Jeff Snell: Leading the Greater Milwaukee Boys & Girls Clubs in a Youth Development Revolution
12 mins read

Jeff Snell: Leading the Greater Milwaukee Boys & Girls Clubs in a Youth Development Revolution

We live in an era where technology and artificial intelligence are racing faster than human development. Dependent on social media, our young people are often confused about their place in the world. Social and emotional development plays a leading role in the ability of young people to succeed in school, career, and life.

Enter Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee (BGCGM), which has been preparing young people for productive lives with positive self-esteem, engagement in school and learning, and volunteerism in their communities since 1887. BGCGM is one of the largest and best known of the 2,500 Boys & Girls chapters nationwide.

With over 50 locations throughout the city of Milwaukee, BGCGM provides youth ages 4-18 with after-school and summer activities, including academic support, mentoring, sports, arts training, and healthy meals. Programs include STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), organized sports leagues, college and career programs, health and wellness programs, and leadership and service. As the foundation of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, this curriculum reinforces academic achievement, builds character, and encourages a quality lifestyle.

How does this successful organization work? For answers, I turned to Jeff Snell, former CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee in the early 2000s and now its interim CEO. We spoke in a conference room in the sprawling Mardak building on Sixth Street near downtown Milwaukee. A model of caring through graceful, gentle honesty, Jeff Snell could be your dad if you could choose your dad.

Tell me a little about your background, where you grew up, your parents and your education.

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I grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin, one of five children. When the five of us were growing up, my parents opened their home to foster children. Over the years, my family has hosted 327 foster children. For example, I never knew who would show up at the dinner table. These children usually had no luggage, instead carrying black plastic bags for their belongings. It was then that I first encountered children who were nurturing doubt and hopelessness.

What about you? What was your growing up like?

I went to Appleton East High School. My parents had split up and I was living with my dad. Those were tough times, but I developed empathy and a sense of humility. Long later, in 1997, when I first walked into the Milwaukee Boys & Girls Club, I saw a 10-year-old boy with his head in his arms. He looked at me sadly and I thought, “I understand you.” Like me in my youth, this boy was full of insecurities and disappointments. That experience motivated me to work in clubs.

Where did you study after graduating from Appleton East High School?

North Central College, a Christian university in downtown Minneapolis. I worked full time during my undergrad, but I got into debt. I got degrees in philosophy and theology. I went to graduate school on the East Coast and got a master’s in social ethics. I worked for a short time in the U.S. Senate for Wisconsin Senator Bob Kasten. In the early ’90s, I returned to Wisconsin and earned a doctorate from Marquette in education administration and policy. I also became familiar with Jesuit teachings. Eventually, I began working in higher education and nonprofits, as well as youth development, trying to help young people deal with challenges and doubts.

Tell me more about your career path. From my research, you’ve been involved in higher education, government, and nonprofit work.

In 1997, I joined the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee as the Chief Development Officer. I met key stakeholders in Milwaukee, including philanthropists Keith Mardak and Mary Vandenberg. With their help, we began a significant expansion and moved into the Mardak building here on Sixth Street. The club grew from 8,500 members in 1997 to 25,000 in 2004. We became the largest Boys & Girls Club in the country. In 2001, I was promoted to CEO. I left that job in 2004.

Why did you leave in 2004? It sounds like you were doing a great job growing membership.

John Abele, the father of former Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, asked me to be the COO of his private, billion-dollar Argosy Foundation. I served in that position for three years, until the foundation was built and up and running. Then I became a special advisor to the president of Marquette. I worked in the area of ​​social innovation and social entrepreneurship, and that in the process generated revenue that had an impact on the overall social impact of Marquette. I served in that position for seven years, until 2014. Then I got a job in social entrepreneur spaces in Santa Fe, New Mexico, working with artisans around the world. In 2019, I moved to Madison, where I was a professor at the University of Wisconsin and also helped the UW build its first series of online bachelor’s degree programs. I had just retired from that job when the Boys & Girls Clubs of Milwaukee asked me to come back to Milwaukee as interim CEO.

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What exactly is Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee and what services does it offer?

I like to think that we provide safety and support during the most critical hours for our children. During the school year, that means after 3:00 p.m., and then club activities during the summer, including our camps. We also provide meals. We provide core programs that help children develop character, career aspirations, and academic preparation. Our goal is to raise productive, caring, and responsible citizens. In other words, preparation for life.

