All youth deserve an opportunity to improve their lives and explore their potential. In this episode, Douglas Nelson talks to Gordon Matchett, the CEO of Take a Hike Foundation. Take a Hike Foundation partners with public school districts to engage vulnerable youth in a full-time mental and emotional well-being program using an alternate education classroom. Gordon provides insight into the challenges and opportunities of expanding this unique program across multiple districts; the importance and some how-to’s of metrics and measuring impact; and the dynamics of working with a board of directors and volunteers.
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Take A Hike Foundation: Empowering Vulnerable Youth With Gordon Matchett
Our guest is Gordon Matchett. He’s the CEO of the Take a Hike Foundation and we’re happy to have him on the show. Welcome.
Thanks for having me, Doug.
For the audience who may not know, tell us a little bit about what Take a Hike Foundation is.
Take a Hike partners with public school districts and together, we engage vulnerable youth in full-time mental health and emotional well-being program. We embed it right into an alternative education classroom. The Take a Hike Foundation, we engage the youth in intensive and continuous clinical counseling. We engage them in venture and we engage them in the community. When we do that, it allows public school districts to do what they do best, engage the youth in a high-quality public education offering. Together, we empower vulnerable youth to change the trajectory of their lives.
How do you do that? What are the students involved in when they’re a part of the Take a Hike program?
It’s a full-time high school program that the school district is offering and then Take a Hike provides a registered clinical counselor in the classroom and they’re there all day, every day. That clinical counselor helps the students work through whatever issues are holding them back. It’s not a regular clinical counseling type of experience. The students, when we interview at the end of the year, we say, “How was therapy for you?” They’re like, “I don’t know. I didn’t get any therapy.” We ask, “Did you spend any time with Virginia?” They’re like, “Yeah, we had some deep conversations. I told her all about my mom.” I said, “You didn’t have any therapy at all.” They describe them often as ninjas.
It probably works better, making it easier for kids to open up and talk.
It does because it’s done so naturally. The therapist might help the students with their homework and they’ll have conversations while they do that. They might have the conversations while they’re walking around in the schoolyard. Where we also develop these relationships is in the adventure-based learning portion of our program. We take students out on an out day once a week. On those out days, we might do things like kayaking or hiking. We might practice our leadership or our camping skills. A lot of them are geared towards getting the students marked in class or getting ready for a longer trip. We take kids on two to three, three to ten-day camping trips each year. It’s there where you’re able to get deep relationships forming between the students and the teachers and the students and their peers.
It sounds like an intensive and important program. How did Take a Hike get its start?
Many years ago, a teacher at John Oliver School was teaching outside classes and his name was Tim Gale. Tim said, “I need these kids to come to school so I can teach them. They weren’t coming.” He started to take them outside and he found when they did out days, all the students would show up. When they took them out on camping trips, they would start to form these deeper relationships. That’s how the adventure-based learning portion started. The next year, a therapist needed to do some clinical counseling practicum. He said, “I’ve got my supervisor. I just want to work in your class for a year.” Tim said, “Let’s try it out.” I was able to make such huge changes with the students. We said the next year, “Let’s have him come on full time.”
That’s how the program side got started and we evolved that way. Tim Gale knew he was best at teaching. He didn’t want to be an administrator. He didn’t want to be a fundraiser. He wanted to be a teacher. He reached out to some folks that he knew, Phil Cotterill, John Montalbano, they were two of our original board members and they helped to start the foundation. They brought on a few other board members and they brought on their friends to help with donations. They were able to form that financial base and that administrative base that the program needed to survive.
The program has done much more than survive. One of the things I want to get to in this conversation is how the program has started to expand beyond one or two classrooms. Before we get there, how did you come to be the CEO of Take a Hike Foundation?
I’ve got one of these long and winding career paths that when I look back on it, it’s totally apparent how I got here. When I started on it, I never thought that I would be here. When I was in university, I did outdoor ed and science. My first job out of university was managing an outdoor education center for the YWCA in Edmonton. That led to becoming an executive director for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Alberta. By the time when I was 30, I had finished an MBA and become an executive director and it wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I felt like I’d gotten way away from working with the kids, which was where my heart was. I was doing administration and they wanted me to do more fundraising and more community engagement. That’s not where I wanted to be.
I left the not-for-profit sector and I became a banker. I was a financial advisor. I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time but getting out of the not-for-profit sector for a while and working in a bank, working as a financial advisor to small business owners, I learned about the stock market. I learned how to talk to people who were way wealthier than I was. I learned how to do sales. I learned how to be on message for what the bank wanted me. I got all of these skills that I would never have learned in the roles that I was in but were so important for the roles that I’m in now.
