John Valverde

CEO, YouthBuild USA, Inc.

How old is your organization? 41 years old.
What sector do you work in? Education, workforce development, youth development
How long have you been working in this sector? Since 1992
How long have you been with your current organization? Since 2017

What has been the most significant development in your sector over the last 40 years?
We celebrated our 40th anniversary last year. The biggest change over the last 40 years for us started in East Harlem in 1978 with our one site and seeking the opportunity to rehabilitate and develop affordable housing in the community. From that one site, we’ve grown to 260 sites in 44 states and another 100 programs in 22 countries internationally. The biggest change over these 40 years has been a recognition that we have a crisis with 16- to 24-year-olds who are out of school and out of work in this country. And globally that number stands at 350 million; we named it as a crisis in the 1970s and sadly it has only grown worse. I think the need for programs like YouthBuild has increased over the last 40 years, when we were the only game in town. Now there are many other organizations, but the need is so great.

A big change is that there is real recognition around the need for comprehensive models to engage young people who are out of school and out of work, and YouthBuild was a pioneer in that. We are seeing more and more organizations take that on. We like to say that youth voice has become recognized as critically important for developing the solutions that young people need in their lives. More organizations are putting young people at the center and being inclusive of them.

Describe a key event that has impacted your sector in the last 40 years?
What we call the “opportunity youth movement,” the shifting of the narrative from “at-risk” or even worse, from the “super-predator” label we placed on young people who were disconnected and faced barriers. We moved to this positive framing of “opportunity youth,” because they are young people who represent an opportunity for society to benefit from their gifts and talents and also, if given the opportunity, they can excel. Another great challenge is the mental health challenge that everyone is experiencing; another development is in neuroscience and the study of brain development recognizing that the brain is not fully developed until people are 25 years old. The real recognition of trauma and neuroscience has been a positive development for the youth development field, and I think there’s more work that needs to be done.

In what ways have nonprofits adapted business practices that more similarly reflect for-profits over the last four decades, and has that been a necessary shift?
It has been an absolutely necessary shift. I think nonprofits years ago were much more focused on the love and the heart and the passion for making a difference, which is vital. No organization can lose that. That’s the mission and that’s the focus, and yet funders, including our government partners, require fiscal compliance in ways that forced us to shift. There are more data and reporting requirements, and more and more funders expect organizations to be data and outcomes driven. There has been a shift to performance-based contracting in the nonprofit world. More and more organizations have needed to shift to focus more on infrastructure development and making sure the essential elements of a well-run organization are in place, including in communications and development departments, and in financial management systems. Adopting more for profit practices has been a shift along with, of course, the advances in technology, new digital tools, data and analytics, storytelling, social media—there has been a sea change.

What is the single greatest challenge you face today in your sector?
This trauma question and mental health challenge are critically important, and it’s connected to everything from the opioid overdose epidemic to the way universal design for learning needs to be part of every classroom because of the individual needs of every student. That shift is a huge challenge. And I would say the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) piece, and being a learning and continuous improvement organization managing constant change, are huge as well.

What opportunities exist now for nonprofits to break through into success that did not exist 40 years ago?
The social impact bonds are opportunities for nonprofits that didn’t exist back then, the focus on big bets, such as $10 or $20 million in funding, from foundations committed to seeing an organization scale impact. Everyone previously relied on and hoped for government funding, but now we are seeing more opportunities for big bets as well. They make a big bet on one organization over a period of time at a large dollar amount to get most the impact aligned with their mission. For us, that is an impact on young people and reaching higher numbers of the 5 million Opportunity Youth in the US alone.

What leadership qualities are necessary to succeed as a nonprofit executive today?
I think the command and control never really worked in the nonprofit world. The authentic leader who has the ability to be vulnerable is the transformative leader of today. And that leader who can connect with and can really develop and build cohesive teams, establish clear roles and responsibilities, keep everyone focused on the mission using measurement and analysis—the nonprofit heart with the business approach with a commitment to creating a culture where people can show up as their best selves each day. That is a new leadership style that has developed over the last 40 years.

What will nonprofits need to do to remain relevant and necessary to their clients over the next 40 years?
It’s clear that this idea of reinventing yourself as an organization needs to become a strength of all nonprofit leaders now. We need to be more nimble, agile, and able to reinvent ourselves or pivot completely in another direction to make sure our young people can develop their skill sets and mind sets for the impact they want to have in the world. Organizations need to ensure that young people can develop the ability to be lifelong learners and be resilient and navigate complex systems and be able reinvent themselves because they may have more career changes than we ever needed to have. Organizations need to be able to reinvent themselves as well to meet those needs. I also think leveraging partnerships for collective impact will remain the approach to systems change.

Why did you join this sector?
The main thing that brought me to this sector was that I was incarcerated at around the same age – 21 years old – of the young people that YouthBuild USA serves. While at Osborne, I was grateful to work with young adults in the criminal justice system on focused programming. It really hit me that if there was any way I could be part of the preventative side of the work so that young people never had to enter system in the first place, then I felt I could make a bigger difference. YouthBuild was an opportunity to do that. The likelihood of incarceration can be very high, so we need to reach youth, get them back in school, and on a career path, help them develop leadership skills, and get them involved in service to the community. During my incarceration, I found meaning and purpose giving to others. That still drives me today.

In what ways would others say you are a trailblazer?
Last year, our communications folks here identified that I am the first formerly incarcerated CEO of a nonprofit with a global mission. There are many EDs, CEOs that have been incarcerated but with organizations with a criminal justice focus. So, I guess I am a trailblazer to have my background and be engaged in a global mission standing for second chances for young people.

Why did you want to become CEO of YouthBuild USA?
When I was incarcerated for 16 years, my goal every year was to be better than I was a year ago. I did that through education and reading and found other ways where I could develop and grow. When I was at Osborne, I saw this as an opportunity to grow. I never imagined I would be selected as CEO of YouthBuild USA. The title wasn’t my interest; my interest was being part of a team focused on something greater than ourselves that could have an impact on young people, and especially before they enter the criminal justice system. I feel very grateful and privileged to be part of this organization.

How do you hire?
Culture is critically important to us. People who are seeking meaning and purpose in their lives and see a way to bring their best selves every day to work to advance that meaning and purpose for young people is critically important. And we’re looking for happy, motivated people who embrace accountability and collaboration and are out to do big things in the world as part of our organization. Diversity is also very important to us.

Name three qualities that are inherent in being a strong leader.
Integrity. Commitment to relationships. And, the ability to keep the mission in existence alive for people. My fourth would be an ability to inspire others.

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