Thinking Outside’s Top 10 Charities of 2014

My giving supports programs that I believe can change the world of their participants and our communities.

Like many families, our giving often focuses around our children — we tend to give to our kids’ schools, to the organizations or programs they participate in, or to programs our friends know and support — and.while these programs and organizations are wonderful, and deserve support, I also want to give to organizations that need my support that are not so close to home. So, we also give to organizations that are changing the world through their work.

This list is made up of organizations and programs that I support through my own contributions, but also includes organizations that the rest of my family likes to support. There are so many great and deserving organizations, but for this list, I wanted more of the nonprofits (though not all) to be ones that are a bit more off the radar screen,maybe a little bit lesser known, but still having a large impact in their field and on the people they serve. Many of the organizations on this list do not have a large fund development teams, and like most small, on the ground, nonprofits, struggle to secure the resources necessary to deliver their programs.

All of them deserve our support. Check them out, they are not really in order of preference, and consider a year-end donation.

1. Outward Bound California (OBCA) (California)

obca photo

Okay, this one is very personal. I am an Outward Bound alumni. My 30 days in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Colorado changed and shaped my life, and my teaching. As an educator I sent my students on Outward Bound scholarships and watched them come back transformed. And now, I am on the board. Today, OBCA is working with all types of students and programs in both wilderness and urban settings.We work with corporations, schools, youth programs, nonprofits, agencies, municipalities, and so on. Some of our students come from families of means, and they can afford our full tuition, but most (over 50%) of our students receive some form of financial aid, and many of the programs we work with receive full scholarships for their programs. Outward Bound could not help our community partners without the generosity of your donors. And, because I believe in supporting youth programs that change lives, I support Outward Bound California.

2. The Mosaic Project (Bay Area)

mosaic project

Lara Mendel has been changing attitudes and lives since the mid-1990s. Few organizations have the ability to take school children from diametrically opposed economic, social, and racial backgrounds and in less than a week bring the community together in a common sense of humanity and common purpose. It is an amazing transformation. This past 2 years our family benefitted in a personal way when my son became a high school counselor for the program. Mosaic’s approach to conflict management, its ability to impart a peaceful approach to disagreements and rancor became apart of our family. Whenever my son works his Mosaic magic, we reflect on what happened, and we realize that we got “Mosaic’d”, our short hand for putting Mosaic’s approach into action.

3. Youth Radio  (Bay Area)

youth radio

If you listen to Bay Area public radio, you are familiar with the reports from Youth Radio. Insightful, expertly done, they give us an insight into the world from the lens of youth, and the analysis of communities often not represented in the traditional media. Along the way, Youth Radio develops great skills in its students and young people.

4. Youth Speaks (Bay Area)

youth speaks

Siting through a Youth Speaks youth poetry competition is exhilarating and emotional. The poets are an amazing blend of talent and wear it on your sleeves, often heart wrenching, story-telling. Youth Speaks showcases young people at their most vulnerable, and at their best.

5. Destiny Arts (Oakland, CA)

destiny artsViolence prevention and youth development through the  arts. Not only do the young people in Destiny Arts learn about love and self-resilience, they also create beautiful art. Talking to some young participants after a recent performance, it struck me that Destiny Arts didn’t just create a place to be safe, but also imparted life-long skills that will always give these young people a leg up in life.

6. Youth Enrichment Services (YES) (Richmond, CA)

YES logoThere are fewer disconnected communities than inner-city Richmond, from the Iron Triangle, if you can get up high enough, you can see the Golden Gate Bridge and Mt. Tamalpias. But these two iconic places might as well be across the continent; so few children in Richmond have been the Bridge, much less to the hills of Mt. Tam. Most have never been the ocean, a short, but impossible, 30 minute drive from their homes. YES connects kids to summer camps and the outdoors. YES peer leaders learn crucial leadership skills and develop personal connections to nature.

7. Sunrise Middle School (San Jose)

sunrise ms logo SMShigh expectations

Sunrise Middle School brings the whole world that lies beyond the reach of their students. Sunrise MS is a safe haven from the tumultuous San Jose barrio which dominates the lives of their students outside of the school, but being safe isn’t the only goal of the school — learning to take risks is. Through their innovative outdoor program, Sunrise MS faculty take their youth far beyond their perceived limitations and exposes them to outdoor adventures that build a connection to nature, and a foundation of self-understanding that will last a life-time.

8. Friends of the Urban Forest (FUF)

fuf logo

Having a green city is great. But without organizations like FUF our city would be so much less inviting — and clean.  I am so fortunate to live on a street with trees. If you live on a block with trees, you can most likely thank FUF. Take a moment to notice the difference between streets lined with trees and those without, the difference is striking. They also have really well run youth program.

