Bethany Rubin Henderson: Executive Director, DC Scores

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Bethany Rubin Henderson, a nationally recognized social entrepreneur; Echoing Green Fellow; and recent White House Fellow, became DC SCORES Executive Director in 2014. Bethany’s career has spanned the social, for-profit, and government sectors. While in the White House, Bethany coordinated the 2013 Youth Jobs+ initiative and participated in developing My Brother’s Keeper, a public-private partnership focused on helping boys and young men of color get and stay on track cradle to career. In 2008, Bethany founded City Hall Fellows, an award-winning, nonpartisan, post-college local government service corps, raising more than $4M to launch and build the organization during the recession. City Hall Fellows uses service-learning principles to prepare young people to take active civic leadership roles in their own hometowns.

Previously, Bethany was a trial attorney at international litigation firm Quinn Emanuel, where she won an award from the California State Bar Association for her pro bono work helping special needs low-income students obtain the education to which the law entitles them. She also helped build out the Center for Social Entrepreneurship at George Mason University. Bethany earned her JD at Harvard Law School and graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned both an MA and BA in Political Science.

How did you get into the industry?

I did not follow a straight line into the “industry” of social impact. After college -- I got my masters and bachelors degrees together -- my parents pushed me to jump right to law school.  I was determined to defer that for a year, and stumbled into the campus career center, where I found a gap year program for something called the  “NYC Urban Fellows.”  It sounded fun.  And it sounded like not law school!  The application was due the next morning, so I stayed up all night writing the application and asked my professors to change my law school references to one for that job.  Incredibly - after a grueling full-day interview - I got the Fellowship. Being a NYC Urban Fellow was a truly life-changing professional experience. It changed my thinking about how to leverage policy for meaningful on-the-ground impact and about what young people can do in government.  It was a great experience, but like any “dream job” there were issues.  These issues led me to think “if I ran the world, how would I do it better?”  This is how I got into the nonprofit world.  Law school remained inevitable, so I practiced law for a few years, but the idea of this stuck with me -- I was determined to be a social and philanthropic entrepreneur.  After years of discussing my “big ideas”, finally my husband and my best friend pushed me to “put up or shut up.”  So I did.  I was lucky to be at a law firm that supported my dream, so I went part time there while I dipped a toe in the water about launching a new social venture, to see if my ideas were valid.  They were, and I soon dove in.

Any emerging industry trends?

In the social impact industry and social innovation world, a big trend is a move away from thinking that only nonprofits can drive social impact.   As more for-profit and hybrid organizations measure and hold themselves accountable for their social - not just financial - impact, there is an increased understanding that the back-end and organizational structure is simply a tool, not the outcome, and with this comes opportunities for investment.  (In fact, this even happened on a recent episode of Billions on Showtime!)  So there are some privatization and VCs coming into the social impact world, which of course comes with pluses and minuses.  Likewise, more traditionally purely for-profit companies are considering their social impact, which encourages more meaningful engagement with their impact on the communities their employees work and live in and building a spirit of service into core business operations.

In the youth development and local education sector, the main thing we’re seeing is increased attention paid to social/emotional outcomes for kids, and how kids’ social-emotional well-being impacts everything else they do.  It’s not just about providing instruments, experiences, or tools to children, it’s a much more holistic approach, and one that is highly cognizant of the social and emotional development process and effect on kids’ well-being.  

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

This may be unique to being a non-profit in DC, but almost all of DC SCORES’ grant funding is parcelled out in one-year terms, so essentially we have to start over and re-raise our budget from scratch each year.  It’s challenging to be strategic and nimble in that environment, especially because our fiscal year rarely aligns with any funder’s grant schedule.  Also, institutional grants in DC tend to be relatively small, so we have to do volume work in applications, knowing that, rather than depending on a few large donors, we need a lot of smaller donors.  Nonprofit donors want to see evaluation and metrics -- they want to know where their money is going -- so there is a lot of reporting, evaluation, and program analysis to comply with donor needs.  Similarly, nonprofits always have to overcome the “overhead myth” -- that is, what percentage of a donation goes directly to program goals and deliverables.  Few donors like to hear that their donation covers daily necessities rent or administrative staff salaries, but of course paying those things is non-negotiable and important for retaining a high-quality workforce that drives measurable, meaningful impact, so it’s a delicate balance.  And so too is recruiting and maintaining a staff in an expensive city; people shouldn’t have to trade dedication to mission for financial security, but our culture expects them to.  Finding ways to keep our staff happy and motivated despite that reality is a challenge, although one we’ve successfully navigated, with a loyal and passionate team.

