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Big Brothers Big Sisters of America

Big Brothers Big Sisters of America

230 North 13th Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19107
Telephone: (215) 567-7000
Fax: (215) 567-0394
Web site:

Nonprofit Organization
Incorporated: 1904 as New York Big Brothers
Employees: 397
Operating Revenues: $31.6 million (2005)
NAIC: 624110 Child and Youth Services

Big Brothers Big Sisters of America is a national federation of about 450 affiliated agencies that provide volunteer mentors for more than 230,000 at-risk children in all 50 states. Its programs include traditional one-on-one mentor relationships, in-school mentoring, and Amachi, which works with churches to provide mentors for children who have a parent in prison. Independent studies have shown that children in its programs do better in school, have higher self-esteem, and are better able to relate to others. The organization's funding comes from federal, corporate, and foundation grants, as well as individual donors.


The roots of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBSA) date to the dawn of the 20th century, when the first American service organizations were founded to help children whose poor home environments were leading them into a life of crime. In 1902 former journalist Ernest Coulter helped organize the New York Children's Court to more compassionately deal with these young criminals, and a group called the Ladies of Charity was founded to provide assistance to girls brought there. Judge Julius Mayer also asked prominent New York men to befriend boys who appeared before the court.

In December 1904 Coulter gave a speech before the Men's Club of the Central Presbyterian Church of New York in which he declared that the only way to help a troubled child was to "make the little chap feel that there is at least one human being in this great city who takes a personal interest in him, who cares whether he lives or dies." He asked for volunteers, and when all 39 in attendance raised their hands New York Big Brothers was born. The new group began sending a representative to the court to match boys with a permanent Big Brother, who would meet with them on a recurring basis for socialization, to provide guidance, and to serve as a positive role model.

Soon after the formation of New York Big Brothers, the Ladies of Charity changed its name to Catholic Big Sisters. Meanwhile, other such organizations were springing up around the country, one of the earliest of which was founded by Irvin Westheimer in Cincinnati in 1903.

In 1914 Coulter, who had earned a law degree in 1904 and quit the Children's Court in 1912 to enter private practice, embarked on a tour of the United States to promote the formation of child mentoring organizations. By 1916, there were Big Brothers and Big Sisters groups in 96 cities around the country, and in 1917 they held a meeting in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Four years later a national Big Brothers Big Sisters Federation was founded, with Coulter elected president.

The number of mentoring groups continued to grow during the 1920s, and in 1923 former president Theodore Roosevelt was named treasurer of the national federation. President Calvin Coolidge and President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt later became patrons of the group as well.

The Big Brothers Big Sisters Federation ceased operations in the 1930s, but in 1940 a committee was created to discuss formation of another national body, which was created in 1946. In 1947 the Big Brothers Association opened its headquarters in Philadelphia, and a year later artist Norman Rockwell contributed a drawing for use as its symbol.

In 1951 a recognition program called Big Brothers of the Year was introduced, with one of the first two named being FBI head J. Edgar Hoover. In 1958 the Big Brothers Association was chartered by Congress, and by 1969 its membership roster had grown to 150 agencies.


The majority of children in mentoring relationships were male, in large part because single parents were usually women and many more boys were left without a same-gender role model. There were consequently fewer Big Sisters organizations, but in 1970 a federation of these groups, Big Sisters International, was incorporated, and in 1977 it merged with the Big Brothers Association to form Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBSA). Together they represented 357 agencies around the United States. By 1984, when BBBSA moved to a new headquarters in Philadelphia, the organization had grown to include over 450 member agencies in 49 states, with more than 100,000 children receiving help.

To become a Big Brother or Big Sister, volunteers were required to fill out an application and submit references, after which they were interviewed by a caseworker who also completed a home visit and a criminal background check. An important part of the screening process was determining the seriousness of the volunteer, who would be asked for a year's commitment of a minimum of three hours per week so that the relationship with the child could grow. The organization encouraged volunteers to include their "Littles" in lowkey activities such as running errands and doing chores, as well as taking them for walks or trips to parks and ball games. It sought to pair children and adults with similar interests, and reported a failure rate of less than 2 percent of matches. Benefits from the program included greater self-esteem and self-confidence, higher grades in school, and improved social skills.

During the 1970s and 1980s the organization began to focus on reaching children from single-parent homes as the rates of divorce and unmarried childbirth skyrocketed. In most cities there were waiting lists for mentors, and BBBSA agencies sought new ways to find volunteers, in some cases lowering the age requirement from 18 to 16 or 17, or matching boys with adult women. While there were typically more requests for Big Brothers than Big Sisters, the number of male volunteers was lower than the number of female ones.

