Mission: The mission or focus of any nonprofit organization must be crystal clear. Organizations should be mindful not to take on too much, because it’s impossible to solve everything. For Boys Hope Girls Hope, we are hyper focused on helping young people long-term to change the trajectory of their lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Ostby de Barillas.
Kristin Ostby de Barillas has dedicated the last 17 years of her career to supporting the mission of the international organization, Boys Hope Girls Hope (BHGH). In her role as President and CEO, Kristin leads the organization’s vision, strategy, planning and execution to achieve the mission of BHGH across 13 U.S. and two Latin American affiliates. She also works to engage, inspire, and equip her team to carry out the organization’s mission with high standards of excellence.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. 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.
- A People-Centered Relationship Builder: Relationships constantly inform my ideas and my leadership. I have always enjoyed connecting with people from all walks of life. I’m curious and I ask a lot of questions. I learn by talking and sharing stories and experiences with people of different ages, backgrounds and beliefs. I enjoy taking Uber, partly because of the conversations I’ve had with the drivers over the years. In my work, whether it’s connecting with the young people we serve, their families, our non-profit and corporate partners or donors, each connection shapes my thinking. When I was in college, I received a Ford Foundation research grant for a project I’d pitched on developing diverse, democratic organizations. I chose to conduct my research at Glide Memorial Church, a high-impact organization in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco working with people who are homeless, living on the edge and struggling with addiction. I came prepared with my clipboard and a full questionnaire. During my first week on the job, one of the men who worked there, who had recently come out of prison, said to me, “If you really want to understand how this place works, go work in the stockroom for the free meals program. Ditch the clipboard!” I ended up working alongside 17 men and one woman who were rebuilding their lives after time incarcerated. Through that experience, I built deep connections and learned far more than I ever would have through my questionnaire.
- Empathetic: The ability to feel other people’s struggles and relate on a human level is key to my work and leadership. I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age six. I started taking shots of insulin and measuring my blood sugar multiple times a day as a kid. It has been something I’ve had to manage throughout my life. It has not been easy, and it has definitely shaped who I am. One major gift of this struggle was learning at a very young age that health and life are truly precious and can be taken away at any time. We have to do everything we can to care for our health, including our mental health, and live as fully as possible each day. I appreciate people, like our scholars and collegians, who persevere despite the obstacles and probably take on bigger risks and shine even brighter as a result.
- Open: I am open to new experiences, ideas, and people and I trust that life will lead me where I need to go, even if it is not the expected path. My faith is an important part of this. In college, I spent a month with an Aymaran woman I had met, and her family, in the Chilean Andes. They lived in very humble conditions with no refrigeration and only one faucet with running water. We shared stories while herding sheep and picking fresh herbs for the family to sell. In San Francisco, when I was 25, I met my husband, Benito, who grew up in an orphanage with 300 other boys in Guatemala. We fell in love, dated in the U.S. for a few years and after getting my MBA from Stanford, I moved to Guatemala so we could start a life there. We lived there for 16 amazing years. I joined Boys Hope Girls Hope from Guatemala.
What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?
When I stepped into this leadership role, I didn’t appreciate how critical it is and the time it takes to really build trust. Just because you’re named the leader doesn’t mean people trust you. Part of building trust for me has been about listening and understanding people’s needs and perspectives, making sure my team and I deliver on our commitments with excellence, and having open and honest conversations. Over time, I’ve learned the importance of speaking the truth and hearing the truth even when it’s hard. I try to always approach tough conversations with love, respect and good intentions. Even when conversations are hard, people often later express gratitude for the honesty, and trust can really grow.
Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?
At Boys Hope Girls Hope, we work with highly motivated, bright young people who are coming from situations of poverty and face serious challenges in their lives, whether it’s a parent who is incarcerated, struggling with mental illness or living in a neighborhood where it’s tough to go to school safely. Young people opt into our program with the support of their families, because they want something brighter for their future. They have a vision of something more. We refer to the young people we serve as “scholars.” They become part of our community that sticks with them through life’s ups and downs from the start of middle school through college graduation and career launch. In many cases, we provide scholars with a safe place to live through our residential pathway, while others don’t need a place to live but do need a supportive team of people and access to education and opportunities through our Academies. Our long-term commitment allows us to help scholars become, as our mission says, “well-educated, career ready, men and women for others,” people who will have a positive impact. We work across the U.S., in Mexico, and in Guatemala. We see enormous need and potential among so many young people and communities, and we are committed to tripling the number of young people we serve over the next decade.
What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?
I am passionate about Boys Hope Girls Hope because of the young people we serve. They have character, grit and resilience, and over time, develop a deeper sense of who they are and who they want to and can be as people with a positive impact in the world. Their unique experiences help them navigate life and become the first in their families to hit many important milestones, like high school, college and graduate school graduations, as well as major career firsts. They are the type of leaders we need more of in the world. Our alumni bring their unique perspectives and rich life experiences into their work as educators, social workers, finance and marketing professionals, and their voices are shaping our society.