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

A little history about DC SCORES:  it is one of the largest non-profit youth development organizations in Washington, DC.  DCPS teacher--and Teach for America alumna--Julie Kennedy founded DC SCORES in 1994 to meet the needs of a group of 15 at-risk girls with little to do after school. Ms. Kennedy worked with her fifth-grade students that first year to craft a holistic program. She realized that bonds between teammates built on the soccer field forged a supportive community for poetry workshops -- which, in turn, built literacy skills and a forum for self-expression. The development of leadership skills through healthy competition prepared students to act as agents of change in their communities through service-learning projects. Soccer, poetry, and service-learning. Body, mind, and heart. A unique model was born. DC SCORES now provides year-round expanded learning programs for more than 2,800 children (half boys, half girls, 98% children of color, mostly 3rd-8th graders) each year at 58 schools and recreation centers across the city, in DC neighborhoods characterized by entrenched poverty.  DC SCORES also serves as the hub for a national network, America SCORES, which serves over 12,000 children across the US and Canada.

At DC SCORES we envision a city where every child - no matter their family income - experiences the joys of childhood: sports, arts, service, and being part of a team.  Where every child is empowered to find academic success and grow into an emotionally and physically healthy teen and adult.  Where every neighborhood supports and celebrates its children and their accomplishments on and off the playing field.

My current overarching vision for DC SCORES is to grow the organization to sustainably serve every child who needs us.  We have a waiting list of around 20 schools, and every new participant we can add is a win.  The keys to accomplish that vision are to solidify multi-year funding, build multiple multi-year partnerships, and get our story told. While families in the neighborhoods we work in know us well and trust both our brand and reputation, few other people outside the local youth development sector in the DC metro region (or nationally) know we exist.  Given the realities of the philanthropic ecosystem we operate in, to sustainably serve every child who needs, we need to flip from being DC’s best-kept secret to its worst-kept secret.   My vision for DC SCORES is really no different than what the vision has always been for the organization since its founding:  to serve our community and better the lives of local children in need through our unique blend of soccer, service learning, poetry and teamwork.      

What's next for the Business in the near future?

We’re entering a very exciting period for DC SCORES, highlighted by our 25th Anniversary and the opening of the new D.C. United soccer stadium, Audi Field (we are now D.C. United’s official community partner).  We also have several long-term goals, including:  

Expansion of our corporate relationships: We are making a concerted effort to diversify our funding portfolio to balance out our reliance on local foundations and government support and increase multi-year support. After our second year of our official D.C. United partnership, we are confident that there is room to grow and much opportunity in the corporate sector.

Focus on middle school supports: DC SCORES is focusing squarely on our middle school participants, in an effort to remove barriers to their participation. Nationwide statistics show that middle school girls, in particular, disproportionately drop out of sports participation -- and we’ve seen echoes of that trend in DC SCORES programming. We’re providing targeted supports to middle school sites and focusing on building relationships with students, families, and school administrators -- to ensure that we set clear standards with coaches and ensure high program quality regardless of site or neighborhood.

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?

