“It’s a very universal idea—that it’s through a relationship that a child has a chance to see what’s possible, to have their doors opened, their horizons expanded,” Vredenburgh explains in a voice that combines motherly warmth with executive steel. “And through a Big Brother or Big Sister, professionally supported, we bring people together from completely different worlds.”

The process of bridging those worlds and generations has been refined and fine-tuned over the years, which is why BBBS is considered the gold standard  for matching kids with adult mentors.

“If you just arbitrarily throw folks together, you will not get the same impact that you get when you go through the Big Brother Big Sister process,” says Joseph Tierney, executive director of the Fox Leadership Program at Penn and a member of the board of trustees at BBBS’s Southeastern Pennsylvania chapter. “It is a very focused organization with very clear guidelines for how one does those activities, particularly the recruitment and screening of volunteers. That careful selection and screening process increases the probability that there will be a meaningful impact on the young person.”

Tierney knows something about BBBS’s process—and its results. Ten years ago, as a senior researcher for Public/Private Ventures (P/PV)—a nonprofit organization that evaluates youth programs—he undertook a randomized study of 959 children in BBBS programs around the country. It found that “Littles” were 46 percent less likely to use drugs, 27 percent less likely to initiate alcohol use, and nearly a third less likely to hit someone than were their peers who did not have a Big Brother or Sister. In minority communities, the difference is even more striking: Little Brothers and Sisters were 70 percent less likely to initiate drug use than other similar minority youth. They also had better relationships with their parents, skipped approximately half as many days of school, and showed “modest gains” in grade-point averages. (For the record, that study took place under Vredenburgh’s predecessor, Thomas McKenna, now a research project manager at Penn’s Center for Research on Youth and Social Policy.)

“My first reaction to the study was, I didn’t believe it,” recalls Dr. John DiIulio C/G’80, then P/PV’s director of the Partnership for Research on Religion and At-Risk Youth, and now the Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion and Civil Society at Penn. “My second reaction was, if I did believe it, I would have to change somewhat fundamentally my own approach to social programming. So I literally asked to see the raw data. And the more I pored over the data, the more astounded I was. These numbers not only passed the smell test; they passed the kick-the-tires-hard test and the try-to-pull-it-apart-every-way-you-could test.

“To find those kinds of impacts from what looks like a relatively homely, small intervention is really astounding,” he adds. “Especially since this study was a genuine, full-scale, randomized, controlled experiment. So at first I didn’t believe it—and then I became an evangelist for it.”

That small, homely intervention is about to get, well, big. In 1999, when Vredenburgh took over, BBBS was matching some 118,000 at-risk kids around the country with program-approved adults. By last year, that number had jumped to 221,000.

“We doubled in four years,” says Vredenburgh, “but we’ve got a long way to go. We’re planning to go from 221,000 matches in 2004 to 440,000 in 2007.” By 2010, the goal is a cool million matches.

At this level, it’s easy to lose sight of the human faces behind the numbers, and what intervention on that kind of scale can mean. But as Vredenburgh sits in a modest conference room at BBBSA headquarters in Philadelphia’s Chinatown section, talking about her plans and strategies and worldview, one senses that she doesn’t make those goals lightly.

“I was hired to take this incredible, life-changing interdiction and take our organization to scale—to become a serious, performance-oriented growth organization,” she says. “It’s a huge growth, but when you think about how generous people are in this country, the fact that today we have about half a million active supporters—why couldn’t we have millions of people giving to Big Brothers Big Sisters according to their means? One million of those people matched with 1 million kids, and maybe five times that number, 5 million people, giving according to their means.”

Oddly enough, money is not something that most people think about when they think of BBBS.

“Everybody seems to understand that we need volunteers,” Vredenburgh says. “And we do need volunteers. However, we don’t match any volunteers without professionals—and we’re really, really well respected at doing that. But people don’t understand that we need money.”

If her growth-charts appear grandiose, her vision is buttressed by real-world experience, resolve—and dedication to her cause.

“Judy’s a terrific leader for that organization,” says Tierney. “She focuses on quality while at the same time she’s interested in expanding the number of children who are served—and that’s a powerful combination.”

She also has a good product to sell. “Our organization is incredibly relevant,” says Vredenburgh. “When you get a chance to tell the story, people get that young people need a chance to be educated so they can be highly productive, contributing members of society, so they can themselves be good parents, be taxpayers, be gainfully employed, et cetera. Regardless of what your political philosophies are, it’s appealing.”

“When you’ve been around, dealing with various community-service groups, you get a sense that some people are on fire with a mission, and some are good at performance art,” says John DiIulio. “This is not performance art. You don’t hear as much about her as you do about some national nonprofit leaders, in part because she’s got that rare combination of this incredible talent and gifts—and almost no ego. She has enough ego to care, but not only does it not get in the way, it doesn’t at all obscure the heart that’s there.”

Back in the spring of 1970, as she pondered the looming job market, the young woman then known as Judy Nemez told her husband-to-be—a Wharton MBA student named Donald Vredenburgh WG’70—that she intended to have two careers.

The first would be in the for-profit arena. “I was going to show that women could break some barriers and manage a little bit differently—and achieve,” recalls Vredenburgh. “I’m very achievement-oriented. But then I would have a second career, where I would work on social-justice issues, helping particularly the disadvantaged.”

Her long-term vision has proven to be 20-20. After earning her MBA at the State University of New York at Buffalo, she spent two high-achieving decades in the for-profit world, including a stint as CEO of Chess King (a specialty-store division of Melville Corporation). In 1993 she swapped the for- for a non- and became senior vice president of the March of Dimes, responsible for revenue-development and marketing. During her six years there, revenues increased by 50 percent.

Since she took over BBBS in 1999, Vredenburgh’s for-profit experience—especially her talent for stretching dollars—has proved to be invaluable. “Our cost-per-match has gone down 25 percent in the last four years,” she says proudly. “Forbes magazine analyzed 200 charities at Christmas time [2003], and they selected only 10 charities to give the Gold Standard to. And we were one of the 10, because we use money so incredibly well.”

“Judy deserves a sort of case study in organizational entrepreneurial leadership,” says DiIulio. “She doesn’t waste anything, any potential human or financial resources. It’s always for the cause.”

In Vredenburgh’s view, running a nonprofit organization “is in many ways more difficult” than running a for-profit, especially since “we need people who are achievement-oriented and high performers and who respond to challenges.

“Every time we satisfy a customer in nonprofit, we drain resources,” she adds. “And every time you satisfy a customer in for-profit, the resources come back to you. That is really a profound difference. It sounds really simple, but it makes our work much more complicated.”

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/05

The Biggest Sister
By Samuel Hughes

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