The bank didn’t work for me. I probably took four years off after the bank. I did some traveling. I lived at Ashram for a couple of years. When I was done with that, I came to work for the Dalai Lama Center and then when my job was ending of the Dalai Lama Center, the job at Take a Hike became available. John Montalbano was involved in the Dalai Lama Center and I said, “I’d like to apply for this job at Take a Hike.” Before I could put my application in, I got a phone call from him and the rest is history. I can’t believe there’s a job that’s made perfectly for me. The board can’t believe that there is a person that exists for this job.
You’ve been there for about three years. Is that right?
It’s going to be four years in January.
Over that time, the organization has looked at expansion. Growing a program that is successful and that’s intensive with the participants is a challenge that a number of organizations that we’ve worked with at The Discovery Group have struggled with or had been challenged by. In our initial conversations, I was impressed with the thoughtfulness that you and your board brought to expanding Take a Hike. Tell us a little bit about that decision to move beyond John Oliver School and take on other sites.It is not enough to know what works, but you need to know why it works. Click To Tweet
We knew right from the beginning that this program worked and we wanted to expand it. We went from one program to two programs and we hired our first executive director in 2004. We did that with the assistance of Social Venture Partners. They provided us with that rich ecosystem that supports that SVP does for its investees. Not only did they give us cash to hire our executive good director, but they helped us to put together some of the key capacity building exercises that we would need in the organization. We were able to go from one classroom to two classrooms. We were able to go from the board doing fundraising entirely as volunteers to having a paid person doing it and step up a little bit there. It was around 2010 when we were ready thinking about expanding again. Legacy is 2010 now, which is philanthropy. They were starting to get ready to develop their offering and so we partnered with them, and we explored the question about how do we increase our reach?
They helped us expand into the West Kootenay and Burnaby. They helped us develop some of that key capacity and infrastructure that we would need to be able to grow. They helped us develop a community assessment framework, a process to start new programs. They helped us identify what support the programs would need. They helped us rewrite things like our bylaws and our board manual. They helped us understand what it was that we needed to do and give us a gift of, “Here’s how you open programs.” We got to test that by opening up the West Kootenay and Burnaby programs and we paused for a few years. We wanted to make sure that the organization was stable and that the programs are operating the way we wanted them to. We wanted to make sure that our fundraising revenues had kept up and we wanted to reassess. That took us about three years to reassess and stabilize.
I’d like to ask a little bit more about that assessment because the big buzzword in the whole social profit sector is impact and measuring impact. You talked about developing the mechanism for how to start new programs. How did you measure the impact when you went from that one program to three?
We had worked with some PhD candidates several years ago to develop some program evaluation metrics. They would look at the students on several different spectrums before the program and then several different spectrums after the program. We were able to do that but what was the key metric that we found that people were interested in were our graduation rates. We were able to show that over the last few years, 87% of our grade twelve students have graduated. That’s what people were interested in. They were interested in seeing these kids go from not attending high school at all to attending almost every single day, from being these kids that were going to drop out to being on the honor roll. That’s what our key assessment and metrics were.
That is powerful metrics and powerful storytelling as well.
That helped people get behind Take a Hike. It’s seeing those metrics as well as being able to hear the stories of students.
The organization has taken that pause to evaluate, make sure that it is as effective in a distributed way as it was with a single classroom. It’s time to think about expanding again. How did the organization approach that or was it an opportunity? What was the trigger point that said, “We’re ready to grow?”
The two expansions that we did, they didn’t go exactly as we thought. We had originally thought the West Kootenays would be able to raise all the money that they needed to run their program in the community. After three years, we had intended that they would be doing that and they still had only raised about half of the amount of money they were supposed to. Our board had to make a real key decision and say, “They’re not doing what we wanted them to do. Do we let them go or do we subsidize them from Vancouver?” We made the choice to subsidizing from Vancouver. In Burnaby, after the first year, a teacher had left and then a new teacher had come in and the program wasn’t running exactly as we had thought it would. We said, “We need to provide them with some extra support.” We were able to get a person from our Vancouver classroom to work with them one day a week and helped with their capacity.
That’s what we had to do looking back on making sure those two programs were running properly. We said, “If we need to do that, what do we need to do to be careful to make sure how we’re growing and what we’re going to do as we grow is going to be sustainable?” We talked to school districts across the province when we said we’re looking to expand. We reached over half of the school districts in the province and they said, “We’ve got the interest.” We knew there would be interest. We talked to people like the Minister of Education, the Dean of Education over at UBC, we talked to experts in social-emotional learning, and we talked to experts in adventure therapy. We got our homework around, is this a program that can expand? They told us what we needed to do is develop a theory of change, do a literature review so that we had a solid evidence base for why the program works, develop our program metrics even further. Work with our alumni to understand what they were doing and what the long-term impacts work.
