The following is a conversation between Dr. Stephanie Hull, President and CEO of Girls Inc., and Denver Frederick, the host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Girls Inc. offers programming to girls ages 6 to 18 in more than 1,500 sites throughout the United States and Canada. The organization focuses on what it calls “strong, smart, bold outcomes.” And to tell us some more about their work, along with some new research as to its effectiveness, it’s a pleasure to have with us, Dr. Stephanie Hull, the President and CEO of Girls Inc.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Stephanie!
Stephanie: Good morning. Thank you.
Our mission is to inspire girls to be strong, smart, and bold
Denver: Share with us a little bit about the history of the organization and your mission.
Stephanie: Girls Inc. has been around since 1864. And as you said, our mission is to inspire girls to be strong, smart, and bold. And we do that through a combination of direct service — working directly with girls in our centers — and advocacy, where we work with girls and for girls to advance public policy that has impact on their well-being and on the issues that concern them.
Denver: Walk us through what a Girls Inc. program is like. What kind of activities do the girls engage in? Who delivers the programs, et cetera?
Stephanie: Our girls meet in really a vast range of different engagements. We are in schools, sometimes in centers. We are partnered sometimes with the YWCA. What these places all have in common is that we create pro-girl, all-girls spaces. These are safe spaces where girls can gather and really be themselves.
They meet with trained mentors. We have training for the mentors and facilitators in the program, and people are given the chance to engage in programming. So, there are programs, for example, that would emphasize literacy, or STEM, or college and career readiness, or mind and body fitness and wellness.
They also have a chance to just be with each other and be in mentoring sessions where they can talk about issues of concern to them and learn from others and have a chance just to share, and as I said, just to be themselves and not to have to be something more, something different. It’s a really good opportunity for them to see that they’re not alone and to feel the support of not only the girls and the sisterhood, but also of adults who know them and care about them and are really invested in their success.
Denver: That’s a really interesting perspective because I think we’re so focused on school and what is happening or not happening in school, that we don’t pay nearly as much attention to out-of-school programs and activities. Why do you think, Stephanie, that they are so important to the development of a girl?
Stephanie: I think, especially now, I think schools are realizing actually, and then within the wake of the pandemic, I think schools have finally hit on this combination of emotional readiness to learn and intellectual readiness to learn. And I think it’s a lot of pressure really, especially given that people have been out of school and there’s a lot of learning loss, and people are falling behind, for teachers to try to help kids catch up with all of the academic learning while the children are traumatized. Well, I would say pretty much everybody is traumatized on some level by the pandemic. It’s a lot to place on them. And given that there are constraints in time and people are concerned about how many students can be in the space at the time, I think that it really would behoove people to consider after-school programs as partners in this.
Our people have the expertise on children and especially on social and emotional support for children. If you could combine that with the people, the teachers who are the experts on the academic learning, I think it would be really powerful; and it would divide the burden much more fairly between subject matter experts, and social and emotional content experts, which isn’t to say that either facilitator is not an expert in the other thing. But it just feels as though to try to get done during a normal school day what used to be done during a normal school day, given that you need at least an hour to decompress from the process of getting yourself to school and just thinking about the world, it really feels as though this is a moment for afterschool programs to partner with public education, in particular, to figure it out on behalf of the children.
Denver: That makes an awful lot of sense. How have you changed your service delivery model, re-imagined it, if you will, with so many schools being closed?
Stephanie: We had to do a fairly quick pivot to virtual. As I’ve said: before the pandemic, really our core principle was to create those pro-girl, all-girls safe spaces.
And when you think about safety for girls, really, a lot of it was physical safety. Having all of the children back in families and in homes is not necessarily a safe place for them. So, to try to create an environment where we could virtually connect with them. Initially, we were texting and telephoning people. Not all of the girls that we work with will be on the right side of the digital divide. Sixty percent of the girls are from families earning less than $30,000 a year. Twenty percent of them are from families earning less than $10,000 a year. So all of these girls will not have a device that they can use at all times privately in a space that nobody’s overseeing them. They won’t necessarily have Wi-Fi that’s reliable.
