Creating A High-Impact, Nonprofit Business: Insights from a Crossover CEO
By Rola Tassabehji, Contributor
2020 YPO Global Impact Award
Alia Eyres is the Southeast Asia regional honoree for the 2020 YPO Global Impact Award. The award focuses on YPO members making impact outside the organization that is both sustainable and scalable, affecting people, prosperity, peace or our planet.
In 1986, a series of newspaper articles on the rise of teen pregnancies in Hong Kong deeply moved YPO member Ranjan Marwah and his wife, Phyllis, along with two close friends, to create a local charity, Mother’s Choice. Their passion to provide non-judgmental support for pregnant teenagers expanded quickly to caring for babies and children without families.
Thirty-three years later, Ranjan and Phyllis’ daughter, YPO member Alia Eyres, became CEO of Mother’s Choice. Pursuing her parents’ vision of seeing every child grow up in a loving family, Eyres and her team help meet the needs of the most vulnerable in Hong Kong, where one in five children lives in real poverty and tens of thousands of children are at risk for neglect, abuse and abandonment.
“At Mother’s Choice, we are a champion for children and a voice for them to be in a family. We do that by working very closely with the wider community, partnering with hundreds of volunteers as well as other sectors of society, including government, business, and nonprofits,” says Eyres.
She emphasizes that one of the key success factors of the organization has been “joining hands with the community, including the business community. We see ourselves as bridging the divide, inspiring others to join our efforts, in a little bit of an open source approach.”
From corporate lawyer to charity CEO
Eyres was born and raised in Hong Kong, where she and her six younger siblings volunteered at Mother’s Choice. “I was raised in Mother’s Choice and have been volunteering here since I was nine years old, but I never thought of it as a career,” says Eyres who, prior to joining Mother’s Choice as CEO in 2012, was a corporate lawyer in New York and Hong Kong.
“People ask me a lot about my career change. The truth is that leaving behind my corporate career did require sacrifice on many levels, but it has been more rewarding than I ever expected.”
Eyres adds that leading a high-impact, change-oriented nonprofit, that is committed to breaking the vicious cycle of intergenerational trauma resulting from teenage pregnancy and children growing up without families, has really shifted her personal definition of success.
“I have become a much more hopeful person. I have seen with my own eyes that when children grow up in safe, loving and permanent families, it changes whole communities for generations.”
The business of nonprofits
In the seven years since her career pivot, Eyres has followed her parents’ passion to serve the community and has brought a fresh perspective, applying a business lens to her work in leading the organization.
“I was keen on continuing the holistic approach (of the founders). From the start, Mother’s Choice was not just about meeting immediate needs and providing a safe space, but about breaking the cycle, dealing with underlying issues, and addressing the whole problem through prevention work and community education as well as holistic crisis intervention services,” she says.
But Eyres soon discovered the need for the organization to adapt and learn from the business world. Her corporate experience helped as she grew the team to more than 140 with 700 regular volunteers. By investing in capacity-building, including marketing and communications, human resources, technology and impact-measurement systems — despite the pressure and expectation to keep administrative costs low — she was able to introduce new management practices able to sustain the nonprofit’s impact over time.
“We are constantly learning, always reaching out to experts on the latest social innovation and international best practices for both business and nonprofits. We see ourselves as pioneers. We are willing to try new things and have the mentality of disrupters,” says Eyres.
Unlike most charities in Hong Kong, Mother’s Choice only has about 25% of funding from the government and other large public grant makers. On one hand, this allows them more autonomy to be innovative and nimble as they adapt their programs to be responsive to evolving needs of the community. However, the drawback is that they have to make up the rest from private funding each year, and with no endowment, they are learning that they need to be equally innovative and pioneering in charitable fundraising too.
Creating high impact in nonprofit management
Over the past three decades, Mother’s Choice has helped more than 53,000 pregnant girls, cared for over 3,800 babies, assisted with in excess of 2,600 adoptions and provided more than 520,000 students, parents and teachers with relationship and sex education.
Last year alone, the charity provided 157 young children and babies with temporary care, and 94 were placed with permanent families; its outreach program had 7,000 participants in their comprehensive sex education workshops; and more than 700 young girls facing crisis pregnancy came to them for help.
For Eyres, the impact is not only measured in numbers, but also by the life-changing stories of the hundreds of thousands of lives impacted by Mother’s Choice.
“People come to us in their darkest moments. Mother’s Choice is not a place where children and young women just pass through. It changes the trajectory of their lives and gives them a second chance to have a good future,” she says.
“There is no such thing as a hopeless case and we truly believe that everyone deserves a second chance. I can say that because we have seen real miracles happen. I’m most encouraged when our former clients come back — our former pregnant teenagers and babies who have grown up, had their life stories changed, and want to volunteer and serve others in a community in the same way they were served.”
Eyres is most proud, during her tenure as Mother’s Choice CEO, of Project Bridge, an innovative program designed to improve the traditional foster care system by connecting nurturing volunteer families to children in need of temporary care. This has helped provide access to early intervention therapies and community resources, while helping those children return to or join safe, loving, permanent families as quickly as possible.
Bridging the gap between for-profit and nonprofit worlds
For Eyres, the transition to the nonprofit world has been both challenging and rewarding, but above all, humbling.
Citing a Stanford Social Innovation article, she mentions some of the key under-appreciated challenges that business executives often don’t realize about running nonprofits.
“There is a marked difference between leading a for-profit and nonprofit business. Often, in nonprofits, there can be less control and authority than with their profit counterparts,” says Eyres. “There are also more stakeholders and a greater need for consensus building, in addition to the well-known challenges of measuring more meaningful KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and working with low budgets and limited resources.”
Her crossover to the nonprofit world also revealed some of the key ways that she believes business executives can contribute to creating impact in collaboration with nonprofits:
Transform the way you think about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) for your company. Instead of asking your staff to paint a wall or play with babies for a few hours or lift some furniture, try to think about CSR in a different and more meaningful way. Your companies can have a much bigger impact on our organization when you contribute your professional skills, expertise, networks and resources with a longer-term engagement.”
Mentor a CEO in the nonprofit sector. Based on my own experience in YPO, you can truly make a difference to a CEO in the nonprofit world by mentoring and sharing experiences.
Invest differently in charities. Instead of just writing checks to the organization with the lowest administrative costs, start investing in the organizational infrastructure that can make nonprofits more sustainable and efficient. This will enable them to scale their businesses and have greater impact. You can do this by investing in quality staff hiring, training and development and IT.
“In the end, whether as board members, donors, partners or volunteers, business leaders have a vital role to play in closing the gap with the nonprofit world and contributing to creating impact on people’s lives,” says Eyres.