Terry Shanley is a father of two teenage girls who thinks other Oregon parents aren't doing enough to encourage their children to read.
But Shanley also knows that change comes slowly. And that's where he comes in. He's the new CEO of Start Making A Reader Today, the 15-year-old nonprofit that relies on classroom volunteers to improve literacy levels among Oregon students in kindergarten through third grade.
After 24 years in the corporate world, including working as a managing director for the Portland arm of global real-estate firm Cushman&Wakefield, Shanley took a pay cut of "tens of thousands of dollars" to join SMART. He says the reward of the new job "far outweighs" the smaller annual paycheck, especially since the job will give him more time to read to his daughters, ages 13 and 15.
The 52-year-old father spoke with WW about his previous volunteer efforts, philanthropy, finances and personal fulfillment in getting thousands of other adults to read to kids for one hour a week.
WW : Why the move?
Terry Shanley: I'd been doing a lot of things on the philanthropic side, predominantly with Providence Cancer Center and the American Cancer Society, also with the Children's Museum and other boards. I had taken a hard look at my life and realized that doing good charged my batteries, and the corporate side drained them. My wife told me several times, when I'm doing the volunteer stuff, I'm happy. And I wasn't as fulfilled doing the other stuff.
How does working at an international real-estate firm prepare you to run a nonprofit?
Running a nonprofit is fundamentally the same as running a business. The only difference is you've got to be a very conscientious steward of other people's money. [In both] you have to set up a business model and employ the right people in every position, train them and empower them. It has to be run efficiently and be run wisely. I guess there's those who would say I ran Cushman&Wakefield like a nonprofit. [Laughs] I'm kidding.
What's the biggest problem you see with SMART?
We've actually been very good at what we've done, and built the brand to the point where people kind of take us for granted. Corporations and foundations and individuals look at us and they think [we] really don't need [their] support because we're such a great organization. That's our biggest enemy right now, because new kids come into the system every year. The need doesn't go away, but…there's nothing sexy about an organization that's doing the same thing. Our challenge is to keep things fresh enough to attract additional sponsors and contributors.
Have donations declined?
There's a natural attrition, probably one of the issues that all nonprofits face. Coming from the corporate side, I was approached by nonprofits on a daily basis. And they're all worthy organizations, so you choose which ones, oftentimes that your employees are involved with. [And] SMART experienced leadership changes, which commonly affects donations. So we saw revenues drop, [but] a reserve had been created to see us through challenging times. I am pleased to say our balance sheet looks good now.
Some of your volunteers only receive a few hours of training before entering a classroom. What's the rationale behind that?
People who are drawn to the program have an innate need to connect with kids already. We give them some training to help them with the fundamentals and functioning of reading. But 90 percent is the connectivity with the kid, that an adult is going to dedicate some quality time with just them, to read.
Are parents ever resentful of a SMART volunteer spending time with their kids?
We're hopeful that the kids go back with a heightened sense of enthusiasm and speak with their parents and engage them. I don't know that we've had any situation where a parent has felt slighted or impugned. Intuitively I would think that teachers would be a little bit sensitive about us coming, but we supplement what they do. They're actually very welcoming.
Are your own kids readers?
My 15-year-old has read seven books this summer, and my youngest is a writer. When I was approached by a headhunter about this opportunity, I thought, let's do something creative. And so my younger daughter and I wrote my introduction letter, and we did it in the form of a children's story. She illustrated it for me. It was handmade and we wrote the text and she kind of helped me edit it so that it could be read for a child. That was my cover letter for my résumé.
Donations to SMART, which has an annual budget of $4 million, have declined 13 percent over the past 15 months. To donate, call 877-598-4633 or visit getsmartoregon.org.
SMART aims to recruit 9,000 volunteers this year to read one-on-one with 11,600 Oregon children who are selected by teachers to participate.