Deborah Bial: We don't compromise

The founder of The Posse Foundation describes the way her organization has expanded successfully by staying focused on its mission and disciplined in its approach to expansion.

Deborah Bial is the founder and president of The Posse Foundation, an organization that sends teams -- or “posses” -- of underserved students to select colleges and universities together as a way of improving their chances of success.

Bial, who has master’s and doctorate degrees in education from Harvard University, got the idea of developing cohorts of promising high school students in underserved communities after a student told her that he would not have dropped out of college if he had had his “posse” there with him.

Since 1989, more than 4,000 public high school students have been identified, recruited and trained to receive four-year, full-tuition scholarships to attend colleges and universities that partner with Posse.

Bial has received numerous awards and grants, including a $1.9 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a 2007 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” She also designed the The Bial Dale College Adaptability Index, a college admissions tool that measures traits and characteristics often missed by standardized tests.

Bial spoke to Faith & Leadership about the processes that Posse uses to expand its organization. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Your organization has been praised for the disciplined and standardized way you have grown your program. Could you describe that process?

The Posse program started in 1989. The first 10 years, we developed the program. Then we felt like we were ready to replicate. So we started developing partners.

In 1999, we got a [federal] grant to test out whether or not we could do this in another city, and we opened our first replication site, in Boston.

Then we grew unbelievably fast. We figured out that being so disciplined and being so structured enabled us to replicate in a very clean and exact way.

Q: Your organization doesn’t conform to the stereotype that nonprofits are intuitively run by charismatic leaders. Do you ever feel you sacrifice creativity with your approach?

I don’t think so. I think you create an environment where the product is stellar no matter where you are. I think structure and discipline has guaranteed the quality of the Posse product.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t grow and develop creatively. We’re 23 years old now, and we’re still innovating.

For example, we have unveiled a new initiative that I’m excited about called the Veterans Posse program. I got a phone call from Cappy Bond Hill, the president of Vassar, and she said, “Would you consider doing a veterans posse?”

That’s not what we do. That’s not typical. But the idea just made so much sense. So when she called, I talked to the board; it took two seconds, and they said, “We’re in.”

So that’s new. It’s creative. We believe in it. We believed the cohort model could be applied, and we’re going to try it.

But we are unbelievably disciplined about how we design and develop that piece of what we’re doing. And 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.

Q: Is there any negative to the kind of standardization in the way you’re talking about?

Our growth is limited. We can’t just open anywhere.

Q: You have said that staying focused on your mission is part of your discipline. What is your mission?

I’ll just tell you in one sentence: we’re a national college access and youth leadership development program.

But 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.

To me, that’s so exciting -- it’s kind of like a new YPO [Young Presidents’ Organization].

It’s not the good-old-boys network. It’s not the network of people who have gone through the Greek system. It’s one that will more accurately reflect the demographics, the diverse demographics of our country.