Heart — You need a heart that is compelled to help meet the need. A good example of this is a pilot who loves to fly and help others. Volunteer Pilot Stuart Bloom worked in the hospital as an anesthesiologist, caring for patients all the time before retiring. He also had a passion for aviation. This was an opportunity to align both of his passions to volunteer for several hundreds of flights.
For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non-Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Josh Olson.
Josh Olson, Executive Director of Angel Flight West, was previously an account executive at a Dallas, Texas, advertising firm that represented Angel Flight South Central as a pro-bono client. Since joining Angel Flight West in 2004, he has served in a variety of positions, most recently Director of Mission Operations, and was named executive director in May 2014. Josh holds a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Taylor University and an MBA with a non-profit emphasis from Marylhurst University, and is currently a student pilot.
Angel Flight West is a nonprofit, volunteer-driven organization that arranges no-cost, non-emergency air travel for children and adults with serious medical conditions and other compelling needs. With a network of 1,600+ pilots throughout the 12 western states, pilots donate their aircraft, piloting skills, and all flying costs to help families in need, enabling them to receive vital treatment that might otherwise be inaccessible. Financial, medical, and/or geographical limitations all play a pertinent role in patients receiving the healthcare attention they need, making Angel Flight West’s efforts to recruit volunteer pilots and serve more passengers just as worthy today as ever before.
Every day, Angel Flight West’s volunteer pilots fly people to their medical appointments at no cost to the passenger. Angel Flight West has spent nearly four decades — and provided more than 95,000 flights — creating pathways to healthcare across the Western United States, arranging donated flights to people in need, and providing them safe passage to and from medical care.
You can learn more about Angel Flight West at www.angelflightwest.org.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?
I started out as a volunteer with Angel Flight West (AFW). Before this, I worked with an advertising agency with Angel Flight South Central, a fellow volunteer pilot organization based in Dallas, TX. I fell in love with the mission. My father and grandfather were both in the Air Force, so I have always loved aviation and was drawn to it at a young age. When I found out the organization was built around volunteer pilots, I fell in love. At the advertising agency, we helped Angel Flight South Central rebrand through pro bono work.
After getting married, my wife Erin wanted to work in the nonprofit industry. We found out AFW was hiring in LA, and my wife was hired as the Mission Coordinator. I was working a lot of nights and weekends in the entertainment industry while volunteering at AFW during the day. When we were pregnant with our first child, it was a high-risk pregnancy. Our daughter Avery was in the NICU in Santa Monica. While Erin was on maternity leave, Angel Flight West hired me to fill in as Mission Coordinator.
While I was filling in, I got a call from a guy — another Josh — in Montana. His daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. His wife and daughter were seeking treatment at Seattle Children’s Hospital while staying at the Ronald McDonald House. Josh called to ask if we could get him to his wife and daughter. Traveling is difficult; sometimes the mountain roads were closed due to weather. Sometimes contracting deals needed to be completed so he could continue to provide financially for his family. Then it hit me — what if Erin and Avery were at Seattle Children’s Hospital and I had difficulties getting to them? It was a very emotional situation for me. We were both in tears at the end of the call. This was my ‘aha’ moment. This was when I knew Angel Flight West was what I was supposed to be doing. I no longer wanted to do commercial acting and writing. My skills were better suited to help other people than to glorify myself. I went to the hospital that night and told Erin and she said she knew that already. AFW brought me onboard and that was 14 years ago.
As a kid, I moved around a lot. When moving back to the Midwest, I landed a role in a school production and started to be known as that character rather than myself. I always felt like I had to be someone else for approval, but AFW flipped that. It’s not about me — it’s about other people. I am gifted with the ability to relate to and connect with others. As a performer, I connected with the audience and other actors. In my role at AFW, I am able to use that skill set to connect with passengers, donors, and volunteers. I can better understand and empathize with others. It’s way more rewarding to build people up and help others than to use these skills for my own affirmation.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.
