal focused on continuous growth and opportunity throughout our students’ lives. Our work is foundational, providing students with the hands-on career development training to succeed in the workplace, paired with support and opportunities for “on-the-job” learning. We firmly believe that while talent is evenly distributed, opportunity is not. We work to build strategic partnerships that allow our students to access life-changing opportunities that will enable them to achieve economic mobility. Our programs address a “network gap” and a skills gap for first-generation college students. 

ANY’s flagship Fellows Program, launched in 2010, currently serves nearly 500 students across four geographic regions: New York City, Central and Northern New Jersey, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Our intensive, two-year model leverages four key components to ensure student success: (1) intensive career development curriculum (24 half day in-person workshops), (2) one-on-one mentorship, (3) career–trajectory internships and networking opportunities and (4) holistic case management support. 

You recently participated in a Common Impact skills-based volunteering project with Fitch Ratings. Tell us about the challenge you were collaborating on and the outcome. 

The Covid-19 had pandemic limited ANY’s ability to conduct in-person programming. Looking to a new business model, ANY designed a new e-learning career development program, FirstGenU – a high-production, virtual, self-paced career development program designed to help 10,000 first-generation students prepare for and navigate their career search. 

The challenge in this new pilot program was to develop an earned revenue strategy while assessing market opportunities and identifying potential college and corporate partners. This project required agile and accelerated innovation. Throughout the entire development, design, and modeling phase, we had to think of how we can empower first-generation college students in new and more accessible ways in a constantly emerging higher education landscape. We embraced change and kept up with the new demands of the project which created so much value for our organization. 

What advice would you offer to someone interested in using their professional skills to support a nonprofit?

Volunteering with organizations like ANY to mentor first-generation college students, serving on local and national boards, offering time for employee engagement, as well as participating in pro-bono consulting projects are one of the few ways to make an impact. 

What actions can corporate professionals, leaders, or philanthropists take to support and amplify the work of nonprofit organizations, especially during periods of economic uncertainty? 

Our project with Common Impact and Fitch Ratings is a prime example of this support. ANY believes that diversity drives innovation and excellence, and when we invest in diverse, first-generation college talent, we all win. Recent studies have highlighted employers’ struggles with an underprepared workforce. Executives are concerned with a lack of competence in the soft skills needed for today’s team environments, with 45% citing this as the top deficiency among employees. Only 11% of company leaders strongly agree that graduates have adequate preparation for workplace success. This is the time to reevaluate and expand philanthropic approaches to provide more strategic investments for nonprofit organizations.