Students for Service is building a new generation of youth activists and leaders, inspired and equipped to work together to make positive change in the world.
Q&A with founder, Katherine Soll
Q: What is the organization’s mission?
A: Students for Service is building a new generation of teen activist leaders, inspired and equipped to make positive social change. Its Teens for Food Justice program trains diverse groups of teens to work together to build and run hydroponic farms in schools that provide fresh produce to NYC “food desert” communities and health/nutrition resources to residents, while learning to form coalitions and be critical thinkers and leaders with the power to do good in our world. Students for Service (SFS) is a unique nonprofit: it engages teens in hands-on, entrepreneurial service that solves real-world problems in underserved communities. Through its flagship program, Teens for Food Justice (TFFJ), volunteers are building and running hydroponic indoor farms that provide food for at-risk residents and boost awareness and use of healthy nutrition and lifestyle options. The first TFFJ location was opened fall 2013 in a Bedford Stuyvesant elementary school. The teens take a hands-on, entrepreneurial role, providing food and key resources to the community, while developing collaborative, criticalthinking skills and learning how to form coalitions and be the engines of concrete, lasting social change.
Q: What prompted you to found the organization?
A: I believe that, by helping others, we build our character. SFS is built on the concept that hands-on volunteering creates a unique level-playing field where people of all backgrounds can contribute equally through hard work and
commitment, something hard to find in an increasingly polarized, stratified world. Service is also a powerful tool for tapping young people’s talents, resources, and abilities, helping them flourish and work productively with others. Youth who help solve social problems also become more positive, engaged, hopeful adults who remain active throughout their lives on behalf of social change. As a lifelong New York City, I also believe that all New Yorkers should be committed to
ending hunger, food insecurity and poor nutrition in one of the world’s greatest cities and closing the growing gap between those who have so much and have so little. SFS was also founded to help NYC children find meaningful ways to serve. My son served as a weekly volunteer at a housing project’s day care center in our upper-middle-income neighborhood. This immersive experience greatly shaped his personality, providing a window into the dichotomy of NYC lifestyles. The impact on his character and the increased empathy that ensued helped form the concept for SFS.
Q: How did you set goals for the organization when you founded (or joined) it?
- Researching studies on youth civic engagement to determine best practices
- Surveying teens, parents, faculty, and other nonprofit service organizations as to successful experiences, goals, desires for such programming
- Evaluating our own programming to see which programs/projects/approaches resonated most with teens and communities service
Q: How do you measure the impact of programs?
- Teen/parent/faculty/partner/community feedback
- Volunteer rentention
- Community engagement
Q: What have been the greatest challenges?
- Identifying the most successful programmatic approach
- Fundraising and securing sufficient funding to create infrastructure including paid staff, space, appropriate programming
Q: What fundraising strategies have you used?
A: Direct mail and online appeals, crowdfunders.
Q: What fundraising strategy has worked the best?
Q: Whatʼs the most critical lesson youʼve learned about nonprofit management?
A: To maintain an approach to management that is both strategic and elastic so that you can respond quickly to new opportunities and avoid being stuck with unsuccessful methodology.
Q: What changes do you anticipate in the nonprofit landscape over the next five to 10 years?
A: Nonprofits will struggle more and more for funding as they compete with the growing number of new start-ups in the social enterprise sector. Nonprofits will be forced to move towards a for-profit model, finding ways to develop income streams to help support operations and make them less dependent on funding. I do not believe that this is necessarily a good thing as I am committed to the idea of a social safety net and many organizations help people in dire need of key services and cannot develop an income-generating business model.
Q: How can others help support your organizationʼs mission?
- Board development
- Strategic and business planning
- Messaging and communications
- Resource support—office space, equipment
Recommended reading and links:
Check our website for our service day blogs and videos and articles about our work.