A chaotic kind of love: starting a successful non-profit

August 6, 2010

LindawithStudentThis is part of an ongoing series of interviews I am doing with women entrepreneurs, and part of the kickoff to a series on social entrepreneurship.

Recently, I spoke with Linda Mornell, (pictured at left with a Summer Search student) the founder and former CEO of Summer Search, an educational and character building program that gives low-income students the opportunities and support to transform their lives. Linda, A former psychiatric nurse, spoke about the challenges of starting a non-profit organization, which now has seven offices. She also addresses the potential hazards of being too invested in your company.

What is Summer Search?
Summer Search essentially became a leadership and character development program. We look for kids who shows signs of altruism. The alumni are incredibly self-aware and empowered individuals who are very committed to their own personal growth and helping others.

I got the idea in 1989 and the first group of students in San Francisco went out in the summer of 1990. I was 45 years old and my youngest had just started college. It began during a transitional part of my life.

What was your strategy for making your idea work?
As I reflect back nothing seemed to be on purpose. It was just so random and chaotic. I was a nurse. I followed orders. I never thought in a million years that I would be an entrepreneur. I had no idea what to do with these kids. There was one program, Global Routes, that wanted one student to go to Bali. So I put him on a plane over there, to the horror of his school teacher. It was his first time ever on a plane. I hoped for the best.

John Osterweis, who was the first president of the board, was able to tolerate the craziness and change, which allowed me to go in 10 directions at once. He rolled with it. My goal was to have 50 high school students a year. The first year I interviewed around 20 kids and the second year I had about 50. By year three, there were 87 kids in the program. Now there are 800.

What contributed to the initial chaos?
I couldn’t get the schools to nominate kids for the program. They didn’t understand it and they didn’t trust me initially. What I didn’t realize is how many people try and access public schools for their own gain. Everybody has a different program. By year three, I had four individual teachers that were committed to the program and referred individuals every year and that list continued to grow. Also, there was a language barrier — some kids didn’t speak English.


Jabali Sawicki, a Summer Search Scholar of 1995 and now the principal of Excellence Charter School in Brooklyn, talks about his experience as a Summer Search scholar and how it has transformed his life.

How did the first year go?
The students completed their trips but as they came home, they withdrew and retreated and didn’t return calls and it became clear to me that the trips were unsettling and having a single intervention was not helpful — probably destructive.

That made me understand poverty like never before. There’s an incredible book on repeating cycles of poverty called “Random Family” about a girl raised in the Bronx and her impoverished life. It is so good, but so sad at the same time. I realized my core idea was good, but that the intervention period had to be longer and the kids needed more support. So it became two summers, starting with rising high school juniors and mentoring throughout high school, which eventually became college counseling for seniors as well.

Were you running the program by yourself?
I ran it alone until 1995. There was one other woman who did part-time secretarial work. By 1995, I was working with almost 100 kids by myself. It started with the idea of helping some kids and it dawned on me that I could significantly and profoundly change their lives. It wasn’t just a scholarship to a summer activity, but a life changing experience. Once I understood what I had done and what I was creating, I just became obsessed. By then other people were recognizing this too so other teachers got more involved and philanthropists in the community got more and more engaged. And there are a lot of people that you never hear of that give money to help kids.

What experience did you bring to the program other than having a background in psychiatry?
I brought some personal experience growing up in a family dominated by addiction. My father’s family was almost 100% alcoholic. But he was a diabetic so that precluded him from being an alcoholic. Instead, he was a life long, compulsive gambler.

What has been the greatest challenge in running this type of program and business?
Managing myself and my time. I can’t believe how hard I worked. I loved it and I was incredibly passionate about it, but I would get pretty tapped out. I was very single-minded. I think everyone around me got pretty sick of hearing about Summer Search. The work was energizing as well as draining. One thing that helped is that I kept running, but there wasn’t a lot of balance.

