Each mission-driven organization is on a journey, whether a day or decade old. This article is part of our “Lessons from Leaders” program, which is designed to offer help from those who’ve faced the same challenges you do now – whether it’s creating an online presence, engaging with communities, fundraising, best practices or other issues. We hope these short essays will help you on your journey – and that someday you’ll offer your own perspectives to help the next generation of mission-driven organizations.
Ironically, one of the biggest challenges an organization can face is success. While it breeds expansion and growth into new regions and even countries, in order to sustain growth and success, an organization has to ensure consistent quality over an ever-growing network of employees, partners, and volunteers. So how can it manage this growth while delivering on its mission?
Oakland, California-based SMASH serves as a great example. For almost twenty years SMASH’s mission has been to invest in youth of color and help them develop the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and computing operations skills necessary to engage in the modern workplace.
The key to SMASH’s success, said Director of Development Zareen Khan, is a consistent focus on organizational excellence. SMASH maintains over thirty permanent employees along with a network of 150-200 instructors and seasonal staff that execute the summer and other programs across the United States. That broad network demands well-coordinated communication and cooperation across the organization.
SMASH has a CEO that sets overall direction and a team of Vice Presidents who help oversee the Academy, Alumni, and Development programs. This structure enables employees in widespread regions to focus on recruiting and managing the instructors (typically school teachers) who interact with students.
The size of the SMASH team expands dramatically over the summer, which requires the organization to annually recruit. This organizational structure enables SMASH to maintain a core group of employees while expanding its reach ten-fold for the summer program. SMASH has about an 80% retention rate of seasonal instructors. Additionally, while a portion of SMASH volunteers return, SMASH tries to engage new volunteers every year so that its scholars, who are with SMASH for 3 years, can engage with new people every time.
This network approach requires SMASH employees, especially Site Directors, to be all-in, said Khan. It also enables SMASH to bring in STEM professionals of color to engage in networking sessions so students can see someone who looks like them in a field of interest. “We need our students to see themselves in that role,” said Khan.
Training is another critical part of SMASH’s success. Seasonal instructors start with a two-week training program to understand the organization’s brand, approach, and processes. They have morning check-ins as well as weekly meetings with Site Directors. “There is constant communication across the whole network,” added Khan.
In sum, mission-based organizations can and should embrace their growth. They just need to remain focused on consistent communication and coordination. SMASH has proven that maintaining quality is possible even as an organization scales to new heights.
SMASH was one of the earliest STEM education programs created in the United States as a way to prepare students of color for STEM college studies. The very first SMASH site program launched on the University of California, Berkeley campus in 2004, but it follows a decades long legacy of diversity and inclusion advocacy by our founder, Dr. Freada Kapor Klein. Their vision is a STEM ecosystem where every student, regardless of the zip code they grew up in, has the opportunity to participate in and thrive in the global economy. As a result, our communities and workplaces would benefit from well-prepared, competitive leaders representing broad perspectives and sectors of society.