2024 F.M. Kirby Impact Prize Finalist Spotlight: Urban Alchemy

We are thrilled to share why we are so excited about each of the five finalists for the 2024 F.M. Kirby Prize for Scaling Impact. Here we share what we have learned about finalist Urban Alchemy.

The Problem Urban Alchemy is Working to Address

Urban Alchemy was established to address three interconnected challenges facing three populations in American cities: the challenge of ineffective re-entry for formerly incarcerated individuals (leading to high rates of recidivism); inadequate safety nets and solutions for individuals facing extreme poverty, mental health challenges, and addiction; and the challenge of existing practices falling short of meeting many of the public safety needs in cities’ public spaces. Urban Alchemy addresses these challenges through its employment social enterprise model, whereby it creates career pathways and opportunities for individuals with incarceration histories who can uniquely facilitate support for individuals falling through safety nets and for the communities in which they reside.

Urban Alchemy employee on the job. Photo courtesy of Urban Alchemy.

Why We’re Excited About Urban Alchemy’s Impact Potential

Urban Alchemy was built by and for returning citizens, and continues to ensure their representation in leadership and decision-making processes so that the organization embodies meaningful inclusion of and accountability to the communities served. Urban Alchemy launched in 2018 in San Francisco, and has gained significant traction since then in response to demand from city governments and community institutions.  By the end of 2023, Urban Alchemy was operating in five additional cities and had contracts in place to start work in two more in 2024.

  • Traction across cities of operation. As of the end of 2023, Urban Alchemy has placed over 1,300 returning citizens into full-time jobs. The work of these individuals has contributed to the placement of nearly 1,000 formerly homeless individuals into housing and the resolution of nearly 3,000 911 calls without the use of traditional public safety resources (i.e., police, fire departments).
  • Evidence of meaningful impact on people and places. Urban Alchemy has reported a recidivism rate among its staff of 2%, which is dramatically lower than the national average of 40-60% for the formerly incarcerated.  Its social services targeted to unsheltered individuals in two Los Angeles neighborhoods has contributed to a 50% reduction in unsheltered homelessness in those communities. And recent research found a 23% reduction in drug-related crime on blocks where Urban Alchemy operates in San Francisco, compared to a 48% increase in such crime citywide.
  • Financial sustainability of model. Urban Alchemy’s model leverages paid contracts with municipal entities to provide meaningful work and salaries to the returning citizens it employs.  These contracts provide the vast majority of the funding that Urban Alchemy needs to sustain operations.
An interim housing program supported by Urban Alchemy employees. Photo courtesy of Urban Alchemy.

The Plan to Achieve Impact at Scale

Over the next three years, Urban Alchemy will begin to roll out an affiliate model to support its vision of achieving national scale. During this time, the organization will continue to expand its reach, starting work in three new markets and creating an additional 1,000 jobs across all cities of operation. To achieve these goals, Urban Alchemy is planning to deploy the following strategies:

  • Evolve and strengthen organizational structure. Urban Alchemy has conducted deep research to determine the best organizational model to support growth and sustain quality of programs, and will be rolling out a new affiliate model in its more established cities over the next few years – with the goal of eventually transitioning nearly all city programs to this model.
  • Raise funds for reserves and growth capital. To support the evolution of its model, its scale, and its working capital needs, Urban Alchemy will undertake a major fundraising effort over the next few years.
  • Strengthen employee supports. As Urban Alchemy tracks employee satisfaction, needs, and outcomes, it continues to evolve and strengthen the supports it offers to ensure effective reentry experiences and a continuing employment path.

What’s Next for the Kirby Impact Prize?

CASE will announce the winner of the 2024 F. M. Kirby Prize for Scaling Impact in early Summer 2024.