First, we will continue to leverage our partnership with D.C. United to increase MLS-level opportunities for DC SCORES’ poet-athletes and coaches and to elevate our brand among DC’s soccer fans, with an eye towards converting them to DC SCORES fans, volunteers, and donors.  In 2015, D.C. United made DC SCORES its official community partner. The MLS team made this decision was made in order to embrace the social responsibility of attending to the region’s most in-need children by expanding DC SCORES’ youth soccer program throughout Washington D.C.’s highest poverty wards. In our first two years of this strategic partnership, we’ve focused on creating opportunities for DC SCORES’ participants and coaches to have meaningful MLS experiences and soccer elevations, integrating D.C. United’s former youth programming into our own, and educating each other about our businesses and how we can support each other.  Over the next several years, our shared focus is on sustainably growing DC SCORES’ programming to serve every kid who needs us.

Second, we plan to make DC SCORES the “worst kept secret in town.”  To that end, we have hired our first Director of Communication & Marketing -- a former TV producer and executive -- who will be our “chief storyteller” -- someone who can be an ambassador for our brand, execute on a strategic communication plan, and elevate our reputation and media across social and traditional platforms.  DC SCORES achieves amazing things, but in order to sustainably grow to serve every child who needs us, we need to be better at sharing what we do and our impact. Giving us a bigger stage and better creative will have a long-tail impact on our business, making fundraising easier, increasing our visibility, and generally modernizing our communication practices, bringing a commercial sensibility to a non-profit organization.  

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)

About six weeks after I took the Executive Director position at DC SCORES our single biggest funder -- one that we had expected, based on communications with my predecessor, to provide 15-20% of our annual budget for the new fiscal year that was fast approaching -- changed focus without warning (only notifying us when I called to introduce myself).  In reliance on that funding, in the year before I came on board, DC SCORES had hired several additional staff and made going-forward plans based on a budget that was no longer accurate.  We had no cash reserves to mitigate the impact of the funder’s decision, yet a commitment to thousands of DC children and families who were depending on us.

I spent my first year at DC SCORES responding to that crisis. We treated the challenge as a catalyst for internal changes to strengthen long-term sustainability. It was a challenging, time-consuming, and painful experience that including re-evaluating everything about what we do and how we do it.  As an indicator of both how serious the situation was and the importance of the Board’s role in organizational governance, at one point I even told DC SCORES’ Board of Directors that I wouldn’t stay and keep working on the problem unless they actively considered firing me, since I was the single biggest line item on the books (obviously DC SCORES expends much more on programming than on my salary, but program expenses are incurred across hundreds of small increments). Ultimately, working collaboratively with Board and staff, we not only addressed the financial difficulties head-on (and ultimately were able to secure replacement funding), but also we trained and deployed board members in new, more accountable ways to help lead our fundraising and financial management.  On the staff level, we reorganized roles and responsibilities across the entire organization, both development and program, and made difficult decisions about staffing.  As a result, we greatly strengthened DC SCORES’ organizational resilience and effectiveness.

I’m pleased to report that, despite some very tough times, we came through this process with minimal impact on kids -- which matters more than anything else.  And we all learned a lot too -- how to turn around a non-profit, how to more effectively manage complicated financials, how to strengthen our Board’s involvement in oversight, and more.  This was very much trial by fire, and, by turning a tough situation into a proud moment, I learned a lot about the nonprofit business in general, but most of all about the strength of DC SCORES’ program and the resiliency of the DC SCORES team.  I already had big shoes to fill here, replacing a very popular longtime ED, and that, coupled with the real-time funding crisis, was without question my most difficult time here.

Ideal experience for a customer/client?

There are four cornerstones that help build the ideal experience for our constituency:

FUN:  DC SCORES only works if it’s fun.  Kids deserve to enjoy what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with.  Our program sessions and events need to be stress-free, enjoyable, and a time where kids can be kids, enjoying competition, laughing, learning, and -- even when intricate parts of the experience require concerted effort  -- having fun.

SAFETY:  We are responsible for the physical and emotional well-being of our poet-athletes and our coaches.  For kids who often have little consistency in their daily lives, DC SCORES and our coaches provide a consistent, reliable, structure and safe space -- not just physically, but also emotionally -- year in and year out.  To have that impact, we need both children and their families  to trust their well-being to us, so safety (physical and emotional) is top of mind in all we do.  

