This week, marks the five-year anniversary of launching Blue Future! Typing this out is a surreal experience for both of us. For those who may not know, Blue Future is a national non-profit dedicated to developing the next generation of progressive political leaders. We envision a world where no matter our color or origin, our income or zip code, desire and determination are the only things getting in the way of young people’s ability to push for a transformative and progressive agenda.
We feel a deep sense of joy, gratitude, and luck as we reach the five-year mark. We feel joy because we’ve seen the ways young people from all walks of life have found a deeper sense of purpose and agency to be a leader in their community. We feel gratitude for the magnitude of impact we’ve made organizing to elect candidates who will make the promise of democracy real in our country. We are also grateful for the 24,141 individual grassroots donors who’ve contributed an average of $17.37 to make this work possible. And lastly, we feel lucky to have had such a unique opportunity to be part of the progressive movement community that works tirelessly each day in service of organizing for a society where all of us can be happy, healthy, and free.
As we reflect on these formative five years, we wanted to share a few lessons learned that might inspire folks to take action on an idea they have to make the world a better place.
First, get started. Often it feels easier to let a good idea simmer in the mind for months on end. It is precisely the challenge of getting started, taking action, driving an idea forward, that makes all the difference. Start having conversations with friends, colleagues, family members, and mentors and engage in some version of frontloading. In the earliest days of Blue Future, we had weekly calls with folks in our network, mostly friends from American University. The call to action was for everyone who attended to invite someone else who might be interested in exploring the problem of getting young people involved in politics. After a few weeks, we had nearly 20 folks coming to the weekly calls and sharing ideas for what a new youth engagement organization could look like.
Start doing research and looking in to other organizations doing similar work. Explore how those organizations address the issue and what gaps may be there. Even if it’s for an hour a week. And don’t forget to track your research, websites, and ideas on a spreadsheet.
As soon as you can, develop a plan to answer simple questions around the problem and your possible solution. Share that idea with folks. Determine how you might incorporate design thinking methods. If you had to guess, how might you raise money for it? Who do you know that could help?
Start reflecting on your own personal motives, strengths, and limitations so you can stay grounded. Start resting more than you might have before, and remember, rest is often the most productive thing for creativity and problem-solving, and for your health.
Lastly, and possibly most importantly, start believing in yourself — you can turn your vision into reality.
Commit to learning
We won’t ever feel fully prepared to launch a new project. But we can commit to continuous learning and developing a growth mindset. Via mentors, coaches, friends, colleagues, readings, courses, events, and networking we can find resources to help us learn how to do just about anything related to running an organization. There are many free resources to learn how to build websites, structure a team, develop a budget, and strengthen your leadership presence. We don’t need to be experts in everything; often, we just need to be in community with other experts. Ask for introductions and accept advice from anyone who’s willing to give it; though ultimately, trust your instincts on which advice to take and which to let go. You might be surprised just how eager folks will be to support you on your journey.
Lastly, and possibly most importantly, believe in your ability to learn how to navigate new challenges.
Teamwork makes the dream work
If we’re going to do anything well, we must do it as a team. It becomes just about impossible to manage the multitude of priorities organizational leaders are responsible for. Building a team has been embedded in our organizational DNA from the very beginning. The first thing we did was invite a core group of friends and colleagues to become Co-Founders of Blue Future. These 11 brilliant folks were brought in before we had:
- A name
- Any money
- Any real vision or plan whatsoever
We trusted our co-founders to lead and manage specific components of the project. Amy made a plan for our technology and data integrity. Val connected us with several mentors who connected us to funders and dozens of partner organizations. Devontae and Ben strategized on our theory of change. Josh and Leela informed our student engagement plan and fundraising approach. Andrea designed the logo. Sydney built our digital and social media strategy. Shadi managed our early operations. Together, all 11 of us worked on our first grant application.
Over the past five years, we’ve managed 34 staff and interns who are not only at the core of Blue Future’s success, but also have strengthened our understanding of how to make teams effective. We always did what we could to prioritize leadership and skill development of the team, most recently through weekly peer coaching sessions, which we found powerful.
Lastly, as the leader of your team, never hesitate to model vulnerability, transparency, psychological safety, and joy within your personal life and the nature of the business. Have grace for yourself and your team when mistakes are made. By sharing your full humanity with your team, you can create space for more holistic relationships and drive your team to be more motivated to reach ambitious goals.
Trust your instincts
In school, we are often taught to follow an equation and abide by the rules. While we see the value in that, we believe that in order to allow for maximum creativity and productivity, you have to trust your instincts and strengthen your critical thinking skills. That means trusting your team and their decisions and giving people the opportunity to do things outside the box.
Like all startups, Blue Future has no guidebook to follow. We are continuously building the organization as we run it. While that can be intimidating, it grants us the permission to be free with our vision. We have complete agency over what we want to do and how we will get it done. By creating a culture of trust and autonomy for each person’s work, people will be more intrinsically motivated to get things done.
The next time you delegate a task to a teammate, ask “how would you approach this challenge? What recommendations would you make?” instead of giving them all the answers. You’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results you receive.
Focus on Impact
At the core, social justice organizations exist to win real improvements in people’s lives. If we focus on that part, we ought to be proud of what we’ve done.
Blue Future’s strategy has always revolved around the idea of doing as much good as we can with what we have. We will never have enough resources or time to build the most resilient organization. But we can have an immediate impact while building the long term sustainability of our work. We can make space for people to grow as individuals as we work on collective goals. We can be creative in developing programs and services that have an impact on the community and simultaneously in the lives of those who contribute to the work.
If we let impact, defined as tangible improvements in people’s lives, guide us, we can rest easily at the end of each work day. And donors just might notice that keen focus on impact as well.
Lead with Love
Perhaps the most important lesson we’ve learned throughout our time in this work is to lead with love. Leading with love means taking an interest in your team’s needs, your needs, and anyone else you interact with. Leading with love also means that we assume the best intentions of one another and create a culture full of respect. Lastly, leading with love means facing challenges head on and addressing them with our values front and center.
We wouldn’t be where we are today without the circle of love that has helf us, and we wouldn’t do this work if we didn’t love it. Fighting for a better world is challenging work, but we must always remember that we do this to build a more loving, kind, & free world.
Much more could be said about the challenges and tactical strategies of building an organization. We’d invite you to reach out to us if we can be of service. We have developed ways to be a fiscal sponsor for other youth-led projects and would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with you.
These last five years have been challenging for all of us. The next five years will likely be challenging, too. The promise of our democracy, our planet, and so much more is at stake, and we each have a responsibility to do something. So, let’s get started, commit to learning, find or build our team, focus on impact, trust our instincts, and lead with love.
Blue Future will continue to support hundreds of thousands of diverse youth organizers to develop their leadership ability and agency. We hope you’ll continue engaging and supporting us along the way.
We extend the deepest bow of gratitude for each person who has played a role in making our organization everything it is today. If you have been with us since day one or are just learning about our work now, we want to say thank you.
Together, let’s keep organizing for a world where feedom and justice is for all of us!
Nick Guthman serves as the Co-Founder & Co-President of Blue Future. Nick focuses on developing the leadership of the team, designing Blue Future’s strategic vision and political theory of change, and managing our fundraising, legal and administrative departments.
Morgan Stahr serves as the Co-Founder & Co-President of Blue Future. At Blue Future, Morgan leads their organizing training programs where diverse youth leaders learn about grassroots organizing and volunteer on competitive campaigns. Morgan also manages Blue Future’s professional development department and alumni engagement programs.