Building a sustainable, growing agency is a challenge. Big Brothers Big Sisters of America is a national federation of more than 400 independent non-profit 501(c)3 agencies. BBBS had an ambitious goal to serve 5% of the children ‘at-risk” nationwide. After a series of successful agency mergers in other areas in the country, the national office turned to the Bay Area. In 2004 they looked at the San Francisco Bay Area, and saw an under-served population of young people with three small, poorly-funded agencies struggling to serve 350 boys and girls in an area with 200,000 kids at risk. They began a planning process with the Boards of the three agencies.
I came on board as CEO in 2005, and oversaw and completed the merger of the three agencies into a single unit.
Consolidation required a complete overhaul of policies and procedures, the implementation of new technologies, and most importantly, setting a clear direction and getting the staff and Board to embrace it. Each agency, while doing more-or-less the same thing, had separate bank accounts, insurance agencies, policies and procedures, salary and benefits plans, rules, guidelines…and most important, different cultures. It was really a case of truly more different and less the same. All three had outside contractors doing their bookkeeping. One agency hadn’t paid their bookkeeper in almost a year.
One of the agencies didn’t answer the phone at all. Callers got a message saying the agency wasn’t taking new applications. Another agency had relocated into a windowless office the size of a closet in a well-off-the-beaten-path office park. None of the three offices were convenient to low-income clients, none were reachable by public transportation. One agency relied on an annual event for the bulk of their fundraising efforts, and since they didn’t have an executive director or development officer, all the program staff stopped doing the critical program work for several months to work fulltime on the event. One agency relied primarily on government grants. All of them had made promises to the community they weren’t keeping. My Board Chair the first year started every Board meeting with a countdown of how many months she had left on her term. “10 more months, and I’m out of here!”
But there’s nothing like a challenge to get me motivated!
I spent my first few months getting all the paperwork done – the government documentation, the policies, the procedure, the insurance. I brought the staff salary level up to a living wage and negotiated a great health benefits package. I worked on a strategic plan to grow the number of children served. There was no lack of demand – when I got there the agencies had a waiting list of over a 1,000 young people. Some had been waiting for years. I took a call from a Mom who signed up their son when he was 6, and promised a Big Brother every year until now, at 15, he was in danger of being too old to get matched with a Big Brother, and her situation wasn’t unique. I drafted a plan to serve 5,000 kids by 2010.
I was very fortunate. I had great support from our National office. They gave us a strategic grant that allowed me to expand my development staff. One highly connected Board member secured an enormous technology grant that enabled me to provide everyone with laptops, cell phones and software. Salesforce.com donated their CRM software to us, and we were able to access the proprietary national service flow system. We got an unexpected gift that enabled me to hire more program staff so that we could properly service an increase in our services. Leverage Software donated their platform to us, and we built a dynamic online social network that allowed our far-flung network of Big Brothers and Big Sisters to connect with one another and our supporters and stakeholders online.
Results: 1,000 more kids with a Big Brother or Big Sister in less than 3 years
We increased the number of young people with a mentor over 300%, growing from 350 to more than 1300 in just over 2 years. I reorganized the staff structure. I optimized the intake process, and adjusted our messaging. We set clear goals and objectives, and held people accountable to achieving them. I revitalized the fundraising efforts, increasing the agency’s annual income more than 50%. This required the ability to communicate our vision to individuals, corporations, and foundations, and it meant being committed to the results we promised. We built alliances with foundations, corporations, and other agencies. I served on the Silicon Valley Youth Mentoring Alliance alongside the CEOs of YMCA, Boys and Girls Club, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts. I helped lead a Latino Advisory council to help us reach out to the Hispanic community in the Bay Area.
In three years, Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bay Area had transformed from three small struggling agencies into a regional sustainable powerhouse. But it was time to reach beyond our regional border.
Big Brothers Big Sisters has been in California for almost 100 years, but the 20 agencies in the State had no effective organization to represent them statewide. I re-energized the State Association, meeting with the leaders in most of the 20 independent sister agencies. I instigated and helped facilitate a meeting with the 5 largest (and wealthiest) agency heads and negotiated an agreement to fund a new state-wide initiative. The result was a State Association that started being a force. We retained a Sacramento-based consulting firm to help us take our story to government officials throughout the State, and I was able to meet directly with top State government officials, and began the work to secure funding for all 20+ agencies statewide.
Recruitment video – “You don’t have to be a superhero”