The business world is changing. No longer can businesses continue to operate in using the old paradigm. Put your head down, shut up, and work harder no longer work as a motivators for your team.
This shift to culture-based business promises a different experience for all stakeholders. And when you and your entire team can live the values you have created that define your culture, job satisfaction and productivity soar. Need evidence? Follow Dan Price on social to see what he’s up to at Gravity Payments.
But here’s what’s really cool… when you run a nonprofit, you get to not only establish your values as a business, but can then apply those same values to your mission. That’s what Seth Ehrlich is up to over at SOS Outreach.
Seth applies the core values of SOS Outreach as part of their programming. See, SOS Outreach creates opportunities for underprivileged and inner-city kids to experience the magic found only in the mountains by getting them into the outdoors and connecting them with mentors who are steeped in the SOS Outreach culture. Courage, discipline, integrity, wisdom, compassion, and humility guide the team’s actions and these same values are core to the SOS Outreach engagement.
So what does this episode bring to the table? A great discussion of ways to engage your stakeholders from the framework of core values.
Seth and his team are amazing. Hope you enjoy the show.
Follow SOS Outreach on social media. Take the next step to get involved and engage through your passions.
Listen to the podcast here:
Living Your Values To Expand Your Mission With Seth Ehrlich
My guest is Seth Ehrlich. He is the Executive Director of SOS Outreach, which is this cool program that brings kids into the mountains, teaches them to ski, gives them access to a mentor who helps with their training and leadership growth. They take kids through this program from fourth grade through high school and beyond to help them become great leaders and give them opportunities that they may not have had otherwise. It’s a cool organization. I hope you check it out.
This show was fantastic. As a mountain man myself, I’m fully engaged with organizations that are doing this work and bringing people into the outdoors and letting them have these experiences at an early age. We chatted a lot about the program itself, how it’s structured, some of the things that they’ve had challenges with in the past, and how to create relationships with all of your stakeholders. It is a fun and informative conversation. I hope you enjoy it.
Seth, how are you?
I am great. How about you?
I’m doing well. At SOS Outreach, you do a ton of stuff for kids out in the outdoors, including a lot of winter sports stuff. Tell the audience and me a little bit more about what you guys have going on.
I’m Seth Ehrlich, Executive Director of SOS Outreach. I have worked at the organization and have been fortunate to call this my professional home for many years. In that time, I have engaged in some significant growth and development for the organization. We are founded on Vail Mountain in 1993.
The core highlight of SOS is that we use the power of individual recreation, particularly skiing and snowboarding, to build strong mentoring relationships between adults and kids. We engage service to the community and leadership development to set kids up to thrive long-term in their lives. It’s all about the power of the outdoors to change the trajectory of youth facing challenges in their lives.
You said you were founded on Vail Mountain. That’s a beautiful place to ski. Who are the types of kids that you work with typically?
SOS is 3,500 kids who we engage across fifteen locations. We have programs from Seattle to Detroit. The largest centers of operation are in Colorado, Utah, and Lake Tahoe, so the destination ski and skateboard communities. The kids who we work with, we work very closely with youth agencies and schools, partner organizations in each of the communities where we are. They’re the organizations that know the kids and have an ongoing relationship with them. We work with them and train our teachers and our counselors on the impact of SOS, and the progression of our curriculum, and then they identify the kids who can benefit from this.
Most notably, a lot of our kids are the ones who are excluded from the community. They do not have a community that they naturally fall into. Those are the kids who are attracted to SOS and who benefit the most from it. Particularly, in mountain communities, we see a lot of English as a second language, low-income participants, children of color, first-generation in the US. These are the kids who are excluded from what is the mountains, and they’re excluded from being a part of what is the mountain community, and they stand to benefit the most.
There’s a real, genuine connection fostered in a community that gets formed around sports.
How do those programs work in areas that aren’t located near mountains? Detroit is a little less inclined to have mountains nearby.
It is less inclined and it operates very similarly. In Detroit, there’s a resort, Mt. Brighton, about 1 hour or 45 minutes outside of the city. It’s the same opportunity. It’s different for the experience. We’re working with the same kids. We partner with the same schools and agencies. What’s different about Detroit, Chicago or Seattle is that a lot of the kids don’t even know that this is out there.
