Blake Maher of SeriousFun Children’s Network: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit Organization
I’d say that people –your team — make the organization. In non-profit work, you and those that represent the organization are everything. How people interact with the public, with those you serve, with your donors, with the people who make deliveries, and certainly with each other, can have a powerful effect on an organization. I’ve seen negative individuals infect and organization and, conversely, people with energy and good intention make it soar. Of course, people need to be good at their jobs too! In short, build a good team.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Blake Maher Bio — CEO at SeriousFun Children’s Network.
Blake Maher is Chief Executive Officer for SeriousFun Children’s Network. SeriousFun is a global community of 30 camps and programs serving children with serious illnesses and their families, always free of charge. Founded by Paul Newman, SeriousFun has delivered more than 1.4 million life-changing camp experiences to children and families from more than 50 countries since the first camp opened in 1988. Maher leads the Network’s overall program, development, and sustainability efforts, including the implementation of and adherence to program quality standards.
Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?
I grew up in in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate NY in a family that loved all things outdoors, along with the arts. I studied and received my BA in English and Political Science from Tufts University, followed by my MFA and MA in Creative Writing at Hollins College and the University of North Carolina. In addition to writing for magazines and newspapers, and publishing a children’s book, I worked in the field of child advocacy and experiential programming for more than 25 years, including work with abused and homeless children, arts programs for children, and outdoor and recreational leadership programs for children. But, in a way, my backstory starts with the organization I am speaking to you about today, SeriousFun Children’s Network.
Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start or join your nonprofit?
In 1989, I was a recent college grad looking for some direction — or at the very least a summer job — when I saw Paul Newman on the cover of LIFE magazine. The article inside was about him starting The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in CT, the first camp Paul started for kids living with serious illnesses. I was blown away by its the mission to positively impact the lives of these kids, but also by how innovative it was. At that time no one else was doing anything like this for kids with medical conditions. And it was pretty inspiring. No one expected an iconic movie star like Paul to, in a way, pivot their life from fame and celebrity to investing 100% of who they were into making the lives of struggling kids better. I immediately called up the camp and asked how to go about being a camp counselor that next summer. And thank goodness I got a job! From that point on, my life and the camp were connected in a way I could not have expected.
For a few years, I returned to The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp as a counselor, then jumped at the opportunity help open the first international camp Paul founded in Ireland called Barretstown. Staying within the camp family, I later moved to The Painted Turtle, a new camp in California, where I worked on program development for seven years and then served six as CEO of the camp. Over the years, these independent camps, and a few other started by or inspired by Paul, joined together to create an association of camps focused on serving kids with serious illnesses. In 2012, that association became known as SeriousFun Children’s Network. In 2016, I left my CEO role at the camp level and joined SeriousFun as Chief Program Officer, then took on the role of Network CEO later that year.
Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?
In so many ways, I feel as though SeriousFun camps and programs are the definition of social impact, even before we knew what social impact was. There has always been this almost accepted stigmatization, isolation, and inequity in the lives of people living with medical conditions, and that absolutely includes children. You see it every day, and we don’t even have to look that close.
Whether it be biases in institutions or in society and social situations, or the placement of limits that are deemed as being done to protect them, too often kids with medical conditions are not given the opportunity to experience the life and opportunities that other children do because the world doesn’t seem to know how to do it. When Paul started these camps with the idea that they be all about letting kids with serious illnesses just be kids, something bigger was definitely happening. Making that happen meant removing limitations, safely, and changing the way that every person who was going to interact with these kids thought about what was possible for them. It was extraordinary.
The impact it had at one camp grew to 30 camps and programs around the world. While on the surface these camps seemed to be all about having fun, if you look a little deeper you saw that their real impact was and is that they change the way people think about interacting with these campers, and even more importantly what the campers think about themselves. At SeriousFun camps they discover confidence and develop expectations for what their lives can be — with illness but without imposed limitations. And the hundreds of thousands of campers, families, volunteers, medical professionals, chefs, facilities staff, and fundraisers now bring that message of “anything is possible” with them wherever they go — back to their own hometowns and communities and amplifying that social impact way beyond the camp itself. It gives me goosebumps to talk about it.
Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?
Wow, it’s hard to choose just one story. I’ve met so many kids who’ve told me that camp changed the direction of their lives. But I remember one kid, I’ll call Jake, he came to camp when he was eight, never having met anyone with the same medical condition. He was so fearful and withdrawn that he could hardly look you in the eyes, let alone talk and goof around with the other kids in the cabin.
With the support of our staff, programs designed for his success, and the generous hearts of the other kids in the cabin, Jake began to see that no one was judging him or seeing him as less than in any way. He began to take part in activities, did an act at Stage Night, and opened up to his new friends during Cabin Chat each night. I’ll never forget the smile on his face after he had sailed down the zip line 30 feet in the air. “Blake, I did it! I did it!” he whooped. “Of course, you did,” I said, but man, my heart was bursting to see this transformation. It felt like it may have been the first time he ever truly believed in himself.
He was awarded the “I’ll Try Anything” award on the last night of camp. The look of pride on his face — I’ll remember that forever. Jake went on to be a camper for many years, then participated as a Leader-in-Training, and finally was hired as a summer staff member. He’s gone to college and now has a successful career. When I think of him, it reminds me not of all the scared little kids like him, thinking “no, no, no,” but of all the amazing kids waiting to emerge saying “yes, yes, yes!”