Also, the constant need to fundraise is a big challenge. I had this rule that I had to make three calls a day. It’s such a strange thing to ask people for money. I would sit down, hyperventilating and say, “Ok. Pick up the phone and make the call.”

But it had a very different model from other non-profits. I was very rigorous about doing my homework. I was determined not to operate from a deficit or scarcity mentality. I never turned a student down because I didn’t have the money. If I had a student I would find the money. It takes $5,000 to fund one student for a year.

What’s the hardest thing you have to teach these students?
When you’re programmed to fail or see yourself as an outsider, it’s very unnerving to see yourself as successful. When they’re given so much attention and love and care, they don’t know how to deal with it. They tend to pull back. So we make them aware that we know they will help others when they are able and ready to. We are hard on them when they pull back.

Adolescents are complicated and erratic so most people want to control them. And, of course, they want to control themselves. But not a lot of people truly want to listen and that’s part of the culture that’s been passed down to the new Summer Search staff — not only do they love the kids but they need to listen to them.

Learning how to listen actively is a skill. Active listening is like being a sponge. It’s just taking in everything you are hearing without thinking about what you’re going to say next. We had a phrase for it: “listen longer.”

Are there any unintended consequences of this program?
There’s a staggering list of colleges that the kids are going to. Many of them have full rides to college. We’re creating a product that private colleges want and are lacking: Low income kids that will go off and actually complete four years of college. We’re becoming known for a certain constellation of characteristics for students.

What happens to Summer Search students after college?
61% of alumni are involved in careers that provide service to others.

How many students graduate from college and the program?
89% graduate from college. That statistic differentiate ourselves from any other program and that’s why private colleges are so interested in us. Everybody looks good when kids from severely deprived backgrounds go the distance. 100% of our kids graduate from high school. The real drop-off of students comes between the initial interview and the student taking hold — maybe around 20-30% of kids drop-off. Once they realize it’s not a free summer trip, but that they have to start looking inward, stop blaming others, call in once a week and start the mentoring process, once that dust settles, the kids tend to stay in the program. It’s intense.

So why have you recently distanced yourself from Summer Search?
It was time. Being a founder is in many ways like being a parent. Your child can’t fully develop and mature if you’re still hanging on to them. And that’s true for founders of all organizations. Most charismatic founders don’t let go and that’s why the program doesn’t last beyond them.

Has your stepping down been a big change for Summer Search?
We’re actually in the middle of a big search for the next successor since Jay Jacobs is stepping down now. The hope is that the new CEO will pretty dramatically expand the program, which is the reason why we’re in the midst of a capital campaign as well. Whoever takes over needs to have a vision, love for the kids, and psychological awareness, meaning an interest in looking in the underlying roots of problems and underlying roots of one’s own problems.

What’s your upcoming summit?
It’s our 20th year celebration. We’re in the midst of a capital campaign to raise $20 million during our 20th anniversary — 20 by 20. So far, we’ve raised about $16 million.

Looking back on things is there anything you would have done differently?
I should have been a little calmer. I was very critical of myself and the kids and the young staff I was training. A little less of an edge would have been better for everybody.

What would you tell someone who is just starting their career and wants to do something similar?
Anyone who wants to start their own non-profit foundation, needs to do extensive research. What else is being done that’s similar? There’s an overlap of services that’s just silly — all the different programs that offer college counseling or mentoring or youth development. There’s a tendency to be unaware of what other people are doing and I found that especially the case in the non-profit sector.

Secondly, spend a lot of time identifying board members. I had not done that. I got lucky.

Three, be completely committed and passionate about what you’re doing.

What has made Summer Search so successful?

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A chaotic kind of love: starting a successful non-profit is not only a timely piece for me but also inspiring as I am in the midst of starting The Character Building Project (CBP). Linda in her efforts with Summer Search displayed many virtues, not the least of which is perseverance. How might CBP learn further from linda and Summer Search?

Thank you,


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