Root Cause welcomed Sonja Okun to our team as a senior consultant earlier this year. Sonja comes to Root Cause with two decades of experience developing and leading successful positive youth development programs, most recently as founder and Executive Director of exalt. exalt empowers justice system-involved youth to reengage in their education through an intensive classroom experience and paid internship program. I talked with Sonja about what drew her to Root Cause, the value of capacity-building support for nonprofit leaders, and measuring quality in nonprofit programming.
Tell us a little about your previous work at exalt.
exalt is based on the program I started almost 20 years ago at New York’s oldest and largest alternative to incarceration program agency, CASES (the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services). In a nutshell, it’s an educational internship program for young people who are involved in the justice system. New York is only one of two states that charge youth as adults beginning at age sixteen. As far as I’m aware, exalt is the only program in NYC explicitly designed for, and exclusively serving justice-system involved youth in which they participate voluntarily vs. by compliance, yet which can simultaneously positively impact their sentences. It has two components – our unique classroom experience, followed by a paid internship experience. 95% of exalt graduates remain enrolled and are progressing in school two years beyond the program.
What drew you to Root Cause?
I am passionate about providing capacity-building to social sector organizations because I’ve been on the other side and have seen the benefits directly. At exalt, I worked with two funders that acted as consultants to us in terms of helping to guide our next steps – I found the process so valuable and helpful for us. It was almost therapeutic to have a set of people talking through your concerns with you while valuing the work that you do and the problems you’re trying to address. Often, nonprofit leadership know exactly what they need to do, but they may not have the capacity to do it. To be able to offer that help to nonprofits is important to me, because I have experienced its value directly.
Tell me about a current project you’re working on.
I’m working with an early-stage program, housed in a larger medical institution. I’m helping them develop a business plan by guiding them through fundraising and infrastructure challenges. At Root Cause, we often work with nonprofits to help them determine what data they should collect and how to use that data to improve their programs and outcomes. However, in this case, I’m working with an organization that needs to define an overall strategy, with a particular focus on financial sustainability. We are doing this by gathering data and input from program participants, comparable programs, potential partners, philanthropic leaders, government leaders, and other experts in their field. We’re guiding them through possible scenarios for what their organization will look like in its next phase of development.
Do you have a personal motto or a mantra?
It’s less about the WHAT than the HOW. When I first started at CASES, there were no internship programs for any kids in the juvenile justice system, definitely not the highest risk kids with whom we were working. Now, internships have become ubiquitous. But you still have to question the HOW – the quality of these programs. Elements that may be creating the greatest value can be classically harder or impossible to measure and I remain interested in how we can bolster those aspects in nonprofit work generally. It is important to have goals and track metrics, but the truly transformative elements of a program you may not be able to measure – it may manifest in ways we can’t even see.
So what is the role of data and evidence to today’s nonprofits?
It’s hard to survive as a nonprofit without examining data and evidence. Articulating a theory of change, creating a performance measurement system, and linking the data you collect with your theory of change helps an organization take a step back and assess their own work. Activities like comparing your organization to others and seeing where you sit is really valuable but nonprofits may not always have the time to devote to it. Making that process more feasible for nonprofits can provide a lot of value.
Why do you do what you do?
I know how impossible it can seem for organizations to get outside help that can really guide you through what your challenges are, assess what your impact is, and help you develop a strategy that doesn’t just help you carry on in your work, but take it to an optimal level. The work that Root Cause does is not abstract or theoretical to me – I’ve lived through it for most of my life. Giving that sort of help to others, having been on the recipient side, is very rewarding to me.
To learn more about Sonja and the leadership at Root Cause, visit our team page.