9. MISSEY (East Bay)

misseyMISSEY works with sexually exploited children to help them find a way out of their situation by providing comprehensive services in a safe environment. MISSEY also provides information to the community and government about the commercial sexual exploitation of children, which does not receive as much attention as other issues facing our children.

10. Girls on the Run (National)

logo_girlsontherunGirls on the Run brings exercise and empowerment together in a great approach and curriculum that is designed to address the challenges facing young girls by empowering them to make thoughtful and healthy decisions. They use a very effective mentoring model that pairs the runners with mentors and running coaches who deliver life skills and fitness skills in a fun learning environment.

11. Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY), [Santa Clara]

FLY logo Started by lawyers searching for ways to keep youth from becoming incarcerated, or to help them get off probation, this program was designed by youth and is dedicated to breaking the cycle of violence, crime and incarceration of teens through a powerful combination: legal education, leadership training, and one-on-one mentoring. They even use outdoor education as a way to teach resiliency.

12. Spaulding Wooden Boat Center (Sausalito)


i spent a lot of time at Spaulding this year and it is a magical place. Great history, beautiful boats, terrific people. Their partnership with MLK Middle School is a strong example of how schools can use nonprofits to deepen and enrich their programs. Spaulding is MLK’s off-site shop. Great hands-on STEM connection, as well. Now they are offering adult boat building classes as well.


Ok, so my list has 12. There are too many terrific organizations doing great work. Add your top nonprofits of 2014 in the comments section below.


6 Stages of the Outdoor Connectivity Pipeline


Six Critical Stages of Connectivity to the Outdoors

To a casual observer, outdoor programs may all look-alike. However, a critical look at how young people are connected to outdoor experiences reveals that outdoor programs are not providing the same types of activities. Some are getting lots of participants out into nature programs, what are often called high volume, low touch programs. Others are enrolling fewer participants, but providing deeper, and longer experiences in nature. Both of these examples can be viewed through the model outlined below.

In the Outdoor Connectivity Pipeline model, there are essentially six “stages”, or types, of outdoor experiences that describe how programs move participants through ever-deepening outdoor experiences.

They are:

  1. Introductory Experiences (a.k.a. gateway, portal experiences)
  2. Repeat Exposure (gaining comfort/familiarity)
  3. Lengthening and Deepening (developing mastery in outdoor settings)
  4. Training and Skill Development (teaching/leading outdoor programs)
  5. Workforce Development (workplace skill development)
  6. Peak Experiences (high intensity, high impact)

This model describes how an individual fits into a programmatic framework. Outdoor providers might focus on a particular stage and the pace that a participant will move through the pipeline will differ from program to program. The stages are fluid, and some programs will go back to the same stage over and over, while others will push through to a new stage.  In other words, most individuals will start with an introductory experience before they go on to a deepening one. However, there are programs that may be so intense and long that participants may move through all the stages during one session. For instance, a student who has not spent any time in a wilderness, but attends a 21-day Outward Bound wilderness program, will go through almost all of these stages in the 3 weeks they are out on course.

1.  Introductory Experiences (a.k.a. gateway, portal experiences).

These are first time outdoor experiences. Often they are programs that last a few hours, or perhaps a full day. Introductory experiences are designed to pique a child’s curiosity and expose them to the outdoors in a fun and exciting way. In some circles these are referred to as “drive by” experiences. While the term “drive by or through” is a poke at how sometimes outdoor providers exaggerate the outcomes attributed to these programs. These introductory experiences play a key role in getting young people into outdoor spaces.

2.  Repeat Exposure (gaining comfort/familiarity)

One time, or one-off experiences are wonderful for introducing someone to the power of the outdoors, and in themselves, can be powerful learning opportunities.  However, introductory experiences are usually not enough to bring significant change in individuals. If the goal is to have our children become comfortable in outside settings and familiar with the concepts and ideas taught by outdoor programs, then they will need to participate in outdoor activities on a regular basis. (These experiences don’t have to be structured by an outdoor provider). Only through repeated exposure can we be sure that  participants are actually becoming at ease in an outdoor settings and are ready, and open, for the accompanying learning.

3.  Lengthening and Deepening (developing mastery in outdoor settings)

Children and youth must be provided with experiences that deepen their understanding and connection to the outdoors. If we want our kids to “get it” and understand the lessons of the outdoors, we will need to connect them to the outdoors in way in which they can master their connections to nature. Otherwise, we risk that a smile and having a good day will substitute for deep and profound internal and personal change. Participants who achieve mastery, will be better able to  transfer of these experiences to other aspects of their life. Lengthening and deepening experiences should continue to take place throughout a person’s life, and should be ongoing and frequent.