In the mountain communities, it’s very clear. A lot of their parents, connections or friends are working in the resort industry. They also physically see it. They look outside their school building in a lot of cases. They’re going to see the mountains and the hills, and they know that this is not something for them. That’s been brought to their attention time and time again. They have an affinity or an awareness of it.
In the cities, it’s the same thing though. It’s the same target for kids and the same opportunity of how to break down the barriers that are real and perceived for kids to get into the sports and into these activities so that they can build those strong relationships with each other and with adults. It’s different because they didn’t even know that Mt. Brighton is 45 minutes from where they are in downtown Detroit. They don’t know that Wellmont or Afton is outside of Chicago or Minneapolis, where Summit at Snoqualmie is outside of Seattle. It’s not even in their worldview of knowing that this is an opportunity for them.
You mentioned that you partnered with some other organizations to identify kids. What are some of the organizations that you and SOS Outreach partner with to get people into your programs?
In the mountain communities, we work with school districts, most specifically. We’ll work with the Eagle County School Districts in the Vail Valley or Summit County School Districts in Summit County, Colorado where Breckenridge, Keystone, Loveland, Copper, and A-Basin are. In the cities, we’re working more with youth agencies.
Big Brothers Big Sisters, Boys and Girls Club are two of the largest partners we engage with. The impact is the same. It’s just different partners we’re working with. The reason for that is our ability in mountain communities. The school districts are smaller, so we can have one relationship and engage all of the schools in Summit County, Colorado and Eagle County, Colorado.
When you get into a city school district, Chicago and Denver public schools, even at the scale of a lot of kids going, it’s still a pretty small program in the grand scheme of what Chicago public schools would be looking at for a program partner across the entire district. We’ve found a niche of how do we identify those more geo-located, the sites working in 1 or 2 communities, where we can build that strong long-term relationship with the agency and also with the kids involved because that’s where our curriculum thrives.
Tell us a little bit more about the curriculum and the program itself. There’s a mentor component to it that sounds similar to Big Brothers Big Sisters. Tell us a little bit more about how it works.
The primary target for SOS is that we start in fourth grade. That program is an introduction to skiing and snowboarding through professional lessons and everything that kids need to participate in. They’re going to get five days on the mountain. It’s also an introduction to core values and values-based learning. Core to everything that SOS does is our six core values of courage, discipline, integrity, wisdom, compassion, and humility. Those six core values touch all of what we do.
We start in that year one program. It’s building the community of kids who do not have it, building their connection into the mountains, three professional instructions, and then building their connection to a values-based learning experience. Years 2 through 5, that’s 5th grade through 8th grade, our mentor program comes into play. The kids are 4 kids to 1 adult mentor, so it’s a group-based mentoring model.
They’re getting at least a ten-day pass product, if not a season pass. They own their equipment, so they get to take it home. They’re going to do one day a month on the mountain as a mentor group with targeted conversations about goal setting and where they’re going. Also, one day a month off the mountain with progressive service and leadership experiences as they work through and as they age from 5th through 6th, through 7th, through 8th grade.
Examples of those, in 5th and 6th grade, they do more group-based service projects. Bell ringing for the Salvation Army, food pantry and food drives for the local food banks. When they get into 7th grade, so year 4 of the program, year 3 of the mentor program, they’re identifying a community issue. Whatever that issue is that’s important to them, they’re creating a project to address that issue. For us, we facilitate the conversation. It is about them finding agency in their lives and taking a leadership role and saying, “I can have an impact and can create change where I live.”
When we get into 8th grade, so year 5 of the program, kids deep dive into different styles of leadership and different leadership skills that they can develop within themselves to step into leadership roles across their lives. When they graduate from that part of the program and get into high school, 9th through 12th grade, that’s where they start to demonstrate those skills that they achieved through the previous 5 years as junior mentors.
They are paired alongside an adult mentor. It’s 1 junior mentor, 1 adult mentor, 1 group of 4 kids, and they are co-implementing the curriculum alongside that adult mentor. It is this progressive program that takes kids from learning values and community, to engaging in the community and having agency, to developing life skills, to then implementing those skills as you go through high school.
Does the program wrap up after high school? People could become mentors after they’ve been through the program, but is there college-level continued mentorship that’s going on?
