Interview with WPI Alumnus, Dan Foley

Dan Foley, Executive Director of City Year Jacksonville, shared observations from the point of an Executive Director in this month’s Weaver Philanthropic Initiative interview. City Year is an American public education nonprofit that partners with AmeriCorps, a network of national service programs. Dan started his City Year career as a corps member in New York.

Dan was in the WPI Class of 2017.

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Q: What do you do in your daily life? 

A: In addition to serving as the Executive Director of City Year Jacksonville, which has truly been the honor of my professional life, I am privileged to serve as the loving partner and husband to Alex Gayda, as the proud Navy Brother to my twin Jake (Hooyah!), and as an unapologetic mama’s boy. I am also a voracious podcast and audiobook listener, an aspiring reader, an avid team player (and team science nerd), a lover of routines, a dreamer of and worker for better things to come, a prayer, and more recently a cross-fitter.

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Q: What drew you to working in the public education space? 

A: I am just now coming to realize all the blessings I have been afforded in my life due to receiving an excellent education. Along with formal education, the mentors of my formative years (though, aren’t all our years formative?) ensured that I also received the necessary learning and coaching beyond the classroom setting. It is this role of mentor, and the desire to pay forward the wealth of investment which was given to me as a young person, that positioned me to be in service to students in schools. My life adventure over the last 10 years has been staged crossing the map from the South Bronx New York, to South Los Angeles, Watts and Compton, and for the last 4 years in Jacksonville. Each of these “homes” of mine has provided me with deep opportunities for belonging, consciousness, and working hand-in-hand with others who deeply care about our children’s futures. The complexity of working in public education allows me to engage with both the incredible potential of our community while wrestling with the harsh reality of its most intractable social challenges. The rigor of honoring our potential and fighting our obstacles head on is what keeps me working in education.

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Q: How does City Year approach its commitment to service? 

A: City Year Jacksonville’s Mission is, “To empower young idealistic leaders through a year of service in Jacksonville to help reveal the limitless potential that exists inside all students.”

We begin all things at City Year with an abiding belief that all students can succeed. We also believe that strong relationships with caring people at the right time can make a huge impact on a person’s life. Our goal is to ensure that the students who need our services the most have access to a well-trained, highly motivated, and deeply committed mentor and tutor.

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Q: How does this approach inform your leadership of City Year Jacksonville? 

Most people in this community think of me as “that City Year guy,” which is perfectly fine with me.  From my very first day of service with City Year I have felt that my values and the organization’s values were strongly aligned. What we aspire to be as an organization – a diverse, inclusive, equitable, belonging-filled team in service to students who deserve every resource to help them succeed – is what I aspire to be as a person. In that way our mission is my mission and how we do that – through long lasting commitment and loving relationships – is the way I hope to accomplish my own personal purpose in life.

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Q: TCF is highly data-driven and from my research, it appears that City Year is as well. What is one data point informing your work that you want residents of Northeast Florida to know? 

As was previously noted, at City Year we are a highly values-driven and data-informed organization. City Year is also a learning organization committed to the rigorous evaluation of its Whole School Whole Child (WSWC) model, which trains and deploys teams of AmeriCorps members to serve as tutors and mentors in schools in order to empower more students to reach their full potential.

A third-party study by Policy Study Associates (PSA) examined the impact of Whole School Whole Child on City Year’s partner schools’ performance in comparison to similar schools without City Year. The study used publicly available data that local education agencies (LEAs) and State and U.S. Departments of Education use to assess school performance. PSA found that schools with teams of City Year AmeriCorps members were two to three times more likely to increase English Language Arts (ELA) and math proficiency rates compared with similar schools that did not partner with City Year, as measured by state assessments. Schools that partnered with City Year also gained the equivalent of approximately one month of additional learning in math and ELA. The results suggest that the comprehensive services offered to partner schools by Whole School Whole Child have a measurable impact on student performance on state assessments. In every city, including Jacksonville, schools with City Year were more likely to improve on test scores in ELA and math, suggesting a “City Year effect.”

While City Year has commissioned third-party studies in the past, this is the first national, exploratory effort by a third-party evaluator to examine the whole school outcomes of City Year’s model in partnership with schools. Still, we are committed to deepening our understanding of this “City Year effect” through current and future research to support ongoing refinement of our service model to deliver the greatest impact to our students, schools, and communities. Currently, City Year, including City Year Jacksonville, is undergoing a randomized control trial to generate rigorous evidence of the effects of the WSWC dropout prevention model and the unique value of Tier 2 services (targeted interventions in ELA, math, attendance, and behavior) within that model.

