If you’ve ever visited our home page , then you’re familiar with the lovely lady pictured above. But this Taproot cover model isn’t just a smiling face: she’s one of our Pro Bono Heroes, a group of individuals from our nonprofit grantee and pro bono consultant ranks who have a demonstrated commitment to the pro bono movement. As a recipient of three Service Grants over the last five years, Executive Director Rhea Wong of Breakthrough New York has strategically tapped pro bono resources to further the organization’s mission of improving educational opportunities for highly motivated middle school students through rigorous after-school and summer academic enrichment programs.
“In the nonprofit world, I wear a lot of different hats, but I don’t have the experience of having worked in a corporate marketing or strategy firm,” Rhea says. “It felt relieving that as an executive director, I don’t have to have all of the answers. I just have to know where to go to ask for the answers.”
For Rhea, the journey has been just as valuable as the destination. Taproot’s pro bono engagements have forced her to put her own organization under critical examination, an exercise that has yielded incredible and unexpected strengths, which are now being effectively leveraged to improve quality of service to students.
“Being able to work with a pro bono team let us get work done that we knew we had to do but just didn’t have the resources or the manpower or the expertise to complete ourselves,” Rhea says.
A safe space
Breakthrough New York was awarded its first Service Grant to revamp its key messages and brand strategy in March 2007.
Rhea says the Service Grant process itself gave her valuable insight into the strengths of her program. For one, it helped her realign her perceptions of the program with those of the constituents. As a visionary leader, Rhea sees Breakthrough New York as “transformative,” and while this is certainly the case, parents and students had another way of looking at it.
“A lot of our parents and students identified Breakthrough as a ‘safe space,’ which was surprising to me because I don’t necessarily think of that first and foremost, in my mind, as how I would describe Breakthrough. It’s so obvious to me that it’s a safe space it almost doesn’t need to be said, and yet realizing that a lot of our kids were attending schools where they didn’t feel safe and their parents didn’t feel safe sending them to school was a real wake-up call for me,” she says. “I never really thought about it that way, but at a base level, if kids don’t feel safe, they’re not going to be able to learn.”
While Rhea has not lost the emphasis on fundamentally changing students’ lives, the theme of safety–both physical and emotional–did eventually play a role in shaping the final key messages.
Although the key messages have evolved as Breakthrough continues to grow, the Service Grant process laid a foundation for the organization and even played into their newly redesigned Web site, launched in 2010.
Goals and leaders
Their next Service Grant in September 2008 equipped the Breakthrough New York with a strategic scorecard, which helped the nonprofit define and communicate its goals and progress through realistic metrics.
“As a small organization, we’re often faced with having too much to do with too few staff members. What I think the scorecard helped us do was really hone in on our services and the outcomes that made the biggest difference for our kids,” Rhea says. “It helped solidify in our minds not only what we’re going to do, but also what we’re NOT going to do as an organization and what we need to prioritize over something else.”
The project, valued at $70,000, has been invaluable in illustrating the value-added to external audiences, most notably donors, who have been impressed by the sophisticated management tool, Rhea says. It has also been helpful in setting and sharing goals internally and with board members.
The Service Grant has been particularly empowering for the Breakthrough staff, which was engaged in conversations about the direction of the organization and how to measure success.
“The process of actually laying out all these different goals and metrics having very honest conversations–Do we actually do this well? Should we be doing this? Can we do this better?–was a great leadership opportunity for the staff,” Rhea says.
Through discussions about service delivery and resources, Rhea was able to witness the thought processes of her staff, and she was impressed with what she saw. So much so that she has even begun grooming some of them, like Placement and High School Director Amesika Bediako, for larger, more senior positions in the organization.
Throughout the experience, Rhea has had the opportunity to meet some amazing business professionals who have in turn fallen in love with Breakthrough New York and the impact it has made. She’s found ardent advocate in pro bono consultant is Bob Bellhouse, who has had a long and prestigious career as a management consultant to major national and international public sector organizations and a former executive of a telecommunications firm.
At Breakthrough, the fancy titles don’t faze the middle schoolers one bit.
“The kids call him ‘Uncle Bob’ at this point,” Rhea says. “The kids really dig him. He’s a really smart and affable man, and we just connected well. For me that was the key to making the whole project really successful.”
The fond nickname even inspired Bob’s next endeavor, a small business consulting firm called My Uncle the Consultant .
After serving as a Taproot pro bono account director, Bob became hooked on Breakthrough. He now actively attends fundraisers and has even gone beyond his pro bono engagement to serve as a volunteer teacher, working with rising ninth graders to develop project management skills like budgeting and Microsoft Office literacy. Though he’s worked with nonprofits before, the Breakthrough experience was his first foray into education.
“He’s this very high-level, executive project management guy who has worked with [United Nations] agencies and complex international development organizations, and he was faced with this room of ninth graders and was totally overwhelmed,” Rhea says with a laugh.
Having her pro bono team meet the students is Rhea’s favorite part of the Service Grant experience. It’s only then that they can sense the urgency and importance of Breakthrough’s work.
“I think that meeting the kids one-on-one and seeing what the work is all about is the most rewarding piece of it,” she says. “[The teams] were impressed with the complexity of the high school experience that kids have to go through here in New York. I think they were really impressed that our kids were so driven and so focused on getting college-prep high schools, and I think that speaks a lot to the caliber of kids we have and what we emphasize as a program.”
Joshua Winata is an External Affairs Fellow at the Taproot Foundation.