I am also passionate because our work brings people of different races, classes, and political views to the table to take part in our mission. I loved the findings of a recent study that appeared in Nature Magazine showing that communities where people build relationships across class lines have vastly greater numbers moving out of poverty than neighborhoods where these cross-class interactions don’t take place. We need more organizations and spaces, like Boys Hope Girls Hope, where people can build these ties, that truly benefit everyone, including the more economically fortunate. I’ve always been inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of the beloved community. That’s what we’re trying to build every day!
Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?
Honestly, there are countless stories to share coming out of Boys Hope Girls Hope’s 45 years of work. There’s a young Black woman who grew up in Pittsburgh. She lost her father to gun violence at age 12. Her mother knew her daughter had so much potential and wanted to find a place where she could grow and thrive. This young woman came to live in one of our homes and loved the structure and support. She graduated from Georgia State University debt-free and became an intensive care nurse at an inner-city hospital in Atlanta where she has worked since the beginning of the pandemic. She had opportunities that paid more, in more comfortable situations, but felt called to help because so many people had stepped up to help her along the way. Her mother was so inspired by her that she went back to school and has now finished her college degree as well. Both are incredible role models for their family and community, and they’ve created a positive ripple effect with the example they’ve set.
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?
The problem we’re trying to solve stems from historic, systemic, and multi-generational issues, which have resulted in poverty, inequitable access to opportunity, and incredible odds stacked against young people in breaking down these barriers.
- Spend time with young people to listen, share and connect with them. This is especially important because so many young people feel disconnected. Learn about their ideas, interests and concerns.
- Open your network. Think about opportunities you have access to and consider how you can give opportunities to people who are less connected. Don’t be afraid to take a chance on someone by vouching for or opening a door for them. Everyone deserves a chance, and some people have hit tough spots and need people to help them to start again.
- Invest time and money with organizations working to change access and equity. Boys Hope Girls Hope is my favorite! That said, there are many great organizations doing important work that should be invested in.
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.
- Mission: The mission or focus of any nonprofit organization must be crystal clear. Organizations should be mindful not to take on too much, because it’s impossible to solve everything. For Boys Hope Girls Hope, we are hyper focused on helping young people long-term to change the trajectory of their lives.
- A diverse, passionate and engaged team and board: It is essential to have a diverse team of people who can bring different strengths and unique perspectives to the work. When I started at Boys Hope Girls Hope, our headquarters team of 20 and most of our board was white and mostly male. I was very intentional about building a more diverse team and board to better support our mission and the young people we serve. It’s critical to have people who are passionate about the mission, who are always thinking about how we can do better, and then work hard to make it happen.
- Strong partners: You simply cannot approach this type of work alone. At Boys Hope Girls Hope, we partner with schools, other nonprofits and companies who want to invest in, and provide opportunities for, our scholars. For instance, one of our corporate partners, World Wide Technology, has supported us by mentoring our youth, providing internships, and offering a scholarship program. Their employees help us in critical areas like creating tools to support our strategic plan, and with our technology and marketing. They have also opened the door to their network by connecting us with their partners and other valuable resources.
- Committed donors: Generous donors are a vital part of any organization. It means a lot when a donor is eager to learn and form a deep understanding of how they can make a larger impact. Their passion can help problem solve and bring new ideas to the table.
- A bold and steady vision for what is possible: It’s critical to stay radically focused on the people and communities we serve and what is possible for them, even though it takes time to nurture and develop, and life is never a straight path. We often see more potential in our young people than they have realized they have. Non-profit work requires the same thing — see the unseen, realize the impossible, and this takes hard work, time, resources and tenacity.
How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?
I have come to appreciate people and organizations who can be nimble. It’s not about changing everything but finding new ways to support your mission or goal. The pandemic caused us to do things we have never done before to ensure we could continue to meet the needs of the young people we serve. I admire any organization that has been able to adapt over the last 2.5 years without losing focus on their mission.
How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?
With every major victory, there are always setbacks that inevitably come our way, such as a donor saying “no,” or an opportunity falling through. I think that’s just the natural rhythm of life; two steps forward and one step back. As long as you’re making progress, you must accept the setbacks, trust it wasn’t meant to be, and keep moving forward. I stay focused on the people we serve and am fortunate to have an awesome team that keeps pushing each other forward.
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, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
We’re about to launch a major campaign to take our work to the next level and triple the number of young people we serve. The need is huge, and our model is proven. I’ve been very fortunate to have many women friends believe and invest in our work. There are so many amazing women doing innovative, inspiring work in philanthropy and social impact right now. Women like Laurene Powell Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, MacKenzie Scott, and Priscilla Chan. I would love for them to know about Boys Hope Girls Hope and meet our phenomenal scholars and alumni.
You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?
You can visit our website boyshopegirlshope.org, or follow us on Facebook @BoysHopeGirlsHope, Instagram @bhghnetwork, or Twitter @BHGHNetwork.
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.