They encouraged us to do a social worker on investment. We were at a point where we said we need another big capacity investment. We went over to our friends at SVP and Social Venture Partners said, “Yes, we can help you out with that.” They gave us another very significant grant that enabled us to hire experts and develop our theory of change, to develop that evidence base. We’re working with PWC to conduct the social return on investment and we worked with our alumni to be able to tell their stories. It was building that very sophisticated case for support that our donors needed but also the program model that our school district partners who need to know that we were serious.
If you do all of that work, you said in describing the program at the start, we knew right away that it was working. We could see immediately the impact of the program. You talked to a bunch of true experts who suggest doing deeper academic research to inform that experience. Were there any surprises when you took that deep dive and looked at the academic and psychological underpinnings of why this program was working?
The research that we did helped us understand what the key pieces of what we were doing made a change. I would say where we shifted is at one point, we had thought that it was very rigorous outdoor activities that produce these changes. That kind of boot camp model where the adversity builds character. What we said is, “No, it’s actually relationships. It’s these key relationships with staff and students. It’s that environment. It’s that clinical counselor that helps lift our students.” That helped us shift the way we thought about our program. It helped us shift the way we thought about the long expeditions we spend with students. Rather than doing a ten-day arduous hiking trip where we’re hiking every single day trying to get 300 kilometers down in those ten days, we’ll take four or five rest days in those ten days where students will go out and do a solo on their own per night, two nights, where they’ll be able to do a lot of journaling and have deep relationships out in the fields. That’s what helped us change our program model.
You’ve done all of the great deep work. You understand what makes the program successful. You’ve got some funds in the bank to support. What is the conversation around the board table that says, “It’s time for us to expand beyond the three classrooms we have?”
First, the board said, “Yes.” Burnaby and the West Kootenays, they’re running the way we want them to. They said, “We’ve had a few good years of fundraising. We feel we’re going to be able to increase this.” We had so much interest across the province and one of our board members said, “If we continue to grow the way we are, one or two programs at a time and then pausing, it’s going to take us 100 years to get across the province and meet all this demand that we’ve created. We need to set ourselves an audacious school. We said within ten years, we will partner with every single school district in the province that wanted the program. That meant going from four programs to 60 programs within ten years. That meant we had to think differently about everything. We started to think differently about fundraising. We started to develop more leadership gifts.
We started to make our case for support more sophisticated. We started to do more government relations work. We hired additional fundraisers so that we’d be able to increase our targets. It took a long time for us to be able to get through that because our board is cautious and careful about making sure we steward our donor funds properly. They didn’t want to see us going off and wasting our donor’s money. I needed to prove to them that we had a plan and that by hiring additional staff, we would eventually be able to get to more programs. In February of 2019, we were able to open up a program in partnership with the Delta School District. In September, we’ve been able to open up a program in partnership with Nanaimo School District. We’ve experienced 50% growth within the last couple of months.
Has the conversation around the board table changed? Are they enthusiastic supporters? I’m sure they were supportive of the expansion in general, but what is the conversation around the board table have been like now that both of these programs are open?
There’s confidence that we know how to expand, that we can do it properly. There’s confidence that we will be able to fund these programs, but then there’s still question and caution around are we going to be able to fund future programming? We engaged a fundraising consultant to do a resources study and say, “How much can we raise on our own?” We got that number and we said, “We can probably grow to about ten classrooms given our current donor resources and to get beyond that, we’re going to need government funding.” We continue down the path of asking the government for money.
Tell us a story about the volunteers that are involved in the program. As the program is getting bigger, how does that change the relationship to Take a Hike?We see squirrels all the time; we have to be very careful not to chase after them. Click To Tweet
Community is such an important part of the program. It starts with the community that we build within the classroom. Those twenty students and up to four staffs spending all day every day together. They start to feel like family. We have volunteers around the classroom and every classroom will have a handful of volunteers. They come in and help the students with their schoolwork. They’ll do tutoring with them, they’ll help them out with whatever they need during classes. There will be other volunteers that come in and help out on our out days. We’ve had some volunteers that have been with the program for ten, fifteen years, going on all of their out days and all of our trips. They start to form those relationships with the students and they’re so indispensable. We need folks around us to help us raise funds and so we engage community leaders in each community to help us raise that money that we require. Of course, there are our board members.
I want to reflect back that early on in our discussion you said one of the things that drove you from the social profit sector in the first place earlier in your career was being asked to administer and fundraise. A lot of what we’ve talked about since then at Take a Hike has been you as a CEO obviously and in charge of that administration, but also fundraising is likely a bigger part of your day than it may have been when it was one or two classrooms. How have you found that transition as the lead voice when it comes to fundraising in your organization?
