The following is a conversation between Artis Stevens, President and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Denver: For more than a century, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America has provided children facing adversity with strong and enduring, professionally supported, one-to-one mentoring relationships that change their lives for the better and forever. Their breadth and reach is, well, breathtaking, with more than 2 million children served over the past 10 years, and with nearly 400,000 volunteer mentors and families currently engaged. But there is still so much more to be done; and here to discuss that with us, it’s a pleasure to have Artis Stevens, the President and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. Welcome to the Business of Giving, Artis.

Artis Stevens,President and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America

Artis: Hey Denver, thank you so much. I’m glad to be here with you.

Denver:  Likewise. Glad to have you. Boy, the organization dates all the way back to 1904; that’s even older than the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts. Share with us a little bit of the history on how the organization got started.

Artis: Yeah. Thanks for the question. We are an organization that’s 118 years old. And when you think about that, think about the idea that we were started in the beginning of the 20th century. And what’s so unique about it that a lot of people don’t know, is that we were started as an alternative innovation to the juvenile justice system.

So, here you had all these kids who were being processed in the juvenile justice system, and it was the idea of a court clerk actually in New York City, who said, “Well, Is there a better way? Is there a better idea? Could we do something a bit more innovative than just sending kids through processing and through juvenile justice?” And that’s when the idea of Big Brothers Big Sisters came about. It was this sense that the kids that were being served… most were immigrants. Most were in crime; most were isolated in single family households or no families at all, homeless, and most were in street crimes and street gangs.

And the idea was, “Well, what if we could connect these young people with positive relationships, and connections with relationships and an adult mentor? And if they have that adult mentor, that adult mentor could empower them… not save them, but empower them… to show opportunities, resources, connections, what they could be.” And the idea was that if we could change a life through mentorship, you could change communities. And then ultimately, you could change the country. And that’s really what happened over the next hundred years.

The idea was born from justice. It then was really focused on the idea of creating equity for every young person that we serve, and by doing so, it was bringing together the most diverse communities, and how we grew to the largest one-to-one mentoring organization in the country. And it was always with the focus of every kid feeling included, every kid feeling like they had belonging, to opportunity and a better life.

 And that’s why we call ourselves a JEDI-focused, youth empowerment organization:  justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, because of that DNA, because that’s how we were born, and that’s what we do. And that’s why we’re so unique in how we think about mentoring today, because we believe just as much that education is the great equalizer; mentorship is also the great equalizer in supporting young people, and building the types of relationships for them to be successful.

Denver: I love founding stories. Every time I can’t really get my arms around an organization… I can’t understand it, I ask the person to tell me their founding story. And as you just said a moment ago, so much of it is baked in right at the very beginning.

Well, you talk about all those kids being served. Let’s talk about the kids being served today. Give us a snapshot of who you serve.

Artis: Yeah. So we serve young people all across the country that… The unique thing about our organization…. having so many years, and being able to grow and scale, is that we reach the entire country. So we serve 5,000 communities in all 50 states. We’re just as much in rural, urban, and suburban as well. We serve young people; 70% of the young people that we serve are from communities of color. We also know that the young people we serve, they face challenges, and they face unique challenges. 60% of them grow up in single family households; 55% live in poverty; 25% have a parent that’s incarcerated or on parole.

But none of those numbers define who these kids are. None of those numbers tell you their potential, the opportunity, that if presented, that they can succeed just like any young person in this country. And that’s why having access to resources, opportunities, and positive relationships is so important and part of our story. Because we see it every single day; we see when you bring a positive relationship and the right mentor into a young person’s life, no matter what their background is, no matter where they live, no matter who they are, they have the ability to succeed and to overcome barriers and challenges, to really thrive in life.

“…it doesn’t just stay with men. We know we need to have mentors of all backgrounds, all experiences. We believe in representation, and ensuring that kids see representation in their lives, and see people that look like them, their background, their culture… so that connection, that understanding is made.”

Denver: With your tremendous breadth and all the places and people you reach, you still have a waiting list of 30,000. Is that more of a supply problem, a demand problem, a combination of both, and what can be done to address it?