So, we had to quickly figure out: How will we account for all the girls? How will we connect with them? So texting, group texting, just trying to get eyes on everybody and make sure that the girls were all accounted for and all had some safety and some understanding of what to do if they weren’t safe. That was a major move for an organization like ours.
It rapidly has evolved into something much more proactive. That was the reactive mode everybody was really in at that time. But now, more proactively, we’ve invested quite a lot of time and effort into making it possible to deliver programming virtually, not just to check in, but actual programming. So we’ve converted a lot of the work that we do successfully to online delivery,
Denver: Whatever it takes. And I guess that would also include your mentoring program because I know that is such a key piece to your model.
Stephanie: Exactly. And the key to that really, in many ways, is to be able to have the girls with each other. So certainly, a mentor can find a girl and talk to her one-on-one, but the trick really was to create those gatherings of girls and bring the girls together. They really help each other significantly as well as being helped by adults. And that’s also important for us because we want them to know that they’re powerful, that certainly you need the support of older people, but you also can support yourself and each other.
Girls who participated in Girls Inc. were more likely than other girls to engage in certain behaviors that really position them as leaders.
Education is not just preparation for that next milestone. It’s not the middle school leads to high school. It’s a habit of mind. It really is the ability to learn throughout life and to be curious about the world, and to see yourself as being an agent in the world, not just having things happen to you but making things happen.
Denver: Donors, boy, they always want to know the impact that the programs of an organization are having, and organizations want to know as well as a means to get better. You recently completed an evaluation of your programs. It was conducted by the American Institutes of Research. What were some of the highlights of that report, Stephanie?
Stephanie: That was a two-year study that has proven girls who participated in Girls Inc. were more likely than other girls to engage in certain behaviors that really position them as leaders.
For example, our girls are more likely to see themselves as leaders and to see themselves as having the skills and abilities to influence their own local communities and improve them. Our girls are more likely than other girls to exercise regularly and to participate in sports teams. They have higher standardized math test scores, which is something we were very proud to see, and they expressed more self-confidence in STEM subjects. They see themselves taking more challenging STEM subjects. They see themselves pursuing STEM careers. And overall, they are more likely than other girls to engage in school, to attend school regularly. They’re less likely to be suspended, and they’re better prepared for life after high school. Their college and career readiness is higher.
So, based on that, we actually extrapolated four supports that we believe were central to those outcomes. And we are really proposing that people consider providing those four supports to girls because that’s where we see the life-changing experience. We really see girls able to overcome their challenges and to take on these leadership roles.
We think girls just need the right relationships. We want them to have mentors and peer networks, as I’ve said earlier, who can help them build positive relationships and feel comfortable networking and using that network, and seeing a vision of what’s possible.
We want girls to have encouragement to develop their voices. We want them to know that their thoughts and their opinions matter and that they should have self-confidence. They should stand up for what they believe in. They should believe that they can make things better.
Certainly, a positive self-image is a part of that. And being out of the box of harmful stereotypes, really not letting things deflate their confidence, not letting the images or the stereotypes of the world hold them back.
And finally, we really want them to have intellectual confidence, which goes back to what we were saying about school. Education is not just preparation for that next milestone. It’s not the middle school leads to high school. It’s a habit of mind. It really is the ability to learn throughout life and to be curious about the world, and to see yourself as being an agent in the world, not just having things happen to you but making things happen.
Denver: It was quite an impressive study. I read it, and it was very rigorous, too. You really went to the time and trouble to find a control group and measure your girls and the people in Girls Inc. against a similar population, and you came up with these outstanding outcomes.
Stephanie: Yes. That’s right.
One of the things that I believe leads to racial equity is to think about education more broadly.
Denver: You know, I saw in The Chronicle of Philanthropy that private foundation pledges now top $1 billion for racial justice, which is such a positive development. But do you believe there are other ways that funders can invest to advance racial equity?
Stephanie: I do. There’s an interesting conversation about racial equity. I think, as I just said, one of the things that I believe leads to racial equity is to think about education more broadly. If students in these communities, these vulnerable demographics, could be assured of access to a high-quality early education, to a high-quality public education, I think that that would significantly move the needle.