Through 2020 and COVID, we dove deep into the impact of the organization and our opportunities. We’ve created an alumni network. We now have an alumni network. Anybody who is above high school who graduated from our programs is eligible to be a part of this network. We are stepping into a space of supporting our kids and engaging with them in career opportunities.
How can we plug them into careers through our connections to the industry? This incorporates internships, very targeted career-focused conversations that we’re providing for them, connections with our donors, board members and others. We’ve stepped into a new space and are expanding this reach of our programs in an official way.
Prior to this and the creation of the alumni network, there would be 5 or 10 kids who would call me about different life decisions that they had. That would happen with every previous team member of the organization or current team member. That worked but it also undervalues the opportunities that we can bring.
Over the course of several years, I’m looking at some of the stats on your site, there have been a huge number of kids that you’ve engaged and then mentors as well, and bringing on volunteers to help with the program. You have a whole host of different people that you have to get the word out to. Not only school districts and partner agencies but the kids and then all of the volunteers and mentors in the program as well. Have you found systems that have worked well for you to get that message out there?
The more clarity you have on the impact that you’re making and the importance of your programs in the community, the more success you will have in engaging meaningfully with your partners.
No, we have not. You’re right. This is what we’re now backing into, our success to date has been at the local level in the community. It is skiing, snowboarding, and individual recreation. It’s such a powerful place to connect. Our success has been in that mostly in-person connection and the community that gets formed around the sports, and the real genuine connection that gets fostered by it.
What we’re developing and strengthening is how to then connect, and this is where the alumni network is a part of it. It’s also how we are communicating to a broader audience, to the communities where we call home and we are working. There’s also the larger communication to the industry. We’re developing this. We have a lot of lessons and a lot more work to do.
As with any non-profit, there are always a lot of different things that are opportunities, but also maybe getting in your way. Is it a money issue? What’s the biggest challenge you face on a day-to-day basis?
Our most significant opportunity is our most significant challenge. We have a unique structure as an organization. We are a multi-site organization, non-affiliate, and non-franchise. All of our 15 locations and 3,500 kids engaged in the program are under one umbrella. That’s an extremely efficient and impactful model where we have consistent program operations and high-quality curriculum delivery. We’re able to leverage systems quite effectively to increase the impact that we have in each of the communities where we operate.
The challenge that’s associated with that model is that we’re not local. This is quite rare in the nonprofit community. Even national organizations operate with a franchise focus. The local representative of the national effort is a local franchise that has a local board, a local executive director, and local communications and engagement.
Our local engagement is our program team. That’s who we have in our communities, and high impact and high partnership value. We’re engaging with mountain resorts in an effective way and using the power of mountains to change the trajectory of kids’ lives. There’s a presence that we don’t have because of our structure and the local community that we need to overcome. That’s what we’re working on.
You have your mentor base and a few people in each area, but not the infrastructure that takes care of all the outreach and organization and all of that stuff. That sounds like that may be tackled remotely.
It’s tackled centrally. That’s what’s been our success because it’s one point of contact for mountain resorts or otherwise across multiple locations. For in-kind donations of jackets, goggles, gloves, hats, all of that can be managed through one call. It’s also leveraging one system. We have one chief fundraiser and we’re able to bring one national program director who’s overseeing all of the sites in our curriculum.
Also, we’re able to leverage higher quality evaluation and fidelity metrics in place because we’re able to leverage that across all of our sites. In the nonprofit community, it’s quite rare to operate in multiple sites. Often, the nonprofit community is engaged deeply in the community, and we are within our programs. We’re not within that storytelling and that larger engagement as effectively as we could be.
There’s a potential opportunity gap there with that being embedded in those communities. There’s a more of a local feel to it. Is that what you’re saying?
Yes, particularly when I reflect on the scale of impact that we have in the communities where we operate. When we have hundreds of kids in a mentoring program in a community, there’s a big potential for us to be sharing that story, getting more people excited and involved, who are not just directly involved in the programming. That audience is easy for us to engage.
It’s how to then engage that next level of an audience who would be excited about what we’re doing and be advocates for the organization. That’s a difficult thing to do when we’re engaged across fifteen locations. I 100% believe in it because of the high impact and efficiency of our model. It’s navigating through this unique channel in the organization structure. This is the area of challenge that we have.
