Janis Avery is the CEO of Treehouse, a top non-profit, supporting the needs of foster kids in Washington State. In 2016, Janis worked with Fred Pabst of Herd Freed Hartz to place their Chief Financial & Administrative Officer. We recently caught up with Janis to learn more about her philosophy as a leader, and hear more about her passion for the mission of Treehouse.
1) Tell us a bit about Treehouse.
Established in 1988, Treehouse’s mission is to give foster kids a childhood and a future. In our early days, we filled gaps for youth in foster care by funding the normal childhood experiences that all kids deserve and Washington State could not fulfill. Over time we have evolved to become a strategic partner to the state, foster parents, and youth, offering services that help level the playing field for kids in care by facilitating improved educational outcomes. Treehouse serves over 7,000 children and youth each year with activities that range from the simple: a special holiday gift to the complex: intensive educational coaching and intervention to help youth graduate from high school ready to achieve their post-secondary plans.
2) What do you consider to be your greatest professional accomplishment?
In 2011 our management team realized that our approach to filling the educational gaps for our youth was helping individual youth but not moving the educational outcomes needle for the population of youth in foster care in Washington State. The high school graduation rate at that time was about 36%. We courageously set a bold, ambitious goal for King County youth in foster care to graduate from high school at the same rate as their peers with a plan for their future. With discipline and dedication, we’ve implemented and adjusted our plan to achieve a five-year graduation rate of 82% for the class of 2015. I am proud of setting the goal, reaching powerful milestones toward achievement and recruiting the team that is making this great progress.
3) What has been your biggest professional challenge to overcome?
During this generation of non-profit leadership, I have participated in shifting the field from “doing good” to “having measurable impact.” This entails strategic use of data and our staff is entirely committed to the rigor this demands. The challenge has been to quantify some of what matters the most – relationships and experiences – both of which remain tremendously important to the whole child.
4) If you were starting another company tomorrow, what would be its top three values?
Equity – Racial and income inequality are eroding the potential of our country. I am a champion for equity through the impact of my organization in advocacy and intervention as well as in world class workplace practices.
Accountability – Clear goals, data-based decision making and transparency are very important to me. Accountability requires these three behaviors.
Optimism – Hope and optimism are interwoven. I nurture both to maintain energy for addressing difficult conditions while challenging myself to recognize and document progress.
5) What is your favorite interview question?
“Why are people poor?” My team is strongest when members can describe some of our societal structures that create and maintain conditions of poverty.
6) Who are your influencers?
I am inspired by local leaders Superintendent Susan Enfield from Highline Schools, TAF founder Trish Dziko, Annie Lee from Team Child, and the entire Tacoma community Graduate Tacoma initiative. I read broadly, seeking unfamiliar perspectives. Recently I have been reading a lot of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
7) What challenges keep you up at night?
I literally wake up worrying about the pace of change. A couple of generations ago it was perfectly acceptable for high school students to quit school and go to work because they could be productive and achieve a middle-class lifestyle. Today that is not the case and we must urgently unite in a no excuses goal to facilitate young adult success for all of our children.
8) Favorite way to spend free time is…?
I love singing, participating in Dances of Universal Peace, and gardening. These are contemplative and energetic activities that connect me to others and the infinite.
9) Cause closest to your heart?
Treehouse and our mission: giving foster kids a childhood and a future!
10) In closing, what are you most proud of at Treehouse?
I am most proud that Treehouse is a collaborative community effort where supporters invest their time, talent and treasure to find the way for children in foster care to thrive. I am very grateful for the generosity and creativity that help us do what’s best for our youth.