Monday, July 25, 2016

3 Days of Overhead

Recently, the Wounded Warrior Project came under fire for what was portrayed in the media as wasteful overhead costs. This video, asking who would be the next WWP, was developed after that media firestorm. One of the examples of waste that WWP was crucified for was shocking"staff development" costs. 

So, before Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Texas (BBBS) gets accused of participating in a giant 3 day boondoggle, I offer this explanation for my Leadership Team's trip to Washington DC last week.  But first, a word about nonprofit staff development.  If you google "nonprofit staff development," the first thing that comes up is "52 Free Development Opportunities."  Even in the for-profit world, staff development is often neglected, overlooked and/or skimped on, but in the non-profit world it's nearly nonexistent.  If there is a budget line item for it at all, it's the first thing to be cut if revenue is tight, and revenue is always tight. At BBBS we didn't even have a line item for staff development in the budget until a few years ago.  It's embarrassing, I know.  It flies in the face of good business practices. We are always being told in the nonprofit world to "act more like businesses," unless of course it increases our overhead, which it always does, as I wrote about a while back in this JoyfulRant post, The Nonprofit Catch-22.  So, we vacillate between the desire to treat employees well and invest in their development, keeping overhead low and doing "free" stuff. So, if there is an opportunity to take staff to a conference filled with workshops and presentations developed at a national level, we are all over it. 

So last week, I took my team to Washington DC for a GEAR UP conference.  This is an annual event that alternates between DC and San Francisco that thousands of education and youth development professionals attend.  GEAR UP is a US Department of Education funded program designed to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in post-secondary education.  BBBS is a GEAR UP sub-contractor with the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD).  Our agency has provided mentors for over 300 GEAR UP SAISD students for the past 5 years.  The conference we attended last week was put on by the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships (NCCEP), a national non-profit, non-partisan organization working to increase access to higher education for economically disadvantaged students. NCCEP advances college access through advocacy, training, and research. They put on a really great show! 

The decision to send our 5 top leadership staff to this conference was made for several reasons.  Most importantly, was because our organization is about to experience major changes to the way it does business. We are moving to new offices and implementing a new service delivery system that will enable us to increase quality while serving more youth than ever before in the history of our organization.  I felt like we needed a bit of a retreat.

We had a great time!  The trip was copiously depicted in every social media outlet that we have access to.  We spent long days in weird hotel florescent lighting attending plenary meetings and workshops, and long nights eating, drinking* and sight-seeing. All of us made it home ok except our Southwest Airlines traveler who ended up spending the night in Dallas due to the airline's technology issues last week.  Lest we lose sight of the many purposes of the trip in all of the fun social media illustrations, here is a helpful list of the ways the conference benefits our mission: 

1. We make all kind of connections: Last year at this conference, we learned all about a program called Virtual Job Shadow that we will be piloting this coming year with GEAR UP students, who will be high school seniors.  We also met the creators of a new for-proft called The Student Success Agency that provides on line career counseling for high school students by matching them with a current college student.  This year I really appreciated a workshop on advocacy that I will pass along information from to the Texas Association of BBBS. 
2. We find our what is new in the business:  Knowing what others are doing in the mentoring space is critical for us.  There were 1,800 conference attendees from all across the US and we attended workshops on a variety of programs.  I was amazed to hear all about a mentoring program that has a 92% college graduation rate! This was topped only by a workshop I once attended on a mentoring program in Oregon that has a 5 year 98% volunteer retention rate.  This kind of learning at previous conferences has played a big part in informing the changes we are making to our programming. 
3. Passing our knowledge on to others:  We presented our workplace mentoring program for the 2nd time at this conference. It's exciting for us to know that a superintendent that attended our presentation 2 years ago was able to go home to California and replicate the program with students and businesses there. We will be doing post conference coaching sessions with 4 other agencies this coming week. 
4. Team Bonding and R&R:  I never underestimate the value of getting together outside the office for a little team R&R.  Here are a few of the social media pictures; dont we look like we had a really great time :)  --  

The BBBS leadership team!

Nick Cannon's inspiration speech
Presenting our workshop
A sea of 1,800 people
One staff member had never been to DC

This trip wasn't cheap.  Anyone who looks at our financials will only see a number, and relative to other nonproft numbers, especially small human service nonprofits like ours, it 's not a small one.  But I wish it was even bigger.  I wish my whole program staff could have attended.  Our organization would be better for it.  It's not the same to bring back the info, especially with regard to #4 above, although there is great value in that.  I hope that the investments that the WWP project made in its staff and other means of overhead, don't take the movement back too far. 
*disclaimer:  no alcohol or recreational activities were paid for by the nonprofit or government funder

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