4.  Training and Skill Development (teaching/leading)

Many (though certainly not all) programs have some element of training or skill development embedded in their activities. Often, programs have under-developed training programs and have not solidified the goals and outcomes of these programs. , The skills learned through the outdoors include the art of leadership and the dynamics of group management, a core skill set needed by today’s managers and executives. Youth in this phase are often applying these lessons and skills as leaders and trainers of younger children.

5.  Workforce Development (workplace skill development)

The grand prize in outdoor education is to have youth who attended your outdoor programs to land jobs and careers in the outdoor field as adults, preferably in your own organization. The outdoor provider workforce development pipeline is, at best leaky, and at worse, broken. To plug the leaks, or to build a stronger pipeline will require deliberate and forceful efforts to apply earlier outdoor and program experiences to job readiness skill development training. The trainings may include specific certification trainings, or could simply be trainings in skill sets needed to solidify the qualifications and viability of rising youth.  Some have taken to the term  “Back Country to Back Office” to describe the development and transfer of outdoor skills that can benefit a nonprofit or company.

Frequently, outdoor youth providers fail to highlight the direct relationship between skills learned in the outdoors and the skills needed in the workplace. Many of the nationally recognized job readiness skills outlined in the SCANS (Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills) can be taught, learned and internalized through outdoor experiences. In fact, one could argue that outdoor experiences do a better job at getting young people to internalized the transferable skills outlined in SCANS than do traditional educational settings. In addition, non-cognitive skills, such as grit and determination, are often best learned in challenging and unfamiliar outdoor settings.

6.  Peak Experiences (high intensity, high impact)

High impact experiences can accelerate learning and leverage experiences, especially in the outdoors. A 10-day wilderness program can provide hundreds of hours of programming exposure and push participants into new realms of understanding and connectivity to nature, themselves, their community and families. These “peak experiences” are often critical in moving young people into the next level or beyond. Peak Experiences can be targeted to any stage along the continuum. Many programs argue that a multi-day overnight should happen a the end of a program, but experiences in the field show that if presented in a youth friendly way, these sorts of experience can occur in the beginning, middle or end of a program. What is important is that as many youth as possible should be exposed to Peak Experiences.

Ultimately, all children and youth should go through a series of outdoor related activities and experiences that will provide increased connectivity to the outdoors. Ideally, these experiences should happen from a very young age and continue throughout their lives. By experiencing increasingly deeper and more intense outdoor connections, young people can internalize and transfer their outdoor experiences into their lives. These outdoor connections will become a key part of who they are as adults. Ultimately, the goal is not to have every youth become a career outdoor staff leader, or to get a job as an outdoor instructor. The goal is to have every child become an adult who has a small core part of who they are that is made up of their outdoor experiences. As the model shows, some will have more, intense and deeper experiences, and perhaps, fewer will be afforded the opportunity to participate in a Peak Experience, but all can have experiences somewhere along the 6 Stage spectrum.

Clearly, the pipeline needs to be built that has enough outdoor connections to make the possibility of ongoing connections to the outdoors a real possibility. A young adult who secures a green or outdoor related job, due to their outdoor experiences, is a great outcome, if he or she enters into an outdoor career, even better. Pursuing an outdoor career is not the only pathway for our children and youth. However, all should enter adulthood with a solid foundation and connection to the outdoors. If they do, no matter what their career path, they will take their outdoor learning and connections with them. And that is no small achievement.

I have developed this concept over many years. I would be curious to hear what you think. Do you believe this model has merit? Do you see ways to strengthen it? How would you make it better? Leave your comment below.

Overhead Myth Gets Traction

The Percentage of charitable expenses that is a nonprofits’ administrative costs, aka “overhead” is a poor measure of a charity’s performance, according to  an effort to get donors to see the whole picture of an organizations structure and value.

A Guidestar Initiative to Improve Donor Choice jumpstarts a long overdue conversation about nonprofit overhead. The Overhead Myth takes on the notion that all nonprofits should have a super low overhead (over the recent past, for a variety of reasons, 15% seems to have become the gold standard), and demonstrates that there is not a lot of correlation between low overhead and effectiveness. In fact, this is often not the case. It is important that nonprofits have well run administrations, and not just conform to a random percentage of their budget.

