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Brandon Young: Robust and Resilient: Army Ranger principles on a nonprofit development team

Updated: Jun 2, 2022

Brandon Young (pictured with his family) is the Chief Advancement Officer at the Tennyson Center for Children in Denver, Colorado. The Tennyson Center is a featured site visit for participants at the upcoming Seed Gathering. Site visits allow us to hear from leaders who are pushing the status quo in their field. They also provide a venue for small group coaching on problems each person selects for discussion. Click here to see the full line up of Seed Gathering site visits.

In this interview, Hillary Frances asks Brandon about his experience as an Army Ranger conducting Special Operations in Afghanistan and training newly commissioned Infantry Officers. We learn how the principles of Special Operations apply to nonprofit leadership.

Summarize your role as the Chief Advancement Officer and what role do you play in the organization's fundraising operations?

We look at advancement as the advancing of the organization, the movement, the mission to help change lives and give hope to children who are struggling from the effects of trauma, abuse and neglect. Within advancement there are a couple of distinct units and business functions, one of those being monitoring and evaluation.

The other major business component to that is the business development team. I work with a team of fundraisers whose goal is to connect with donors, corporations, foundations, grant makers, anybody out there who can convert their passion and their interests to stand with these children by leveraging their resources. I oversee our goal to raise $32.5M over 5 years.

Then finally, I'm responsible for our outreach to communities of faith and am a member of the senior leadership team.

How many fundraisers do you have on staff?

We currently staff 6 fundraisers. We're very fortunate to have an incredible Director of Development, Lindsey Abdullah, she runs the business development team.

What is Tennyson known for among nonprofit leaders in Denver?

I think we're known for being humble. I think we're known for being relentlessly focused on children and families who are navigating their journey through the traumas they have experienced. Those two lend well to one another because approaching the complex problem and complex sector with an air of humility, we're very open source in nature, we're very collaboration oriented, we do not think that Tennyson is the answer that is going to completely eliminate this problem. We think we are a part of the solution. I think finally one of the things we're really well known for is our clinical acumen. We have a group of clinicians and support specialists, treatment counselors, educators, social workers, who literally do incredible work meeting children where they're at and getting them on a healing path that can transform their lives.

I'm interested in your history leading up to this role. You have had a number of stops on your professional journey, but I want to go back to the military. You were many many things. You were a squad leader for The 75th Ranger Regiment where, with the 2nd Ranger Battalion, you led a 10-man airborne Ranger weapons and rifle squad conducting special operations in Afghanistan. Then you went on to serve as a Platoon Sergeant where you mentored, trained, and assessed over 1,000 future Ranger leaders. You contributed to the highest unit graduation rate at the US Army Ranger School: 80%. From there you were an Operations Sergeant for the US Military Academy, then a Platoon Trainer, specifically preparing newly commissioned Infantry Officers to take command of infantry platoons in combat. What type of leader succeeds in those particular roles?

I think that leadership is one of those words that is kind of a “you know it when you see it” thing. I think there's a lot of things that are critical. Check out the book Team of Teams written by Gen. Stanley McChrystal who used to be my Regimental Commander at the 75th Ranger regiment while I was serving in the 2nd Ranger Battalion and later on in the Joint Special Operations Taskforce. There's some really interesting things he calls out in reflection of our time as the war had evolved.

This concept of being both robust and resilient--knowing what you're good at and doing it to precision. That is something that really distinguishes the special operations community from a lot of other functional military units or business units: precision.

It means to understand what your mission is, know how you fit into that mission, and do it to perfection to the best of your ability.

The resilient side of it is something that we really learned the hard way now we're sitting here at 18 years of warfare. I was in the Middle East 10 days after 9/11/01 and did 4 combat rotations to Afghanistan. The complexity of that environment requires leaders and units to be resilient, to be flexible. One thing that may have worked in one operating area, may not work in another operating area. And I think that it’s up to us as leaders to try our hardest to model that dynamic and understanding that we don't always get it right.

