There are important lessons here for all non-profits that want to make the world a better place.
For over two decades, Treehouse worked hard to help foster children with material needs and financial supports, yet children in the foster care system still experienced terrible challenges. They were greatly troubled by one statistic: only 40% of foster youth graduated high school, greatly increasing their odds for homelessness, poverty, addiction, incarceration and even suicide.
So Treehouse decided to do something about it. They set a goal to help every foster youth in King County graduate from high school at the same rate as their peers with a plan for the future by 2017.
And you know what? They are doing it. Treehouse has put mentors and a robust, integrated program in every middle and high school in King County. They are on track to help every foster youth in 6th through 12th grades in over 125 schools—over 800 kids. They have raised millions of dollars from many thousands of generous individuals, companies, and foundations and government agencies.
And the early results are already tremendously exciting: graduation rates for Treehouse kids are already at 60%– a huge 20% gain for a population considered among the most difficult to successfully serve.
They became a much more healthy organization as well. For example, employee turnover dropped 50%, and board gifts and participation in fundraising increased over 100%.
What are the lessons for other non-profits? Here are a few:
All non-profits have passion for their mission, but very few translate this passion into BHAGs . All successful efforts started with big, hairy, audacious goals. It’s the first ingredient for success. Treehouse was unafraid to set transformational goals, even before they knew how to achieve them.
Treehouse didn’t achieve this level of success by starting with a long, imprecise, graphic-heavy strategic plan. They started with a short, focused business plan with hard metrics and clear financials. They were honest about what they knew and didn’t know. And they shared it in a consultative manner with experts and supporters, continuously revising and improving.
The resulting transparency and accountability inspired buy-in and trust among all the stakeholders. And the plan got a lot better along the way. Treehouse behaved like a true leader : collaborating, listening, continuously improving.
The vast majority of non-profits use high-cost, low-return fundraising practices like auctions and events, which make it almost impossible to scale their programs. At first, Treehouse was no different. They raised money for years with special events and basic direct mail strategies . But then Treehouse showed another facet of their courage: they confronted the hard truth that events were becoming too costly and hard to sustain. They looked at the numbers and realized that these tried and true strategies would never provide the funding needed to grow and serve every child.
Because they had a great business plan, one that fostered real transparency and accountability, with short, comprehensive indicators and financials, they were able to foster trust and buy-in with their supporters. And then, they made the leap to invest in new staff to support hundreds of face-to-face, relationship-based appeals. And not just to individuals, but to foundations, companies, and agencies as well.
In sum, they stopped raising money like a small, struggling non-profit and started to raise money like it’s done in the big leagues, at hospitals and universities, moving aggressively in every funding domain. And the results materialized right away—millions in new revenue in the first year, fuel for their ambitious expansion and outstanding results.
Treehouse isn’t done yet. Nothing is certain, and the challenges are many. But they have already proven they can break through the traditional barriers holding back far too many otherwise promising programs: risk aversion; lack of transparency and accountability; and ineffective revenue practices.
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