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The CEO Perspective: How Summer Search Changed Amy Saxton

by Dana Hagenbuch

In Summer Search, Amy Saxton found the potent combination of a professional challenge and a mission she couldn’t resist. Amy spent seven years in the nonprofit sector at Bridgespan, leading work to define growth strategies for youth-serving nonprofits and foundations.  Amy hadn’t considered a move until a friend presented the opportunity to lead an organization that changes the lives of young people every day.

Amy was struck by the focus on character traits and integrity outlined in the job description and applied to become Summer Search’s CEO. As she learned more about Summer Search’s deep values and passionate staff, she fell in the love with the position and organization, and the rest is history. Amy has been at Summer Search for three years and in that time has led the organization to establish an ambitious growth plan, achieved 12%+ year over year budget growth including closing a $20M growth campaign, and set the wheels in motion for the systems and infrastructure that will enable the organization to serve hundreds more students, helping them to complete college and become leaders. 

We had a chance to chat with Amy about her experience as CEO, the opportunities she sees for the organization, and the importance of building the organization’s capacity so that it can create even deeper impact with the low-income youth it serves.

CGC: What drew you to Summer Search?

AS: My parents both grew up poor. My mom emigrated from Panama and my father was raised on a farm in the Mid-West. Both persevered to complete college—my mom was first in her family to graduate—and now hold professional careers. Their example instilled in me a deep value for education and the transformative power it can have on people’s lives.

When I learned how Summer Search was genuinely changing the life trajectories for low-income kids, I couldn’t resist. From my background working with charter schools and school districts, I was well aware of the barriers preventing low-income kids from getting through school. Summer Search was a different type of solution than any other organization I knew. From its combination of professional mentoring and life-changing summer experiences, Summer Search offers a solution that doesn’t just get kids through high school and college, but develops the skills it takes to thrive in life.  Our alumni are beacons of change who give back to their families and communities.

It wasn’t just the mission and program, though that drew me to Summer Search. As I learned about the organization’s values like authenticity, gratitude, and fun, I was exposed to a group of wonderful and passionate people on the staff and board who treated each other with respect and genuinely loved what they did. This is what clinched it for me.

CGC: Summer Search is in Year 2 of a 5-year strategic plan. How do you expect the organization will change in the coming years? What are the greatest opportunities for growth and impact?

AS: Our ultimate goal is to have more impact on kids. At a minimum, we will be serving more of them over the next 3 years (from 4,000 to over 7,000 students and alumni.) We also are investing in innovation in order to grow, experimenting with programs that will attract more boys, who tend to struggle the most in the education pipeline, as well as leverage the vast amount of data at our fingertips to better inform the way we work. The thing that won’t change is our values and how we work.

CGC: As much of this growth will require making investments in development and fundraising capacity, how do you see your role in fundraising and how do you anticipate you will continue to be involved?

AS: Fundraising has to start with the CEO, and it’s a large piece of my job. Before coming to Summer Search, I had limited experience in fundraising. I soon realized that there’s something beautiful and fun about the process. When I could find the right match in a funder, it was a chance to help someone exercise their beliefs through their generosity.

With today’s growth in the Development team, I see myself staying just as involved in fundraising, but my role is less about being in the weeds and more about making sure the development team has effective partners in our board and leadership staff, as well as stewarding and cultivating major donors. (Note: Summer Search recently hired a Manager of Annual Giving and Development Operations Assistant, and is currently hiring a Bay Area Director of Development and Bay Area Major Gift Officer)

CGC: How does Summer Search develop its talent?

AS: Summer Search is filled with people who are learners. We hire learners because we believe they will be motivated to reach ambitious goals. In doing so, we have no shame in “borrowing from the best.” We’ve adopted tools from our strategic partner, the Gap, and even had staff attend their leadership development program. Every member of our team has a development plan, and every manager is trained to evaluate the performance of their staff. I like to think our investment in our people has contributed to our being named one of the fifty best nonprofits to work for by the Nonprofit Times.

CGC: Why is diversity important to Summer Search? How does Summer Search live this value?

AS: Diversity is a value that I personally hold close to my heart. On our senior management team of five, three are people of color. We think about diversity in all forms in everything we do – from thinking about how to increase the number of males in our program to building our own staff diversity.  We have more work to do on diversity on the staff and board side to better reflect the students we serve.

I believe that there’s a mission, business, and moral case for diversity. Diverse teams, including teams that reflect the diversity of the populations we serve, do better work. Our staff cares about it. Our supporters and board members care about it. And in the end, work is more fun when there are different voices and perspectives. I want Summer Search to lead in its commitment to diversity.

CGC: What has been most surprising to you in your role as CEO?

AS: When I first joined Summer Search, one of our program directors said to me, “You will be astounded by how different you’ll be five years from now.” At the time, I thought, sure, it’s a great job, but life-changing? Now three years into my role, I realize that’s true. I’ve learned so much about getting people to think and have fun while they’re doing it. As a manager, I’ve learned about how to help others think really hard about really complex issues. And most importantly, I’ve learned to be a more grateful person. Being appreciative and showing gratitude is a part of our work, and these values have changed me in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

CGC: What excites you about coming to work every day?

AS: Knowing that our work is changing lives, my own included. That’s really exciting.

Join Amy at Summer Search! If you’re interested in joining Summer Search as its next Bay Area Director of Development or Bay Area Major Gift Officer, please review the job descriptions and send a targeted cover letter and resume to apply@commongoodcareers.org. For more information about these roles, please contact Kirstin Griffiths at kgriffiths@commongoodcareers.org.

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