By 1986 BBBSA's annual budget stood at $2 million, which largely came from individual donations and foundation grants. Other funds were received from corporations such as Arby's, which had donated $1,000 for each run batted in by the leading hitters in Major League Baseball. BBBSA also got help from celebrity spokespersons including baseball legend Hank Aaron, football star/sportscaster Lynn Swann, and actress Pam Dawber of Mork and Mindy fame, and held fund- and awareness-raising activities including bowling tournaments.

By the end of 1991 BBBSA had 500 affiliates, through which more than 75,000 volunteers assisted children from 110,000 families. A volunteer shortage persisted, however, with some boys waiting more than two years to receive a mentor and girls, up to six months.


The Big Brothers Big Sisters Mission is to help children reach their potential through professionally supported, one-to-one relationships with mentors that have a measurable impact on youth.


To highlight the value of its mentoring program, BBBSA Executive Director Thomas M. McKenna had in 1989 commissioned a national study of outcomes by research group Public/Private Ventures. Completed in 1995, it revealed that mentored children were 46 percent less likely to begin using drugs; 27 percent less likely to start drinking; 52 percent less likely to skip a day of school; and 33 percent less likely to hit someone. Relationships with family and peers were also improved.

The organization's board had at the same time begun developing new mission and vision statements, as well as a strategy for achieving them. Seeking to serve more of the estimated ten million to 15 million children of single-parent homes who might benefit from mentoring, the BBBSA adopted a goal of doubling the number of children it served annually to 200,000 by the year 2000, as well as raising $100 million in new donations. Each match cost approximately $1,000, which included expenses for advertising, recruiting, performing background checks, and training.

New recruitment methods included persuading corporations to promote mentoring to their staffs, with companies such as Southfield, Michigan-based manufacturing firm Federal-Mogul (whose CEO was a BBBSA board member) adopting the goal of having 5 percent of its staff volunteer. In some areas new chapters were formed, and in others local mentoring organizations became affiliates after completing an application and an onsite review that ensured they met the national organization's standards, which included having one paid caseworker for every 35 children matched. After becoming affiliated they would gain the use of the well-known (and trademarked) name, and would be eligible for discounts on insurance as well as financial assistance.

By 1997 there were 507 affiliated Big Brothers Big Sisters groups around the United States, with a total combined budget of $115 million. Of this amount, 32 percent came from special events, 26 percent from the United Way, 12 percent from corporations and foundations, 10 percent from state and local governments, and 7 percent from individual donors.

In 1998 the number of volunteers recruited nationally rose to 130,000, but some children were still waiting as long as 18 months to be matched. Using a grant from the UPS Foundation, BBBSA began working on a new school-based program that it hoped would help more youths. During the year a related organization, Big Brothers Big Sisters International, was also founded, which worked to form mentoring groups around the world. There were far fewer such organizations abroad, but over the next several years agencies were formed in 34 countries.

In 1999 BBBSA became allied with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which would allow use of its facilities for mentoring. A two-year, $1 million pilot program was underwritten by Pillsbury Co. This and several other developments were linked to a new national campaign led by General Colin Powell called America's PromiseThe Alliance for Youth. Also during 1999, BBBSA named Judith Vredenburgh to the posts of president and CEO. She had previously served as executive vice-president of the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation and CEO of retail chain Chess King.


Ladies of Charity is formed to assist girls at New York Children's Court.
New York Big Brothers is founded by Ernest Coulter to mentor boys.
National federation of Big Brothers, Sisters groups is founded, led by Coulter.
Big Brothers Association opens headquarters in Philadelphia.
Big Brothers group is chartered by U.S. Congress.
Big Sisters International is incorporated.
Two organizations merge to form Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
Company moves to new headquarters building in Philadelphia.
Offshoot Big Brothers Big Sisters International is founded.
Big Brothers Big Sisters in Schools is established as core program; goal of mentoring one million children annually by 2010 is adopted.
First national marketing campaign is launched with TV, radio ads.
Amachi children-of-prisoners mentoring pilot program is introduced in five cities.


In 2000 the recently developed school-based mentoring program was made a core part of BBBSA's mission and expanded, bringing the total number of affiliates with such programs to 320. School-based mentoring gave more adults an opportunity to volunteer, letting them meet children at lunch or during other free time, and attracted people who had previously been unable to participate. In some cases older students were also paired with younger ones. The program was effective at reaching children whose parents might not otherwise refer them, as this was done by teachers. It cost half as much to administer as traditional mentor relationships, and was found to improve children's self-confidence, attitude toward school and teachers, academic performance, and relationships with peers and adults.

