by Catherine Donnelly
If I can help somebody, as I travel along,
If I can help somebody, with a word or song,
If I can help somebody, from doing wrong,
No, my living shall not be in vain.
~ Mahalia Jackson
Esther Annan, MSW, ’06 was so touched by these words when she first heard them that she adopted them as her personal mantra. After completing her social work degree at UB, she has evolved her career from working directly in the field in a number of roles to the field of philanthropy when she joined The John R. Oishei Foundation. Her many positions have included being a juvenile justice counselor, trauma specialist, forensic mental health specialist, practicing clinical therapist, and now philanthropist. And while she had no prior experience in philanthropy when she began with the Foundation, her experience in the community and her UB education are proving to be extremely valuable in her new role.
After almost 10 years working with Say Yes Buffalo, and just as the pandemic was peaking in 2020, she accepted a job as a Program Officer with the Foundation that allows her to focus on issues related to health and human services along with the arts. Annan’s responsibilities include evaluating requests for funding and determining if any of the Foundation’s resources will be granted to a nonprofit. Her funding allocations are viewed through the Foundation’s five focus areas of health, education, neighborhood stabilization, self-sufficiency, and arts & culture as well as through a racial equity lens.
“I have been blessed in my career to evolve and grow my own abilities while being able to build connections that allow me to support the most vulnerable in the region,” said Annan.
In addition, she has had an opportunity to provide service to UB both to the Social Impact Fellows Program and as a member of the Dean's Advisory Council. “The Social Impacts Fellows Program was amazing. We worked alongside colleagues to cultivate impactful collaborations to help nonprofits increase their resources using a business approach while still remaining true to their mission of supporting vulnerable members of society,” continued Annan. “I enjoyed my time as a student at UB and I am proud to come back and participate as an alumnus. So many faculty members like Denise Krause, Hilary Weaver, Charles Syms, Diane Elze, Peter Sobota, and Glenn Frost impacted my experience. They were amazing professors, and I can't thank them enough for pouring into me.”
When asked for her advice for current students she said that she always encourages young adults to accept opportunities and not be afraid to fail. “When I was 14, I participated in the Mayor’s Summer Youth Program working at a daycare center on Staten Island, and that experience helped me find a job that lasted through high school. That success let me understand that I could go to college, and I found UB. My field experiences also directly impacted my emerging career since one of my field placements took place at the Erie County Probation and Detention Center. Later, I accepted an offer to become a board member for the Young Audiences of Western New York where I was introduced to several other individuals who still impact my life. All of these doors have helped me to find my path.”
Currently, Annan is managing a portfolio of grants and initiatives to support the nonprofit community in Western New York. “Stepping into the world of philanthropy is exciting because as a clinician, I have worked with so many programs to support children and families; and have heard and seen first-hand what works and what presents as a barrier to a successful path forward. There isn’t a day that goes by where I do not look forward to engaging with our grantees to assist and support their mission and vision. The world struggles with systems and circumstances we cannot control, having radical empathy as a backbone to this work, helps us to work together to promote change and make the future better for the next generation.”