An award-winning social innovation leader, Katy has taken Back on My Feet from early-stage startup to sustainable organization with the integration of new holistic success measures for the program, consistent double digit financial and programmatic growth YOY, and geographic expansion of operations across the US. Katy has been recognized by The Economist’s Philanthrocapitalism program as a leader in social innovation and cutting-edge non-profit management and named among Authority Magazine’s 2019 ‘Female Disruptors’ and Women’s Running Magazine’s ‘Top 20 Game-Changers.’ Most recently, she was named a winner at the Social Innovation Awards. Katy and her work have been featured across multiple media and news outlets including the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Forbes, New York Times, ABC, NBC, CNN, Fox News, Inc.com, Entrepreneur Magazine, Thrive Global, Popsugar, Runners World and numerous women’s health magazines. Prior to joining Back on My Feet, Katy led global projects for Accenture in their UK and US-based Strategy Practices working with corporate clients, NGOs and nonprofits with clients ranging from leading Financial Institutions to the United Nations.
A: I first heard about Back on My Feet when leading projects in Accenture’s Strategy practice in New York. A Back on My Feet representative came in and was looking for someone to help develop their growth strategy. I was intrigued and wanted to see the program in action for myself. And so, I found myself at one of our 5:30 AM morning community workouts, where participants and volunteers walk or run together for an hour, typically three days a week. I paired up with a member named Sandra. I told Sandra a bit about myself – growing up in Britain, my work at Accenture – and she share shared her life story with me. While Sandra’s story is hers to tell, what I can say is that the challenges and traumas that she endured is more than any person should have to experience.
As we continued, Sandra started to feel tired, but I encouraged her that we could keep going and even jog a bit. As we rounded the last block towards the end of our workout, Sandra was not sure she would make it. It was then that we heard the cheers from other members and volunteers at the end of the block – “Go Sandra! You got this! You can do it!” I remember looking over at her and seeing a huge, heartwarming smile start to form on her face. I will never, ever forget that smile. As we crossed the finish line tears were starting to run down her face. She looked me in the eye and said, “Thank you. No one has ever believed in me the way you all just did.” It was in that moment that I understood what Back on My Feet was truly about. This simple act of coming together, talking, engaging in a healthy activity together, pushing yourself and achieving a goal you thought was impossible – this is what fuels and empowers people to transform their lives.
Sandra carried on running back to the shelter that morning and didn’t stop there. She worked with our program team to find a new job, a home, and gained a healthier lifestyle along the way! As for me — I took on the pro bono growth strategy consulting project for Back on My Feet, and within a few weeks was handing in my notice at Accenture, giving up the corporate career to dive headfirst into this incredible organization as their Chief Operating Officer. Two years later, in 2015, I assumed the role of Chief Executive Officer. I am so proud of what the organization has accomplished over the last eight years since that first run with Sandra and the lives we have transformed along the way.
A: Back on My Feet helps individuals experiencing homelessness transform their lives and achieve self-sufficiency through a unique combination of community support, workforce development programming, and exercise. We partner with different types of transitional housing facilities like shelters and addiction treatment centers to recruit program participants – who we call members. They begin their journey with a commitment to run or walk three days a week at 5:30 am with a team of volunteers. This unique stage focuses on confidence, accountability, and being part of a community. We empower members to leverage the confidence and soft skills formed at these community workouts to succeed in their personal and professional goal planning. As one member put it, “If you can get up at 5:30 in the morning and run, you can get up at 5:30 in the morning and go to work.”
After one month participating in our morning walk/runs, members advance to our Next Steps program, focused on preparing for and securing quality employment and stable housing. Members participate in one-on-one goal planning sessions for their career path as well as workshops on topics such as financial literacy, resume writing, interview skills, digital literacy, and more. Additionally, Back on My Feet staff build relationships with employment partners to create a specialized professional network that our members and program alumni can access – improving their ability to obtain employment at a livable wage. We all know the power of networking to get the right job – in fact, it’s said that 70% of all jobs are not even posted publicly! Many of our members haven’t had the opportunity to build a professional network on their own, and that’s exactly what our staff, community, and employment partners provide.
Members can also apply for financial aid to overcome a one-time barrier to employment or housing. Some examples of fund usage include reinstating a driver’s license, paying for professional certifications, acquiring work tools or uniforms, GED-prep and testing, or paying for an apartment security deposit. This is critical to jumpstarting members on their new life trajectory. Once a member achieves employment and housing, they become part of our alumni network and can still participate in workshops to continue their upward mobility into healthier, more economically stable lives.
A: There are nearly 8,000 Back on My Feet alumni across the country who are working in stable career paths, are in new homes, and have reunited with their families and become amazing members of their community. On average, 83% of our alumni are still employed after 15 months at a job, 44% earn a wage increase within the first 6 months, and 21% receive a promotion. Furthermore, every $1 invested in Back on My Feet returns nearly $2.50 to the community through increased economic output from employment and reduction in costs for shelter, medical services, incarceration, and addiction treatment. Our members often see incredible health benefits too – after 60 days with us, members typically see 48% drop in blood pressure, 41% decrease in obesity, and 13% reduction in BMI.