It doesn't take but a moment to look around and scroll through your feed to know that we live in a very complex world. There's a lot going on and we have to foster a culture of understanding what we do, but then being able to flex and morph to bring your best skills and talent to bear for the given scenario, the given environment, the given mission. We had to do a lot of that in the war. It's not surprising that that set me up for springboarding into the commercial sales environment which I did after the military. I was in the commercial sector for 6 years on the business side of healthcare, then the nonprofit sector.

Just as a simple example, one appeal that might have worked for a donor-set today, maybe it doesn't resonate in the same way in 90 days. Maybe what you're doing today isn't resonating as it did 180 days ago. I think it's the constant desire for progress over perfection and also the ability to learn being self-reflective, being reflective to the environment, being willing to fail fast and fail forward and adjusting as you go for success. Data will illuminate your actual impact.

On this idea of resilient--can you talk about how that might be in play at Tennyson in terms of the fundraising strategies right now? Where are you being adaptable and flexible, and resilient in your development strategies at Tennyson?

We're 115 years young. We started 115 years ago as an orphanage in Loveland in 1904 and then came down to Denver in 1908. Why I set that up as a backdrop in how I discuss what we're doing now, is that we have the world's greatest group of donors who have been with us for lifetimes. One of my most favorite is a gentlemen who is 83 years old. Every year he is a major donor for us. He's been donating to the Tennyson Center for Children since he was 7 years old, living in Kansas, rolling up nickels, and mailing them to the home. That's kind of an indication of who our community of partners are.

I think in terms of resilience, we stand on the shoulders of these giants who have championed this cause for over a century and still have to find a unique way to draw new people into the community and welcome new people into the community. That has been a unique challenge because as you start to grow and morph as an organization, sometimes I think the unintended consequences are that long time donors might feel like this train is going in a different direction. We have been trying to be adaptable in our approach to make sure that we have this incredible group of legacy folks with us and yet still wrap our arms around new community members and new perspective donors and new stakeholders. One of the ways that we have done that in collaboration with our board of directors is that we have established the Council For Children at the Tennyson Center for Children.

To learn more about the Council for Children and a new program called Stand in the Gap that activates donors as advocates, listen to the full audio version of the interview.

I want to go back to robust and precision because I'm really interested in what that looks like in action.

This is straight out of the story that I lived. I want to give credit where credit's due to General McChrystal who's been a great leader for my community specifically but also I think for our country. When I think about robust and when I think about precision, I go back to those years as the US Army Ranger where we were laser focused on some very key things. When I think about robust I mean, "what is it that you do and what do you do better than anybody else?"

As a Ranger, our job was to execute any special operations and light infantry mission that required a mature and competent, highly disciplined and lethal force to ensure the precise application of combat power in politically sensitive environments. For us our mission as part of the Joint Special Operation Taskforce was to kill or capture high value targets. That's all we did. That's it. When I was a young Ranger, you stand in formation every single day and you would recite the Ranger creed, things like "I will always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor, and high esprit de corps of my Ranger Regiment...I accept the fact that as a Ranger my country expects me to move further, faster, and fight harder than any other soldier...I will always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong, and morally straight... "readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission though I be the lone survivor."

As a Ranger we talk about the big five: physical fitness, marksmanship, medical training, mobility, and small unit tactics. You would drill to precision close quarters battle, explosive entry, breaching of doors, walls, things like that. It would be so rote. We used to tell guys,

"it takes 2700 repetitions of a given action to create muscle memory."

So you would literally be out at the range day after day after day. Hour after hour. To where you could be so proficient with your weapon that you could proverbially conduct surgery with it.

We could have been doing a compound assault one day and then we could have been doing a long range reconnaissance patrol the next day. The next day we could have been on a mission where we were in aerial orbit as a quick reactionary force for another hard target raid. All of these different dynamics and changing missions that we were expected to conduct came back to our ability to execute small unit tactics to precision with all of those big 5. That's what I mean when I say robust. It's patterns, "I can lift this and I can shift it to another environment.”

