Different Sports, Same Challenges: Growing a Sports-Based Youth Development Program

A Session at the 2019 Urban Soccer Symposium


Rob Smith, Founder & Executive Director, Youth Sports Collaborative Network [email protected]


Danny Bernstein, Founder & Executive Director, Backyard Sports Cares, Westchester County, NY [email protected]

Simon Cataldo, Co-Founder & President, Harlem Lacrosse, Baltimore, Boston, LA, and NYC [email protected]

Elizabeth McGlynn, Executive Director, Girls on the Run Montgomery County, MD [email protected]

Jill Robbins, Former CEO, Soccer in the Streets, & Soccer for Good “OG”, Atlanta [email protected]

Shannon Schneeman, Executive Director, America SCORES New York, NY [email protected]


Each of the 5 panelists represent a variety of experiences based on their differences in sports, organizational structure, youth and community demographics, and their experience which individually ranges from 4 to 30 years. The impressive accomplishments of each panelist and their sports-based  youth development nonprofit is provided at the end of the article.

Danny, Elizabeth, Shannon and Simon revealed their nonprofit’s most important capacity challenges for 3 different periods of operating -- Early Stage as a startup or turnaround, Past two years and Future within the next 2 years. Jill provided a framework for identifying, evaluating and solving challenges for capacity building consisting of the 4 developments (Resource, Leadership, Organizational, Program) plus Community Engagement.

PDF download of the session PowerPoint is available that identifies the four panelist’s 3 challenges. Below is more detail of the panelists’ presentations organized within Jill’s capacity building framework.

Resource Development

Money, Money, Money -- Comments included “No money = No Mission” and  “Our mantra is we grow or die!” However, that being said the organization with this mantra has a reserve, at least 3 months, to cover operating costs. A reserve of operating costs between 3 – 6  months is considered the nonprofit standard. As one panelist pointed out as a result of the 2009 recession, she went many pay periods without getting paid.

Early stages -- Whether it was as a startup or turning around an established organization, all were in agreement it was essential to seek as many sources of new funding as possible -- submitting multiple grant proposals, attending any event to meet prospective funders/supporters, and asking for meetings with anyone who could possibly help. All said they had to weather a high rejection rate before having funding success. All would take a meeting with whomever was willing and in those initial meetings asked for advice as it was the best tactic to eventually obtain financial support. If begin asking for money, often were given advice.

Diversify, Diversify, Diversify ­-- YSCN’s online survey revealed the number 1 funding issue for SBYD nonprofits was raising new money. As our panelists indicated it is essential to diversify funding because funders come and go. Some grants are only given to a nonprofit one time, foundations or individual grantors change their priorities, people who were your supporters in a company or foundation leave their position, or a major economic downturn occurs. In the 2017 YSCN national survey taken by 64 different SBYD nonprofits, 82% of responding nonprofits said they employed multiple funding sources with 40% confirming they employed 7 to 9 different funding sources in 2016.

Recommended Funding Sources ­– Panelists suggested different sources of funds including events, Board of Directors, and charging fees for their programs for those kids and families who can afford it. Both Girls on the Run and Backyard Sports Cares operate in wealthy counties in which low income families live as well. By charging fees for some, both could provide full scholarships to those from their County who could not participate otherwise.

At the same time, several strongly emphasized that the Board should be an important funding source of your nonprofit – either by providing a regular donation to your nonprofit or helping to connect with new donors. One panelist expected a Board Director to be responsible for $40,000 in funding. Simply, if a Board Director is not donating to the organization, then that person should not be on the Board.

All agreed annual fund-raising events are an important part of annually raising significant funds. In fact, one panelist mentioned their annual fund-raising event enabled their organization to survive during the recent recession. Another mentioned they started merchandising to sell shirts and other items.

In the YSCN survey, fund raising events and board of director donations placed a close second and third source of funds after Foundation Grants. Without multiple funding sources, long term sustainability is unlikely.

