By Maria Saporta
Friday, December 30, 2011
On his first day as the new president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of America on Jan. 2, Jim Clark will be in Hartford, Conn. — the site of the founding of the organization in 1860.
And on his second day on the job, Clark will visit the A. Worley Brown Club in Norcross, a demonstration of how important metro Atlanta is to the nation’s top nonprofit youth organization — a title it has held for 16 consecutive years.
The relationship between Atlanta and the Boys & Girls Clubs dates back to 1994 when the it moved its national headquarters to Midtown from New York City.
Since it moved to Atlanta, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America has experienced phenomenal growth — largely due to the leadership of Roxanne Spillett, who has been its president and CEO for the past 16 years.
“It’s impossible to follow Roxanne — how do you follow a legacy?” Clark said. “What Roxanne has done — in a fabulous way — is grow the Boys & Girls Clubs to a level of critical mass.”
During the years Spillett was CEO, the organization went from 1,800 clubs to more than 4,000 clubs; from serving 2 million boys and girls to more than 4 million; from about 25,000 full-time employees to more than 50,000; from fewer than 100,000 volunteers to more than 200,000 volunteers; and from $458 million to $1.5 billion in combined revenues of the national and local clubs.
Clark and Spillett recently sat down with Atlanta Business Chronicle for an interview to discuss the transition in leadership and the future of the nonprofit.
“We approached succession in a very thoughtful way,” said Spillett about when she told her board in 2006 that she would stay on for five more years. At that point, the organization zeroed in on the kind of leader it wanted to succeed Spillett.
“We needed someone who had a successful track record leading a complex organization. We needed someone who was clearly committed to the mission of the Boys & Girls Clubs. And we needed someone who could bring the organization together as a family. Whoever it was had to understand what it takes to work in a federated model and get people to work together with a common goal,” Spillett said.
She went on to say that Clark not only met, but exceeded, those requirements.
“The last significant act of a CEO is to find a successor,” she said. “As a board and staff team, we hit A plus plus plus. There was nobody better. We have the absolute right leader at the right time.”
For more than eight years, Clark has been president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee. Under his leadership, the organization expanded the number of its service locations from 23 to 40; it launched nationally recognized initiatives in literacy, teen outreach and college preparation. It also had seven consecutive years of revenue growth.
Clark was tapped to become the new national CEO last spring.
“We have had lots of contact ever since the decision was made,” Spillett said. “We have been real partners. And we share a commitment to make this succession world class. In many ways, we have been working as a team since April.”
Spillett also will stay on board for several months on a part-time basis to work on development and fundraising and be available to Clark, who intends to spend much of his first few months traveling to clubs across the country and even the world.
The organization has clubs on every U.S. military base. It also has clubs on Indian reservations and in 400 public housing communities.
As Clark sees it, the nation is at a “crossroads” when it comes to nurturing children into being successful adults.
“The ecosystem has been deteriorating,” Clark said. “Academically we are at unprecedented levels of high school dropouts, and reading levels are deplorable. There’s a growing gap between Caucasians and minorities in academic achievement. I worry about where that will lead us. These kids really are the future. We have the unique opportunity to shape what that’s going to look like. It can go either way. We can deteriorate, or from this point forward, we can advance and grow.”
After dramatic growth since the mid-1990s, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America is now focused on having greater impact.
“Aggressive growth is not our current priority, but strategic growth is our priority,” Spillett said, adding that increasing the presence of clubs serving students in middle schools is an area where they can improve the odds of success. “We are committed to a growth agenda, but slower and more strategic.”
Clark chimed in.
“The scope and scale that Roxanne has built does position the Boys & Girls Clubs to be the catalyst in the country for kids,” he said. “We have got to implement an impact agenda — how do we get more [children] coming more often; how do we fill excess capacity in our clubs so they are full.”
Before becoming CEO of the Milwaukee Club, Clark had served on its board for a decade. Clark spent most of his career in the communications industry, serving as senior vice president and chief sales officer of the Journal Community Publishing Group. He also worked for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from 1979 to 1997.
Clark, 50, said his wife and two sons — ages 7 and 9 — are looking forward to moving to Atlanta in 2012.
“If there were a time in our lives when it made sense to leave Milwaukee, it is now,” he said. “My family is excited about moving to Atlanta. Once you visit, there are a lot of pleasant surprises.” Specifically he mentioned Atlanta’s “lush terrain” and that it is a bit more “cosmopolitan” than Milwaukee.
Still, Clark clearly is focusing his energies on how the Boys & Girls Clubs can better help meet the needs of America’s youth.
“We have got to be one of the catalysts that drives change,” he said. “We have got to do more for kids than ever before.”