Artis: Yeah. So, there’s certainly both aspects to it. However, when we look at it, it is also about the idea of trying to create the sense for more mentors and volunteers to come into our community and connect into our community. And to do that, right, you’re thinking about the 30,000 kids… are mainly boys. Right? So we know that there are a number of boys right now on our waiting list who are seeking mentorship with men in their lives. Right?

So for us, one of the key aspects is being able to engage men more effectively. We know that’s not simply just recruiting or putting out a marketing campaign. It’s about building the type of environment that ensures that people feel like they belong– both young people, but also volunteers and adults. That’s why we’re building partnerships with really incredible organizations that focus a lot on how we engage men, whether you’re talking about fraternities, for example. Alpha Phi Alpha is a perfect example of the first black fraternity in our country. And we’ve been partnering with them for over 19 years, and elevated our partnership this last year, to really have more robust recruitment, engagement of men, and particularly college-age men, men who are just getting out of college, to bring them back into communities, to support young boys.

You look at our relationship with the NFL as another great example of that, where we’re focusing a lot of our work on how we create the right type of engagement points, and breaking through some of the clutter, to be able to engage men more effectively in the work.

But it doesn’t just stay with men. We know we need to have mentors of all backgrounds, all experiences. We believe in representation, and ensuring that kids see representation in their lives, and see people that look like them, their background, their culture, so that connection, that understanding is made. But we also just as much believe in the allyship. Right? Kids need to be able to see people from diverse backgrounds who don’t look like them, who are not from the same places that they look at. It is a big tent and a big family, to be able to create these types of opportunities and deliver the types of experiences that kids need.

Denver: How do you train mentors? And is there any more focus on, let’s say, trauma-informed training, particularly on the heels of this pandemic, and with some of the just Herculean challenges that a lot of these young people have had to go through?

Artis: Yeah. Your question couldn’t be more spot-on; and it’s what we see. You take, for instance, that in the communities that just outline, a lot of these communities were facing significant trauma long before a pandemic hit. So the pandemic did nothing but exasperate it, that type of trauma. Right? So we spent a lot of time investing, coaching, supporting our staff on the ground, as well as volunteers on trauma-informed care.

And we’ve also spent a lot of time investing in what we call secondary trauma training. Right? So the trauma that a staff person or a volunteer actually affects, because they’re trying to deal and support and mentor young people and families who may have some really significant trauma going on in their lives. You take, for instance, in the past year alone, 20% of our young people reported losing contact with an important adult in their life.

Denver: Yeah.

Artis: Think about that, Denver. You lose contact. You’re already socially isolated, so how much does that continue to build, weigh, in terms of your mental health and your emotional wellbeing?

Denver: Wow. Yeah.

Artis: So that’s critically important for us. And it’s also critically important as we think about what mentoring looks like in the 21st century. Mentoring certainly continually will be one-to-one in what we do. But we also understand that one-to-one never meant that there wasn’t a context of mentors and supportive relationships in a young person’s life. So what we’re trying to do is ensure that we’re building an ecosystem around a young person. So we call our model one-to-one plus. So the idea is that one-to-one may be at a core of what that relationship connection is, but we build more of a community of services to support the young person and the holistic needs that they may have, as well as their family sometimes.

When you’re saying, and you’re seeing someone, and it’s like one of the best ways that I remember in my community was this common adage:  “If you can see it, you can be it.” Right? And being able to see role models who allow you, as you get into older ages, to say, “Yeah. I remember when I was this age that I could do this, that I could become this.”

Denver: If I’m correct, your fastest growing cohort are young people between the ages of 18 and 25; and I don’t think a lot of listeners would expect that. Tell us about that, and the kind of things you’re doing to support these young men and women.

Artis: Yeah. It’s really interesting. When I started a year ago, and I saw those numbers, I was shocked. I had no idea. I was like most people, thinking we were more school-aged. Right? 5 to 18.

Denver: We call them littles. You know what I mean? That’s what we’re thinking.

Artis: Exactly.

