Tuesday, January 31, 2012

From the Director's Desk - 1/31/12

As we prepare to embark upon another season at Project Coach (this spring will mark our 16th sports season since we began back in 2004), I’d like to reflect upon some of the key issues that will drive our organization forward through this year, and beyond, as we strive to continue our growth as a cutting-edge youth development organization. Our achievements on the field, in the classroom, and in the community have been - and will continue to be - superbly documented by our outstanding cohort of graduate fellows who do a remarkable job serving as mentors to youth in the program. Indeed, one of our latest additions will see our coaches recording their own achievements through online blogs and reflections, as we seek out new avenues to empower their roles in Project Coach. Rather than duplicate such accounts, my entries will seek to cover issues at a more macro-level, and detail the impact that current trends in after-school programming are having on our organization, as well as how we are expanding and adapting the services that we offer youth in the program.

On the eve of our latest iteration of PC, there can be no more topical jumping-off point than sharing the current trends and “hot button” issues that are currently dominating the agendas of the program directors, and are central to our thoughts in the new year. Indeed, the process of confining the discussion to a short-list of three areas is probably worthy of a blog post itself. Nevertheless, when we think of “what keeps us awake at night”, as one of my co-directors accurately describes it, the following topics certainly merit making the final cut.

1. Sustainability

As our organization has grown, the question of sustainability - both financially and logistically - has become central to our thoughts. From the not-so-distant days of running a twice-weekly pilot program for a handful of youth from Holyoke - when our only expenses were the relatively insignificant stipends paid to teens and one supervisor - we have evolved into a multi-faceted organization that has several programming streams, and with it a multitude of ongoing costs to manage. More coaches (30+) working alongside a team of licensed educators, and a full-time Academic Director, all contributing more hours of service to the program than ever before has allowed us to offer an array of activities...all at a significantly increased cost.

We have been extremely fortunate to find in the North End Campus Coalition a primary funder and supporter that recognizes the need for full-service community schools, and has identified Project Coach as a key contributor in helping to achieve the lofty goals of a true wrap-around service model. Similarly, many foundations and private and public entities have generously awarded PC funding through various grant programs. Nevertheless, securing financial sustainability on a multi-year basis remains pivotal to the long-term success of our organization, and can often be a difficult task to focus squarely on, particularly given the tendency to become so invested in the day-to-day operations of programming.

I was particularly intrigued to hear about such issues during a recent webinar hosted by Guidestar (a leading information source on non-profits), and facilitated by John Thomas, the Managing Director of Orr Associates (a consultancy firm specializing in providing advice to non-profits seeking philanthropic support). Addressing the “new normal” that has been established in fund-raising endeavors since the financial collapse of 2008, the webinar stressed the importance of prioritizing large gifts - rather than seeking multiple smaller awards - regardless of whether working with individuals or corporate donors. Surprisingly, the presenters were cautious of the benefits of utilizing new social media forums to garner support, suggesting that the trends of philanthropic giving had yet to fully catch up with the latest technological advancements. Perhaps more predictably, yet certainly pertinent in Project Coach’s case, the discussion vindicated the approach of targeting specific projects that are central to the goals of the organization for funding consideration, rather than trying to bend the needs of the program to the focal areas of a particular funder. All food for thought as we begin to look beyond 2012 and the kind of sustainability that will be necessary to maintain and expand PC programming.

2. Risk Management

An unavoidable issue within non-profit organizations in the 21st century is - without doubt - risk management, and all that it entails. As program-focused directors, it can often present itself as an additional drain on time and resources, and yet we recognize that it rightly sits atop the list as one of the most important aspects of our work. Across the breadth of our programming, risk management issues confront us at every turn: thousands of miles racked up each year to and from sites; a staff of 50 teachers, college students, faculty, and high school students working with hundreds of young children; high action sports in several settings; the organized chaos of pick-up at the end of each day.

When confronting this issue, PC’s approach remains vigilantly constant; create safe spaces at all times and think about each and every decision that is made. Regardless, we also recognize that - inevitably - accidents occur, and despite our best efforts, some things are simply beyond our control. Making sure that each incident concerning an elementary-school student is documented and followed up with is critical, as is ensuring that we have documented parental support for each of our youth coaches. Completing state-mandated CORI checks for all non-school personnel involved in the program is a standard process for all students being oriented to the PC, as are driving credential reviews. Perhaps an even more critical method to effectively managing risk resides in the deployment of the PC coach training curriculum, and its focus on creating a safe environment for participants. By making sound decisions about behavioral management and appropriate activities, youth coaches can help to dictate the tone of each session, and set a precedent for an atmosphere that encourages fun and adventure, while at the same time being mindful of the well-being of each child.

This directive issued by the 4-H organization has helped to frame some of the critical risk management areas that all youth-based non-profits face, and overviews many best-practice policies that PC has adopted.

3. Curriculum Design

A strength at Project Coach has always been - and continues to be - the devotion to creating a rich and diverse curriculum that engages youth coaches in developing ‘supercognitive’ attributes (such as building effective communication skills, navigating conflict resolution, and mastering attentional control). These skills are then deployed across the various arms of PC programming, and in the wider contexts of the lives of teens, and in particular the domain of school.

Traditionally, the PC team has used its experience in both education and sports science to mesh an integrated curriculum using research from a wide array of sources, crafting unique lessons during combined planning sessions. This process has served the program well, and has allowed the directors to control to direction of the program, and devise units with a certain degree of adaptability and “free reign”. In recent months, discussions have centered around the merits and deficiencies of “tying in” the PC curriculum to a more rooted and established model. Though individual units and lessons would still be created using the same initiative as in past years, a consensus has emerged that being linked to a more systematic blueprint would be beneficial not only for providing added direction, but also for incentivizing potential funders through a tangible connection to a tried-and-tested framework.

One such framework that has long been admired and continues to play a pivotal role in the coaching world is the Pyramid of Success made famous by legendary coach John Wooden. The vision of building skills in a progressive way to ultimately achieve ‘competitive greatness’ fits the PC notion of acquiring a cadre of skills that all effective coaches and teachers need to be successful. More importantly, the framework allows PC to continue to develop unique lessons that provide experiential activities for coaches to learn and refine these skills, while keeping the ‘bigger picture’ in sharp focus.

Though still a part of an ongoing discussion, the Pyramid of Success may well become an established component of PC programming as we move forward.

Feedback, suggestions, and comments from those that know our work and share our passion for youth development are critical to our continued success and improvement; we hope to get your input!