First, a strong work ethic determined much of my success. In relation to Angel Flight West (AFW), I was a young dad. I was identified by the AFW board as a leadership candidate. At the time, they felt I didn’t have enough experience to take over as Executive Director yet, however, they matched funds to put me through MBA school. I was working full time, I had two toddlers, and I had to work hard during the day, to then come home and stay up for grad projects due at 11:59 p.m. I sacrificed a lot of sleep. I thought, for 18 months, I’m just not going to sleep.’ I worked a lot of 20-hour days for AFW, for family, and for my MBA degree.
Secondly, the ability to set goals and measure performance and outcomes has been vital to my growth. Personally and professionally, if you have nothing to aspire to, you won’t reach it. I needed to be tactful enough to measure and readjust goals as needed.
Lastly, leaders need to build others up. I’ve focused on enabling our team to achieve success. The same idea translates to vendors and clients. Coming in as Executive Director, we had a lot of challenges to overcome. Missions were in a state of decline. My instinct was, ‘If I work harder and do all the tasks I know how to do, we’ll be successful.’ That’s exhausting and doesn’t equate to long-term success. You need a team and infrastructure. Achieving some short-term success was helpful in fundraising but we needed a strong development team, and that was a real learning opportunity for me. I had a few failures before I learned how to put the right expectations in place. I learned to give others ownership and autonomy. I learned to let others fail and adjust. These were important practices to learn in my first couple of years as Executive Director.
What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?
People really want the big, hairy, audacious goal! They want to be inspired. Of course, we all want that, but you do try to temper that as you typically want to underpromise and over-deliver. People want to shoot big. They want a big dream and something that is bold to rally around. Team members would rather go for the big shot, even if successes don’t come as quickly as they want.
Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?
Our vision is that transportation as a barrier to healthcare would be completely removed and that no one would have a barrier to accessing the healthcare they need. We strive for this goal through volunteer pilots, volunteer drivers, and partnerships with commercial airlines.
What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?
I have stayed with AFW because helping people feels good and helping other people help people feels twice as good. We have an army of volunteers that are amazing people. They want to do something they love to help others. Making that possible in spades makes it feel like you’ve helped someone use their passion to help someone else. Plus, you’re helping patients in need of health care. Everyone wins and benefits from it.
Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?
One passenger that comes to mind that I helped early on as a Mission Coordinator was a little boy from San Diego who was born without a section of his bowels. He had to have a small bowel transplant. He wasn’t expected to live. The team performed a successful small bowel transplant. It gave him lots of years of life that wasn’t expected. He had to come to treatment monthly because small bowels don’t grow proportionately to the size of a child. It constantly needs to be adjusted and monitored. As a result of that, he developed other issues.
He had an abdominal spirit. He was funny. He joked and messed with me at the office. His medical team was wrapped around his finger. He had a great sense of humor and a great energy about him. He was great about connecting with people one on one. He had a Make a Wish granted later, and Phillips River came up to UCLA with another teammate. It was supposed to be an hour, but they stayed the entire day. His mom — they were immigrants — had several other kids at home. His mom was always trying to juggle lots of things for the family. My heart went out to him.
He passed away in his pre-teens. Many of us from AFW went to the funeral. They had nice things to say, and I still remember his mom saying that she wouldn’t have had 12 years with her son without AFW playing a part in that. Sometimes, work can become routine. With him, it never felt like a routine. I wanted to go the extra mile because of who he was and how he approached life.
We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?
First, volunteer. The root cause for the need for AFW is disparate centers for health care. Limited resources and geographical locations are a cause of the issue. Volunteering makes a difference.
Next, support educational outreach centered on the issue. The general public is not as aware of the need for transportation to and from health care. Until you’re in the situation, it’s not common knowledge.
Lastly, donating airline miles and funds to help people reach their medical treatment helps us get a step closer to erasing the barrier.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.
1 — Heart — You need a heart that is compelled to help meet the need. A good example of this is a pilot who loves to fly and help others. Volunteer Pilot Stuart Bloom worked in the hospital as an anesthesiologist, caring for patients all the time before retiring. He also had a passion for aviation. This was an opportunity to align both of his passions to volunteer for several hundreds of flights.