Denver: Littles. 18 to 25 ain’t littles.

Artis: Yeah. That’s right. That’s right. But here’s why; so this is what it breaks down to. What started to happen was that a lot of the littles that we were serving were growing up, and they were graduating high school. Right? But then, what was happening when they graduated high school, then this question came about, it was like, “Well, I’m not really sure what to do now.” Right? 

So the question was in their minds, “Where do I go from here? What’s my opportunity? How do I get that way or method into understanding how to fill out a financial aid application or a college admission app, or experiencing my first job? Or how do I find the right application or approach if I want to get enlisted and go into the military?” Right? It’s all those different questions that may come into their mind, but they don’t really have the answer, the modeling sometimes, of knowing, even at a younger age. Right?

When you’re saying, and you’re seeing someone, and it’s like one of the best ways that I remember in my community was this common adage:  “If you can see it, you can be it.” Right? And being able to see role models who allow you, as you get into older ages, to say, “Yeah. I remember when I was this age that I could do this, that I could become this.”

So we’re seeing it on that end; but here’s what’s really interesting, Denver. We’re also seeing it on another end. We’re also seeing it on the end of corporate America. So corporate America is coming to us more and more. We’re the largest provider of youth workplace mentoring in the country. We work with over 300+ companies all across the country. And what they’re saying to us more is that one, we need to be able to invest in our pipeline earlier. Right? That our pipeline development, our pipeline recruitment, doesn’t start when the kid graduates high school, or we go to a college fair or a college admission process. But we’re starting at a place where kids can get exposure to the types of careers, the types of industry. They’re looking to expand and diversify their industries.

So essentially what we’re doing is we’re saying, “Hey, we can help fulfill a need that you have, corporate America. And for our young people, we can help be that bridge for you as you’re developing and growing, and want to have other opportunities that you can get connected to for career and career development.” So we place those two big angles together. And of course, working with the families and the parents allows us to be a really great partner in helping to bridge what 18 to 25 year-old development looks like in our country.

Denver: Well, that is a great evolution of the organization, I must say, to have a focus therein. I do think there’s such an  importance to transitions. And we sort of have a roadmap as a young person up until 18. And then, all of a sudden you’re on your own. Right?

Artis: That’s right.

Denver: You don’t know where to go. There’s no script to follow. And as you say, you don’t have to convince corporations. They need you as much as you want to work with them, so that’s just a great, great relationship. 

What’s a secret, Artis, to leading a federated organization? I’ve always looked at that as one of the great challenges. And I think that in terms of having applicable, transferable information, it really applies to all leaders. Because to lead a federation is… somebody compared it once to herding cats. It’s not an easy thing to do. So you have to lead and guide, but they’re all independent 501(c)(3)s. Give us a little bit of  your philosophy around that.

Artis: Yeah. I think one of the best pieces of advice when I came into this role, was someone said, “Look at yourself like the Speaker of the House in Congress.” Right? …”That you have all these different constituents and stakeholders, who all have different constituents and stakeholders and different needs.”

Denver: I love that.

Artis: And you have to be able to bring people together. Right? And hopefully, very successfully. Right? That’s what you want to be able to do in designing this. But I think you’re right. And I will tell you the first rule that I take into this role, and it was the first thing that I did when I started this role. The first thing I did was, and I mean, the very first thing… I’m not joking about this. Because when I started on day one, I shot an email out to our network. And I announced a hundred-day listening and learning tour.

Artis: The first thing that you can do in being in a federated model, in any type of leadership role, is to be an active listener. Right? And someone who’s engaging on really listening to where people’s thoughts are, their concerns, what their desires are, what they want to do, and how they want  it; because a number of these folks when I came in… they’ve been here for years.

Denver: Yeah.

Artis: Right? So what I wanted to do was to leverage that. I wanted to take the equity of all their experience, wisdom, their knowledge, and to be able to leverage that. So you have to be able to sort of listen and come in… actively listen, and not have your own sort of frame and idea; but to listen, and then use that to shape where your frame and idea could ultimately go. So I think that was one really important thing.

