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A new network of young leaders

Structure and discipline have been crucial in pursuing The Posse Foundation’s mission of recruiting and educating a diverse group of leaders on a national scale.

iStock/LawrenceSawyer

May 22, 2012

It grew out of a single conversation. Deborah Bial was speaking with a young man who had left school before finishing his undergraduate degree, and he remarked, “I never would have dropped out of college if I had my posse with me.”

Within a year, Bial -- a Harvard-trained education expert -- had created The Posse Foundation, which recruits promising students from urban school districts and sends them as a group -- or “posse” -- to colleges and universities.

But if the idea for The Posse Foundation came from a flash of insight, the execution of Bial’s concept has been far from that. The organization has been recognized for its methodical and standardized approach to the creation and expansion of its program, which is opening in a ninth city this year.

“I think structure and discipline has guaranteed the quality of the Posse product,” Bial said. “We’ve been very true to our mission. We don’t compromise for money or for a new partnership or for some temptation that might seem great if it’s outside the parameters of what we’re trying to do.”

That mission, Bial said, is to create an elite and diverse network of the nation’s next generation of leaders.

“The ultimate goal is to create a new kind of national leadership network in the United States, one that this country has never seen in its entire history. And it’s one that will more accurately reflect the demographics, the diverse demographics of our country,” she said.

This methodical approach led Posse to grow slowly in its early days -- it took a decade after its founding in New York City to open a chapter in a second city -- but allowed the organization to expand rapidly once the system was time-tested and fine-tuned.

“From 1989 to 1999, we focused solely on making sure our model was solid, that the program worked, that the relationship with the universities made sense, that we knew how to recruit students and knew how to support and train them -- all of that,” Bial said. “Then we felt we were ready to replicate.”

 

Questions to consider:

  • Does your organization operate intuitively, or are your activities standardized? What are the pros and cons of your approach?
  • Posse was slow to expand at first, then grew exponentially. How do you measure your initiatives? How do you engage your community in your work?
  • Does your organization maintain a “consistent culture”? How would you describe that culture? What practices allow your organization to stay true to its mission?
  • How might you take successful initiatives and innovate to extend your reach?

Today, there are 56 posses at 40 colleges and universities. Posse has sent about 4,200 students to college, supported by close to $500 million in scholarships. Its graduation rate is about 90 percent.

Its success has been recognized in several quarters: Bial received a 2007 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” and Posse was one of the 10 organizations that received donations from President Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize money.

Posse was among the 100 nonprofit organizations profiled in the Bridgespan Group’s 2010 white paper “Four Pillars of Growth for Youth-Serving Nonprofits.” The study found that successful expansion by organizations such as Posse consistently featured systematic preparation for growth, demonstrable results, specific marketing to funders and the active engagement of board members’ time, talent and resources.

Those standards are deeply embedded in The Posse Foundation culture.

“Posse has grown in a methodical fashion, planning extensively, codifying its program carefully and growing slowly,” says a 2004 Bridgespan report. “The organization has worked hard to ensure that the various Posse sites adhere closely [to] its program. Posse’s diverse sources of funding have allowed it to grow steadily, even through tough economic times.”

Posse’s strategy for growth

The foundation recruits its posses -- teams of 10 students from an urban district -- during their senior year and forms those teens over eight months into a support group that heads off together to a selective college or university. Those institutions provide full-tuition scholarships and mentors to support the students as they make their way through college.

An advisory board in each city helps raise funds to support the local chapters, and Posse alumni serve as a growing network of professionals who can link Posse graduates to internships and jobs.

The foundation has launched chapters in eight cities -- New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Miami and New Orleans. A ninth site, in Houston, is being established in 2012. Two more are planned by 2020, when Posse hopes to be recruiting 1,000 scholars each year.

The partner institutions include Northwestern, Tulane and Vanderbilt universities, as well as colleges such as Bard, Middlebury and Grinnell. The foundation has typically looked out of state to send a posse to school, finding that students are more likely to immerse themselves in the campus culture if they are away from home.

Posse’s strategy for growth focuses on three crucial elements. First, a city must be large enough to have a diverse population in the public high school system that’s not typically tapped by selective universities. It must have a network of local funders and supporters. And the new Posse chapter needs to raise three years of funding -- about $1.5 million -- before it even opens.

Each Posse city has emerged from a rigorous process. The foundation maintains feasibility studies on a number of cities that might be appropriate; those studies look at the number of graduating seniors and the rates at which those seniors matriculate at colleges, as well as the city’s corporate community and philanthropic landscape.

Other factors -- such as public transportation -- matter as well, because the high school students take part in weekly meetings during their senior year to develop the posse and prepare for college.

Using these criteria, the organization can select cities in which they can be confident that their program will succeed -- which also means that some promising sites are rejected or put on hold.

When Posse was considering its West Coast expansion, for example, Posse executives weighed the merits of Los Angeles and San Francisco. San Francisco’s school system is small, and Bial figured they’d have to recruit from the entire region. Los Angeles is one of the nation’s largest districts, but the city lacked a good mass-transit system. Raising money in the entertainment industry also would be a departure from what they’d done in the past. After weighing the options, Posse chose Los Angeles.

“We may still open in the Bay Area, but we had to make a decision,” Bial said.

Finding funders

Tapping into a city’s philanthropic community is also crucial. A local Posse board leads the fundraising effort. Posse’s track record over 10 years in New York City provided strong evidence for new chapters to present to major donors during the start-up phase.