MEANINGFULNESS:  Participation in DC SCORES should be meaningful -- it’s more than just joining a soccer team, or getting up on stage with friends, or doing fun projects -- it’s a mind-body-soul experience for children that forms lasting friendships, and instills the values of teamwork, leadership, and commitment.  

TRUST:  We have to earn and maintain the trust of our children, coaches, teachers, schools, sponsors, families, funders and partners.  We have very unique and widely diverse stakeholders, and all of them need to see that in putting their trust in us -- whether that’s as a donor, a principal inviting DC SCORES into their school building, or allowing their child to join DC SCORES -- we’re worthy of that trust.  

How do you motivate others?

I have three pillars that I use to lead and motivate:

Trust:  I always try to earn (and re-earn) the trust of our board, staff, students, sponsors, and other stakeholders.  I am accountable, reachable, reliable, and willing to dive into any task.  I also set clear guardrails and high expectations for everyone on our team, then give them leeway to do their best work without micro-management from above. I believe in trust but verify, with accountability should anyone violate the trust given them. Celebrate successes:  We are big on public praise and private discipline at DC SCORES.  We always find things to celebrate at every staff and Board meeting (we call these “big ups”) and make sure that everyone on our team not only enjoys and is proud of what we do, but knows their contributions are appreciated.  

Lead as needed:  I strive to lead appropriately at all times and adaptably in different situations -- i.e., from the front, side, or behind.  I believe in total transparency, staying out of the way of experts (including my own staff), fostering an atmosphere of teamwork, and adapting my approach to the personalities and circumstances of each situation in which I’m called upon to lead.  Depending on what is happening, on any given workday you may find me at the front of the room visibly leading the charge, working alongside team members (e.g. building soccer goals or developing a budget together), or sitting back in a team meeting and letting others take the lead.

Career advice to those in your industry?

One general tip and one specific tip.  In general, never stop learning.  Use your own judgment, and let your decisions be informed by your experiences, but always learn, whether from books, people, situations, or observation.  Always learn.And, my less fun but equally important specific tip:  learn accounting and how to read financial statements!  It may not be fun, it may not be something you’re experienced in, but if your goal is to have lasting impact, you have to be able to understand the financial situation of your organization at any moment.  Because impact isn’t free, and insufficient or mismanaged financials can wreck even the best programs and ideas.

My NativeAdVantage:

What do I do best?

At DC SCORES it’s imperative to find a “win-win” even when there’s not always an obvious one.  It’s also important to get buy-in from our various stakeholders, who often have divergent interests.  So, with that in mind, I think what I do best is move fluidly between the forest and trees, while always keeping the “north stars” and big picture in mind.  In simpler words: being focused yet nimble!    

What makes me the best version of myself?

I’m the best version of myself when I’m encouraging others around me to be the best they can be.  When the team is clicking and the infrastructure is supporting that, we accomplish amazing things with a pretty small staff.  Having an organization that can function without micro-management and a team that consistently gives their all because they want to, not because someone is looking over their shoulders, makes me shine and feel like I’m doing the best I can to make DC SCORES thrive.  When all of this is happening, I am the best professional version of myself.  

What are my aspirations?

In general, I aspire to do a little good and have fun along the way.  

Specifically, my professional aspiration is to sustainably grow DC SCORES to serve every child that needs us.  We have over 20 schools in Washington DC on a waitlist to get into our program.  Because of the sector, town, and time we’re in, we have to re-raise our entire budget from scratch every year.  If we can get out of this cycle and create sustainable multi-year funding streams, we can be more strategic and consistent in supporting the community.

My personal aspiration is to have a great family dynamic and, with my husband, raise smart, cool, enlightened kids.   And, not to be overlooked, another overall aspiration that straddles my family and my career is to have the best possible work-life juggle.  I say juggle, not balance, intentionally. Balance evokes a static image, and the notion of constantly teetering on the edge of being out of balance.  Not only do I find that vision depressing, it’s simply not practical for a working mom whose job doesn’t fit neatly into 9-5 with a working spouse whose job doesn’t fit neatly into 9-5 co-parenting two active elementary schoolers whose schedules don’t fit neatly into 9-5 while also taking of a house, a dog, and a lizard. I am constantly juggling among the important priorities in life, and different facets of my life regularly move and up and down the priority ladder depending on what is happening in any given moment -- much like balls when you juggle them.

