Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"You're Different. You Get Things Done."

This was one of the best complements I've received. It was from Paul Vallas, CEO of Chicago Public Schools. He was reflecting on my ability to move quickly to implement our ideas while his huge bureaucracy moved much slower. This photo was taken when we held a Conference at the Chicago Fire Department and Vallas was a keynote speaker.

I was reminded of this again when I read about the $30 million CPS wants to spend to help high risk students. No matter how good the ideas are, or how important, executing them in such a huge system will be much more difficult.

I've never had $30 million. In fact in 1992 when we decided to "create a database of the tutor/mentor programs in Chicago and try to create more frequent advertising to draw more consistent resources to all of the programs in the city" we had no money. We were just seven volunteers.

In the years since then, we raised $50k in 1993, $114k in 1994, $214k in 1995 and each year increased our revenue until 2000 when we raised nearly half a million dollars. 40% of this money was spent to build the Cabrini Connections program, and 40% was devoted to the Tutor/Mentor Connection. The rest was the cost of finding the money, and providing administrative services.

In 2001 our revenue went down to $350,000 and stayed in that range until 2006. Since our first host and benefactor, the Montgomery Ward Corporation had been providing us free space and utilities until they went out of business in 2000, this meant that we've been paying for these things since then (and without the $40,000 donation each year that Wards had given us since 1993). Nearly 30% our annual budget just goes to cover space, utilities and insurance.

Thus, we've never had more than $200,000 in a single year for the Tutor/Mentor Connection, which aims to help tutor/mentor programs reach youth in all poverty neighborhoods of Chicago. Compare that to the planned $30 million CPS is targeting toward less than 300 teens.

So when Paul Vallas says, "we get things done" he means we do a lot with very little and what we do has a huge impact per dollar in the third largest city in America.

While we don't have the resources big companies, or CPS have, we do have a flexibility and nimbleness that they don't have. When people told us in 1994 they would come together for a conference, we asked other programs to volunteer their expertise do do workshops, and we hosted the first Tutor/Mentor Leadership and Networking Conference in May 1994.

When people told us the appreciated the printed list of programs we provided at the first conference, we began printing our list of programs as a formal Tutor/Mentor Directory which we sent to all programs, schools, libraries, and many businesses and foundations. When we ran out of money to print and mail the directory, volunteers helped us create the on-line program locator which is available to more people every day than the printed directory ever was reaching.

We've listened to the needs of tutor/mentor programs, including the needs we recognized in our own Cabrini Connections programs, and we've tried to innovate solutions. In the Tutor/Mentor Institute we're sharing ideas that will only be achieved if other people volunteer time and talent and dollars. Yet because we do that, we find volunteers from all over the world.

Some of the animations on our web site were created by interns from Korea, Hong Kong and India. The on-line documentation system (OHATS) was rebuilt in 2007 by a volunteer in Baltimore with the work being done by his company in India.

If you have a vision, and you share that with other people, and don't have much of a bureaucracy, you can do a lot with the few resources you do have.

Thus, my proposal to CPS and other bureaucracies around the country is that you provide some resources, and some talent, and your own leadership, and enable us to work parallel to you. If we can innovate new ways to get volunteers and donors involved and in locations throughout a city like Chicago, you can apply these ideas in your own leadership, so more people respond. You are not liable for the mistakes we make, or what does not work. We are.

You can just take advantage of what does work....or help us make it work better.

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