I’m sure there are some expectations in terms of how most nonprofits work. They do tend to have such a local focus or at least a local presence that people are a little uncertain as to how to engage with you guys, given that you have this centralized system that you’ve established. It’s an interesting conundrum. You’ve been navigating this for quite some time, so you have some things figured out. With the challenges that a lot of nonprofits faced in the last couple of years with the pandemic, my guess is that you had systems in place. That was your standard operating mode. Is that accurate?
It’s accurate that this has been our operating mode. We do have systems in place and we’re strengthening those systems. A big transition that we made is geographically diversifying the location of our central team. Having representatives of our central team strategically placed in locations has helped. Also, geographically diversifying our board of directors.
We can engage this differently, and it is up to us as to how we target and address this question. To your point of the expectation, you’re absolutely right. This is what we face because in a lot of our grant applications or otherwise, it is the executive director who’s responding to these when organizations are reviewing peer grant applications in communities.
We need to recognize that that’s a difficult thing to do when we’re managing across fifteen communities for me to be at all of these. How can we do that with a diversified national team and then also, how can we do that with the board of directors to provide that support? It took some out of the box thinking and say, “We can’t physically do it that way, but there are other ways that we can approach this. It recognizes the strength of the organization to engage across all of these communities. Let’s put that to work for us.”
It sounds like having a strong board has been a key component of that program, and that you can leverage those local board relationships to plant you in these remote locations.
Also, the board plant is a great analogy in that. It’s also having someone in that community and then a community who is thinking about us. When they see an article in the paper or when they see an opportunity, they’re the ones who can help connect the dots that we may not be able to see from a less central location. We may not be able to see every daily newspaper that happens to identify an opportunity for the organization to have a program partnership or to engage in a new collaborative that’s going on that would benefit and impact our participants. Having those eyes and ears has helped us significantly.
That’s amazing work to have that infrastructure set up that way. I grew up in Gunnison. Crested Butte is our local ski area. I can imagine that you’re reading the Gunnison Country Times every week when it comes out to get an understanding of what’s going on over there, and being able to have people embedded in that community from a board perspective to have eyes in that zone. That’s an interesting way to handle that particular challenge.
It’s a work in progress. We’re still developing it. We’re still engaging with it. It’s taking a lot more centralization and focus. Being open in the conversations has been incredibly powerful.
To foster that sense of belonging and engagement, you have to develop true relationships rather than transactional relationships.
It feels like there’s an opportunity here, and I’m sure you have some elements in play with what we call our inspire phase of audience engagement, where you have people who have participated in the program either as a volunteer, board member, or youth participant, and making sure that you have a cadence and a plan for keeping them in the fold. Not only can you escalate their engagement but also have them evangelize for the organization. Do you have systems in place to take advantage of that?
This alumni network that we created has been a core identification of that. We had all of these youth who were engaged in the program. The program is focused on how we can support them in their transition to their first career. We are focused on that impact. The residual of it though is that a lot of our participants have a strong affinity for the program, strong engagement, and there wasn’t an ongoing communication with them, so they lost touch.
You reconnect with them and they say, “This was an incredibly impactful program for me.” They weren’t even empowered to be able to share that story because it was something that they did, not that they are still a part of that, so transitioning that. We are hiring more of our alumni back into positions within the organization. We’re targeting mentor recruitment of our alumni. We have been more successful on adults because they get moved onto our newsletter list, and they become social media contacts of ours and otherwise. We have a big opportunity for our participants. This alumni network is a key way to address that perspective that you shared.
It sounds like a great opportunity for you to continue the work and then also leverage these people who’ve had such a positive experience to expand that mission. You also work with some pretty large corporate sponsors. How did those relationships develop and what have you found to be successful when trying to reach out to these larger corporate donors?
The relationships developed in the same way that our programs developed, and in the same way that we have continued to grow the organization. It is powerful and it’s a very natural relationship that develops. Our partnerships with outdoor industry brands and mountain resorts developed because of the unique structure of SOS and the impact of our programs.
We provide such a direct connection for them in what they do well, whether that’s producing a jacket or turning a chair lift. We provide a direct connection where they can do what they do well and partner with SOS to deliver that. As a result of that, a participant who graduates from high school wouldn’t have been on that track necessarily and gets involved in the community and has a direct impact. Part of our success within the corporate engagement that we’ve had is that it overlays in a powerful way versus organizations selling lift tickets to then make a donation.