I think the other part for me was the idea of investment. Right? Investment, and investment for me, meant in terms of people feeling invested in the process; and that’s across your stakeholders, whether it be your stakeholders on the ground locally, whether it’s your partners, whether it’s your board, but that the sense of building investment and building a model of investment.

And for one of the key things for me, when I came in and said, “Well, we’re going to start a strategic frame.” And essentially that was one page. We said, “We’re going to get to one page of what it meant for this organization; where we are today, where we were, and what’s our essence, and where we want to go.” Right? “And we’re going to sort of break that down on one page.” But I couldn’t get there alone. I said, “I need everyone to do that.” And to get it down to one page was a Herculean task, let me tell you.

Denver: I know. I know exactly.

Artis: Yeah.

Denver: What was that line by Mark Twain?

Artis: But that was so important. Huh?

Denver: What was that line by Mark Twain? I forget what it was, but he apologized for writing such a… making such a long speech. And he said, “I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.”

Artis: Yeah. That’s right. That’s right.

Denver: It really is hard.

Artis: But you force. Right? You create discipline.

Denver: Yes.

Artis: Because you have to think about, “Okay, what’s most important?” You have to think about, “Okay, when and how?”

Denver: Right.

Artis: You have to think about so many different questions that force you to get down to doing something like that. And it made us  have to be much more disciplined in our approach. It made us have to be very intentional and thoughtful in what we wanted to do. And then the last thing I’ll say to you, because there’s so much I could say about this, but-

Denver: Well, put it on one page, Artis. That’s all we have time for.

Artis: Yeah, put it down on one page. That’s right. The last thing I will say, though, is a shared set of values. Right? What’s the values of how you want to operate, how you want to engage with the network? And I think that was really important in starting this role and being a leader now, is in saying, “Well, what’s our values? How do we think about our values?”

And some of the things that were really important for me, that I wanted them to know that, one, the way that we operate and how we engage together was always going to be about the idea of integrity and trust. Right? That you could trust this process; that we’re going to be transparent about it. We’re going to be communicative about it. We’re going to admit when we make mistakes, and be okay with that, and say, “How do we get better?” Right? And do things in that way.

And we’re going to set a course vision and goals, and try to be as bold as we want to. But it won’t just be about setting a big goal, because new leaders like to do that; but what you have to also complement that with is: What are the real milestones and operational things that people need to be able to achieve and to move and to be successful?

And I think people embraced that, that it wasn’t just, “Hey, here’s someone coming in. He’s going to share a whole bunch of ideas that he has.” It was really about listening, understanding, relating, connecting, having shared values, trying to get it into a frame that people could understand, and then to be able to work with each other in a way that was really built upon integrity and trust.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. And I’ve always found with trust and transparency, those are the two things that can really lead to speed in an organization. Because without them, you’re kind of stuck, and you’re kind of checking things out. But when you trust and everybody knows what everything is, you can really move fast.

Artis: Yeah.

Denver: And in today’s world, you really do need to move fast. Tell us a little bit about philanthropy. How could philanthropy be more effective in supporting an organization like yours? And hey, and how’s your fundraising been since the pandemic? But mostly that first part of it: what could philanthropy do to be more effective?

Artis: Yeah. Well, here’s one of the most important things that I can share perspective on, because I’ve been in this space for over 25 years now, and I’ve seen so much develop and so much grow. I think one of the biggest places is what you’re seeing in the growth of trust-based philanthropy, meaning that investing in organizations, and believing in the organization itself. Right? And not putting a number of various stipulations or restricted guidelines, but align good organizations and great organizations that perform well, and that have the history of performing well, to do what they do best. And that is to serve their mission, and trust that they’re going to serve their mission.

So, one of the biggest things I always say, particularly to a lot of the supporters, donors, investors who we work with, or others, when I have an opportunity to speak on incredible podcasts and platforms like this, Denver, is we need more of the type of trust-based philanthropy out there, the types of donors and investors who believe in that kind of philosophy, who believe in great organizations to be able to deliver great outcomes, and trusting in the work that they do. Not blindly, but seeing the evidence, and not putting restrictions on great leaders, so that we get all the things we want to get on our donor application or forms about all the money that we put into programmatic outcomes.