Karma sucks, doesn’t it? It’s funny the exact reasons why I left the Boys and Girls Clubs are the exact job that I’m doing now. I love my job now. I needed that time to be out of the social profit sector. I needed that time to be able to get a bigger picture of the world, a better picture of myself in that time off that I took to travel and to live at Ashram where I understood who I am, what I wanted to be, and what I wanted to contribute to the world. When I realized where my skills were and where my passion was, it makes total sense where I am right now.
Do you find that you’re more comfortable in those conversations with donors or potential investors than when you took the job years ago?
I had good comfort in speaking with donors and funders when I started in the program but it’s increased over time. I’ve worked with some fantastic colleagues. We pushed each other to up our game. Working with our board of directors pushed me to expand my thinking, to speak about the program in very different ways. Working with experts has encouraged me to talk in a more sophisticated language. I have a lot of evidence behind me now. Before, it used to be a good idea, and we knew it worked and now it’s a good idea and we know why it works.
That’s a great distinction.
When I’m able to go out and talk to donors and talk about why it works, it goes from talking about four and five-figure gifts to talking about six and seven-figure gifts.
It makes all the difference because it shows the potential impact that a donor can have on the lives of these kids and in the course of their education and in the course of the organization that you lead. It’s a beautiful way to connect all of those dots. You’ve increased by 50%. What advice would you give to another organization that provides intensive programming as Take a Hike does? What advice would you give that CEO or that board as they approach an expansion?
Do it very slowly and cautiously to start. Understand what it is that makes your program work. We talk about the theory of change here in the social profit sector. In the corporate sector, they’ll talk about a unique selling proposition. Understand what it is and how you get to your theory of change, how you get to those outcomes so that you can replicate that in other districts. Make sure that you’ve got the funding in place and make sure that you’ve got the organizational capacity and people to help you grow.
Looking back over the experience in the last couple of years as you’ve grown the organization, is there anything you would do differently as a leader to support that expansion?
I would’ve taken care of myself a little bit earlier. In 2018, my board of directors said, “We want you to engage in more professional development.” For my first couple of years in Take a Hike, I didn’t. In those two years, I would have invested more in myself and so over the last year, I was able to reach out and do quite a bit of professional development. I worked with the Sauder School of Business. I worked with Nancy MacKay of MacKay CEO Forums and I was also able to work with Vantage Point and the Institute of Corporate Directors. I was able to lift my capacity as a leader and understand how I can better support the people I work with.
That’s a good reflection on your own experience and good advice for others to follow. If you look ahead, you’ve got the two new classrooms open. What’s next? What do the next twelve months hold for the Take a Hike Foundation?
Over the next twelve months, we’ve still got more capacity building that we need to be doing. We have hired a director of human resources who is going to help us look at the organizational structure. We have job descriptions, compensation so that we know that we’re able to attract and retain the right people. We’ve got the right workloads for our staff. We’ve got enough people on the bus so that we’re going to be able to expand. We’ll definitely pedal through on fund development. We need to reach out to find more community support. We need to reach out and find that government support that we need to grow past our ten classrooms. It’s about funding and making sure that we’re taking care of our people.
When I listen in to this conversation and from what I know of your organization, it is impressive to see a program start and then a sophisticated social profit grow up around it over the course of many years. What we see a lot in the sector is organizations looking for a program and so you have a sophisticated organization looking for a program that works or to tweak the program so that it works. This is as effective as what you’ve been able to produce. To build an organization around an idea that’s working is a unique proposition in the sector.
It is and it’s been our laser focus on that idea and not string from it. We see squirrels all the time and we’re very careful about not chasing after them. We know what we do best.
You do it very well. I want to underline something you said that the audience can take away and put to work whether they were working in fundraising, program development or in the C-Suite in an organization. It’s that it’s not enough to know that it works, but you need to know why it works. I think that is a great piece that people can take away and implement on an immediate basis. Thank you very much for sharing that.
Thanks for having me.
If people want to learn more about Take a Hike, where can they find you?
You can find this on the internet at TakeAHikeFoundation.org.
Thank you so much for making the time to be a part of the Discovery Pod.
Thanks for having me.
- Take a Hike Foundation
- Social Venture Partners
- MacKay CEO Forums
About Gordon Matchett
He had a career with a lot of variety in the non-profit and corporate sectors. Previous roles in the non-profit sector include managing an outdoor education center for the YWCA of Edmonton, being the Executive Director for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Alberta, and working as the Business Development Manager for the Dalai Lama Center. He also worked as a financial advisor, traveled extensively, and spent two years living in an ashram in the Kootenays.
Education-wise, he has undergraduate degrees in outdoor recreation and science, and an MBA.