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Growing From the Core: 5 Years with College Access Now

Posted by Cecilia Garza

When College Access Now (CAN) first applied for an SVP grant, no one could have predicted how the organization would evolve. Now in their fifth and final year as an Investee, CAN has worked with SVP Partners on everything from developing a strategic plan and refining their infrastructure to building a portfolio of photos that captures the depth of their story and the diversity of the communities they serve.

The growth they’ve experienced as a result is dramatic.

“It started as part of our fundraising strategy, and what it’s become is really a partnership in the growth of the organization and its mission,” says CAN Operations Director Kayle Walls.

CAN breaks down the barriers that keep low-income students from meeting their full potential. Its high school program walks students in their junior and senior year through career and college exploration, standardized test preparation and college and financial aid applications. CAN’s college program continues that support, helping students adjust to life on campus, follow up with financial aid and scholarships, find internships and even connect with professional mentors.

It is vital work, and in 2011, CAN served three high schools and 227 students. But with thousands of low-income students throughout Seattle and South King County and an increasing need for continuing support into a student’s college career, they knew they had to do more to truly bridge the opportunity gap. The question was how best to grow and deepen their program to have the greatest impact.

“I think folks think about a nonprofit organization as being very strong on passion, and pulling up your bootstraps, and scrappy, and doing whatever you need to do to get the work done, which is true. But there’s also a business side to a nonprofit organization,” explains former CAN Executive Director Susan Mitchell.

“Our work with SVP, and the impact of that work, has allowed us to support our students in a deeper way.”

Entering the 2013-14 school year, CAN put a call out for someone who could help them create a roadmap for the coming four years and take their work to the next level. SVP Partner Bonnie Berk of BERK Consulting stepped up to the plate and offered to guide CAN through an in-depth strategic planning process pro-bono.

“It was our very first strategic plan,” Kayle says. “It was aligning our AmeriCorps members, our volunteers, our donors, our board, our staff, basically getting everyone on the same page, because before that we’d been a grassroots organization born out of a PTSA at Garfield High School.”

With so many different stakeholders, everyone supports the cause for different reasons and sees the opportunities in different ways. The strategic planning process put ideas on the table and focused the team in one direction. It gave clarity to what CAN does and what its mission is.

“Often times when an organization grows, they end up starting new programs, things get watered down a bit,” Susan says.

“But through the strategic planning process and interviews we did with all the different stakeholders, we learned that what folks love about CAN is that we’re focused; is that we’re not trying to be all things to all people. We’re here to help students succeed in college.”

Over a six-month period, CAN’s team answered how they wanted to build the organization to meet the needs of the community. With new opportunities arising all the time to take CAN a different direction, they now had a map that helped them see when to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no.’

“It helped us focus on doing what we do well, even better,” Susan says.

As strategic planning came to a close, SVP Partner Matt Shaw helped carry CAN to the finish line. Within two years of becoming an SVP Investee, the organization had already expanded its staff from 18 to 33 and more growth was on the horizon. The staff and AmeriCorps members are the heart and soul of the organization, and to meet their ambitious goals CAN needed to align their infrastructure with the strategic plan and implement a system that would encourage staff retention.

“At that point we were only in our fifth or sixth year as an organization, so we didn’t really have a thoughtful operational structure,” explains Kayle. “It was kind of, you create positions and hire people as needed.”

Matt was a thought partner in helping CAN see the bigger picture. Before they moved too far into their new growth phase, Matt helped fine tune CAN’s staffing structure and job classifications. He also proposed practices that prioritized staff development and performance.

“It helped us make sure we had the right people on the bus and systems in place to evaluate, manage and coach people moving forward,” Kayle says.

CAN’s staff has since grown to 50 full-time employees who run a thriving college persistence program and serve 11 high schools throughout Seattle and South King County.

CAN GrowthIn addition to the critical building blocks SVP Partners Matt Shaw and Bonnie Berk helped set at CAN, Kayle says SVP as a whole has provided a community of support throughout the years.

CAN’s board of directors has grown to include several current and former SVP Partners: Linda Hendrickson serves as board chair, Norm Bontje as vice chair, Kate Cochran as treasurer and Donna Lou and Kendall Guthrie serve as board members.

“Our governance has benefitted from having board members who have gone through the training and experiences of SVP,” Kayle emphasizes. “They’re bringing what they’ve learned and know from SVP to our board.”

On a smaller scale, SVP Partners Bill Ellis, Lisa Merrill and Lisa Bontje have given CAN the tools needed to strengthen their branding and finances. Lisa and Lisa’s photography with their students provided a collection of images that show a window into the spirit of CAN (see one of their images above). Bill’s financial dashboards are still in use today. And atop all of this, SVP Lead Partner Prady Misra has connected CAN on a number of occasions with contacts of his own.

“You get the volunteers, then you get the funds and consulting money to then build off those volunteer projects and then having board members to help shepherd and guide the organization,” Kayle continues. “It’s all just been incredible.”

Since becoming an SVP Investee, CAN’s budget has multiplied six-fold, reaching more than $2 million from about $370,000 five years ago. Donors often cite the organization’s clear vision and practices as a reason for their support, which will enable CAN to reach more than 2,000 students in the 2016-17 school year.

“SVP was more than just an annual funder,” Kayle says. “They were a partner at every step of the way.”


Cecilia Garza_small

Cecilia Garza is SVP’s communications manager. In her free time, she enjoys sailing the Puget Sound by way of her small yet comfortable Coronado 25’ and romping the beach with her 10-pound Italian Greyhound.

Learn more about Cecilia and read more of her work here.

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