Annenberg Alchemy Voices: Keren Taylor

by Keren Taylor - WriteGirl

Imagine your nonprofit just got an invitation to start a relationship with one of the biggest foundations in Los Angeles.

But instead of asking you to show off your organization’s accomplishments, the foundation invites you to bring in your biggest challenges and problems so experts can help you resolve, dissolve and advance these issues.

It may sound like a fairy tale, but this opportunity is real.

I know because I’ve experienced it.

I’m the executive director of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit WriteGirl. Since 2001, we’ve matched professional writers with teenage girls for a free nine-month mentoring program in writing and critical thinking. So far, 100 percent of our girls have gone on to college – a remarkable success rate in a city where the dropout rate is about 50 percent. What we’ve found is that when girls develop confidence – when they see that their voice matters – they can achieve just about anything.

We went through Alchemy’s Leadership Seminar about six years ago and then later participated in Alchemy+ and an Alchemy Labs session. Through these programs, we learned that one of the best ways to grow as an organization is to be open about the challenges we face.

Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking, “Oh, it’s the Annenberg Foundation - I need to show that everything’s wonderful in our organization.” They approach the training like an interview for a potential grant. This is a mistake. In my experience, openness and honesty offer the most efficient way to take advantage of the tools, knowledge and energy of the trainers, not to mention the experience and advice of other nonprofits in the seminar.

I liked Alchemy’s honest, positive approach so much that I became a volunteer Community Champion so I could be a resource for other nonprofits going through the training.

Here are a few of my observations on the Alchemy experience:

It’s a process, not a slam dunk. Coming to the training sessions will not solve your problems immediately. Some nonprofit leaders might hope that after three days of training, their boards will be better at fundraising and their staff will be united by a fresh, Alchemy-inspired approach. But in reality, those things take time. Alchemy’s real value is to change your perspective, start the process of change and then support you as you go through the changes you’ve chosen. Timelines of six months to two years are not uncommon. At WriteGirl, we are still implementing ideas we learned at Alchemy, years after the training finished.

Incremental steps can be the best way forward. Since change takes time, small, do-able steps often help most. Alchemy is designed to help nonprofits identify these immediate next steps and to plan for their mid-range goals. I believe this incremental strategy is the most powerful way to pursue the “big-picture” future goals we all dream about. In Alchemy, the trainers help you decide how to implement the next step for your organization. You receive an evaluation you can do with your board. You get a spreadsheet you can use to build a budget. And because the training happens over 90 days, you get the chance to try out these approaches and then come back for coaching and feedback after initial results.

Building Trust at the Top. Dedicated time with your board chair – there’s nothing like it. At Alchemy, it’s mandatory. I’ve been through trainings with two board chairs over the years and both relationships became deeper – with expanded trust. Now, when I talk with my board chair, we can quickly get to key topics, and there is more of a willingness to spend time together outside of board meetings. All of this came naturally because we spent so much time together at Alchemy.

Sometimes a retreat is the best way to advance. When we finished Alchemy+, we received a $10,000 grant from the Annenberg Foundation. We used it to hold a board retreat at Laguna Beach – complete with additional fundraising training. The opportunity to spend time in a lovely setting, to break bread and to think creatively without the time-constraints of a normal board meeting was invaluable. In fact, it set a precedent. Now we have an annual retreat in December or January each year. It gives us a chance to reflect on the past year while galvanizing our energy for the year to come.

No nonprofit’s work is ever complete. We all need to regularly refine our systems, our programs, our goals and our strategic plan. At WriteGirl, we’ve come a long way in building a more sustainable organization, but we know there’s more learning ahead.

If you are fortunate enough to attend Alchemy, please bring an open mind so you can experience fully what Alchemy has to give.