And certainly, nonprofits are all looking for support for the programs that we do. Those of us who are working with the communities that are hit hardest by COVID have actually seen an outpouring of support from nonprofits. People have been very generous thinking about how they can support us in particular. I would encourage that support to continue.
I think it’s also important to think a little bit more broadly because racial injustice is manifested in many, many different ways. And I think the immediate conversation about social justice and support for that immediate conversation is one facet of it, but the systemic part of it is maybe falling by the wayside a little bit as we view the consequences, as opposed to the causes of this problem.
I would love to see funders think more about creating a stronger support for good learning, for literacy, for access early on to programs that keep you on track, as opposed to remediation that puts you back on track. I think any educator will tell you it is much easier to stay on track than to fall off, deal with all the emotional baggage of that, and be put back on the track.
So I’d love for funders to be thinking about that, thinking about how to keep children engaged in learning, how to keep them feeling like they’re part of a system that cares about them, as opposed to letting it fall apart and then spending a lot of money remediating it.
Denver: Absolutely. I think I can guess the answer to this, but what has been the impact of the selection of Kamala Harris, the VP-nominee, and the impact that that’s had on the girls in your program?
Stephanie: I think the impact of that largely is just its wonder, its joy. I think one of the things that’s most important to girls, when we tell them what they’re capable of and what their future might hold, they rely on evidence more than just on words. We can tell them over and over again: “Oh, you can be anything,” but if they never see somebody who looks like them in a role like that, they are skeptical. And certainly, certain girls will break past those barriers and achieve, but they’re smart. They see that evidence says: you don’t see yourself reflected.
So even when Congress changed and the face of Congress changed, I think that was a significant moment — when you could actually see you could be represented not just in a grassroots campaign, but in the highest levels of representation in this nation; you could see people who look like you who were probably doing that job.
I think Kamala Harris is really — she is the epitome right now of that, and maybe we move on, and there’s a pipeline that actually leads to being not really all that unusual to see Black women run for president. It’s a long time coming, I think for some of these girls. We talk to them all the time about what they’re capable of, where we see them going in the future. They need role models. That’s part of the pathway. It’s not just rhetoric. They need to see somebody succeed.
Denver: Well, that’s probably where they came up with: A picture is worth a thousand words.
Stephanie: Exactly right.
Denver: What’s been the impact of this pandemic on your fundraising and your fiscal health? And what are you and the board doing to try to address those challenges?
Stephanie: We are among the many nonprofits, I’d say, that have really had to take a deep breath. We were fortunate not to have to experience the layoffs and the furloughs and the closings at the national level, but certainly, in our network, there were significant numbers of layoffs and furloughs. We were in danger, in many cases, of not being able to continue, especially with the pivot to virtual, because I think schools immediately thought we don’t need after-school when we can’t have school. And as I said, they really didn’t see us as partners. So, they sort of removed that from the list of things to worry about.
So I think we’re still a little bit in the woods on that. It’s not really certain that the future is bright, but I think we have done really well. At least our national organization was able to provide some emergency support to the local organizations just to make sure that those who needed support to bridge over the summer could get to their summer programming and would have the resources to do that.
I’ve seen foundations open their minds and their hearts to really think about what kind of support people need now that might be completely different from what happens later on and may never happen again. We’ve been the beneficiaries of some of that big thinking. And I’ve written and also been part of conversations to ask people to really think differently and to think a little bit more broadly.
I think the hardest thing that we are coming up on is the restrictions within grants and the old ways of thinking about how you demonstrate that you’re sustainable. One of the things that most organizations would say is a sign of sustainability is that you operate with a little bit of reserves, but most of us who raise money for a living are penalized for having reserves. If you have cash on hand, that means you don’t need my cash. And that conversation really holds us back because it’s a Catch-22. We can’t basically operate without some means of getting through a thing like a pandemic. But we’re not encouraged to hold money in reserve in case there’s something that happens that sets us back. So I think that conversation is maybe opening up a little bit.
