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Getting Settled in your Development Director Job?

Lessons from Drew Laurens – Reach Out and Read

By Katie McDowell

By improving administrative efficiency and communication, Director of Development at Reach Out and Read Carolinas Drew Laurens is making great strides promoting childhood literacy in the region.

The Organization

laurens-headshot2Reach Out and Read is a nation-wide nonprofit that gives children and families access to age-appropriate books in their doctors’ offices.

“It infuses literacy at a population-based level, from trusted medical providers,” Laurens said.

These visits, which are necessary and feature society’s respected, licensed caregivers, provide an ideal forum for educating families about the importance of literacy and providing them with reading materials.

“There are parents fighting with teachers, but you rarely see that with a health-care provider,” Laurens said. “They are trusted people in society.”

The program spans across the Carolinas and targets both parents and children.

“Our mission is leveraging the internal system we have that we know provides results,” Laurens said. “It serves as a two-generational intervention because we are hitting the book access which is a huge problem for low-income households.”

Reach Out and Read is backed by research, making it appealing for state funding.

“Our program is strong because it’s evidence-based,” Laurens affirmed. “We have 15 peer-review national research studies.”

Moreover, the program produces tangible results in the number of books distributed to families.

“There are more books in their households, which we know is a huge hindrance to low-income families,” Laurens said.

Laurens’ Background

Laurens got his professional start with education when he taught for two years in a Title I school for 7th and 8th grade students.
“I got talked out of going to law school and did Teach for America in Atlanta,” Laurens said.

With this position came a great responsibility, given the education gap that left many students performing far below grade level upon his arrival.

“It was probably the most difficult thing that I’ve ever done,” Laurens said. “I had kids coming in 13 and 14 years old and reading on a second and third grade level and being asked to do everything everyone else is supposed to do.”

Laurens’ efforts soon produced remarkable results.

“My kids grew an average of four years my first year, and four and a half years my second year,” Laurens said.

After his tenure at Teach for America, Laurens’ role transitioned from the classroom to education development. He was one of twelve founders of the New Orleans chapter of KIPP, a nationwide public charter school project. Its establishment in the city’s 9th ward came at a time of great need following Hurricane Katrina.

“There, I got started with development, assisting with fundraising for KIPP,” Laurens said.

Laurens said KIPP would bring donors into the classroom. It was there, combined with his work at the University of New Orleans where his interest in the fundraising side of education took off.

From there, he worked for three years as manager in community engagement of the Historic Charleston Foundation, where he handled the fundraising operations.

“I was really fascinated by development,” Laurens said, “but I was ready to get back in education.”

Step 1: Set Goals

At Reach Out and Read Carolinas, Laurens manages both North and South Carolina, making it a unique two-state coalition.

“I spend a lot of my time in Charlotte,” Laurens said. “We do public fundraising and received $1.5 million in South Carolina.”

Laurens hopes to replicate this in North Carolina and also to further tap into private philanthropic funds. The program’s strong research backing bolsters its credibility for funding.

Laurens believes that improved funding could expand the program further in age and volume of recipients.

“This program has a lot of national attention,” Laurens said. “Why don’t we hear more about it locally?”

Historically, the program has served children in the age range of six months to five years. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, this needs to start at birth, and expanding the target audience needs to be accompanied by increased funding.

Step 2: Get Organized

“One of the gaps we faced early on was a lack of human resources,” Laurens said. “Our priority was developing a communication streamline between program and development department, looking at data to see where we need to prioritize our time.”

“It was as simple as a checkbox on an evaluation that the program specialists do for each one of our clinical programs,” Laurens said.

Laurens attributes much of the organization’s recent gains in efficiency and future goals to Callie Boulware, executive director of Reach Out and Read Carolinas.

“Callie has been with the program for twelve years and has been able to grow the program substantially,” Laurens said. “Her strategic thinking enables her to think short-term and long-term.”

These short-term plans included a scrutiny of the program’s financial model.

“We recently did a cost-benefit of analysis that looked at Reach locally,” Laurens said. “What does it cost and what are the public benefits? Where is our return on investment?”

In launching Laurens’ position as director of development, the program hopes to create an investment portfolio with diversification of funding.

“Prior to state funding, we were funded through foundations and corporations,” Laurens said. Now, the program has launched an annual fund.

“We had never implemented an annual fund previously,” Laurens said. “We had just sent out letters.”

Laurens cited another huge opportunity for growth as the development of systems.

“Reach Out and Read is a grassroots organization at its core,” Laurens said, “but there was much room for improvement in terms of acknowledging donor, stewarding, differences in monetary recipients, who is calling the donor, and whose caseload they belong on.”

Step 3: Get Personal

“Because of the state funding we are able to leverage new funders, funders we haven’t had in the past,” Laurens said.

Laurens emphasizes the importance of personalized relationships in fostering long-term, sustainable development. Leveraging local relationships is strategic because of limited staff.

“My background is with individuals,” Laurens said. “It’s nonprofit management, education and development. At the local level, people give to people.”

Laurens believes he has the experience to connect with current and potential donors on the individual level.

“When I’ve done fundraising, it’s been with individuals and I’ve had strong success with foundations in the past,” Laurens said. “It takes a strong relationship with someone in that organization.”

For the coming year, Laurens hopes to improve lines of communication between the program and its donors, as well as with the board.

“Implementing a communication system is a huge priority for 2016,” Laurens said. “Hiring a communications person is crucial because you cannot have an effective annual fund with the donor community without the kinds of e-news that millenials receive everyday.”

Reach Out and Read Carolinas has a local advisory board from a variety of sectors, ranging from university professors, deans, and local literacy philanthropic champion.

“It’s a huge benefit to have an external perspective,” Laurens said. “We want to take that board over the next year and form committees that match where our biggest strengths and opportunities lie, utilizing their expertise on a more individual and small group basis.”