Of all the internships available in the United States, 43% are unpaid, effectively pricing out any college students who need to work for a living. Yet internships are often the first step toward lucrative and prestigious employment, meaning those who are already economically disadvantaged tend to stay that way.

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Funds are unrestricted, which means the nonprofit recipients can use them for whatever need is most pressing. Photo courtesy: Puget Sound Energy

In 2020, Saint Martin’s University took steps to rectify the problem by establishing Saints Promise, a post-graduation career development program with a built-in guarantee of a three-month paid internship or tuition-free enrollment to a Saint Martin’s graduate program for one semester. In 2021, the program was one of two recipients of Puget Sound Energy’s (PSE) Powerful Partnerships funding.

Powerful Partnerships began as a pilot in 2016 with just one partner. By 2021, it expanded to partners in each of 10 counties, with a total distribution of $190,000. The grants are unrestricted and can be used to address the most pressing needs of the applicant organization. “Nonprofits can do whatever they want with the funding,” says Leslie Myers, customer outreach supervisor at PSE. “They tell us what they’re going to do with it as part of the application process but we’re more concerned with how we can develop a relationship with them over time.”

PSE looks for several key criteria among applicants, the first of which is mission alignment. PSE favors organizations with an emphasis on strengthening the regions they serve both environmentally and economically. From the start, environmental sustainability has been a focus. Organizational reach is another factor but not a determining one. “Sometimes the nonprofits are small and have a tiny reach but a big mission,” says Myers. “We’ve worked with wildlife rescue organizations that are quite small but the work they do is so impactful.”

In pre-pandemic times, the 10 selected community partners from five counties would gather for a luncheon.
In pre-pandemic times, the 10 selected community partners from 5 counties would gather for a luncheon. Photo courtesy: Puget Sound Energy

In 2021, workforce development was an added focus. “Previously we’ve focused on youth and family services or any organizations that were helping vulnerable populations,” Myers explains. “This past year we decided to make the switch to workforce development because we see the vulnerability of certain sectors of people needing to find work or realizing, ‘I want to go back to school or get some other training.’”

At SMU, the PSE grant will support priorities of the Saints Promise program such as stipends for unpaid internships. Thurston County is home to many nonprofits and small businesses that have excellent internship opportunities but are unable to pay students. Students in the program will be qualified to receive these stipends so they receive compensation for their work and time in those internships.

“The program is Saint Martin’s promise to our students of a successful outcome following graduation,” said Ann Adams, associate dean of students and director of career development. “Money shouldn’t be the deciding factor for students to choose whether to take a beneficial internship or work multiple jobs to pay their bills. This grant is directly helping our students.”

The Moore Wright Group: Logistics Academy

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2021 Powerful Partner The Moore Wright Group plans to use the funding to support workforce development training at its Tumwater and Aberdeen facilities. Photo courtesy: Puget Sound Energy

Across town in Tumwater, The Moore Wright Group (TMWG) is also focused on workforce development, along with providing resources of food and essential items to groups who need them through their Resource Connection Center and serving as the west coast’s only COVID-19 Disaster Distribution Center, with four truckloads per week delivering supplies. PSE funding supports their Logistics Academy, a training center where people can become certified as logistics associates, logistic technicians and production technicians.

“This partnership is allowing us to assist more in our workforce development training,” says TMWG Executive Director Tanikka Watford Williams. “A lot of our classes came through Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council and WIOA (Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act), but many people who contact us don’t qualify for those pots of funding. PSE funds mean we can place them within our programming and continue that support.”

As part of the grant contract, recipients share monthly content from PSE with their constituents about topics like safety, bill assistance programs and how to lower their energy bills. They also offer six engagements over a one-year period. Pre-COVID, those engagements took the form of PSE presentations at live events or PSE staff volunteering for projects.

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PSE Powerful Partners offer six engagement opportunities throughout the year such as this clean-up of a teen center in Everett. Photo courtesy: Puget Sound Energy

“It’s a way for us to better get in touch with our customers and help them reduce their carbon footprint and learn how to conserve energy,” says Myers. “In the past year, nonprofits were all trying to figure out how to switch to virtual events, so we did a lot of online presentations to volunteers and board members.”

TMWG gets the information out through their distribution but has less of a presence on social media than some other recipients. “We have to be careful about people’s safety, so we don’t have a ton of pictures on Facebook,” says Watford Williams. “We appreciate that PSE understands we’re still going to get information out, it just might not look the same way as their other partnerships.”

SMU and TMWG are just 2 of the 17 partners receiving funding in regions PSE serves throughout the state. In her position, Myers hears regular feedback from those organizations. “It takes some of the pressure off them for fundraising,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to make a difference.”

Learn more by visiting the PSE Powerful Partnerships webpage.

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