And I think the conversation about large multi-year grants and providing general operating support is opening up. I think we’re trying to open the conversation about what we do with operating support and why it’s necessary, and that it’s not just a slush fund and that it’s not just money we don’t want to be accountable for. We can account for it precisely, but I think some grantmakers are slow to understand the necessity of overhead, the necessity of modest reserves. I’d love to really have a very open conversation about that. If you think about universities and how universities are run, without an endowment, they wouldn’t even be accredited. And we’re really looking to be in that same kind of position, and they, too, are nonprofits. So it’s sort of mystifying that we didn’t fit in that category.
But I think we’re trying to assert our financial responsibility and to push that conversation so that we all understand each other and understand how we can make sure that the organizations that are closest to supporting the communities that have the greatest needs really have the means to continue when that need is greatest.
Denver: There’s no question about it that the standards that the nonprofit sector are held to are utterly bizarre. No business would operate that way, not having any reserves or being penalized for overhead. Somehow, somebody has set these standards up and to adhere to them almost means you’re not going to have a well-run organization. It really makes no sense. And there’s been a lot of talk about it, but I don’t know if it has been emotionally understood by many of the funders who really have to change their actions, and hopefully, this is going to be an occasion in which to do so.
I had your predecessor, Judy Vredenburgh on the show, well, I guess a couple of years ago, and I remember talking to her about the organization’s five-year strategic plan, which I think should be coming to a conclusion, if it hasn’t already. I just wonder what you’re thinking, Stephanie, about the next five years and maybe some of the elements that that plan is going to entail.
Stephanie: We’ve actually just completed that plan in June. Our board voted to move it forward, so this is a perfect moment to talk about it. We successfully made it to the end of the last plan. This fiscal year, which ends in March actually, is the combination of that plan. And as we move into the next five years, 2021 to 2025, there are two elements of the plan that we’re considering to be underlying truths of the plan.
One of them is our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and thinking about how to hold ourselves more accountable for those values that have long been within the organization. It’s obviously part of our DNA, but I think there are ways we could strengthen our commitment and our accountability.
The other underlying truth that we are establishing is that we need to have a culture of innovation. We need to be thinking, as we were required to think when the pandemic hit, about some of the things that can move us forward, maybe things we wouldn’t have considered. We would not have really considered, I don’t think, becoming a virtual community, especially not a fully virtual community. That would not have been a consideration for this year, but it happened. We did it fairly well. There are many things we’ve learned, and many things, we recognize now can be better if we have the capacity to deliver them virtually.
So those kinds of actions leading to that culture of innovation are really important to us, to really think about what that might mean to the ability that we have to reach more girls and to reach more girls who don’t have a Girls Inc. affiliate nearby.
One of the keys paradoxically is to be in close connection with the history. I think there’s a way in which history can hold you back, and that is that conversation that says, “We tried this 10 years ago, and it didn’t work, and we can’t try it again.” But I think a connection to history in terms of understanding the environment and the challenges, and really being willing to dig deeply into what worked and what didn’t–that I think is key to keeping the culture alive
Denver: Let me dig a little bit deeper on that, the truth points you made up there, you just made about DNA and a culture of innovation. Because I have worked with a lot of organizations who like you are around 150 years old or more, and so many of them struggle to adapt and change to modern times. They’re sort of prisoners of their own traditions and way of doing things. What have you found to be the keys to keeping a legacy organization this nimble and this relevant?
Stephanie: One of the keys paradoxically is to be in close connection with the history. I think there’s a way in which history can hold you back, and that is that conversation that says, “We tried this 10 years ago, and it didn’t work, and we can’t try it again.” But I think a connection to history in terms of understanding the environment and the challenges, and really being willing to dig deeply into what worked and what didn’t–that I think is key to keeping the culture alive that is important to the success of Girls Inc., and then also being able to move forward and express that in terms of innovation.
So an example of that is that at the core of the programming at Girls Inc. is a commitment to teaching girls about healthy sexuality; that has been with us really forever in some way of expressing it. That core is something that we reexamined. We think about: What does that mean now? What does that mean to girls in this environment but it stays with us over time? So what would’ve been said to girls in 1864 obviously is very different from what would have been said to girls last week, but it still remains one of the core values, and we allow it to transcend time. We allow it to be relevant to today.
