Janaiha Bennett of Youth Leadership Foundation: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit Organization
YLF teaches the idea that every human being has agency, and each person can affect change in their environment, no matter how small. If we can impart this to our young people in a meaningful way, it will fold into their concept of themselves. They believe that they can change where they are and no longer see themselves as victims of their circumstances. This can have an outsized impact not just in the near term but also on the full trajectory of their lives.
As a part of my interview series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit Organization,” I had the pleasure of speaking with Janaiha Bennett.
Janaiha Bennett is the Executive Director of the Youth Leadership Foundation (YLF). She oversees quality one-on-one mentoring programs for students from areas of concentrated disadvantage aged 7 to 17 across the Washington, DC metro area. YLF serves over 350 DC and Maryland youth each year.
An experienced youth mentor and child development expert, Bennett holds a Bachelor’s in Honors Psychology from The George Washington University, a Master’s in School Psychology from the University of Maryland, and is a graduate of Georgetown’s McCourt Center for Public & Nonprofit Leadership.
Bennett’s work focuses on facilitating empowerment through joy, excellence, and a spirit of service while building character, emphasizing personal growth, and creating transformative mentorship experiences.
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 was born in Washington, DC, in a small two-bedroom apartment as the youngest of three girls. My father was a postal worker, and my mom was an educator. Being the youngest of three, I was always an observer of human dynamics, which sparked my interest in psychology. And because my mom worked in education, I was also very interested in that.
Today, most of my interests stem from the intersection between education and psychology and from working with young people on their self-development. This led me to study psychology at The George Washington University and then school psychology at the University of Maryland.
Shortly after I graduated from the University of Maryland, I began my work at the Youth Leadership Foundation as the Associate Director of PALS (Program for Academic & Leadership Skills) — our mentoring program for young girls. Since then, I’ve had many different roles, from running programs to evaluating programs to directing operations and now as executive director.
Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start or join your nonprofit?
I first joined one of YLF’s summer programs as a mentor in 2006 while still an undergraduate. I’d been a part of many different youth advocacy programs, but the culture at YLF was very different. There was a greater emphasis and focus on the individual’s personal development. This appealed to me, not only because of how I saw it impact kids but also personally. I found that I grew because of the lessons we shared with young people. This formative experience is why I continued to volunteer and ultimately decided to work with YLF after receiving my Master’s.
Another aspect of YLF that drew me in was the community of mentors. I experienced genuine friendship, and it was refreshing to work with every one of them.
Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?
We believe that everything in culture scales up from the individual. So, if we can solve a personal problem, we can solve that problem on a societal level. Everything we do is centered around preparing mentees and mentors to be the best versions of themselves for their families, their community, and the world.
In particular, we focus on investing in children from areas of concentrated disadvantage, which means those from neighborhoods with high percentages of residents of low socioeconomic status. But, everyone has their unique struggles, and there’s no monolith. So, while we can usually identify common societal issues, we often confuse the diagnosis with the prescription. For example, while we agree that there’s a generational education and poverty issue, YLF believes that the solution comes from empowering the individual. In other words, the diagnosis must center around addressing individuals with their unique problems and embracing them in a way that helps them find meaning and agency in their own lives.
A great example of this occurred at the start of the pandemic. We had a young student join our program just as things were shutting down. During one particular virtual session, the mentee expressed an intense conflict with her grandmother, who was her caregiver at the time. The mentor then asked the mentee some penetrating questions, specifically why she thought there was such discord. After reflecting, the mentee indicated that the reasons included a messy house and uncertainty about whether her grandmother would keep her job during the pandemic. Simply opening a dialogue about the conflict allowed the mentee to explore further. During their “goal-setting” time, the mentor asked the mentee if there was anything she could personally do to make the situation more manageable. The mentee committed to washing the dishes every weekday for the next month.
The results were apparent within one week. This student made a personal commitment that had a noticeable effect on her environment. Simply deciding to contribute to her household was inspirational to that grandmother. The student changed the culture of her home and gave her grandmother a sense of hope.
It might seem implausible for such a small interaction and behavioral change to generate such a tremendous result. While it is difficult to get used to the magnitude and impact that localized attention can have, it’s a proven formula, and the results are amazing.
Thus, YLF successfully teaches the idea that every human being has agency, and each person can affect change in their environment, no matter how small. If we can impart this to our young people in a meaningful way, it will fold into their concept of themselves. They believe that they can change where they are and no longer see themselves as victims of their circumstances. This can have an outsized impact not just in the near term but also on the full trajectory of their lives.
Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?
One special story to me is about a young lady I mentored when I first started with YLF. I saw so much of myself in her — she was shy and didn’t have much confidence. She’d also been teased by her peers and was a bit socially discouraged. In most of our conversations, she had trouble seeing her value.
In humility, I believe that our time together was one of the reasons she came out of her shell. By the time she went to high school, she was much more comfortable with herself. Her experience with YLF even inspired her to start a mentoring program for students at her university. After she graduated, she returned to YLF as a PALS mentor, where she shared the importance of self-certainty and personal growth. Today, this young woman works in public health and has a very enriching career. She’s really happy with what she does, and it’s something that is for the benefit of those in her community.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
When it comes to society, I would encourage all of us to seek out opportunities for our personal growth. It’s essential to learn to overcome life challenges deeply and meaningfully.