But the organization can’t survive or thrive, because we haven’t invested into the undergirds of the organization:  the foundation, the fundamentals, the people, and the capacity it needs, the support they need. And that’s what I’ve seen evolve. And I hope that continues to evolve over the years, is this resistance to continue to, what I would say, put our hands behind our backs around great organizations, because we deliberately fund things that don’t put great organizations at an advantage, but move to more funding organizations and letting organizations really determine how they reach those best outcomes.

“I went to my dad, and I asked him. I said, “Am I going to be a pastor like you?” Because that’s what everyone was telling me. And he looked at me, and he said, “Son, everyone has their ministry in this world. You have to find yours.” Right? And that was so empowering and was so freeing to me.

Denver: Yeah. When I see organizations where 93%, 94% of money that they raise goes directly to program, I automatically say, “They can’t be having any impact.” You can’t run an organization like that.

Artis: That’s hard.

Denver: That means that… It really is. There was a great analogy someone told me, Artis, about; I think it was about FedEx. And can you imagine  going down to FedEx to send me a package, and when you’re going down to the store at the FedEx, you pay your $35 bucks or whatever it is. And you say to the person, “Hey, a couple things here. I don’t want any of this $35 to go to gas. I don’t want it to go to the gas in your trucks, I don’t want it to go to gas in your planes. But most of all, I don’t want any of it to go to you, because you’re nothing but overhead.”

And essentially, they tell us that in the sector, and we say, “Okay.” But there’s no other business in the world that would ever operate that way. 

You are the son of a preacher, and you’re the grandson of a preacher. So in many respects, what you’re doing now is really your ministry. Share with us some of your background, and the influences in your life that have been important to you, and helped shape the way you’re leading this organization.

Artis: Yeah. Well, you said it. I come from, I feel like I’ve been in the youth empowerment, youth development space, my entire life because that’s the way I was raised. My mom was not only the anchor of our family, of a large family, but she was the anchor of our community. Right? So kids were in and out of my house; it was like a turnstile of kids coming in and out of our house, because that’s just the way that we were raised.  

And our community was really connected. As you shared, my dad was a pastor; my granddad was a pastor. Everyone asked me if I was going to be a pastor. And I was seven years old, by the way, Denver, at this time that people were asking me this.

Denver: But you were almost eight.

Artis: Yeah. I was almost eight. There you go. I went to my dad, and I asked him. I said, “Am I going to be a pastor like you?” Because that’s what everyone was telling me. And he looked at me, and he said, “Son, everyone has their ministry in this world. You have to find yours.” Right? And that was so empowering and was so freeing to me.

And here’s what… I didn’t get it at the time, but here’s what it meant for me. Right? I see it so clearly now. It was the sense of this idea of generational expectation. Right? That because my dad was something, because my granddad was something, because I was in the context of the community that I was, I was expected, in my mind,  that I had to be that. But my dad and all the actions of my family and community beyond that, reinforced that I didn’t have to be that. I could follow my own way.

And it set me up in this way where I wasn’t built in the constraints of, “Oh, this is the community that I grew up in.” Or, “This is what I have to be because this is what I see every single day, or I’m seeing these types of things.” It put me in this place that I could explore, that I could be free. And it helped launch me, in a way, to become the first in my family to go to college and graduate. Right? And it was all the way back to some of that impression, and it was following this ministry; because it really became about following my own purpose. And that’s what ministry really means, is following your purpose. And my purpose truly became about youth empowerment. And that’s what I’ve been doing over the last 25 years.

My first job out of college, I thought I was going to law school, actually. And my first job was working in the public housing community that I played in, because a mentor who I met said, “Hey, you can always go to law school, but you can’t always come back to the community that you grew up in and change it.” And that meant something to me; and I stayed there, and it was a launching pad for me in my career and an opportunity. 