We’re working with them in the space that they’re already in. We overlay within that partnership so effectively. These relationships have developed organically. A number of organizations have grown with us, most notably, Vail Resorts. We started on Vail Mountain in 1993 and brought our first kids up to the mountain in 1995. From that start, we’ve now expanded to multiple regions with our resorts, engaging thousands of kids on their mountains. The same is true with many of our other partners who have started with us, and who have grown with us because of the impact and the opportunity that they’ve seen.
In terms of outreach to new partners and additional engagement, so much of that has developed more in the past few years as we’ve had a greater handle and understanding of the long-term impact of our program. For us to demonstrate that we’re not just the values-based learn to ski and ride program, but as SOS several years ago developed into this long-term model. We have stamped the SOS way in that 4th through 12th-grade curriculum. That has enabled us to partner with organizations based on the impact that we’re having.
You’ve been able to demonstrate the success rates and people see this as a great program that they want to be a part of. That’s some good organic growth which tends to be super healthy. It’s great to see how you have partnered with people that are well-aligned with everything that you’re doing. There tends to be a challenge at times with organizations chasing money and bringing on a corporate engagement that’s not as aligned as it could be. It’s cool to see how you’ve organically grown that program as well as managed to keep it real.
We’ve been very fortunate because corporate engagement is core to the delivery of our mission, and that’s been since day one. That’s a unique structure in the nonprofit space. Often, corporate engagement is sponsorship of an event or it’s a cash contribution back to the organization. We’re partnering with 25 mountain resorts for lift tickets and rental equipment, and instruction to deliver our program.
We’re partnering with outdoor industry brands to ensure that all of our kids are warm and dry, and we recycle that gear. It goes out on a Saturday, it’ll go back out on a Wednesday, and we are moving gear from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest as the season changes and based on the schedule. We are intentionally and meaningfully engaged with the industry in a powerful way. All of that work, it is the outdoors that foster a strong sense of community and enables us to engage our curriculum, so that our kids are on a different trajectory.
I love the economy of that in terms of making sure that you’re getting the absolute most out of those donations as well. I’m sure that helps with those conversations when you’re approaching partners to let them know that you’re squeezing every ounce of juice out of that engagement.
When I finally learned what our logistics company does a few years ago, it’s a game-changer for us. One of our growing pains was that we would have gear in a storage unit or a closet or someone’s basement, and it would be used for one group of kids. That’s incredibly challenging. How can we leverage it? It’s all about looking at this and this is where the benefit or the national model that we offer. This is what we bring to the table. We’re able to maximize the engagement of our partners to impact.
Are you doing things in shoulder season and in the summers as well? What’s the program look like, not during ski season?
Our program is a school year-based program. It’s a core program that we offer. Once kids get into year two and above, it stretches out through the whole school year for that mentor relationship. We’re recruiting and registering in September. Our first program days and first service days are around October, and their meet and greets with their mentor. We’re working from September through May in years two and above. Clearly, in year one, where it’s the values-based on-mountain experience, that would be in November, December, January, February, March, and some sessions in April.
The engagement stretches out so that we’re stretching out and maximizing the opportunity that we have to create, impact, and deliver our curriculum. In the summertime, this is where we’re focused on engaging all of our participants in the program. There are a lot of great summer organizations out there. We got a lot of great summer programs. We’ll partner with them and we will have opportunities for our kids to go on backpacking trips or indoor climbing programs. It depends on the community where we operate.
Our goal is to identify engagement opportunities so that SOS stays front of mind to our agencies and to our participants during that summertime. We’ll identify opportunities in partnership with organizations that are already doing the work in communities. We’re bringing them a great group, already engaged, already a community created around it, and it’s a great partnership opportunity.
I’m excited to hear that it continues during the non-snow portion of the year and that you guys are staying top of mind. Something that we also see as a challenge with nonprofits is making sure that they’re able to keep in contact and have mechanisms by which they’re constantly reaching out and letting people know what’s going on with the program and having something happening. It’s great to know that you’ve managed to expand that throughout the year.
During the course of your many years, what are some of the things that you’ve seen happen that you weren’t expecting that you were able to overcome through either dips and donations during tough economic years or things like that? I’m sure you’ve weathered some of those storms, but what’s been effective?