Recent trends in organizations that evaluate nonprofits, tended to favor nonprofits with very low overhead, or perhaps more succinctly, organizations that are able to efficiently allocate their costs to programmatic cost centers. The focus on keeping overhead down because it makes a nonprofit more effective doesn’t really hold up, and the unintended result is that many nonprofits allocate their administrative cost across program cost centers, thus reducing their percentage. This sort of accounting doesn’t exist in the for profit world, and it doesn’t get rid of the basic costs of running a nonprofit, it simply moves the expenses around and accounts for it by showing that it is baked into the program costs (which are considered “good” costs) and not in the overhead or administrative costs (which are considered “bad” costs).

All organizations need strong administrative staff that help support the programmatic work of the organization. What that looks like to funders and how nonprofits should account for it should be opened up to more comprehensive conversation. In the end, it is important that funders not just look at one point of information when evaluating a nonprofits effectiveness. Nor should funders starve strong (and perhaps a bit more expensive) administration practices at the altar of low-overhead is better approach to philanthropy, thinking they are gaining efficiency and impact, when that simply may not be true.

What has been your experience working in nonprofits? Are administrative costs too high? How about as a funder? Do you see this as an ongoing issue in evaluating nonprofits?

Transportation Solution to Get Kids Outdoors

Transportation is the Most Often Cited Barrier (After Money!)

The Skillman Foundation in Detroit (see report below) is right on the mark. Second to more money, logistics — how to get children from point A to point B — is the most cited barrier to getting children and youth to programs, particularly activities beyond their neighborhoods. A dedicated transportation system is an innovative approach.

Reading hundreds of proposals over the past few years, it is clear that transportation continues to stymie innovative and engaging programs — especially those getting kids into the outdoors. Anecdotally  I have heard of many incidents of a free program being offered to a worthy group, only to be undone because the group was unable to find the funding to get the kids to the site. I remember one outdoor adventure program at San Francisco State, run by college students, was providing free sailing lessons to local nonprofits and neighborhood groups. More than once, the college leaders were ready, but the program was cancelled last-minute when the neighborhood group was unable to secure transportation to the lake.

Leveraging Funders’ Dollars

These stories resonant with funders, and have surfaced again and again in the listening sessions I have attended. It is also mentioned by funders, but there are not enough opportunities for nonprofits to apply for and secure this type of funding. This ongoing frustration is why I helped to develop a dedicated Transportation Fund at the Foundation for Youth Investment. In the end, rather than going it alone, FYI was able to be a lead funder in creating a pooled fund along with other regional and local funders to get kids outside.

SF Bay Area Transportation Fund

This new San Francisco Bay Area transportation initiative, created through the Environmental Education Funders Collaborative (EEFC) helps subsidize transportation costs for low-income schools sending their students on field trips to outdoor and environmental education programs. The fund is managed by a local nonprofit, and administrated through the Science by Nature website. Structured as a reimbursement, teachers apply for up to $500 per field trip. The educators can use the money to subsidize their logistics costs (e.g. pay for gas), or work with MIchael’s Transportation, a regional transportation provider, who has agreed to provide bulk pricing for this initiative.

In the 2012-13 pilot program, the EEFC invested $100,000 of pooled funds, helping to get over 11,000 students from schools with an average of 70% free and reduced meals on a trip. At a cost of less than $10 per student, this is an inexpensive and effective way to provide a real world hands-on learning experience to kids who might not otherwise have an opportunity to attend a trip. This idea is scalable, and transferable to any community.

If you are interested in investing in this fund or learning more, drop me a note.

bus in forest

From the Nonprofit Quarterly Report:

Innovative Transportation Grantmaking from the Skillman Foundation

Anyone who has worked in youth programs knows that transportation can be a major barrier to involvement. This program takes that bull by the horns. The Skillman Foundation has granted $100,000 to the Detroit Bus Co. to run a six-month pilot program providing free transportation service to take children to and from more than 90 after-school and summer programs. The programs are a part of Skillman’s Youth Development Alliance. The buses will even drop children back off at pre-approved safe locations, like police stations, fire houses and libraries, if necessary.

Chris Uhl, vice president of social innovation at the Skillman Foundation comments, “Our goal is to increase membership in these programs, but one major impediment is transportation and the ability to get these kids from school to the program and back home…We’re often talking kids ages 11 to 18 who have unsafe and unreliable public transportation and whose folks don’t have transportation.”

For now, the program will concentrate on southwest Detroit and the Chadsey-Condon community, where a lot of the programs are clustered. The Detroit Bus Co. has hired a dedicated transit planner and has staffed the buses to ensure the routes run smoothly.

If the pilot is successful, the Foundation and the Bus Company may expand to other neighborhoods. Says a representative of the bus company, “Right now we’re using the school buses—they are finally being used for school bus work—but we may potentially invest in more if demand ramps up…If they want it, we will make it happen.”—Ruth McCambridge

True Grit – Association for Psychological Science

True Grit – Association for Psychological Science.