Some Cautionary Advice – Given the importance of funding, there is always a danger of mission creep, especially during the early stage of a nonprofit. As you work to get new funding, suggestions will be made or money offered to stray from your mission or program scope. It is important to stay within your mission. That said there can be situations, such as a merger, to delay implementing all program requirements immediately as additional time is required to effectively implement all components of the acquired/merged organization.

It’s true if there is no money there is no mission. However, money alone will not ensure successful growth and success. Panelists discussed the importance of the other four capacity components to grow a sports-based youth development program.

Leadership Development

Evolution of Your Board – In the early stages of a nonprofit, the Board makeup is likely to be friends and family, and are very involved in the operations of the organization to a level that they are licking stamps and envelopes of a mailing. However, as the startup gets some traction, it becomes important that the Board takes on higher levels of involvement and oversight including –

  • Developing and reassessing the strategic plan to set program priorities,
  • Ensuring and overseeing proper organizational developments such as internal financial controls, background checks of employees and risk management policies, and
  • Evaluation of executive director/CEO performance.

Often to have an effective Board to take on these essential higher-level responsibilities, bylaws should set terms for Board directors to ensure the Board capabilities change as required by the needs of the nonprofit’s growth.

Staffing – Hiring and managing employees were a key challenge during all 3 periods of organizational development – early stage, past 2 years and upcoming 2 years.

In the early stage when funding was a challenge, organizations had part time employees or contractors to ensure most of the funds were spent directly on their programs. In some cases, part time would evolve into full time by a person taking on 2 half time jobs. One example provided a part time marketing communications manager eventually became full time by taking on writing grants as the other half of his job.

However, all stressed the importance of having sufficient staff to deliver quality programs. It was admitted too often staff costs were undervalued and thus not sufficiently funded in their grant proposals. Further, it can be difficult to find the right people to coach and mentor the kids in the program. A good coach is not necessarily a good teacher. It is critically important to attract people who will fit in and sustain the culture the nonprofit has worked so hard to create.

Given limited funds for staffing, no or low-cost fringe benefits were suggested as they are valued by younger employees – work from home, summer hours, flexibility to go to doctors and other personal appointments, providing lunch once a month for a staff meeting, and setting up a simple IRA.

Also stressed is the need to create a clear, detailed job description to make sure the right people were attracted to the position. One panelist said before anyone was brought on, either as an employee or volunteer, they were asked to shadow a current employee for a day so prospective candidates can obtain a better understanding of the culture and the nonprofit’s operations. Further, this method helped the nonprofit get to know the candidate better, and if a candidate does not make the time to spend a day in the organization, then clearly that person is not the right candidate.

Organizational Development

Management Systems With the growth of organizations, in particular rapid growth, it becomes more important to ensure the right policies and procedures are in place to fulfill the nonprofit’s mission. Such situations can require a pause in growth to ensure your nonprofit is able to effectively sustain the current larger budget. Further to take the time to work with the Board in developing a strategic plan and then executing that plan to implement more sophisticated systems around governance, finance and hiring.

Funds being mismanaged or even embezzled, which does happen in nonprofits, can result in severe damage to a nonprofit’s ability to deliver current level of programs. Ineffective screening of employees or volunteers can lead to employee actions that severely damages the reputation, if not force a nonprofit to close its doors.

While these operational tasks are often viewed as boring, they are critically important to ensuring a sports-based youth development nonprofit is operating effectively and legally.

Program Development

What’s the Story – The heart and soul of a nonprofit is the program being provided to the children in the community. In early stage of development, the story is a description of the service your providing, the needs of the children in the community or school serving, and the program and resulting benefits will be providing to participating children. The story is what initially attracts schools, children and their parents to the program, and funders to donate to the nonprofit. It is how a nonprofit begins to build the critically required trust with the community they plan to serve.

However, the story needs to eventually become more quantitative on the impact the program is having on children. Examples of quantitative date includes improved school attendance, decline in suspensions, higher grades, improved BMI, and better fitness scores.

Such data collection is important for Board and staff leadership to effectively assess how their program is performing and determine where improvement is needed.  As program capacity increases, quantitative assessment becomes essential to ensure increased funding is being spent properly.

