Charting a Centennial Voyage

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An anniversary is a chance to reflect on the past year and consider what’s next. As the American Youth Foundation plans its 2025 centennial events (dates to be announced soon), it also has the rare opportunity to set in place strategic plans that will shape the direction of the organization for the next 100 years.

In 2022, the AYF Board of Directors and senior leadership team embarked on a multiyear strategic planning process to assess what the organization does well and how it can grow.

“The AYF is fortunate to be in possession of these magical properties where we create program communities focused on what kids need right now,” said President Liz Marshall. “The strategic planning process gave us chance to step back, be thoughtful, and to tune up language and mission to best meet the needs of kids of today and the future.”

Setting up the AYF for the next 100 years is no small task. That’s why leadership tapped Tucker Branham of Change Develop Move, a consulting organization with national reach, to help with the strategic planning process. In addition to her professional expertise, Branham is also a Miniwanca program alumna and former seasonal staffer.

“Tucker has a unique combination of professional experience and a personal understanding of the AYF’s strengths,” Marshall said.

Branham and the leadership team began the process by listening. They spent months consulting with individuals across the AYF community, including current and past staff and program participants at National Leadership Conference, Miniwanca and Merrowvista; parents and caregivers; and board members. They also conducted surveys and focus groups about the values and direction of AYF work.

“While listening to alumni, I was struck by how frequently the same words and themes came up across the generations: inspirational programming, celebrating the best in others, exploring different perspectives,” Branham said. “People feel passionately about the experience they had and want to make sure those experiences are available to others in the future.”

This feedback laid the foundation for a strategic planning taskforce and staff committee to begin developing and implementing a strategic plan.

Marshall said the next step was to identify and assess the organization’s values. “At a moment like a centennial, you can go in a lot of different directions. There are a lot of competing priorities,” she said. “Starting the process with values means wherever we go will be grounded in culture code of the AYF. It will keep key decisions around policy, practice, and assessment rooted in the common language of community values.”

With these values established, the taskforce turned its attention to the AYF’s new vision and mission. The vision, Branham explained, serves as the “grand why” of the AYF’s existence and the impact it aspires to create. After careful consideration, the AYF declared its new vision for the next 100 years: Inspired people unleashing their best in the world.

“This language harkens back to the inspiration at the core of the organization since it was founded in 1925, interpreting it in a new way for this century,” said former President Anna Kay Vorsteg.

The new mission statement articulates how the AYF intends to put that vision into action: The American Youth Foundation dares people to discover and celebrate the very best in themselves and others, inspires them to explore diverse perspectives and complex challenges, and emboldens them to live courageously, engaging their full capacity.

“The AYF’s incredible strength lies in its legacy of powerful youth programming,” Marshall said. “The language and vision of original founders – that all people should be welcome to the work of discovering and developing their four-fold best selves – is evident in our new mission. We are continuing the tradition of everyone doing their own internal work to become their best, then contributing to a larger community.”

Developing a new organizational vision, mission, and values is careful, theoretical work. The second phase of the strategic plan creates and implements strategies and objectives that put those concepts into practice.

The AYF is evaluating five strategic components to ensure the relevance and reach of its transformational youth programming: participants, staff, programs, places, and finance. Each of these components has key objectives and targets to reach in the next few years.

For example, the AYF recognizes that increasing recruitment and retention rates are vital to attract and retain a broad and diverse base of participants open to pursuing their best and supporting the best in others.

“There’s a real need to rebuild and fill our communities,” Marshall said. “Growing back to our full capacity post-pandemic is not quick or easy, so before we can expand in significant ways, we have to shore up the core of our unique program communities and fill them with participants.”

By 2026, the AYF hopes to be back at full enrollment of summer camp programs, serving more than 500 Merrowvista campers, nearly 800 Miniwanca campers, and nearly 300 National Leadership Conference participants. Data-driven, outcomes-based decision making regarding program offerings, staffing models, and more are vital to this process.

The strategic plan also includes a focus on the physical sites and facilities through a master plan for renovation and upgrading the sites with safe, inviting buildings to house programs. Finance goals include expanding revenue as a nonprofit by looking to new partnerships with individuals, family foundations, and corporate organizations that can invest in and help fund existing and new program initiatives.

“This is why it’s so important to undertake the strategic planning process before the centennial campaign,” Marshall said. “It will help us understand where we want to grow organizationally and to be intentional in the work of rebuilding after the pandemic.”

Ultimately, the strategic plan illustrates the AYF’s continuing commitment to investing in youth.

“Our first and most important value supports youth through powerful programming in community,” Vorsteg said. “The AYF is doing the vital groundwork necessary to meet the needs of kids today and the next century through outdoor adventures. We will continue to empower them to connect with their own ideas and values, so they can act with purpose and integrity to improve their communities and the larger world, now and for decades to come.”