This Spotlight is authored by guest writer Caitlin Kelly and kicks off a new blog series by the Case Foundation featuring Be Fearless stories from the field. Follow along with us as we meet people and learn about organizations that are taking risks, being bold and failing forward in their efforts to create transformative change in the social sector. 

Want to talk about fearlessness? Try bridging the growing chasm between the privileged and the underserved by linking arms between volunteer mentors and youngsters in need of adult care and attention. As CEO of Indianapolis’ Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS)part of the nation’s largest donor and volunteer supported mentoring networkthat’s Darcey Palmer-Shultz’s job, and mission in life.

“The demand for services is so high and getting enough volunteers is hard,” Palmer-Shultz explains. To address this challenge she is creating an innovative, methods-based approach designed to not only bring together the right combinations of mentors and mentees, but also to help them stay together. Palmer-Shultz leads a team whose daily goals include reducing the wait time of the 500 local youngsters hoping for a match, some who wait two years or more. Throughout the process, she is committed to being transparent about the obstacle-riddled journey with funders, staff, volunteers, parents and the rest of the community.

As she rose professionally, she began to see the many challenges of retaining “Bigs” (the volunteers), some of whom quit within months, sometimes due to the shock that comes from encountering the gritty realities of a life lived in poverty. Thanks to the suggestion and connections of a board member, Palmer-Shultz took the highly unusual risk of applying Six Sigma principles—a corporate byword today—to a long-established service-oriented organization. Six Sigma, which came into use in 1986 at Motorola is a detailed process of systems improvement, which uses quality management methods and is popular among Fortune 500 corporations. Once enacted, it’s meant to significantly improve output and efficiency, reduce costs and improve customer satisfaction.

Beginning in 2011, and continuing for the next two years, Palmer-Shultz and her team used the Six Sigma methodology to gather data and implement 24 program improvements. Most essential was improving retention, because, as she says: “Length plus strength equals positive outcomes;” matches lasting more than a year have been shown to boost “Littles’” (mentees) academic success, avoidance of risk behaviors and self-confidence. Thanks to the organization’s fearless decision, their retention rate has risen significantly—from 59.91 percent to 74.26 percent.

Was she nervous about the experiment? “Yes!” Palmer-Shultz easily admits. “It was a scary leap to make. We were, in effect, telling our board, a major corporate investor and our other stakeholders that we needed to make some major changes. We needed to do this better. We were terrified. We had no idea if it would work at the end of the day and there were moments I wondered, ‘Will people be mad at us?’ I didn’t want to let anybody down. But once we got into it and realized our numbers and what we could adjust, we felt almost a moral obligation to move forward.”

It also meant, de facto, focusing on and admitting to, failure. “Our retention rate was a pretty big failure.”

“I do think it’s unusual for one local affiliate to take on an initiative as big as this one on their own,” she says modestly. But her team learned a lot by taking that highly unusual risk—that poverty or an incarcerated parent made no difference to retention rates, but a commute longer than 20 minutes did. Female volunteers, they discovered, were more likely to end the match than males. Today, using the data, Palmer-Shultz’s staff sends out much more detailed pre-match overviews, including details about a Little’s strengths and obstacles, as well as their neighborhood, to better prepare volunteers.

The nerve-wracking Six Sigma implementation worked so well that the organization is doing it again for their next strategic planning process, 2014 to 2017. “The first iteration addressed emotional and life differences between Bigs and Littles,” she says. “This one will focus on how we can make their time together more intentional by giving them a roadmap of activities, ideas and experiences.”

Being fearless also means questioning BBBS’ long held beliefs about parents’ role and working with them, she adds. Parents who enroll their children in programming are sometimes treated like an obstacle rather than part of the solution, she says. “Many of them are really well-intentioned, but they’re just at their wits’ end. We need to treat them very respectfully as important partners.”

Fearlessness also means “facing some hard facts” about what works for the children they serve, and the volunteers they hope to retain. ‘It would be really easy to sit back. I think we can always do better. Are we really giving our volunteers the training they need?”

Armed with data, she’s now moving forward with a focus on the city’s four neediest neighborhoods. Of all the local groups within the BBBS national organization, 350 in all, 20 to 25 each year are given the National Quality Award, which Palmer-Shultz’s team won this year.


Feeling inspired? If you’re ready to begin your own Be Fearless journey start by downloading our free Be Fearless Action Guide and Case Studies.