Community Engagement

Delivering Your Story How you convey your message about your program to the community is essential for building trust. The message must be consistent and clear on the benefits, the impact, of what your program is designed to provide. It is important to identify the audience you are trying to reach – public schools, city/county government agencies, parents, the kids themselves, local media, other complementary nonprofits – and tailor the message accordingly to the audience. Through consistent messaging, the nonprofit creates a clear identity, a brand, that everyone in the community understands, expects and thus willing to engage as a partner, participant or funder.


There are many important components to managing and growing a sports-based youth development program. The most successful organizations like those of our panelists (Bios Below) have developed an experienced leadership that creates and regularly re-evaluates a strategic plan that guides the nonprofits resources, leadership, organizational, and program development along with its community engagement.


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Panelists' Background

Danny Bernstein, Founder & Executive Director, Backyard Sports Cares, Westchester County, NY – Danny created Backyard Sports in 2006 in a prosperous suburb of New York City. His mission was to create an antidote to the arms race culture gripping the current youth sports environment. In 2010, Danny founded Backyard Sports Cares, a not for profit, designed to bring these ideals to children without access to sports and recreation. Today, Backyard Sports Cares brings both team and individual sports programming to over 2,500 special need and underserved athletes.

Simon Cataldo, Co-Founder & President, Harlem Lacrosse, NYC, Baltimore, Boston, and Los Angeles -- In 2006 as a Teach for America Special Education teacher at Frederick Douglas Academy in Harlem, Simon Cataldo struggled in his first year and introduced lacrosse as a way to engage his most academically and behaviorally challenged students. He started with 11 students and 10 sticks and today in addition to New York City, they have 3 other locations, 2 through mergers, and in September, Philadelphia will be added. With 96% of Harlem Lacrosse students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, the organization now serves over 850 students from 19 programs in five cities

Elizabeth McGlynn, Executive Director, Girls on the Run Montgomery County, MD – In 2009 Elizabeth became the Executive Director of Girls on the Run of Montgomery County, a Council of GOTR National. Montgomery County is one of the most prosperous U.S. counties while also home to 3 of the most diverse cities in the country. She has grown the program from 800 participants per year to over 5,000 per year in the past 10 years. Of the 5000, approximately 75% pay a fee which is less than the full cost and 25% receive a full scholarship.

Jill Robbins, Former CEO, Soccer in the Streets, Atlanta & Soccer for Good “OG” -- Jill Robbins began working with youth soccer in 1983 in San Antonio, Texas, co-founding a youth soccer club that catered to families by offering a low-cost solution. She also co-created in 1990 an outreach soccer program for minority youth in Youngstown, Ohio, a program with kids who have played soccer in college and professionally. Since then, she has been involved with Soccer For Good both nationally and globally as CEO of Soccer in the Streets in 2004 and as a founding member of the streetfootballworld network.  Jill is one of the founders of the Urban Soccer Symposium (2007).

Shannon Schneeman, Executive Director, America SCORES New York -- Shannon Schneeman’s passion for soccer, youth and business brought her to America SCORES New York (ASNY) in 2015 after six years at the investment bank Barclays. Since arriving, Shannon has tripled the size of ASNY, now working in 20 schools with 1,200 children, 90% of which receive school lunch. ASNY is an independent affiliate of America SCORES founded in DC in 1994, and now a national network of 12 affiliates. National has a small office which supports the affiliates through training, curriculum, program design and thought leadership. However, the affiliates each run their own fundraising, programming and administration. This structure allows them to address community-level issues, while still benefiting from the America SCORES brand name and shared learning.

Moderator: Rob Smith, Founder & Executive Director, Youth Sports Collaborative Network – Based in Silver Spring, MD, a suburb of Washington, DC, Rob has 30 years of experience as an executive director of national member associations. After attending the 2015 Urban Soccer Symposium, he founded YSCN in 2016 as a member association for nonprofits providing any type of sports-based youth development program for children from underserved communities.