If we could take that same mindset and apply it to innovation and think about the way we develop programs, the way we might consider partnering to develop content, those kinds of conversations I think are important. And it is important to have historians among us, people who’ve worked with the programs for a long time. We have many staff who have been part of this for a really long time. And they’re good barometers of the difficulty of moving things forward. They’re good barometers of the kinds of training and facilitation training that we need in order to be successful, but they don’t hold us back in terms of the vision. They’re providing context that’s important so that we don’t plow ahead, but we don’t sit too still.
Denver: Let me ask you about leadership in a crisis. At all times, but probably particularly during difficult ones, a leader has to be a problem solver. How do you go about…, what’s your approach to solving really challenging problems?
There’s a lot of conversation that goes into these things. I think this is a community that likes to be consulted. There’s an appetite for deep understanding before decisions are made Stephanie:, and I think that the crisis can make it challenging to put the time in, to have that deep conversation, and to express the processing and all the input and the outcome and the decisions. It’s worth putting the time in to hear from the various constituent groups. And we’ve got a lot of constituent groups. The girls’ voices, we’ve taught them to tell us what they think and what they need, so that matters, and we have to take that into consideration.
We also always want to know what the affiliate leadership is thinking and what their needs are. We have done quite a few surveys recently to get a sense of — because I’m advocating at the national level — for example, nonprofits, philanthropy, I need to know what they need and what’s hard for them, and to try to translate that into one or two questions that I might ask a philanthropy, when there are nearly 80 affiliates in large and small, urban and rural, US and Canada. There’s a pretty widespread array of what people need exactly and what their initial challenges are.
So we’re always trying to hear and then consolidate and maybe boil down and respond. But the emergency sometimes also really compresses the timeline on that in ways that make it difficult, and it can be difficult to circle back and share the entire process in ways that are convincing to everybody.
And on top of that, I do think, as I said earlier, that people are traumatized. It’s really hard for some people to balance what happened to their lives with what’s happening to us and the work that we’re doing. This is a really urgent moment for us to be serving these girls, but it’s not the only thing that’s going on for people. And that’s something we have to think about as well.
Sometimes we have to just do something, and if it doesn’t work, don’t keep doing it and do something different, or build on it in little ways or big ways.
Denver: Keeping things in context, that is really important.
Finally, Stephanie, boy, we know the challenges that come along with traumatic events like this, but they also provide opportunities for organizations and societies to both learn and evolve. What opportunities do you see coming out of this for the country and for Girls Inc.?
Stephanie: One opportunity I think is coming out of this for Girls Inc. is the opportunity to see ourselves in different modes and to be willing to pivot and to take risks and do something bold, and to work with the consequences of that.
We see ourselves as a culture that can, as we might say, fail forward, but we are really successful, and the fail part is difficult for many of us. So I think an opportunity for us is coming in the form of risks that have to be taken, as opposed to being able to do things comfortably all the time and evaluate them carefully. Sometimes we have to just do something, and if it doesn’t work, don’t keep doing it and do something different, or build on it in little ways or big ways. So I don’t know that everybody would see that as an opportunity. I have that kind of spirit, and I do think that’s an opportunity.
I think for the world, the question of social justice and the uprising and the lack of patience at this point with systemic oppression is an opportunity for people that people are facing with themselves to say “if you really are tired of what’s happening, it’ll be uncomfortable to pick this apart. If there’s really not a way in which we can redistribute everything, then everybody will have everything that they used to have.”
So I think it’s a great moment to work with girls and to help them understand that we really mean it this time. I am optimistic that we mean it this time and that there’s a world that they can help us to shape, that they’re going to be part of the conversation, that they won’t be overlooked, that they won’t be mistreated, that their voices will matter. And I think seeing Kamala Harris in front of them on a ballot, whatever happens, that should be a strong signal that there’s room for them at the table.
Denver: Times are a-changin’. For listeners who want to learn more about Girls Inc. or perhaps financially support this wonderful work, tell us about your website.
Stephanie: We are at girlsinc.org, and you can follow us as well on social media @girlsinc, and we would love to have support.
Denver: Well, I want to thank you, Stephanie, for taking the time today to share all this information and these insights. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Stephanie: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure to meet you and to talk with you.
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