Member Spotlight: Treehouse, Setting a BHAG and Achieving It

December 13, 2017

We didn’t know how we would do it, we didn’t know how we would fund it, but we knew it was our responsibility.

This is a story about a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) and a dramatic improvement of high school graduation rates for youth in foster care. Treehouse, a King County nonprofit serving youth in foster care since 1988, recently revolutionized how they serve their community by enacting some bold innovations, resulting in this substantial impact.

Jessica Ross, Chief Development Officer at Treehouse, explains how it all began. “Like most big projects, it started with a crisis.” In 2011 Treehouse received some startling data—high school graduation rates for youth in foster care were the lowest of any group in Washington State. This gave serious reason to pause and wonder. After all the work they do to support the success of these students, what wasn’t working?

They set an audacious 5-year goal: King County youth in foster care will graduate from high school at the same rate as their peers. And thus the Graduation Success program was created. After taking 6-months of discovery time to reflect on how to move forward, they had a plan. Looking at tactics that worked with other youth populations, they incorporated evidence-based practices into their strategy.

Treehouse engaged Education Specialists to work directly with students and build solid supportive relationships. They carry a tablet providing immediate access to all of the student’s information, including attendance and grades. They keep track of student progress and offer continuous and comprehensive support throughout their years in school. Treehouse also employed the Student Centered Planning program in which students themselves set their own goals and develop a plan to work towards those goals, building effective learning self-advocacy.

It worked. By 2017, the extended graduation rate for youth in foster care jumped from 49% to 89%. The rate includes both on-time and fifth-year graduations, and is 7 points above the rate for all students in Washington. Since 2012, Treehouse has doubled in scope and size in funding and service and has now expanded into Tacoma and Spokane.

Do you have an overwhelming challenge that your organization is ready to tackle? Learn from Treehouse’s success with these best practices:

1. Set a concrete goal. Jessica stresses the importance of defining their goal back in 2012. “We didn’t know how we would do it, we didn’t know how we would fund it, but we knew it was our responsibility.” Because they firmly and visibly established this intrepid goal, the community rallied around the cause. Through that support, the funding for the program came. And that positive movement motivated skilled staff to join the organization.

2. Understand what equity and inclusion means for your organization. Treehouse’s success exists in a greater cultural context. This meant recognizing the role equity plays in their work. Looking at their mission through the lens of race, kids of color are disproportionately represented in foster care. What’s more, there are systems in place that work against them. To address this challenge, Treehouse has authentic conversations with youth about navigating those systems. Every staff member at Treehouse has a list of professional goals, including equity goals, and at each staff meeting they have an equity exercise.

3. Don’t duplicate service. Treehouse worked within the network of nonprofits that already interact with the youth that they serve. Jessica advises to partner with other organizations whenever possible, but also make sure you are doing what you need to do and doing it well.

Treehouse staff pictured above.

Founded in 1988, Treehouse is Washington’s leading nonprofit organization addressing the academic and other essential support needs of kids in foster care. Treehouse helps more than 7,500 youth each year through programs that focus on their academic success, fulfill key material needs, and provide important childhood experiences every child deserves. Learn more at Read more about Graduation Success and other programs on Treehouse’s blog. Treehouse has been a Washington Nonprofits member since 2012.

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