My Biggest Success?

I am currently living my biggest success:  working as a social entrepreneur, and keeping DC SCORES thriving, growing, and serving the community.  But since this is still an ongoing work, my biggest completed success occurred when I left a high-paying, high-powered job as a litigator to start a local government service corps, City Hall Fellows, and built it from scratch while relegated to bedrest on my couch while pregnant and living in a city other than where the organization was operating.  

When I started City Hall Fellows, it was definitely not THE right time to undertake this crazy venture. I was on the verge of being put up for partner at a big  law firm, my husband had just joined a risky tech start-up, and we were trying to have a baby.  Still, I leapt. Three months after I left the law firm and its comforting, steady, six-figure paycheck behind, I got pregnant with my first kid.  Less than a year later, the economy crashed, and took with it my dreams that I would be able to fully support my family anytime in the near future running City Hall Fellows.  But, through hard work, persistence and maybe a bit of luck, the organization survived and sustained and made a big impact on multiple cities and multiple lives.  And that baby who put me on bedrest is now a beautiful, vibrant, crazy tall 9 year-old with a fierce, high-energy 7 year-old sister.

My Most Challenging Moment?

The beginning of my career in social impact work was my most challenging moment.  I was on a partnership track at a big law firm with the possibility for a 7-figure salary in a few years dangled in front of me.  When I told the founding partners that I was leaving to start a nonprofit,  they reminded me how much money I was leaving on the table.  As I told them at the time, “I wish money did it for me-- it would probably make my life a lot easier.”  But at my core I’m a social entrepreneur -- I thrive on mission and growth, and spending my time on things  that are meaningful, important and transformative.  I was determined then - and remain determined now - that life’s too short to do otherwise.

That doesn’t mean following my passion has been easy. It’s been hard. Circuitous. Nothing like I expected. Filled with false starts, dead ends, and unplanned detours. Lots of doors slammed in my face. But that’s okay – those false starts and dead ends, those detours and closed doors, they opened windows to so many incredible experiences I would have missed out on otherwise. 

I’ve survived soul-crushing lows. Like the recession almost forcing me to shut down the organization I left biglaw to start, City Hall Fellows.  Like narrowly escaping death and becoming temporarily homeless after carbon monoxide leaked into my apartment building and killed my neighbors.  It was pure dumb luck that my husband and I weren’t home at the time.

Challenging moments are inevitable.  I do the best I can to prepare for those that I can foresee, and have learned to live with ambiguity, to be nimble and adapt to those that can’t be foreseen.  

My Motto?

I don’t really have a motto, but I do have three pieces of advice that I’ve learned throughout my career, try to live by, and share when possible:

Lesson Number 1: Don’t wait for someday

There are a lot of things I don’t know, but one thing I do know is that if you wait for THE right time to try something new, life will pass you by.  Someday will never come.  I learned this the hard way.

In my case, I put off pursuing my dream of starting a national service corps for almost a decade, because I was waiting for THE right moment.  It never came. Years went by as I worked my way up in corporate America.  I was earning great money.  Yet, as time passed, I realized that every free waking moment, I was thinking about this service corps I wanted to build.  I dreamed about it every night.  So even though I was terrified that I might be derailing my life and everything I’d worked so hard to build, I made the choice not to wait for someday.

While there is never a PERFECT time to take big risks, I think you can pick one of the BETTER times to try something new.  And in doing so, make mistakes -- learn from them.  Have good relationships and bad ones -- learn from them.  Have lots of adventures where you can’t predict the ending -- learn from them too.  And always surround yourself with people who will give you a hug when you fall down, and give them lots of hugs when they need it, too.  Because when things get hard, it doesn’t mean you’re no good, it just means you leveled up.  But above all, don’t wait for a someday that may never come.  