Through ’08, ’09 and 2020, what’s been most effective to us is leaning even further into the recipe that is SOS. That is a combination of this in-kind partnership with mountain resorts and providers. Securing those resources, which then enables us to fundraise for the curriculum and the impact. We’re not fundraising to buy lift tickets or a jacket. We’re fundraising to be able to deliver our curriculum, our leadership development, and our service-learning projects. That has helped us significantly in those challenging years to demonstrate the direct impact of dollars to the impact that we’re having on youth and in our communities.
Being compassionate pays off in the long-term because you’re really establishing a system of caring as opposed to just trying to get something from somebody.
Particularly with the participants who we engage, our participants are the first to be impacted. When we’re facing these challenges in fundraising or economic challenges, the more significant issue is that the youth who were engaging and their families were hit first and they were far more significantly impacted. It’s been my role in those spaces to engage with our partners as deeply as possible to understand that now more than ever, we can’t step back from our commitment to these kids.
I’m on the board of a couple of different nonprofits. I’ve also had many of these kinds of conversations over the course of 2020 with nonprofit leaders like you. There doesn’t seem to be a standard trend. I’ve spoken with a couple of people who are in the outdoor nonprofit space. One of the trends that they saw were some of these corporate partners are stepping up in terms of their engagement and their involvement. Where some of the smaller partners weren’t able to contribute as much as they would have liked or even perhaps at all, a lot of the larger donors made up the gaps.
This is all a couple of different observations, but the larger donations from individual donors tended to drop, but the number of individual donors went way up. People were still wanting to engage and be part of nonprofit success. It’s an interesting challenge working both ends of that where we’re trying to build up individual donors, smaller donations, but more of them while continuing to lean on some of those corporate sponsors like some of the great people that you have in your plan that have had decent years because people are flocking to the outdoors. Have you seen one trend or another over at SOS Outreach?
This is the nonprofit juggling act. There is not an answer and anybody who says, “We have the silver bullet to fund development or to fundraising, and we’re going to come in and tell you exactly how to do it,” doesn’t exist. What I’ve seen and where we have had success in is the more clarity that we have had on the impact that we’re making and the importance of our programs in the community, the more success that we have had in engaging meaningfully with our partners.
What anybody is looking for is to feel a part of something. Whether that’s a corporate partner, program partner, Boys and Girls Club, a school district, or an individual donor who’s giving $10 or $10,000, how do you foster that sense of belonging and engagement? It’s what we do powerfully through our programs. The more that we have thought about this within our supporters, the greater success we have had through challenging times. We have ensured that we’re not just looking transactionally.
This has been a big focus for me that I charge our team with. It’s that we’re not developing transactional relationships. We are developing true relationships with people being engaged in our programs and in supporting the organization. That has been a success for us. That’s what we found is our secret. It works and it recognizes that there are shifts. Some people give more and some people give less. Sometimes you see differences. However, it works.
I was on another show as a guest and one of the things that we did talk about was marketing as relationship building, and how important it is to create authentic relationships with all of your constituents. If that means reaching out to people and asking them how they’re doing and being truly compassionate and concerned about their well-being.
Compassion is one of your core values over there at SOS Outreach. That’s the stuff that pays off in the long term because you’re establishing a system of caring as opposed to trying to get something from somebody. I know that the outreach coming from an executive director, picking a few people to reach out to on a regular basis, regardless of the size of their contribution to your organization can be an incredibly powerful thing as a relationship-building component of what you do.
Also, getting good at sharing those stories which people have a real challenge to. I’m looking at your core values again, and humility is in there. It feels braggy sometimes, but when nonprofits can get good at sharing those successes and being okay with that, that’s what brings people. People want to be part of something that’s working in helping others. Figuring out how to tell those stories is a great thing to do.
You just said two things. One is on the storytelling. This is where that challenge we discussed for the organization is. There is so much happening across each of our communities that makes my head spin in such an amazing way. Kids who had never seen stars before until they got outside of Chicago and got to the mountain to see it.
Mentors who are being called by kids to write a letter of reference for them to be the first in their family to go to college in Tahoe, and amazing stories that happened. How do we bring this forward? We’re telling this across all of these communities and also the impacts are local. We’ve had to work very closely in aligning our content and our storytelling, but also how do we capture the individual because each of these individual stories should be celebrated.