In “True Grit”, an article published in this month’s Association for Psychological Science’s magazine Observer, by researchers Angela Lee Duckworth and Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, the authors make the argument that grit plays a much greater role in creating success in a person’s life, and may even be more important than raw talent. In fact, they argue, that grit correlates to many of the factors that help people succeed beyond talent, such as determination and perseverance. Educators have long noticed that some extremely talented kids don’t make it, and other less gifted children blossom into true winners. For those working in the youth development sector, this insightful into grit offers another explanation into why some children do well, while others may not.

What was also interesting in the article was that in the section titled “Getting Grittier” the authors discuss how to help children get grittier. The authors describe the work of bestselling author Paul Tough and Carol Dweck of Stanford University, but offer little practical advice, and the explanations lack much sense of the types of programs that a school or educator can create to help build this crucial skill.

The ongoing dialogue about what skills children need to succeed in life (not just school) is pertinent to how ours schools approach educating our children. It also raises questions about the pitfalls of focusing only on achievements that can only be measured in standardized test scores or GPAs. While this research is just beginning, wouldn’t it be great if researchers could help educators identify the main factors or components of a program that are key to developing grit?

What was also interesting for me is that in reading about, and listening to, discussions on grit, there seems to be little connection between getting grittier and outdoor adventure. One would think it would be an obvious place for exploration.

While the article didn’t address this connection, someone at the APS online staff, did. Look at the photos on the APS website that accompanies the article.  Here it is:








Rock ClimbingA clear outdoor adventure requiring grit and determination to make it to the top of a climb. The online editors found an appropriate image and great analogy for this article. But, they are also on to something. 

Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound once said, “There is more in us than we known. If we can be made to see it, perhaps for the rest of our lives we will be unable to settle for less.” Hahn believed that you could teach young people grit through experiences. He believed that the power of real world challenges through outdoor engagement created change in his students.

After reading this engaging article, I continued to think about this question: “If we want our students to be grittier how come our schools don’t use the tried and true methodology of outdoor adventure as part of their regular curriculum?”  If getting kids into outdoor experiences would help them become grittier, why wouldn’t we want all of our children to have access to transformational experiences through the outdoors? Thoughts?

You can read/hear Angela Lee Duckworth’s TED Talk or visit her website here.

1,000 Miles to Blister Town

1,000 Miles to Blister Town.

Bryan Morales, recent alum of the Outdoor Educators Institute (OEI), is on an epic journey. He, along with adventure partner, Justin Deshields,  is walking and stand up padding the baja peninsula. His tale, one of adventure, grit and determination combines hard outdoor skills with insights he gained through leadership training. Bryan’s determination is admirable, and I can’t wait for him to come back to the Bay Area this summer, where he will apply his knowledge with the Student Conservation Association (SCA). Check out Justin and Bryan in their latest video from What is West and connect to them on Facebook

Growth Through Adventure

I started using adventure based outdoor programs with high school kids because they worked. There was nothing like mother nature to make you give up what you thought was important (self-pity), for what really mattered (where are we sleeping tonight? or who’s got the dinner bag?). There is nothing like seeing a young person grow and take on responsibilities through their own experiences and challenges. It is both amazing — out of every challenge, you could see growth, and rewarding — out of growth came resiliency.

The other day I was telling my colleague about my favorite quip when my students began to grumble — about school, about their families, about their lot in life, or about my class, or about me  — was to say “What are you going to do? Take a knee?” Because, really what option did they have? Give up? Or move on? The student, usually looked at me with disbelief, maybe a bit of disdain, because, the student was thinking, “really, a football metaphor when I am dealing with my idiot parents?” Sure, as a retort it is a bit simplistic, but the message resonated with them. Today’s youth understand that sometimes, you just have to power through. What they don’t always understand is that on the other side of a crisis or challenge there is the silver lining that comes with all things difficult to overcome.

And here I am, digging into my own lifetime of experiences to find a new pathway for myself. Like all adventures, it is getting started that is the hardest step. Once going, the journey takes on a life of its own — but it is always the first step that trips us up.

So, here is my first step. I have owned the domain “Thinking Outside” for a while now, but couldn’t find the right combination of time and voice to launch it. Today, I have a place to make myself heard.

I am curious what you would like to hear about. Is it the value of using outdoor education to transform kids lives? Or what it’s like to be on the other side of the funding table? Or something completely different? Let me know.

Meanwhile, I am available to help you. Need any help?


Thinking Outside

Nonprofit | Philanthropy | Outdoor Education | Youth Development