Letter from America

I’ve just returned from an inspiring week in Chicago where I visited the local branch of the American mentoring scheme Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) and also attended The Bank of America not-for-profit leadership training at the National Centre for Leadership Innovation. The trip was funded by The Bank of America as part of the two-year award they have granted to support Friendship Works.

On Monday I met with Erika Corona-Owens and Andrew Synder at BBBS of Metropolitan Chicago. They support 1,500 young people in the ‘windy city’ and had some great advice on how we can improve our volunteer recruitment process and other systems in order to support more children in London. I also met with CEO Art Mollenhauer to talk about how the BBBS affiliate scheme works, and how we might be able to use this to replicate Friendship Works in other cities in the UK.

The leadership training started on Tuesday. Rob Trimble, the fantastic CEO of Bromley by Bow Centre, was the other Brit on the course; the other 88 delegates were CEOs from across the United States, from Portland to Kansas City. All of the organisations were Bank of America Award recipients, so they represented some of the most innovative and respected charities in their fields. It’s been a privilege to meet so many committed individuals and to learn about their successes and challenges in delivering social, educational, and environmental services in the US.

Although there are many cultural and political differences between the UK and the US, many of the issues facing the not-for-profit sector are similar; Government funding cuts, increased demand for services during the recession, recruiting and retaining excellent staff, and managing change. The most obvious difference was the number of charities providing very basic needs in the absence of a comprehensive welfare system. Many of the organisations were, for example, food banks, which distribute food and other essential products to both the unemployed and the working poor. Despite the financial downturn, the majority of the participants were expecting to be able to support more beneficiaries this year than last; a sign, perhaps, of the quality and ambition of the organisations on the course.

The course was intensive and thought provoking. I came away with some great ideas, insights, and a small library of books to read. Andy Goodman’s session on using storytelling to communicate vision, culture, and impact was particularly useful. I would recommend his book ‘Storytelling as Best Practice’ to anybody trying to increase the power of their organisation’s ability to engage supporters. I’d also recommend John Kotter’s extremely accessible book on organisational change, ‘Our Iceberg is Melting’ (management theory through the eyes of a group of emperor penguins!).

We also went on a field trip to the astonishing and brilliant ‘welfare to work’ NFP, the Cara Program (www.thecaraprogram.org) and took part in their morning ‘Motivate Me’ sessions with some of their students. It was the highlight of my trip and a great honour to share the openness and positivity of adults struggling to find work in such difficult circumstances.

One of Friendship Works amazing caseworkers, Jodie Dickey, will be attending the next leadership course in May (San Francisco) and then we’ll both be going to the final course in Charlotte in October. In the meantime I’m going to be working with my peer mentor, Patricia Edge of BBBS of Portland, to put some of our learning from the course into practice.

In my next post, I’ll be going into more detail about strong leadership, what it means, and how to deliver it.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to both Bank of America and The Centre for Leadership Innovation for making last week possible; it was game changing stuff, and we really appreciate their support.