Grand Rapids Urban League

745 Eastern Ave SE
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49503

Joe Jones delivers social enterprise strategies to the inner city

How do you transform a 75-year-old organization to address some of the most complex inequalities in your community? Joe Jones believes he has the answer.

“There is going to be a shift in how we exist and I think the answer is social enterprise,” Jones said.

Though many bright individuals have moved to West Michigan in recent years with their own unique visions, Jones has been a trendsetter in his own sector. As the President/CEO of the Grand Rapids Urban League, Jones has brought his entrepreneurial experience to reimagine the nonprofit sector in Grand Rapids. Forged out of both experience and necessity, Jones’ approach hopes to bring dividends to Grand Rapids’ urban core. Surprisingly, Jones originally had no intentions of starting his own business.

“When I came here, I didn't have my sights set on working in the for-profit sector,” Jones said. “I was bit by the entrepreneurial bug.”

Seeing a gap in the Grand Rapids market, he founded his own firm focusing on strategic communications and cultural competency. Founded in 2000, E.E. Milestone & Associates Inc was a one-man operation that offered consulting to a variety of businesses. A few years later, he helped found Jones & Gavan, LLC., which focused on public relations, political consulting, campaign management, and fundraising. These businesses would be crucial experiences on his path to becoming the President/CEO of the Urban League. Jones served on its board before eventually being offered the job in 2011.

Founded in 1942, the mission of the Urban League is to empower African Americans and other minorities to achieve economic self-reliance, parity and civil rights. Its focus areas include employment, housing, education, and health. It’s weathered political, cultural, and financial challenges for generations. It’s evolved and adapted to continually meet new needs. Jones sums up his goals in simple terms.

“We are in the empowerment business,” Jones said. “If you are unemployed or underemployed, we work to empower you so you can change your circumstance.”

With federal funding declining and philanthropic grants becoming increasingly competitive, Jones believes that nonprofits are now engaged in a survival of the fittest: only the most innovative will be able to survive it. Adapting an entrepreneurial mindset has been his goal since joining the Urban League. He has been busy forging a partnership model to gain the support of various stakeholders, especially in the business community. His approach goes above and beyond typical forms of philanthropy.

“Some nonprofits are ok with (just) being on the corporate budget” Jones said. “I want more than that.”

The Urban League’s main product is its employment department. Many companies desire a diverse workforce, but struggle with implementation. This is further complicated by other factors, such as long term community segregation. The city of Grand Rapids suffers a segregated population and workforce, especially between African American and Caucasian populations. The city has made strides in recent years, but still ranks as the 26th most segregated metropolitan area in the United States. For companies who are truly serious about diversifying their workforce, Jones offers a clear solution: an entry point to a racially diverse community of applicants.

“We approach companies and we explain (how) we can help the in their efforts to have a more diverse workforce,” Jones said.

The Urban League’s headquarters is located in the Madison Neighborhood of Grand Rapids, where its residents are predominantly African American. Unemployment is a huge challenge in African American communities: consistently across the United States, the rate of unemployment for African men is twice that of their Caucasian counterparts. On top of typical job opportunities, the Urban League offers additional summer programming and cultural enrichment opportunities. Jones believes these are valuable complements for young men who find jobs.

“We are really big on this need to have a strong sense of self,” Jones said. “We feel that is missing in a lot of young people of color. When you have access to understanding the history of who you are and where you came from, that can better prepare you for some of the barriers you face.”

This is one of the many ways in which the Urban League has adopted an entrepreneurial approach. Instead of just accepting donations, they build long-term partnerships.

“Not only are (companies) able to access folks that employable trained and ready to work, but they are establishing a solid brand,” Jones said. “By investing in us, you have access to human capital and an organization that has over 70 years (of history) in this city.”

The Urban League works on a systems level to address the areas of health, housing and education. Jones feels that his grassroots approach is unique.

“Historically, that's not a place that many organizations are catered to or led by people of color,” he said.

Additionally, Urban League is active in an anti-smoking campaign. Smoking is a serious problem in African American communities, as they suffer disproportionately from deadly and preventable diseases associated with smoking. The anti-smoking campaign involves a combination of traditional media measures messaging, awareness, and word of mouth.
The Urban League has myriad volunteer opportunities and is looking to engage more people who have a desire to be involved in community. You can learn more at

Kevin Lignell is a community activist, globetrotter, and freelance writer for UIX Grand Rapids 

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