Scaling Aquatic Safety: My Internship with The Redwoods Group Foundation

This post was written in September 2013 by Duke MBA student Rachael Lambert. Rachael worked with the The Redwoods Group Foundation over the summer with support from the Summer Internship Fund.

Coming to The Fuqua School of Business, I had limited experience working with non-profits but my summer internship felt like the perfect opportunity to experience a field and industry that I had been curious about for years.

While I had spent some time before Fuqua as a Product Manager at Specialized Bicycle Co. working on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, I did not have any direct experience with community development or program management. So, during my first year at Fuqua, I endeavored to learn all that I could through coursework in social entrepreneurship and through opportunities at CASE, like Fuqua On Board. With more experience under my belt, I began recruiting for foundation and non-profit positions. The Redwoods Group Foundation (TRGF) had a position that, while broad in its description, felt deep in its potential experiential opportunity. Upon signing my offer with TRGF, I began discussing the scope of my project with Dan Baum, the Executive Director. After a few discussions, we collectively decided that I would focus my project on a brand new initiative that the Foundation was interested in developing in aquatic safety.

TRGF focuses on child sexual abuse prevention and aquatic safety. While they had developed a strong national partnership with YMCA leaders and Darkness to Light (a national non-profit focusing on child sexual abuse prevention), they had yet to develop a national plan for aquatic safety that could be scaled throughout their YMCA network. My project was to develop a program model and financial model for free “learn to swim” initiatives that partnered YMCA associations with local school districts to provide swimming lessons to every 8 year old in the school districts.

I began by benchmarking three YMCA associations who were currently running variations of “learn to swim” programs in Boise, Nashville, and Richmond. I was given the opportunity to travel to those three associations and meet with the YMCA association CEOs, Aquatics Directors and Program Directors. This field research began to shape the assessment I was compiling but it also illuminated a much bigger opportunity for the YMCA network; a national program model that could be delivered at the YMCA General Assembly in Philadelphia that just happened to correspond with my final week at TRGF.

Upon returning to TRGF headquarters in Morrisville, NC, I presented my research results and recommendations for a comprehensive program model and outlined the next steps to develop partnership with key YMCA associations who would help scale the initiative in phase one. With the feedback and support from the senior management team, I began working on 3 areas of focus: building partnerships with YMCA leaders to serve on a national steering committee; developing the program and financial model for maximum scaling impact; and, planning a “learn to swim” summit at the YMCA General Assembly in Philadelphia.

The final week of my internship, I presented the program model to over 50 senior YMCA and Redwoods Group leaders at the YMCA General Assembly and facilitated the path forward for the national implementation of learn to swim initiatives as a signature YMCA program. I stretched my skills significantly in my internship and was regularly outside my comfort zone both in the technical development of a financial model as well as in the relational understanding of the foundation and YMCA network.

The Summer Internship Funding allowed me to take a significant risk in my career search. It provided me the opportunity for true exploration in an area of interest and has helped me develop into a stronger leader. After such a great summer experience, I plan to continue my career in the social sector and will recruit in my second year for foundation and non-profit positions that allow me to continue to develop and stretch my strategic and technical management skills.

Learn more about the Learn to Swim program here:

The Summer Internship Fund (SIF) enables first year Duke MBA-Daytime students to learn about the rewards and challenges of social sector management without making a significant financial sacrifice. In addition, the program enables organizations that otherwise could not afford to hire MBA student interns to benefit from students’ expertise. The SIF has supported more nearly 150 students, distributed approximately $430,000, and helped to further the mission of many nonprofit and government organizations. Funds are raised through student fundraising and from donors who believe in the mission of the program. If you would like to contribute, you can donate online.