Goldman Sachs Foundation provided a $1 million grant to fund the Los Angeles chapter. The Sallie Mae Fund provided $1 million to launch the Washington, D.C., chapter. Boston leveraged a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The 2004 Bridgespan report found that in 2003, 37 percent of Posse’s revenue came from foundations, 22 percent from individuals, 22 percent from corporations, 14 percent from university partners and 5 percent from other fees.

The local chapter is charged with raising $1.5 million for its first three years of operation before it launches. That way, once it opens, staff can focus on building the program rather than raising money. Also, the local fundraising efforts build a network of support.

“We set the fundraising goal because we want to give the staff we hire in that city enough time to establish the program, and enough time for the program to get a reputation for being a great program in that city,” Bial said. “It really allows us to anchor the program in that city.”

Finding students

Once a chapter is established, the foundation works with the local school district to identify and recruit student leaders into a group of 10 that undergoes the eight-month training program. It prepares them for college by focusing on team building, cross-cultural communication, leadership development and academic skills.

This entire group then goes to a college or university, where the group meets quarterly with Posse staff and weekly with a campus mentor, receiving support throughout their college years.

The Posse central staff in New York City runs a tight ship during the start-up phase to ensure that the Posse model is replicated exactly.

All communications to the media are funneled through the Manhattan headquarters, so the public vision is expressed with a single voice. Most of Posse’s non-program activities are centralized at the national office: partnership development, fundraising, training, student career development and financial management.

Two regional vice presidents provide support and supervision. They are involved in hiring the staff, finding the office location and working with the new team. Maintaining a consistent culture is a crucial component of Posse’s expansion plans, the 2004 Bridgespan report noted. Posse frequently hires alumni and promotes from within. Former Posse mentors from partner colleges have led expansions in Boston and Chicago.

“They model the program, observe the staff and provide feedback,” said Matthew Fasciano, Posse’s chief operating officer. “We want to ensure success in year one.”

At Texas A&M, for example, Posse began at the top, reaching out to the state university’s president. That conversation led to a conference call in the fall of 2011. Then the wheels began turning. By May, the university was moving forward to host two posses in 2013 -- one from Houston and another from Atlanta.

About 95 percent of Texas A&M’s students are Texans, so linking up with Houston made geographical sense. The posse from Atlanta will focus on the STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And those students will come from a city that has sent few students to College Station.

“Atlanta is a completely new relationship for us,” said Joseph Pettibon, Texas A&M’s associate vice president for academic services. “Having a cohort coming in from Atlanta is quite appealing to us.”

A posse grows in Houston

A look at the organization’s recent experience in Houston sheds light on Posse’s disciplined approach.

Fasciano said Houston had been on Posse’s radar for a few years -- with 29 comprehensive high schools and 11 other, smaller high schools, it certainly had the diverse student base from which to select students.

By the end of 2011, the foundation decided to move forward. It raised $1.5 million, in large part from three major donors, which each gave $300,000: the Houston Endowment, the Brown Foundation and the Kresge Foundation. Posse contacted the Houston Independent School District in February to gauge its interest. Martha Salazar-Zamora, the district’s assistant superintendent of school support services, said Fasciano visited, called her on the phone and responded promptly whenever she had questions.

In May, Fasciano met with all of Houston’s high school principals. An additional meeting is planned for late May with the district’s guidance counselors and deans of instruction, who will recruit students.

Salazar-Zamora and the Houston ISD staff were sold.

“It seemed like a well-oiled machine,” Salazar-Zamora said. “And everything I read was so very impressive. They’d put together a board, and there were recognizable names on the board. When you are going out to the community to gather up some dollars, it’s always good to have that.”

By May, Posse had begun to hire its first-year Houston staff -- a site director, a program director, a trainer and a program coordinator. They’ll be on board by July, with the national Posse staff ready to help. Come fall, the district will begin the process of identifying students, who will be nominated by their high schools and Houston faith-based organizations that work with high school seniors.

About 100 students will come to an initial large-group interview as they vie for 30 Posse positions, with 10-student posses heading for Bryn Mawr, University of Texas at Austin, and Texas A & M. They will be run through a series of Posse activities designed to reveal those with leadership potential. About half of them will be asked back for individual interviews.

Innovating from the model

In recent years, Posse’s expansion has involved specialized groups of students, such as its STEM initiative, which has expanded to five cities over six years. This year, Posse launched its Veterans Posse program, which will recruit veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in a pilot initiative with Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Posse and Vassar announced the expansion in April as it sought 10 companies to join the Infor Corp. in donating $100,000 to launch the veterans program.

The Posse model, developed over 23 years in high schools, is now being transferred to the vast population of returning veterans. It’s a different model, because there is no associated urban school district with whom to partner. And Bial said they aren’t rushing to expand the program quickly.

True to Posse form, the organization will develop the model at Vassar and then see if it makes sense to grow.

“It’s a new initiative, and we believe in it,” Bial said. “We believed the cohort model could be applied, and we’re going to try it. When we try something new, we pilot it with one institution. We test it out, we iron out all the wrinkles, and when we feel good about it, we then replicate it in other cities with other schools.”

If this new version of the Posse model succeeds, the more than 20 million veterans in the U.S. will provide a deep pool of candidates to join in the Posse movement.

The growing ranks of Posse alumni are forming “a network of young leaders who are from every kind of background, represent every piece of diversity in this country,” Bial said. “They’ll be CEOs and doctors, and they’ll run law firms, and they’ll run for office, and they’ll be principals and superintendents, and they will more accurately reflect the voices of all Americans.”