They are so core to who SOS is. We’re still working through that. The other side of it is on the relationship side and this is for me personally. I have one of the best jobs in the world. I get to engage with incredible people who are dedicated, compassionate, and committed in such a powerful way. I get to work with them on how do we expand the mission of SOS further.
I love when I get to talk to people who love what they do. One of the things that I celebrate on a daily basis is I truly love what I’m doing. One of the reasons we enjoy working with nonprofits over here at Relish Studio, which is the company that I’m the cofounder of is because we’re helping people make the world a better place in some small capacity. We’re helping maintain a website that helps further a mission.
One of the illustrations of this was I was working for Wish for Wheels, which is a local nonprofit here in the Denver area. They’re Colorado-based. Their impact is here in the State. It was Memorial Day weekend and it was beautiful outside. It was like 2:00 PM and we had a deadline that we were working on for them because they had a big push coming up. I recognized that I was not upset about doing this. I was like, “Neat, I’ve found this niche.” I’m sure that your mentors help kids suss through this a little bit as well. Truly finding something that’s your calling and that gives you the joy to show up every day is such an important piece. It’s cool to know that you have that in your life, as well as bringing that hope to your participants.
I am incredibly fortunate. I have found my calling and I love it. I get to travel to amazing places and work with some of the most inspiring people who push me every day to improve and to strengthen my own personal outreach, and then all sorts of organizations to increase our impact.
What’s next for SOS Outreach? Are you trying to expand to more locations? Are you trying to be able to reach more kids? I’m sure that’s always part of the mission. What are the biggest things about your five-year plan?
The focus for us is continuing to increase the depth of our programs in the locations where we are. This is focused on expanding the mentor program in our existing locations and expanding the number of kids who are involved in our existing locations so that we can expand the reach of SOS. That goes along with the growth of our alumni network. We are targeted on increasing the number of alumni actively involved in the program.
The third tier of this increasing impact is the increasing career development pipeline. We launched an internship program or career development program in Denver with five kids who started with a two-week classroom-based experience that we led, a curriculum on job skills that they were not picking up otherwise. They went into five-week paid placements with our partners. Our focus is to expand that to additional locations where we operate. There’s more of a direct connection for our high school and early post-high school kids into careers, and we’re a part of that runway.
How are you developing those relationships with potential internship opportunities? Is it aligned with your partnership outreach?
It is aligned with our partnership outreach. That’s the coolest thing. We already have the partners that are there. This is the next generation of that relationship. It’s a natural progression. Here they are investing in the organization. This provides an opportunity for them to take the next stage of that investment by what they already do. They hire people and they have positions, and how can our participants be one of those individuals who they’re hiring.
Find something that you’re passionate about and then give back a little bit in that zone.
They are invested in this program. You would hope pretty strongly about the benefits that you’re bringing to these lives and these individuals who are going to be better long-term leaders in their organizations perhaps. For people who are seeking out this kind of opportunity either for their kids or as a mentor, what are the outreach components? The kids get contact through the schools and then some of these other programs that they may be involved in. Where do mentors find out about you?
The most significant mentor recruitment is in existing mentors and volunteers. People who are already with us are the ones who know the program. They recruit their friends or contacts to get involved in the organization. The first stage is there. In the communities where we operate, we offer something quite unique. By being able to push it out, whether that’s through human resources departments or through more general postings in local publications, the dailies that exist in mountain communities or electronically in urban communities.
To be able to highlight, you can mentor through something you’re passionate about, it’s been a pretty easy sell for us. If you like to ski and snowboard, you can go ski and snowboard with kids in a powerful mentoring way. We’re going to provide you with a guided conversation. We’re going to train you. We’re going to make this as effective as possible so that you can step into it and be successful. It’s been a pretty easy engagement point for us.
Inspiring your current crew to spread that word and they’re having a good experience, so they’re sharing that with their friends. That is such a natural build in that inspire phase of engagement. I’m sure you’re consistently asking those mentors and people who are engaged to share their experiences with their friends and family.
