John Livingston knows he’s a lucky guy. He has a family who loves him, a supportive social circle and a solid career. In effect, he’s got his life pretty well figured out. But Livingston also knows there are many people for whom one or more of life’s basics are missing, and among them are young gay people who may be struggling with their experience. That’s why this finance professional is taking on a big task – forming an advisory board for Out Youth, the Austin nonprofit dedicated to LGBT adolescents.
“For someone who’s had a lot of advantages in life, I feel like this is my duty,” said Livingston. “This isn’t just something I feel like I should do, but something anyone in my position should do – to give back.”
Just a few months ago, as the end of his three-year term on the board of the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival (aGLIFF) approached, Livingston began considering where he next wanted to focus his attention. He had joined aGLIFF during a tenuous period of transition as that nonprofit was recovering from previous struggles and beginning to lay the groundwork to become a top alternative film festival. Livingston and other board members built a healthier aGLIFF, establishing a more solid organizational framework and relying on a vastly improved executive staff to do the heavy lifting.
It was a lunch meeting in February with his friend and fellow aGLIFF board member heath riddles that set the course for Livingston’s next big task.
“Heath said, ‘people want us to do for Out Youth what we did for aGLIFF,’” he recalled. Livingston’s own experience with the LGBT youth services group had been fairly limited up to that point. However, for the 2009 installment of aGLIFF, the two nonprofits had partnered on the Queer Youth Media project, a novel initiative that allowed teams of kids from Out Youth to delve into the filmmaking process. Mentored by film pros from concept through filming and editing, each team produced an LGBT-themed short film, which was screened at the festival. “It was just an incredibly empowering experience for them,” said Livingston. “I was so proud of that program because I really think of it as the future of aGLIFF and what it stands for.”
That’s why riddles’ request struck a chord. If Out Youth represented the future of aGLIFF, helping Out Youth seemed like a natural and organic step to Livingston. But he wouldn’t just join the nonprofit’s board of directors and work within the existing structure. Instead, the organization that annually touches roughly 300 young people tapped Livingston to launch an altogether new body, an advisory board that would serve a number of functions.
Out Youth ’s role in providing a place of sanctuary, counsel and social interaction for Central Texas’ queer youth can’t be overstated. Travis County has one of the highest teen suicide rates in the state. Couple that with the fact that LGBT teens are three times more likely to commit suicide than their peers and the organization’s criticality becomes clear.
“Saving lives and empowering young people, it doesn’t get more important than that,” Livingston said. “This is an organization that has really great programs, a well-qualified executive staff and young people who rely on it. It’s been around for 20 years and there’s a reason for that. It’s here to stay and the question is how can we make it better?”
As Livingston sees it, the advisory board has three main goals: raise funds, build leadership and improve the organization’s overall image. And he has a plan for success. Through his own network of community contacts, Livingston is tapping dozens of people to join the advisory board. Some members will be hands-on, participating in breakout groups focused around specific tasks such as fundraising or public relations. Other individuals may not be as actively involved, but their names will lend credibility to the cause. Altogether, he’s looking to build a body of about 50 people. “I want it to be big because it’s a lot easier to get people to help if you ask them to do simple things. The more members we have, the easier it will be to spread out our needs.”
In terms of leadership building, Livingston sees the advisory board as a way to groom future executive board members of the organization. The term for an executive board member at Out Youth is just two years, so the nonprofit needs a steady stream of capable, interested people to fill those slots. “This will give us a lot of people who are already involved in Out Youth, know the programs, and are supportive,” he said. “You don’t want to be making a shot in the dark when it comes to selecting your board. So we’ll serve as a farm, if you will, of future board members.”
As to the final aim of the board, Livingston is careful to point out that he doesn’t think Out Youth has a poor image, but rather that there’s always room for improvement, particularly when asking people for money. “To sustain the organization, Out Youth has to be cool, not just for the young people it serves but also to a large pool of potential supporters.” the fact is, while people may be aware of Out Youth ’s existence, not many in the gay community or the Austin community at large know specifically what the organization does to help LGBT kids.
To that end, in March Livingston and others launched Out Youth ’s 20/20 vision Campaign. Coinciding with the nonprofit’s 20th anniversary, the campaign seeks to spread the word through networks of friends of the importance of Out Youth ’s programs and get people to become sustaining supporters by donating $20 a month. On March 31 the campaign kicked off with a big party at Zach Scott theatre that was attended by more than 100 people.
“The main person we’re targeting is the first-time philanthropist,” Livingston said. “It’s a person in their mid-20s to mid-30s who wants to plug into a charitable organization but they don’t know how. Obviously, we hope to raise a lot of money, but just as important we want to get people involved, educate them on volunteering or joining the advisory board. What I’ve found is that when people learn a bit about Out Youth, their immediate response is almost always, ‘tell me how I can help.’”
Within six months Livingston hopes to have at least 200 donors of $20 or more each month. Moreover, he wants to raise a total of about $500,000, partly through those micro donors but also through larger benefactors. “Success begets success, and I think once we show so many people are interested in this cause, we’ll really see an increase in donations.”
To be sure, Livingston is attacking the cause with gusto. In late March and early April, 25 new monthly donors signed on, adding to an existing sustaining donor base. And Livingston said about a dozen major donors have also contributed generously to the campaign. He’s been amazed at people’s unfettered willingness to serve this organization that serves LGBT young people. “The fact is, there are so many people who want to help Out Youth, they just don’t know how,” he said. “It’s my job to find them and sort them out.”