And within that was sort of various organizations and youth development experiences, building, working in pretty much every single aspect of youth development: program, operations, fundraising, marketing. My background was in marketing, but I learned to cut my teeth in other areas because I had great mentors who pushed me to say, “You got to learn these things if you truly want to be holistic in your work.”

And it was over the last couple years. Right? So I was in, and I can’t remember exactly where I was, but I remember the news when Ahmaud Arbery was murdered. And I remember it so clearly, because it was at that moment that it hit me. Because Ahmaud Arbery, for me, was, of course, everything that’s happened for so many years across our country when it comes to racial injustices.

But it was more than that. It was personal, because he was from my hometown of Brunswick, Georgia. And we all knew each other. So, I didn’t know his family directly, but I knew… It’s a small town, so everybody knew a little bit about everyone. The street he was murdered on, I had walked on as a kid many times. So there was so much personalization in his death, in addition to everything else that I was feeling. And it didn’t make me question if I was following the right ministry. It did make me question if I was doing enough and contributing enough. And it was around that time that Big Brothers Big Sisters outreached to me. And it was like looking in the mirror. I saw myself.

Denver: Meant to be almost, you know I mean?

Artis: Yeah.

Denver: In terms of, “This is exactly where I need to be.”

Artis: That’s what I felt like. It’s exactly what I-

Denver: Well, speaking about first, what does it mean to you, and what is the significance of being the first black individual to lead this historic organization?

Artis: Yeah. I would say first and foremost, pride. I’m proud to serve in this role. I’m proud because I know I didn’t get here alone. I know that so many people that I know in my community that I’m connected to, my family and others, as well as people that I don’t know, that blazed this trail for me to have an opportunity to break this kind of barrier. So there’s a level of pride that I have.

But there’s also a level of responsibility and accountability that I feel. And that responsibility is because I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants; my goal, my responsibility, my opportunity is to make sure that I’m pulling others up… to ensure that they can do every single thing that I have accomplished, and beyond that… even more. Right? Because that’s what we want for the next generation, for them to be able to see you and to say, “Yep, I can do that, and I can do more.” Right? And that’s what I want out of this role. I want the opportunity for people to see it.

But I also want the idea of my leadership and contribution in this organization to be one where there’s so many advancements in how we impact, in how we grow the scale and widen the circle to include and reach more young people, and ultimately change their lives because we’re empowering them through the work of this incredible organization and mission.

Denver: Well, there’s no doubt you absolutely love what you do. For listeners that want to learn more about the organization, serve as a mentor, or maybe financially support all of this work, tell us about your website and what they can expect to find there.

Artis: Yeah, absolutely. So, our website, you can go to our website at Again, that’s There you can find your local organization. If you want to volunteer, support your local community, all you have to do is just put in your zip code, and it will pull up the nearest BBBS agency that’s close by you. We are looking for more mentors, as I’ve shared, so you can certainly look to volunteer.

However, for those of you who say, “Maybe this is not the right time for me,” there are also other ways for you to get involved. I think one of the biggest ways is to remember for us to make matches, for us to connect and do all the different things that we do to both enroll, as well as match support, which means that we don’t just match our mentors and our volunteers with young people, we provide support. So we’re with you the entire way. And unfortunately, those things don’t come for free; they’re resourced. Right? So we need the investment from kind donors, investors, partners, who are looking to get involved and engage. So we need people who are invested in supporting us.

Also advocacy, right? So through your social media, and sharing through your content, your networks. There are different ways that you can go on our website as well as our social media, and share and promote the work that we’re doing.

And then last but not least, if you are a company or institution out there that’s looking to either drive a workplace mentoring program, and you’re looking for a way to get started in kind of some turnkey ways, or just ask questions, please feel free to reach out to our national office, and we’re happy to get started with you in that way. 

Or if you want to even investigate  sponsoring the program, we would love to explore and talk through those types of things as well. So there are a number of different ways to get involved, and we hope you’ll reach out, and we hope you’ll join our mission and our cause.

Denver: All good stuff. Well, thanks, Artis, for being here today. It was such a delight to have you on the show.

Artis: Thank you so much, Denver.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.

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