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Q: What is a lesson you’ve learned about the power of time, talent, treasure, or ties since becoming an Executive Director?  

A: I’ve learned that each – time, talent, and treasure – are truly powerful in their own way. I’ve also learned that for each of these gifts to be offered wholly, it’s critical that the persons giving and receiving work together to develop a mutual and real understanding of their meaning to the particular cause or organization. As Simon Sinek Would say, this starts with the “Why.”

Once the “Why” is clarified (Why is this gift uniquely valuable? What is the aim of this gift?), then the “What” (What specific kind of gift is needed?), and “How” (How should the gift be given? What is the right degree, frequency, and application of the gift?) will naturally follow.  The power of clarifying the expectations of the “Why,” “What,” and “How” by both the giving and receiving parties is nothing short of astounding. When done well, these clear expectations increase the positive experience for both parties and encourages the potential of new commitments to be made in the future.

Our City Year Jax board members have been peerless teachers of these principles and helping me understand my role as the Executive Director in facilitating all experiences with the organization through them.

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Q: Does the Executive Director role offer new insights about the power of philanthropic resources? 

A: The purest insight that I can offer about how being a non-profit leader shapes my view on philanthropic resources is that my role only exists because there is a community need which people find so important that they willingly extend offerings of their gifts – time, talent, and treasure – to promote progress in alleviating that need. In this way, my teammates and I sit at a critical intersection of the community’s vision for its potential and a way to bring that potential to life. This is very privileged ground to stand on as we are being entrusted as the caretakers of our community’s needs, hopes and generosity. We take this stewardship role very seriously. By being good stewards, we hope to increase investments in our work at City Year and increase investments in non-profits overall by building trust for the sector from the community at large.

There are so many important causes in which to contribute and so many worthy stewards that it’s not a question of if we should be giving but rather where we should give, how we should be giving, and how we encourage others who are like-minded to begin giving as well.

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Q: You work in the nonprofit sector day-in and day-out. Have you been able to carve out highly personal philanthropic opportunities unrelated to your work, or is that a challenge? 

A: Carving out time is always a challenge but my “mentors in giving” have taught me it is absolutely essential as an aspiring responsible community trustee. The two greatest investments in our philanthropic work have been through Alex and I making time to identify areas we are passionate about seeing our community improve upon and investing meaningful amounts of our time, talent, and treasure into those causes. Because we are newly married, newly settled in Jacksonville, in the first third of our professional careers, and carry significant family obligations, it has been invaluable for us to make time for contemplation. These factors have also meant that we have been able to offer more of our time and talent than our treasure, but still work to contribute each in meaningful ways.

As of now, topping our list of causes we are passionate about are those related to education, youth development, criminal justice reform, and services for those experiencing housing and/or food insecurity. Each of these is rooted in our belief in promoting social equity and justice for our most marginalized brothers and sisters.

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Q: Outside of City Year Jacksonville’s work, what are you paying close attention to within the rest of the philanthropic sector in Northeast Florida? 

A: Since arriving in Jacksonville, I have been impressed with this philanthropic community’s understanding that children are Northeast Florida’s future and that thriving schools are required for a thriving region. Jacksonville has been a regional leader in philanthropic investments in education over the last 10-15 years and while City Year has been a grateful beneficiary of a portion of those investments, there are many other youth-serving and school development initiatives that have received significant resourcing and investment.

With a background in public administration, I know that while government is a useful partner, it  is never perfectly equipped to carry the full weight of a community’s need. While state and federal funding priorities shift from one administration to the next, the clear statement that Jacksonville’s community trustees have made about the importance of our local schools, specifically our public schools, has been profound.

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Q: How has a peer network served as a resource for your giving and work? What is unique about the Weaver Philanthropic Initiative? 

A: My peer networks, WPI being one of them, have been a real blessing in my work at City Year as well as for our family’s philanthropy. While Alex and I are still very much in the discernment phase about where our gifts can do the most good, having a team of people from which we can gather perspective, guidance, and inspiration has been priceless. Ultimately, this network wonderfully leaves us with a feeling of being a part of something much larger than ourselves.

WPI is unique among our networks in that it serves as a one-stop shop for education, connection, and opportunity. During the program itself and WPI convenings, we have been moved by the generosity and hope that others have shared about developing Northeast Florida’s potential. There are so many different kinds of people with different passions and interests, each of whom strive  to contribute to the betterment of our neighbors. This is special, and we are honored to be a part of the WPI family.