Lesson Number 2: Find your superpower and use it relentlessly to make the world a better place.

In this golden age of TV, it seems like every time you open Netflix there is a new character with awesome superpowers.  But it’s not just fictional characters who have superpowers.  Real-life superpowers aren’t like in tv or the movies.  None of us can control the weather or become invisible or fly like a speeding bullet – as much as we might daydream about it. But each and every person has something inside themselves that they are uniquely able to do.  For example one of my superpowers is dogged persistence.  When I set my mind to doing something, I just keep plugging away no matter what obstacles appear.   

Once you figure out your superpower, look for ways to use it as a force for good.  Find something you’re passionate about.  It might be healing the sick, exploring the universe, or rebuilding cars.  Maybe it’s playing soccer, helping those less fortunate, creating art that inspires, a beautiful singing voice, a way with words, understanding numbers, or even building a business. Then deploy your superpower in service of your passions to leave the world just a little bit better than you found it.  Because after all, what good is a superpower if you don’t use it for good?

Lesson Number 3: The 20-year-rule

When faced with any decision, big or small, ask yourself “20 years from now, will I kick myself if I didn’t try it?”  That is, close your eyes and imagine 20 years from now … how important is this thing you’re agonizing over.  Will you regret having NOT done it?  What will the older future you most regret NOT doing?  Your gut will show you the way.  And if an immediate answer doesn’t come to mind, sleep on it.  The unconscious mind is about 200,000 times more powerful than the conscious one.

A really cool thing about the 20 year rule is that it forces you out of the grip of immediate fear.  It gives you perspective. Yes, on some level, every choice you make WILL affect the rest of your life.  But not every choice you make will affect the rest of your life EQUALLY. And the reality is that, after you make a decision, most of the time you STILL can’t control what happens. So the trick is to only spend time agonizing about the few things that truly matter and let all the other ones go. Putting yourself in the shoes of future you makes that a whole lot easier. Analysis paralysis tends to go away when you stop worrying about what you “SHOULD” do, and instead consider what you’ll most regret NOT trying.

My Favorite People/Role Models?

My dad once told me that “all famous people are just people too.”  I’ve been lucky enough to have met many inspirational and famous people -- presidents, Supreme Court justices, stars of sport and screen -- and all of them are just people too.  The concept of idealizing role models feels unfair to me, since we’re all flawed. I’m most impressed and inspired by people who put in the effort to rise up to or above their circumstances (whatever they may be) and challenges, and lift up others along the way.

My Favorite Places/Destinations?

I would always pick visiting a new place versus any place I’ve already been, even a favorite.  I want to see everything, and to show my daughters the world.  My family is big on DIY travel and this almost always leads to an amazing experience, and a real taste of the place we’re visiting.  Most of all, when travelling to any new destination I like to spend time with locals and see their world through their eyes.

That said, I was born and bred in southern Louisiana and I always love going home!  

My Favorite Products/Objects?

I’m an experience person, not a product person, but I’m so proud of DC SCORES, that I make sure I’m always branded, so give me a comfy DC SCORES tee and I’m happy.

My Current Passions?

I am passionate about developing young civic leaders, about giving kids the ability to have life-altering experiences, and then to reinvest what they’ve learned to build up their communities.  For example, we were able to help  Uniyah, a 10 year-old DC SCORES poet athlete travel recently  to Switzerland as the USA representative of the Eleven Campaign, a non-profit documentary bringing together 11 soccer-playing children from across the world.  I’ve worked hard this year to help nine DC SCORES teens travel to Moscow, Russia, as the only team representing the United States of America in the Street Child World Cup.  These teens -- all of whom live in high-poverty neighborhoods --- will be playing soccer on the international stage and, afterwards, advocating both abroad and back her at home about the issue of youth homelessness.  I’m blown away by these kids’ grace, poise, and potential. It’s amazing and inspiring what kids overcome to thrive in DC SCORES, and the passion for enabling that motivates me every day.