How do you use that in bringing clarity to your team? In this nonprofit world it's so easy to be bowled over by 100,000 different needs. It strikes me that the most helpful mindset that you could possibly bring as a leader in this environment is clarity and precision.

At Tennyson, we really try to give people permission to focus

and we try to get people oriented first and foremost around the mission. We're taking on a really complicated task in a really challenging resource constrained environment. I can say those words and I basically have just described every nonprofit.

The question is, “How can we see ourselves as a force multiplier to get us the resources that we need to deliver against this bold vision and bold mission?”

Maybe as a part of the total number, we stay very laser focused on the number within our organization, how can we take that and construct a multichannel/multi appeal approach? What are the different things that are going to have to happen? Who within the shop is aligned specifically against that key channel?

A direct marketing campaign might be a lever, but it's just a lever. It's a tactic. How else are you getting there? How are you then taking what you have permission to focus on to get us to that ultimate number and then leaning on others within your environment to help get you to where you're trying to go?

A really great description, whether you're focused on major gifts or sustainer gifts and smaller donors, those fundraisers are working directly with our Gratitude and Advancement Services Specialist who is looking at what is known within our database. We use Raiser’s Edge NXT. We converted to that over the last couple of years. We ask, “How are we working together to make sure the information is accurate, and timely, and actionable?” “How are we utilizing feedback loops?” And then, “How does that marry into what you think about things from a tactical perspective?” “How can this fundraiser take that and then pull it into their set of actions where they have patterns that can help us look at call velocity?” “How can I track against my call velocity to make sure that I'm hitting my outputs that are ultimately going to lead to connections, touches, engagements, meetings?” That's going to lead to the ultimate outcome. That rolls up into the total number that leads us to hitting our goal.

So you've got them dialed in conceptually? How do you as a leader keep the clarity the precision in practice. How would you run a staff meeting for example?

We do a weekly "advancement huddle" where we bring our marketing folks within that sphere and we talk about "What are you working on today?" "What's hot?" and "What do you need from your team of co-collaborators so that we can get these on the table right now?" My role is to empower those leaders, those fundraisers to execute to their most effectiveness, hold them accountable, but also ask “what obstacles are you coming up against that might be larger within your span of control that I can help reduce?” I really look to our Director of Development to bring those to the surface and say, "Here's something I might need help with."

Click here to hear how this is working with their major gala coming up and how they are working to be both robust and resilient.

It reminds me of an interview I heard with Jocko Willink, former Seal Commander. He talked about the same concept of removing obstacles for his team was essential. When you described that it reminded me of the way he thought of himself as the most important thing he could do for his team is to bring them resources and get things out of their way.

That doesn't surprise me. That's a real hallmark of leadership within the Joint Special Operations community, which Jocko comes from. Nothing but respect for that community because we worked so closely together, I was there 10 years. I work for my team, not the other way around.

What is the most important part of your morning routine as a leader?

Prayer, time in The Word, devotional, and reflection.

What is a book you frequently give to people as a gift?

I have two books that I really like. One of them is called Violence of Action, the Untold Stories of the 75th Ranger Regiment in the War on Terror by Marty Scovlund. It is the first 10 years of the 75th Ranger Regiment in the Global War on Terror. Most people don't know this, but Rangers are the smallest special operations force in the entire US military. Kind of known for bringing the largest amount of violence of action to scale on objectives. It was a world that I lived in for a long time. I was very honored to be one of 40 contributing Ranger authors. I was able to peel the curtain back just a little bit. The beginning of the war was really hard for my family. My wife and I got married 6 days after 9/11/01 in the living room she grew up in and her mother died 2 days later. I deployed within a week to the middle east. So you'll read a little about that in that book.

I really dig Team of Teams. It has really challenged me. We are going through it right now as a whole leadership unit at Tennyson Center. It's a really good way to look at the environment that we operate in.

I also really encourage people to read Tribe, by Sebastian Junger.

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