“The Salesforce platform also made it easy to track a lot of metrics around utilization and user interaction, with built-in visualization tools like heat maps to identify potential roadblocks and solutions. We wanted to make sure we were building an infrastructure that we could evolve very rapidly, to constantly evaluate and improve the system, almost in real time.” - Jarrod Bell, Chief Technology Officer, BBBSA

Big Brothers, Big Sisters: Human-Scale Technology

Since 1904, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBSA) has been driven by a simple yet profound idea – the power of a single human relationship to spark positive change. “Our mission is to create and support one-to-one mentoring relationships that ignite the power and promise of youth,” says Adam Vasallo, BBBSA’s Chief Development Officer.

That clarity of purpose has led the nonprofit through over a century of steady growth. In the last decade alone, they’ve served more than 2 million youth, across all 50 states. Currently, about 135,000 kids (“Littles”) are matched with adult mentors (“Bigs”) in ongoing relationships that, says Vasallo, “really focus on helping young people achieve their brightest possible future.” 

For an organization that’s always prided itself on face-to-face interactions – meetings between matched Bigs and Littles usually take place in parks and zoos, at schools and in workplaces – COVID-19 was “an unprecedented threat to our mission,” says Vasallo. “We had 135,000 existing relationships to support, 30,000 kids on a waiting list – and, almost overnight, our matches had zero safe sites for meeting. Schools and offices and parks and community centers were closed. 

“Suddenly, it was urgent to keep our matches socially close, but physically distant. Obviously, technology offered solutions – but we had no time to waste in deploying them.”

Using Salesforce to Preserve Distanced Relationships, While Tracking Progress and Outcomes

In 2019, BBBSA had already partnered with Saleforce.org with the aim of becoming a “connected nonprofit” – using platforms like Experience Cloud and Marketing Cloud to better communicate with diverse constituents, and better collaborate among internal departments (programs, operations, fundraising) at its national office and 240 local agencies. 

With Marketing Cloud, BBBSA can send emails to newly registered Bigs, welcoming them and letting them know the next steps to take. They are currently working on building more of these journeys, specific for volunteers, and donors, which will help to automate and personalize their communication. 

By utilizing these automated journeys, they expect to save 20 hours monthly by automating processes and reminders, for example asking Bigs to complete a background check. When the pandemic hit, they were relieved to discover that the same Salesforce tools could help preserve – and even enhance – their core mission of one-to-one mentorship.

“We knew we needed to throw a life raft to save these precious relationships,” says Jarrod Bell, BBBSA’s Chief Technology Officer, “but we couldn’t just put them on a video chat and say ‘good luck.’ What differentiates us from a lot of mentoring organizations is that each of our relationships is overseen by a match support specialist, a professional who’s there to shepherd the process, to guide and advise everyone – Bigs, Littles, parents and guardians – towards achieving the youth outcome development goals that have been set, individually, for each youth.”

Lots to Do in Little Time

BBBSA’s to-do list of resource needs loomed large. They needed:

  • Online training to cover video-based interactions
  • Methods to report to and receive guidance from match support specialists
  • Tools to keep parents and guardians involved 
  • A way to keep all these new digital efforts organized, accessible, secure, and on one platform

They found all those capabilities in their own backyard – by using existing features of Salesforce’s Experience Cloud.

Within just 8 weeks, Bell and his tech team were able to customize Experience Cloud to launch a “minimum viable product” that:

  • Enabled messaging between Bigs and Littles
  • Access to a shared library of resources on best practices
  • Oversight by match support specialists. 

With an eye on the future, says Bell, “we built in a lot of feedback loops for all our constituents – Bigs, Littles, parents, guardians, our agencies across the country – for them to tell us what aspects were working, what needed improvement, what new features they were craving.”

“The Salesforce platform also made it easy to track a lot of metrics around utilization and user interaction, with built-in visualization tools like heat maps to identify potential roadblocks and solutions. We wanted to make sure we were building an infrastructure that we could evolve very rapidly, to constantly evaluate and improve the system, almost in real time.”

Solutions for Now – and Down the Road

BBBSA has a long history of positive impacts on the kids they mentor, with a success rate of 90% positive outcomes, and a devotion to proving those successes with persuasive, relevant data. 

“Our initial impulse had been to address these immediate needs,” Bell continues. “But no technology is good without a roadmap to the future. What we realized is that this new system gave us even more power to produce exactly the kind of metrics that fuel our fundraising. The tools within Salesforce that help us gather, analyze, and report to donors on data will help our mission enormously – not just to weather this emergency, but in a post-COVID world and for years to come.”

Bell’s roadmap is already starting to be executed, with plans underway to:

  • Integrate text messaging into the system for those Littles who may have limited internet access, especially during the pandemic
  • Curriculum development for knowledge areas such as STEM readiness, pre-college planning, and career guidance
  • Customized group messaging to create a more individually tailored experience for various constituents
  • An artificial intelligence component – “We’re envisioning an AI engine that allows folks to ask natural-language questions and get responses, like referrals to relevant articles and resources. When the engine reaches the limit of its usefulness, it would hand the conversation off to a match support specialist. Their time is precious, and this could save them hours to concentrate on what they do best.” 
  • Utilizing the Nonprofit Success Pack to optimize their fundraising efforts. 

Acknowledging the Tech Imperative

Going forward, BBBSA will continue progressing their technology strategy, with the ultimate goal of being a fully connected nonprofit, where they can see all data, communicate with supporters, and engage with their Bigs and Littles all on one platform.

As utterly disruptive as 2020 has been, Bell sees a silver lining in the ways that circumstances have compelled his organization to embrace a far more digitally connected future. “I look at my colleagues in the nonprofit world,” he reflects, “and it’s obvious that those who’ve made strides towards digital transformation are better positioned for the future, COVID and beyond. These days, if I were at any other human services nonprofit, I’d be making a strong case to my directors and funders that this type of technology, with everyone connected on one platform, is not just an infrastructure cost, but a strategic necessity to deliver engagement and outcomes. It’s been critical to sustaining our mission – even though that mission is as simple as two people forging a relationship.”

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