Can we break the vicious cycle of youth incarceration that many communities in the US face? A resounding "ABSOLUTELY!" is the answer from Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY). Founded by a enterprising Stanford Law student 12 years ago, FLY has grown into much more than an audacious dream. It is a goal that FLY's enterprising staff, board members, volunteers, donors, and clients are fully committed to achieving. I had the honor to work at FLY this summer, and have left with a deep respect for FLY's work. I had the opportunity to work closely with Christa Gannon, FLY's Executive Director, and two other FLY staff members. I was also able to participate in almost all of the board meetings (full board as well as committee meetings) that took place over the summer. I worked on a number of key strategic projects, including an agency dashboard to monitor FLY's progress, a streamlined revenue management tool to help FLY elevate its financial forecasting, planning, and budgeting, and an improved mentor recruitment plan.
During the summer, I learned an incredible amount about running a successful and impactful non-profit. I would like to share two insights that I took away:
1) Culture is king, at all levels of the organization
In my first year of the MBA program, I learned about the importance of culture to improving performance levels and reliability in organizations. FLY taught me what strong culture actually looks like in a non-profit -- and how it is developed and nurtured.
At the core of FLY is a belief in the potential of every client they work with. It is a conviction that, with the right support and guidance, their clients can overcome the most daunting of obstacles. This belief permeates the entire organization in an palpable way. At the GSB, I learned that two primary levers for building and reinforcing organization culture are selection (e.g. hiring based on cultural fit) and socializing (e.g. leadership/co-worker influences). FLY scores highly on both counts.
In terms of selection, FLY makes a point of involving youth as part of the interview process of both staff and volunteers. Over the summer, FLY was in the process of hiring a key member of the leadership team. Even though the organization was working at a stretch to cover for that position, they were willing to look far and wide, and wait as long as needed, to find the right match. In terms of socializing, FLY's leadership does an excellent job at modelling FLY's core values. For example, Christa uses a strengths-based approach in coaching and mentoring her team, as well as in working with board members. Whenever I interacted with a FLY staff member, the enthusiasm and care they showed for serving their clients always left me inspired. The board also exhibited a deep and authentic empathy for the youth whose lives they seek transform.
2) The staff-board relationship can be magical
FLY's leadership is effective at building a powerful relationship between the staff and the board. Over the summer, I learned how beneficial this relationship can become.
FLY is very thoughtful about nurturing the relationship. At this year's board retreat, for example, FLY had four key staff members share their emotional journey lines for the year with the board. This helped board members and staff connect in a deep way, and surfaced some areas in which the board can further support FLY staff. I also witnessed a powerful example of the level of board commitment that FLY has been able to garner. Earlier this year, FLY was short-staffed as the result of a vacancy in the management team and several maternity leaves. A key board member stepped in as a volunteer to help support the organization on the ground. He later shared his insights from being so close to the action with the full board, along with suggestions on how the board can be even more effective in its governance and support of the organization.
This strong staff-board partnership is, of course, the result of hard work. FLY's management team takes resporting to the board very seriously. Christa and the Board's Governance Committee put a lot of thought into developing a meaningful and impactful end-of-year board meeting. The result is an engaged board that is a tremendous resource for FLY staff in general, and FLY management in particular.
I end the summer at FLY with a strong feeling of hope for the future. FLY continues to have an incredible and sustainable impact on the communities they work within. I am grateful to SMIF as well as SV2 (Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund) for making this internship happen.
Shaheer Rizvi - 2012 SMIF Intern with the Center for Social Innovation, Stanford GSB