Five years after merger, agency out of the woods: Big Brothers Big Sisters moving in the right direction

Big Brothers of Indianapolis and Big Sisters of Central Indiana merged five years ago in hopes of mentoring more at-risk children, but turnover at the top of the organization has made it hard to get the ball rolling.

The combined agency has had three leaders since the 2002 merger; revenue, which peaked at $2.3 million in 2003, has been up and down; and one-on-one mentor matches-its core activity-also declined.

Despite the challenges, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana finally appears to be making progress.

CEO Tonja Eagan, hired nearly a year ago, is still on the job and optimistic. Revenue is back on track, and the agency is poised to serve more children this year than it did immediately after the merger.

“A lot of funders love to support [the agency] because we’re helping boys and girls, and we specifically target ages 8 to 18,” CEO Tonja Eagan said. “That’s a group that almost any corporation wants to get behind.”

In the past year alone, BBBS’ local revenue has jumped from $2 million to $2.3 million and it is projected to reach $2.6 million in 2008.

The agency also has increased its partnerships with community groups who provide mentors for the children it serves. BBBS works with 110 churches-up from three in 2002-and has established volunteer programs at four area colleges and universities. The organization also added four corporate partners, for a total of seven.

“A lot of companies value social responsibility and encourage their employees to get involved in the community,” Eagan said.

Ramping up, cutting back

One of 414 chapters of the national Big Brothers Big Sisters organization, the Indianapolis-based agency matches adult mentors with at-risk youth. So-called “bigs” regularly spend time with their “little” siblings.

The agency experimented with a menu of other activities after the merger-at one time offering as many as 17 programs, including after-school tutoring.

“We had pressures from funders … and we did what they wanted us to do instead of what we needed to do,” Eagan said.

Now, she said, the local agency is back to concentrating on what it does best: traditional one-to-one mentoring. Even there, it has found ways to innovate.

Serving Children Impacted by Incarceration provides adult mentors to youth who have a family member in prison, for example. Already this year, nearly 110 such children have been served, almost three times as many as in 2006. Big Brothers Big Sisters also developed an institute that trains its mentors as well as others in central Indiana.

The Alliance of Youth Mentoring Agencies, also formed since the merger, is a collaborative effort among 30 mentoring organizations to share ideas, do combined marketing and recruitment, and work together to ensure quality mentoring throughout the city.

“Our vision is that all children who need and want a mentor have one,” Eagan said. “Our agency probably can’t do that alone, but we can certainly align with others to make sure more kids get mentors and that there’s more quality mentoring going on.”

Seeking efficiency

At the time of the local merger, only about five Big Brothers and Big Sisters chapters nationwide were still separate.

From a business perspective, the merger is a step forward, said not-for-profit management consultant Thomas A. McLaughlin of Grant Thornton in Boston.

“All the way from economical to managerial … it’s easier to run one larger organization [than two],” he said. “People may think it’s a sign of failure, but [merging] is beginning to become a sign of success.”

Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment supported the local merger, giving the agencies more than $500,000.

“These two organizations have a long history of being effective and this seems to have been a successful integration to try to serve more kids in the area,” spokeswoman Gretchen Wolfram said.

Still, progress has taken longer than expected.

McLaughlin was part of a successful Big Brothers Big Sisters merger in Texas that combined three agencies.

“When that happened, their fund raising went up and [one-to-one] matches went up-much more than expected,” he said.

Before the 2002 merger, the three chapters had 3,406 one-to-one matches per year, said BBBS North Texas CEO Charles Pierson. The combined chapter is on pace to have 7,325 matches by the end of this year.

The Texas agency’s revenue has increased as well, from $6 million in 2002 to an expected $10 million-plus this year.

Pierson said expenses have fallen 28 percent and quality numbers-how long the average match lasts, program outcome evaluation scores and satisfaction scores-all have increased.

The current not-for-profit environment is forcing organizations to work together to improve, McLaughlin said.

“Many people don’t understand the notfor-profit world is highly competitive,” he said. “They’re competing for donor dollars, staff, executive staff, board members.”

CEO problems

The local agency’s progress has been slow in large part because it has had three CEOs since the merger.

“When you don’t have someone driving the vision, making sure everyone is focused and is working together and collaborating, even just watching over the budget and being fiscally responsible … a lot of things can go off track,” Eagan said.

In fact, this is the first year since the merger that the agency is serving more children than it did five years ago. In 2003, Big Brothers Big Sisters matched 1,310 central Indiana children with adult mentors. By the end of this year, it expects to match 1,415 children and plans to add 300 more every year.

Eagan called mentor recruitment the organization’s “biggest challenge” despite its recent success.

“Without mentors, we don’t have a program, so that’s kind of scary,” she said.

To encourage a steady growth of oneto-one matches, the local agency has partnered with media outlets like Emmis Communications Corp. and local TV stations to get the word out.

“We’ve been focusing more on marketing and want to gain exposure with corporations by printing more corporate ads,” Eagan said.

So far, the progress is slow but steady.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana’s one-to-one matches last an average of 2.7 years, almost a year longer than the 1.8-year national average. And Eagan expects to line up about 750 new mentors this year-both to serve additional children and to replace mentors that are unable to continue the program.

With the merger complete and the numbers looking brighter, board member Debra Mesch said BBBS has no regrets.

“I don’t think that anybody on our board or individual stakeholders that are close to the organization have any doubt that this was a good decision,” she said.

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