Within your communities, you can seek out opportunities to mentor. There are so many amazing mentorship programs and even opportunities to mentor people around you in an informal way. I would also encourage people to support mentorship programs financially, starting locally. YLF is in Washington, DC, and serves Maryland as well, so we’re an option if you live here. Beyond that, there are programs all over that need your help to impact the lives of people young and old.
I would encourage politicians and other people in power to understand that there’s a lot of value that can come from separating the roles needed to help raise well-rounded and grounded individuals. Having a mentor who is neither parent nor teacher serves a vital and irreplaceable role, alongside the primary work of the parent and substantive support of the teacher. Parents have told me on countless occasions that they’ve been so grateful for the “tag-team” approach. One said to me, “I’ve been trying to tell my son this point forever, but it just didn’t click for him until his mentor spoke with him about it!” I want our leaders to understand the important role mentorship plays in developing the minds that will lead the future.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I’ve long believed in the importance of the “servant leader.” I first discovered this concept while studying Martin Luther King Jr. and reading his Letters from Birmingham Jail, which was such a great work of art, considering he had nothing to reference when he wrote it. His approach was that one should lead in service to a wider mission or community. I love this definition for several reasons.
First, it’s personally motivating to me. When I think about how I operate in my own family and among my peers, it always feels deeply enriching when I can do something for someone. I am naturally drawn to this form of leadership.
Second, servant leadership holds others accountable by setting an example. Servant leadership is active by nature — one cannot be both a passive leader and a servant leader. There are so many examples of servant leadership throughout history; the most prominent ones led important movements through civil disobedience and other tactics.
During the Civil Rights Movement, it must have been difficult to keep a calm attitude and a sense of magnanimity among so much vitriol and hate. People had to overcome the instinct to want to retaliate, an example MLK set for those around him. There are so few examples of that kind of poised and magnanimous attitude in society today. However, if more people understood the importance of setting an example for those around them, we would achieve our ends quicker. The nobility of that kind of leadership is compelling and inspirational to me.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a non-profit”. Please share a story or example for each.
First, be circumspect. There are so many nonprofits out there doing great work. If you’re passionate about an issue and want to start a nonprofit, it’s important to investigate the work that someone else may already be doing. This includes organizations in the milieu of what you want to achieve and are open to growth. For example, YLF recently launched several outdoor recreation programs because one of our mentors is passionate about outdoor recreation for young people. This has presented a great opportunity to provide something new for students and ensure that our motivated mentors don’t have to start from scratch. It’s a perfect merger of passions. Alternatively, you may discover that no organization like what you propose exists yet. This knowledge is key information to communicate and convince supporters of your new organization.
Second, think ahead about governance. Leadership at the top is vital, and we are fortunate to have an amazing board of individuals who are deeply committed to our organization. Not all boards will be the same, however. For example, if your board has a high level of turnover, make sure that there’s a means of passing down institutional knowledge. Obtaining as much information as possible from the outset and clarifying those expectations could make or break an organization.
Third, stay focused on your mission. There are so many organizations that experience “donor creep” where your wonderful supporters dictate your goals to you. Ultimately, donors want a strong leader with a clear vision of the organization’s mission. They want to know that someone on the ground understands the issues and is laser-focused on making sure that the entire organization is moving toward solving them. One example that comes to mind happened recently. Reinspired and reinvigorated by us communicating our mission, one of our top donors doubled their gift in the calendar year. When you carry yourself with confidence and humility, others will follow. However, if you chase the next donation, donors will lead you in a million different directions.
Fourth, always put people first. And when I say that, I mean put the people working on the mission first. Equip them with what they need to succeed and genuinely care about their growth beyond just the work.
When people come into our organization, they all have a GPS, which means their goals, priorities, and strategies. This is their blueprint for success within YLF. Then, each person has an individual weekly check-in with another staff member to hold them accountable to these goals.
Staff members also can engage in personal development where they talk about things like time management or how to be financially responsible as entry-level workers. We spend an hour per week in what is essentially a personal development conversation, where we talk about not just the issues that we face as an organization but also the issues we face personally.
I have the most amazing team members. They are committed and they take initiative. Part of what I believe keeps them motivated is that they’re part of a community that cares for one another. I’m certain that this enables us as a staff of four to affect change for a community of 400.
Fifth, understand that systems matter. I came to this realization when I was in the nonprofit management program at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. The school crafted a program that helps executives streamline their systems, and I cannot say enough positive things about that experience.
I can spend so much time focusing on our people because we don’t spend undue time on what I call the “vegetables of work.” Every company or nonprofit will have to conduct an audit, manage a database, organize a storage unit, et cetera. If you can make those tasks as systematic and streamlined as possible, you will have time to focus on the “dessert” of your mission. While it may seem that bookkeeping and audit work is taking away from your mission, know that if you don’t do it well, it will draw down the funds and time available to achieve the mission that inspired you from the beginning. Being a responsible steward of your organization and its resources enables you to serve the core mission better.
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 am very interested in having a conversation with Chrisman Frank, the CEO of Synthesis, a new online school where kids learn through games and simulations. I think we’d have so much to talk about when it comes to how we create resilient young people who are growth-oriented leaders.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote comes from Reinhold Niebuhr, and I like it because it applies to every human being. It says, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
Another one I like is by Viktor Frankl: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
These quotes are relevant to me as I’m deeply interested in what freedom means in the life of a human being. It is this boundless freedom that changes the world.
How can our readers follow you online?
Your readers can find us online at www.helpingkids.org and on Instagram @ylf_dc.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.
Janaiha Bennett of Youth Leadership Foundation: 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.