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By Sean Malvey
| May 28, 2018
Just a mile from Boston’s busy city streets, middle school students immerse themselves in an experiential education at Thompson Island Outward Bound. At the same time, young philanthropists engage in mission-focused experiences that fund that education.
The only privately owned island in the Boston Harbor, the non-profit Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center offers opportunities for Boston Public School students to learn science and leadership training through a 204-acre outdoor classroom, replete with dense forests, marshes, ropes courses, campsites, and dormitories—a place where nature and learning come alive.
Thompson Island Outward Bound partners with the Boston Public Schools (BPS) to offer this multi-year education programming, designed to close opportunity and achievement gaps. It is free of charge for students, funded in large part by donors, including a new and diverse network of young professionals.
They call themselves the ISLE (In Support of Education and Leadership) Society.
“As an organization, we really strive to give our students varied and interactive learning experiences—and that same philosophy applies to our active base of young donors,” says Samantha Lyon, Director of Individual Giving, the staff liaison to the ISLE Society.
Started in 2015 by Trustee George Lewis and a group of fellow outdoor enthusiasts, all of whom are business people, the ISLE Society has quickly amassed a few hundred members, and a reputation for being far more active and connected to the mission than traditional nonprofit donor groups.
Doing more than just writing a check
“I had been part of other societies and social groups, where galas and bar nights were pretty much the norm, and that’s it. We wanted to make the ISLE Society different—to adapt to the needs of our donors, keep them engaged, and make the biggest impact possible for these kids” says Lewis.
As a young professional living in Boston, Lewis felt what many in his generation see as a problem with traditional nonprofits: they don’t offer creative ways for donors to personally connect with the mission. And they don’t get that young donors are looking for social and professional connections.
“Rather than take a strict dollars and cents approach, we really try to get our members involved at a low financial cost, and give them as many volunteer opportunities as possible” says Lewis.
At just $120 a year, ISLE Society members gain access to a dizzying array of events: a summer BBQ at sunset on the island, a 4K Trail Race, night hiking, student graduation ceremonies on island (to see the impact of their philanthropy), site visits to schools served by the island (where they hear from students, teachers and the principal about how the experiences on the island translate back to advancements in the classroom), various volunteer work days on the island, and opportunities to participate in the same science lessons as the students they’re supporting.
Thompson Island Outward Bound’s multifaceted approach to connecting their donors to their mission is a lesson in how nonprofits can grow a strong donor base.
“We look at our donors as intellectual resources, and we want them to help us advance our mission, thinking through how we can continue to offer the very best programs to BPS students,” says Lyon.
ISLE Society members—like many young professional groups—are smart, curious, skilled in social media, and capable of networking at hyperspeed across the city and beyond. Society members are also deeply invested in Thompson Island Outward Bound’s vision, and are excited the island offers them various philanthropic activities that match their interests.
Members come from diverse professional sectors – corporate finance, law, biotech, government, and education – and range from recent college grads to adults with young families.
“We enjoy adapting to the interests of our donor groups, just like we do to those of our students” says Lyon. “We know a young professional likely can’t make a $100,000 donation to sponsor an entire grade of kids learning on the island, but what they do is crucial. Their cleanups on the island save us tens of thousands of dollars in operations cost, they raise modest sums through their events, and they raise up the visibility of Thompson Island Outward Bound. If we continue to take a multi-pronged development approach, we believe many of those young volunteers will also eventually turn into long-term, loyal donors, and possibly Board members as well.”
Bringing the island to you
In addition to ISLE Society events, the island also provides other ways to invest in the future of Boston’s school children.
With its backdrop of natural beauty, Thompson Island is an ideal venue for wedding ceremonies, presenting a unique opportunity for couples to celebrate their love by giving back to the community, knowing that their wedding funds youth education.
Local companies can host corporate outings on the island, with proceeds directly supporting the island’s free youth programming. And some local businesses like New Balance, Eastern Bank, Brown Rudnick LLP, Turner Construction, State Street and others offer their employees the chance to spend one work day per year helping maintain the island. Not surprising, leaving the computer screen behind for a few hours to work under the sun is a tradeoff many are willing to make—as the Corporate Volunteer Program’s popularity has helped save the island more than $200,000 a year in maintenance fees.
Because of their unique approach to engagement for donors, Thompson Island Outward Bound has been able to expand their outdoor programs for students and continues to grow. Over the next four years, the organization will increase capacity to serve 2,600 Boston Public School students each year in its multi-year education program.
Where you can
For students who live in some of Boston’s most underserved communities, a trip to the island can offer a magical contrast of colors and smells. For many, it’s a first time seeing the ocean, riding a boat, touching the water. Every moment—from falling asleep to the sounds of crickets, to sea-kayaking, backpacking, and climbing ropes courses —can shift the horizons for a young person.
“One year, on the short ferry ride to the island, I was sitting next to a returning student, a clever 6th grade girl,” Lewis recalls. “We were reflecting about her previous summer on the island. The girl turned to me and says, ‘I had never been on a boat before in my life, and seen so many trees; I feel like I know what I’m capable of now!’”
And it’s apparent that for some students, Thompson Island sits both figuratively and literally within view of their newfound perspective.
ISLE Society member Amy Cleaveland-Hudson recalls her first site visit to one of the island’s school partners: “I went to a school in Dorchester, and the students and teachers there were so excited to bring me up to the top floor and point out the window … off in the distance, was Thompson Island Outward Bound. It was a very powerful moment for me to see how much this place meant to those kids.”
Later in the summer at an ISLE Society BBQ, gathered around a bonfire on Thompson Island, Amy got to look back at the Boston skyline and point out that same school to her peers.
As philanthropy continues to evolve, meaningfully connecting donors to Thompson Island Outward Bound’s mission has built the foundation for a strong and loyal future donor base. Students and adults alike – who wouldn’t want to spend a day exploring a salt marsh with new friends?
Sponsored by Thompson Island
The ultimate outdoor classroom
How an island in the middle of Boston Harbor is giving kids the tools to discover the wonders of nature, realize their best selves, and prepare for the future.