2 — Vision — A former AFW board member was my executive coach and volunteer pilot. About six months after I took over, independent of coaching, he just called me and said, “I have a lot of capital to donate this year. If I gave AFW $300,000, how would you use that to make the organization better? He challenged me to have a vision big enough. At the time, it was a little less than a third of our budget. He said, “Don’t think of it as $300,000. Get it matched and think of it as $600,000. He liked our idea and concept. He taught me to be audacious — to be big in vision to get people motivated. As soon as I started talking to people about the scope of the project, they got much more excited about it. They were more willing to donate and get involved.
3 — Build a Strong Team — I learned a lot of lessons in my journey to hire a Director of Development with AFW. I know I failed a few times because I didn’t set expectations and goals that were clear and measurable. I didn’t do enough delegating. Either I would try and do projects myself, or I’d put individuals on an island and not support them. Instead of hiring someone and immediately handing off all responsibilities, we eventually hired someone who received various responsibilities at different stages. By handing off projects a little at a time, our Director of Development was able to learn what worked for AFW while taking ownership and building upon existing relationships. It helps to allow staff members to succeed in a training position and then grow into a bigger position.
4 — Set Measurable Goals — For AFW, we have developed measurable goals for each component of our mission. We measure and set goals for the number of requests we get for our services, passengers served, flights flown, engaged, and we identify how much revenue we need to accomplish the goals. Under each tier, there are sub-metrics and each goal is tactical. It’s not one big number, but a series of smaller goals to help us measure growth.
5 — Develop Strategies to Reach Goals — Work closely with the executive team to create goals and assign them to the relevant department. Be supportive of the resources needed to accomplish goals. Sometimes, the day-to-day job and being reactive is easier than being proactive and having a growth mindset. Start with finding smaller opportunities throughout the day that can help lead to growth overall. For AFW, we started by making efforts to reduce flight cancellations and tracking where flight requests came from. We also gave team members measurable specializations based on each individual skill set to help us take steps forward.
How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?
For AFW, it’s sometimes not about quantity as much as it’s about quality. We’ve been in a growth phase for so long to serve more people. When you have a global pandemic, it threatens the lives of those served if they come into contact with a COVID-19 case with their immune systems often being compromised. We never had to suspend AFW completely. We were able to fly PPE to various locations and we flew nurses to areas with high COVID-19 rates. We listened to health care partners and experts to mitigate risk as much as possible. Our method of transportation had less risk with passengers being relatively isolated in a small plane but we still didn’t fly as many flights given the state of the pandemic. Our volunteers didn’t want to fly until being vaccinated as they didn’t want to spread illness to a passenger. We had to slow down and say, “We’re meeting a critical need for people who are at the most risk by getting them life-saving health care. We’re providing an incredibly safe option for passengers to travel.” It was an important and gratifying lesson to learn. We reset our strategy by making sure we were there for the most vulnerable first.
How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?
For AFW, all it takes is speaking with a patient or volunteer to get inspired again. Patients have often been dealt a bad hand but are not taking no for an answer. They’re not giving up. They’re pursuing whatever they can to have the life they want with family and friends.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked up the phone with a volunteer or board member to hear about their involvement and what they’re doing personally and professionally. For them to want to take the time to volunteer to help someone they never met, in such a gracious way, is inspiring. It’s easy to move forward again when you’re surrounded by these efforts.
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 non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love for the Walton family to see this. They’re all passionate, and many of the adult children are passionate aviators. We deal with logistics involving rural areas all the time. We know that there is a significant gap between rural and urban areas for healthcare access and that aviation plays an important role in overcoming these barriers. I’d like to share our vision with them. They’d have the passion, vision, and resources to help us make it happen.
You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?
There are many ways to follow the amazing work of Angel Flight West. We stay active on all of our platforms:
FB: @Angel Flight West
Twitter: @AngelFlightWest / https://twitter.com/AngelFlightWest
We also post passenger stories and volunteer pilot spotlights on our blog each month: www.angelflightwest.org
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.