Our first recruitment tool when we do have program expansion is through our existing network, and that’s our existing program graduates. We’re marketing to them. They know the program better than anyone, and if they’re in a position to re-engage as mentors, it’s incredible. We have grown that percentage of mentors who are program graduates. We’re focused on that moving forward, but then we are also going to let our existing mentors know, “We’re growing this. You know the impact. Help us to reach these numbers because the kids who are involved would benefit from it.”
It’s a natural ask. There are a number of people out there who feel nervous about that ask. It’s such a no-brainer. It’s good to know that you’re engaging in those activities. I’m fascinated by your program. As you might imagine, I’m a big snow sports guy. I’m a big outdoors guy living up here in the Netherland area. It’s great to know how you’re helping and providing some positive impacts to kids and even mentors who could benefit from that.
There’s a lot that comes from being a mentor that you may not be focusing on here with your program. The kids are the heroes in this. They’re the ones who are going through it and growing, learning and getting this great experience. I’ve found that when I can help teach someone something that it helps me grow as a person as well. You’re certainly impacting those individuals also.
It’s great to see how you have this influence on people’s lives, particularly in the outdoor space. I’m excited to know how things go as you expand the program. I love that you’re spending some time building out the alumni program. That’s fantastic, and then expanding it into more career-focused stuff after graduation from high school. Where can people find out more about what you guys are doing and get involved?
SOSOutreach.org is the best place to go. That’s where you can link to our social channels. You can see about the alumni network and also about other programs. Also, see opportunities to get involved, whether volunteering, mentoring or contributing. As you were talking, it hit me. The power of taking the time to listen and then to act on what you’re hearing. That’s been core to SOS from day one.
Our model didn’t start out in this defined 4th-grade through 12th-grade progressive model focused on the outcomes that we saw. It started with an introduction to the mountain. We heard from the kids, “What’s next?” We co-created this curriculum with the kids to respond to what they were looking for. More than anything, they were looking for a continued community in the outdoors that was accelerating their personal skills. That’s what we responded to them with. It’s the same thing as you talk about with mentors, donors or volunteers. That’s what’s been so special about SOS and what I love as we’ve worked through it.
I’m excited to know more about it as things continue to move on and you grow into your next 25 years. I love having these conversations and talking with people who are passionate about what they’re doing, who are bringing kids into the outdoors. That’s how we’re going to help try and fix some of the challenges that we’re experiencing these days. It’s getting people out there and enjoying it and allowing them to share their experiences with others. It’s fun to talk about that stuff, but I also want people to take action. When people are reading this, what would you like for them to do in terms of taking action?
I would love for them to follow us on social media as a minimum to get involved, to stand in our corner for the impact, and say that you believe in the opportunities that exist for our participants to grow and thrive. Take the next step. If you overlay within one of our communities, engage with our local program team as to how you can get involved through something that you’re passionate about.
If it’s not through SOS or if it’s not in one of our communities, reflect on what are some opportunities to engage through your passion. There are so many different ways that you can do this with organizations in the communities where you are. If you’re able to engage with your passion, it’s amazing how natural the connections are and how much further it takes your involvement, and how much further you open up new opportunities that you wouldn’t have otherwise if you just got involved with the organization more out of obligation.
That’s something that everyone can apply to their lives. It’s find something that you’re passionate about and then give back a little bit in that zone. Thank you so much for being on the show, Seth. It was super great knowing more about SOS Outreach, and knowing what you’ve accomplished over many years, and your tenure there as executive director. I appreciate you being on the show.
Thank you. It’s great to connect with you.
Have a great day.
About Seth Ehrlich
High Performance Non-Profit Executive with demonstrated expertise conceptualizing and executing critical expansion initiatives while managing day-to-day operations. Persuasive leader able to communicate vision and mission to diverse audiences. Keen ability to strategically plan and achieve required milestones necessary to advance organizations along their growth continuum.
Results Driven Fundraiser and Financial Manager with proven track record garnering and managing all capital required to run an organization. Sequester funds from grants, individual donors, corporate donations and events. Manage budget to actual expenditures including annual audit preparation and book keeping management.
Dynamic Leader with the supervisory skill to motivate staff to stay energized and focused on tasks/projects during periods of challenge and transition. Known for mentoring and developing staff to its highest potential. Awarded unprecedented third term with AmeriCorps for exceptional recruiting, onboarding and mentorship.