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Of course, we see progress in many of the tangible areas of accessibility but there is certainly so much more to be done, and so much of it has to do with the societal context. Social accessibility is key. Not just making places accessible in the physical sense but considering emotional and psychological accessibility as well — what really makes people able to be a part of something. That, I think, is the intention of accessibility, to make something holistically accessible. Making something physically accessible once you find out there might be an individual who needs it is not accessibility, that is accommodation and it is deeply, although often unintentional, a form of inequity. How do you wholly include everyone is the question we need to be asking.
There is also still so much stigma related to both visible and non-visible conditions and that creates inequity on both sides. I think the more we can create safe spaces for discussing difference, the more we can lessen the pressure of needing to define what sets people apart in a way that make them feel at risk for discrimination or stigmatization. Helping people to be open and unafraid of differences is essential, rather than setting ups differences as barriers and a means to exclusion.
And, as simple or hokey as it might sound, I think what happens at camp has a lot to do with kindness. Campers and staff aspire to help one another, to include everyone. One hand reaches out to another, and kindness begets kindness. As a result, the whole becomes greater than the parts. The sheer positivity radiating at SeriousFun camps is off the charts. Everyone feels it the minute they step on site — campers, parents, siblings, volunteers and staff. All this positivity is generated by people’s generosity toward one another.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me leadership is about guiding. Sure, there are times when it is about your own decision making, but more often you need to allow people the space and opportunity to thrive and succeed — or perhaps fail — on their own, while offering insight and focusing on forward movement. Leadership is not a one-size-fits-all thing. To be a good leader you need to be pretty nimble at recognizing what is needed by those you lead, those you aim to support through your mission, and helping others understand it all as well.
At its core I believe leadership is about putting the greater good ahead of any individual or subset’s needs. Often this means having to think longer-term, while responding to what’s right in front of you.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a nonprofit”. Please share a story or example for each.
The first thing I’d recommend to someone starting a non-profit is to know the values that drive you and your mission. There are a lot of pressures in building a non-profit and certainly a lot of “wrong” turns you can take that you might not even realize you were taking. But if you stay true to those values that are at the core of what you do, I think you’re a lot less likely to head off in a wrong direction, wasting money, time, energy, and intention.
Secondly, I’d say pace yourself. People start non-profits because they want to make positive change, which is entirely admirable. But in the rush to have an impact, non-profits sometimes take on more than they are able to support, whether it be in staffing, program expansion, financial commitment, the list goes on. Growing is fundamental to a non-profit. I simply recommend doing so at a reasonable pace that doesn’t put your operation at risk, albeit unintentionally. That doesn’t mean there won’t be risk involved at times. There will be. But infuse your vision with a dose of realism whenever possible.
Thirdly, I’d say that people –your team — make the organization. In non-profit work, you and those that represent the organization are everything. How people interact with the public, with those you serve, with your donors, with the people who make deliveries, and certainly with each other, can have a powerful effect on an organization. I’ve seen negative individuals infect and organization and, conversely, people with energy and good intention make it soar. Of course, people need to be good at their jobs too! In short, build a good team.
Flexibility is also a big part of starting and running a non-profit. The best made plans seldom move forward just as you envisioned them. Circumstances are continually changing, and you need to be able to respond to them in kind, as quicky as makes sense. Going back to my first recommendation, your values should guide your decisions and where your bend and shift, but you will need to change course continually to maneuver around unexpected obstacles.
Lastly, I’d say have a strategic mindset — and a strategic plan. It’s hard to know how to move forward — especially if that might change from time to time — if you have no real sense of where you’re trying to go. Not surprisingly, organizations get more strategic as they mature, but I still think it’s incredibly valuable, in addition to your values, to be guided by your strategy. And when it comes to good strategy, don’t be afraid to talk to others who have been there before. Again, surround yourself with good people and you will be able to build a strong strategy.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your nonprofit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I have to say that I’ve been very inspired by MacKenzie Scott over the last several years and the way she is evaluating how to have a meaningful and long-term impact. Through her philanthropic leadership, she’s reaching communities of people and organizations — often serving children — in a way that has fundamentally changing the course of those organizations and the impact they can have. I am inspired by her driving change that is at the behavioral level, that nurtures the psyche and the expands change through helping children understand their potential and creating opportunities to have them realize it.
For more than thirty years, our camps and programs have created inclusive, affirming experiences that not only change how our campers feel about their lives today, but how they are able to live it for many years to come — through increased confidence, willingness to try new things, stronger self-identity, and resilience. There are so many other ways we can reach children with illness throughout the world in ways that impact how they move through and celebrate their lives. SeriousFun impacts not only those children but their parents and caregivers, the siblings, the staff members, and the medical and program volunteers who participate in our programs.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?
I’ve always loved the haiku, or a variation of it, by Mizuta Masahide, “Barn’s burnt down — now
I can see the moon.” While there is misfortune in its premise, I am always moved by the idea that even in circumstances that test our very soul there is hope and beauty and even strength to be found. There is always more — to do, to aspire to, to behold.
How can our readers follow you online?
I hate to say it to you but I’m not a big tech or social media person mostly because I’m often very focused on what is right in front of me and when I’m not, I’m trying to be outside. But people can follow me on LinkedIn. I am trying to up my game there because there are so many incredible people sharing great work and moving forward the topics and issues that are important to us all. I’m very focused learning and LinkedIn is an incredible learning platform, formally and informally. https://www.linkedin.com/in/blakemaher/
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.
Blake Maher of SeriousFun Children’s Network: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.