School Square Gets a Lift360

"Think about all the people who love what they do...people who love math, people who love science, people who love art, people who love sports, people who love activism.  At School Square, we believe there are mentors and role models in every community and they are a crucial ingredient in helping kids succeed..."   Simon Williams, Board President of School Square at Lift360’s Springboard Session

The sun was just above the horizon as the School Square team excitedly shuffled out of the brisk morning air and into The Via Group on Congress Street.  We climbed the stairs to the top floor and watched as the seats around the conference table filled with some of Portland’s greatest leaders.  They were armed with huge sticky notes and colorful markers.  The were waiting to hear from us.  It was Friday morning at 7:30am but our PowerPoint was practiced.  Our talking points were rehearsed.  

We were ready.  Ready for Lift360’s incredible Springboard, that is.

Let’s pause for a minute, though and get a quick CFU (that’s teacher-talk for a “check for understanding.”) Are you familiar with Lift360?  If you’re nodding your head “no,” don’t fret.  Listen up while we take a minute to sing their praises from the top of the Portland Observatory!

In 2014 The Institute for Civic Leadership + Common Good Ventures merged and became Lift360, a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening leaders, organizations, and communities throughout New England.  With the leadership of Executive Director Jan Kearce, who was recently named by Maine Magazine as one of “50 People - The Bold Visionaries Defining Our State,” their purpose is to “unlock potential and build capacity through our 360-degree approach to purposeful leadership, collaboration and creative problem solving.”  And that they have done.  They provide leadership development in the form of their ICL Leadership Intensive and the Emerging Leaders Program.  They also offer consulting services and help nonprofit leaders overcome challenges with brainstorming Springboard sessions, as well as Leadership in Action Breakfasts to facilitate learning and networking.

Humor me for a second.  Let’s do some math together to illustrate just how amazing the work is that Lift360 does.  Ready?  So, what’s the common denominator between 270, 700, 150, 100 and 75?  I’ll give you some think time...

I bet you already guessed it, though...Lift360!

  • Throughout the years Lift360’s consulting services have supported over 270 of the most recognizable local organizations like Amistad Inc., Animal Refuge League, Boys & Girls Club, Cape Elizabeth Land Trust, Catapult Seacoast, Children’s Museum & Theater of Maine, CIEE, Costal Trans, Compass Project, eHope, Educate Maine, Frannie Peabody Center, Girl Scouts of Maine, Good Shepherd Food Bank, Goodwill Industries of Northern New England, Gulf of Maine Research Institute, L.L. Bean, LearningWorks, Maine Audubon, Maine Centers for Women Work & Comm., Maine Huts & Trails, Maine STEM Collaborative, Muskie School, New Beginnings, Portland Ballet, Portland GreenDrinks, Portland Trails, Preble Street Resource Center, Rippleffect, SARSSM, SALT Institute, Spurwink Services, The Telling Room, UNUM, Victoria Mansion, WinterKids and Wolfe’s Neck Farm to name a few.  Wow!

  • Lift360 has graduated over 700 leaders from their ICL Leadership Intensive, each of them a leader from a Maine or New Hampshire based organization.

  • Over 150 graduates from Lift360’s Emerging Leaders Program have been matched to serve on 75 nonprofit boards and committees.

Where does the 100 come in, you’re wondering?  Well that’s where our story comes full circle, friends.  Over 100 nonprofits have taken part in a Lift360 Springboard session like the School Square crew did this past Friday.  “Lift360 offers a pro bono program for nonprofits called Springboard.  Through the generosity of individuals, foundations, and corporations who are passionate about strengthening the nonprofit sector, Springboard connects a nonprofit with a group of 10-15 volunteer panelists from the private and public sectors for a facilitated 90-minute brainstorming session to help address a key challenge the nonprofit is facing.”

Ok, back to Friday morning’s action...

The table was filled with a diverse cross-section of the talent and leadership our wonderful city has to offer.  Panelists introduced themselves and we realized we were in the presence of lawyers, inventors, IT directors, professors, marketing strategists and more.  Founder and board president, Simon Williams, kicked things off with a fabulous presentation covering the mission, history and key challenges facing School Square.  

We posed the following question: “How do we design our online platform and marketing strategy to attract, engage and retain volunteers?”  Now it was out of our hands.  We were in the “peanut gallery,” as they called it and resigned to only listening as the panelists shared.  We held our breaths for a moment, anxious to hear what the panelists thought.  

That’s when the magic started.

The room was electric with the energy of new ideas come to life.  Panelists quickly jotted down idea after idea on large, colorful pieces of paper.  They eagerly waited for their turn to share their ideas with the group and add them to the growing idea wall.  Around and around and around the table they went.  For an entire hour.  

The panelists showered us with ideas and questions.  

The only noises from the “peanut gallery” were monosyllabic utterances of agreement or curiosity as we soaked in ideas like sponges.  Silent nods accompanied shooting glances and smiles to other board members when ideas and questions really struck a chord.  

You could see the gears turning in our brains.  This information was invaluable:

Make it fun and easy.  Engage with social clubs like Rotary.  Collect lots of volunteer and teacher feedback.  Make a killer 1-minute video!  Allow people to transfer their LinkedIn profile with one click.  Provide training for teachers.  Get the students involved.  Limit the back and forth between teachers and volunteers on the website.  Understand the workflow of administrative staff to ensure the platform works for them, too.  Create viral content.  Perfect the school-side logistics before we roll out to volunteers.  Consider that not all volunteers will be tech-saavy.  Be creative in rewarding and recognizing volunteers.  Share testimonials of volunteers and teachers.  Focus on the diversity of volunteers to match the diversity of students in the classrooms.  Make your design interactive.  Authenticity matters.  Help people decide where they are needed most.  Your process should be transparent for volunteers.  Find people who are thirsty for this.

Our board members left the meeting feeling humbled by the opportunity to receive that depth of thoughtful reflection and support.  We were buzzing with ideas, but revitalized and inspired.  We have a long list of things to chew on and flesh out as we synthesize all of the great feedback we received, but this experience provided us with the direction and focus we need to move into Stage 2 of what we know is going to change the way we think about school volunteerism!

Stay tuned for updates as we keep moving forward...