The influx of children in school-based programs helped the organization meet its goal of 200,000 mentoring relationships by the end of 2000, and a new strategic plan was soon adopted which proposed raising the number to one million by 2010, as well as radically increasing fund-raising efforts. In addition to growing its corporate and foundation support, BBBSA would work to increase contributions from individuals. In the late 1990s the organization had launched its first capital campaign, with its board members personally contributing more than $1 million out of the $4 million raised. Other efforts included enlisting young professionals to form an advisory council, and boosting the number of direct-mail solicitations to four or more per year.

Volunteer recruitment was also given a thorough assessment by Da Vinci Consulting, led by former Big Brother Bob Davis. A six-month intensive evaluation led to a new recruiting model that was more volunteer-friendly and increased the level of commitment, with the average 12-week span between initial contact and match reduced to as little as 48 hours in some cases.

In 2001 the group joined with Kiwanis International, Optimist International, Rotary International, and Lions Clubs International in a bid to boost recruitment. It also began a pilot program in Philadelphia called Amachi to match mentors with children of prisoners, as a joint venture between Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeastern Pennsylvania, Public/Private Ventures, the Pew Charitable Trust, and local churches.

The list of corporate sponsors included Microsoft, Delta Air Lines, Footaction USA, United Parcel Service, Valvoline, Jack in the Box, and TD Waterhouse. BBBSA's biggest annual fund-raiser continued to be "Bowl for Kids' Sake," which took place at local bowling centers around the United States, and now accepted donations online.

In 2002 the organization found itself in the news when it was denounced by fundamentalist Christian groups including Focus on the Family for allowing homosexuals to be mentors. BBBSA had had an antidiscrimination policy for 25 years, but the national organization had begun asking all local chapters to follow it, also forbidding discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or handicap status. In its traditional relationships parents had final approval of their child's mentor, but in the newer school-based programs they had no direct say over who was assigned, though they did approve the referral to a mentor. Countering the conservative group's assertion that they were exposing children to potential pedophiles, BBBSA reported that it received fewer than ten allegations of sexual abuse per year, and noted that child molesters were as likely to be married with children as homosexual. Calls for boycotts of BBBSA sponsors had little impact, though eight Republican congressmen wrote a letter to President George W. Bush urging action and at least one local agency quit the organization.


In September 2002 BBBSA launched its first-ever national marketing campaign with a series of public service advertisements on television and radio. The next year President George W. Bush promoted a three-year, $450 million mentoring initiative in his State of the Union address, as the organization continued to push forward to serve more children.

In 2004 BBBSA celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding with special events including reunions of former "Bigs" and "Littles," and the publication of a book that used the organization's slogan for a title. Little Moments, Big Magic featured stories of mentoring relationships, with proceeds from sales split with local agencies. During the year financial assistance was received from corporations including Minor League Baseball, Rent-A-Center, and Charter One Financial, which gave a percentage of purchases on a special MasterCard to BBBSA and seven other charities. During 2004 the organization's volunteers contributed an estimated 11 million hours of their time to mentor 225,000 children.

In January 2005 BBBSA received a $1.29 million grant from The Atlantic Philanthropies to fund a comprehensive Public/Private Ventures study of its Bigs in Schools program in ten cities, which would compare the grades and behavior of children in the middle school-mentoring program against those who were not participants. The school-based program was seen as a critical component of the organization's plan to serve one million children by 2010. During the year a lawsuit against BBBSA over sexual abuse committed by a volunteer mentor in Chicago was dismissed when the national agency was found to have had no control over the local chapter's actions.

In 2006 the organization formed a partnership with the General Commission on United Methodist Men to develop Amachi programs nationwide for children whose parents were incarcerated. It would start with five pilot programs and expand further based on their results, then be launched nationally. In the summer BBBSA received $58.5 million in federal funds to support its operations as part of the Mentoring Matches for Youth Act. Public service announcements featuring First Lady Laura Bush began running during the year as well. Despite much recent growth, the number of affiliated agencies had fallen to 440.

Now in its second century, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America had established itself as the premier youth mentoring organization in the United States, and was in a period of intensive growth as it sought to help one million children by 2010. Through such new initiatives as school-based mentoring and the Amachi children-of-prisoners program, it was building momentum to reach this ambitious figure.

Frank Uhle


Boys and Girls Clubs of America; Boy Scouts of America; Girl Scouts of the USA; Points of Light Foundation; YMCA of the USA; National 4-H Council.


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