Now these numbers help speak to the kind of meaningful change and impact our members achieve, but our members stories really speak to that even better. A great example of the kind of transformation our members achieve is our alumnus Earl in Baltimore. Earl joined Back on My Feet in 2019 with the goal of getting healthier and building a more positive career path while he participated in residential recovery program. Earl had a history of substance abuse disorder and had been formerly incarcerated, but he knew he had the potential to achieve something greater. He immediately connected with our amazing volunteers and found our supportive community so helpful as he tried to figure out what he wanted to accomplish with his life. Working alongside our staff, Earl set himself the goal of building a career path in the healthcare field. He worked diligently with our team and partners, practicing his interview skills, refining his resume, and attending workshops. He successfully started a job with a major healthcare provider in Baltimore and was recently promoted to be a surgical technician! Earl is thrilled with his new role and now he’s excited to pay it forward. Earl is well on his way to establishing a youth mentoring program for kids living in West Baltimore – where he grew up – to help them become positive contributors to their own communities. Not only has Earl started an entirely new life for himself, but he’s also now going to have a tremendous impact on his community. And the thing is – Earl had all of this potential inside him his entire life. He just needed a group of people to provide him with the right tools and support to get there. I cannot wait to see Earl’s program take off and I look forward to cheering him on as he continues to achieve incredible things. Every day Back on My Feet members like Earl are transforming their lives, building their self-sufficiency, and making a positive impact on their local communities.
A: It has been an honor to lead this organization from a grassroots start-up to become a leading national nonprofit in the workforce development and homeless services space. When I joined the organization, we didn’t have any basic infrastructure - like a donor database or program metrics tracking - let alone a structured growth plan, so we set about defining how we operate and scale effectively. Over the past few years, we’ve driven a tremendous amount of necessary change through the organization – pivoting the entire operating model to ensure we are structure effectively for scale – all in an effort to drive greater impact. We’ve achieved double digit growth every year in our program and we’re striving for much more. In 2020, we supported more than 800 individuals – helping new members find jobs and homes and alumni find new jobs and stabilize themselves when the economy took a hit due to COVID-19.
Moving forward we are changing how we operate to incorporate more volunteers into all aspects of our program so we can scale to helping tens of thousands of individuals nationwide. We successfully pivoted programming in 2020 to the virtual world and are deploying new tactics that are more efficient and effective as a result. We have also welcomed many new partners into our community who share our belief in the power of community and the innate potential of every person. This includes large funders like the Stand Together Foundation, major fitness and wellness brands like HOKA ONE ONE® and lululemon, and leading corporations like Cigna and EY. These, and many other partners, are critical to our long-term success, providing tools, resources, and dedicated volunteers to help our members and alumni. And finally, we have expanded our scope to operate in 14 cities across the country: including San Francisco in 2017, Denver in 2019 and Ft. Lauderdale in 2020.
A: Combatting homelessness has never been easy, but certainly 2020 greatly exacerbated challenges that our members have faced for years. I think we have all seen the numbers by now, but the pandemic has disproportionately impacted people of color, those in front-line service positions and hourly roles, and more broadly people living at or below the poverty line. Additionally, far too many of our alumni were subject to lay-offs and hiring freezes due to the pandemic since many of them pursue careers in the hospitality and service sector. The risk of becoming homeless simply skyrocketed and we had to rise to the challenge. Now our greatest asset is our community, which historically we have built through our morning workouts. Like all companies and organizations in 2020, we had to figure out how to sustain what makes us unique and successful in a virtual world to make sure we could continue to help our members find jobs and move into new homes. But we have an incredible team, amazing alumni, and great partners who figured out how to do just that. We developed a robust curriculum of virtual workshops and revolutionized the way we use volunteers so that we could keep our members and alumni moving forward towards their goals.
Operating virtually, we could share resources across chapters in ways we never did before, opening trainings for members to learn regardless of their location. For our members who were residing in shelters – many of them were in restrictive lock down for much of the pandemic, meaning they could not leave the facility unless it was absolutely essential. I think all of us felt the isolation of the pandemic, but our folks in shelters felt that exponentially more. Back on My Feet was still able to reach them – providing virtual gatherings, DIY workouts, and coaching so that they did not feel quite so isolated and could keep working towards their goals. We learned a tremendous amount about how we could evolve our program to keep providing the same high-quality services and foster our incredible community in new and inventive ways.
A: Growth. A huge amount of growth. The need is great, and we have to rise to the challenge. We are charging into 2021 with the goal of doubling our impact in our existing markets over the course of the year. We’ll be in a least 5 additional locations by the end of 2021 and we don’t intend to stop there. There are approximately 400,000 people residing in transitional shelters and treatment centers across the U.S. – people who want to find jobs and rebuild their lives. They just need to get connected to the right tools and resources. We want to bring them into our community and do just that. To reach them, we are going to build a bigger and more powerful network of volunteer support for our members and alumni.
Volunteers will move from primarily supporting our members at our morning workouts, to being mentors in their career planning and job search as well. It is all about teamwork: each member will have team of 2-3 specialized volunteers to help them with things like resume writing, interview practice, strategic job searching, maintaining a budget, and finding professional certification programs that will help them advance their career. I imagine there might be some passionate employees at Walker & Dunlop who might enjoy giving back by leveraging their professional skills. Join us! We envision this as a win-win across the board: our members continue to participate in specialized coaching towards sustainable careers, we, as on organization, can expand our volunteer base and offer more opportunities for people to give back to their local community, and our staff will build new partnerships, expand their territories, and bring even more participants into our program. I cannot underscore how important expanding our community is; not only will it enable us to reach more people, but it is how we really shift the greater dialogue on homelessness. Let’s face it – there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about how people become homeless, the challenges they are up against, and what it takes to overcome it. We can create greater understanding and respect when people actually come together and get to know one another. We hear from volunteer’s time and time again on how much they learn and grow by getting to know our members. By creating space to share experiences and build meaningful relationships, our community is breaking down so many misconceptions about what it means to become homeless, live through it, and work your way back out of it. We have had tremendous success with piloting this model in our newer chapters last year, and we’re excited about bringing it to even more cities across the country. When we extrapolate our program to reach thousands of people every year, think about the tremendous potential we can unleash into the world. People like Earl who are going to have a ripple effect in their communities. I, and our entire team, are excited to enter this next stage of our program evolution and deepen our impact across the country.