Coverage includes much of the Milwaukee area and several counties.

Yes, we have five large intramurals and we have a camp, Camp Whitcomb/Mason, in Waukesha County. Many of our kids come from the inner city, and some have never even seen the shores of Lake Michigan. For them, camp is a great experience.

Give me a brief history of the Boys & Girls Clubs. I believe it was founded in 1887.

That’s true. In 1887, Annabell Cook Whitcomb came to Milwaukee from the East Coast and converted two basement rooms in Plymouth Church on Milwaukee’s East Side into a boys’ club. I believe she was baptized into the social gospel, which was a big thing in the 1870s and 1880s, traveling on tent shows with gospel preachers. Her goal was to create a boys’ club where boys could be occupied, something to do to keep them out of trouble. That was a start, and now look where we are today.

I read this on your website: “A revolution in youth development is taking hold, and Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee is proud to be at the forefront. Social and emotional development is a key factor in young people’s ability to succeed in school, career, and life. It is the foundation of our work.” Can you comment on that?

Many children emerge from adolescence with uncertainty, insecurity, and doubt. We teach young people how to navigate this journey and accept this process as part of the human condition. We teach children how to control their thoughts and emotions. We try to help them break out of the negative cycle of dependency in which they struggle to enter adulthood. They learn about responsibility and character development, being trustworthy and a good friend, and being active in school and communities. And also that they have the strength to manage their own lives and be responsible for their future. In other words, social and emotional development.

Do you recruit young people to your clubs? Do you recruit their parents?

We engage young people in many ways, usually trying to cast a wide net to reach as many members of the community as possible. This can be through day school contacts, community events, and word of mouth. Parent/guardian contact is key. Every day we actively support about 3,500 young people involved in our programs. The more kids spend time with us, the better the results, namely higher GPAs, less truancy.

I spent a lot of time downtown and got to know the residents, the street leaders, and the black culture. One of the key factors I noticed was the lack of hope among the kids and the families. For many families, there’s not a lot of planning, like what are we going to do tomorrow, what are the plans for the near future, how do we create a long-term plan. Their lives are day-to-day. About 80 percent of the families in the downtown area have only the mother as the head of the household. And all of that fuels the lack of hope. I’ve talked to teenage boys who don’t think they’ll make it past age 19.

If a young person doesn’t have positive emotional and social development, they don’t see problems or traumas as solvable. And single-mother families are probably the biggest indicator of poverty. The good news is that people in our black community are active in their churches, which gives hope.

Your website states, “Leadership and service programming has been a primary focus of the Club’s mission.” How do you focus on leadership and service?

I’m thinking about a couple of our programs. One is Torch Club, and the other is called Keystone. Those two clubs are for middle to late teens. The concept of the clubs is that the youth are in charge of the local club activities. The clubs have elected leaders. The members learn how to create a vision and work with others. We even had a credit union run by kids at one point. But there are many different types of clubs, from dance clubs to sports clubs to girls clubs.

How is Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee funded? What is the annual budget?

Our budget is approximately $37.3 million. In terms of financial support, we receive approximately 50 percent from government and United Way grants. Thirty-three percent comes from development efforts and fundraising. We also receive income from our trust fund, private nonprofit contributions, and membership fees.

From the 2021 annual report, here’s the age breakdown of your youth members: 23 percent 4-8, 34 percent 9-12, 23 percent 13-15, and 20 percent 16+. When it comes to gender, 47 percent are girls and 53 percent are boys. And here’s the ethnic breakdown: Asian two percent, Black or African American 51 percent, Hispanic or Latino 28 percent, and white three percent. Since you mentor mostly kids of color, what challenges do you see?

There are many shared experiences in the inner city, and many of them are poverty-related. We try to understand the social dynamics of each neighborhood, such as Latino and black community members. We hire youth professionals to be familiar with different cultures and neighborhood dynamics.

From my observations, the Latino community is strong in keeping the family together, and most Latinos are traditional Catholics. The concept of family in the black community fell apart a bit as manufacturing jobs disappeared in the 90s and drugs and underground crime took over the inner city economy.

You are absolutely right. At BGCGM, we pay attention to value propositions that are specific to each community, such as the family ties of Catholics in the Latino community or the influence of Baptists in the black community.

How many full-time employees do you have? How many part-time and volunteers?

178 full-time employees. 387 part-time employees, 30 Americorps, and about 100 volunteers. We have an amazing staff, I think.

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