Robert Coleman

                     Robert Coleman

Second Chance, like a lot of organizations, started with an individual who had a less-than-positive experience. This individual had the addiction disease and came very close to taking his own life. From that profound moment, he realized that he was not unique, and that he could make a difference for others in that situation, and founded Second Chance. It started with providing housing. Then the idea arose that employment was the route away from this: if people could get work, they could now live and have health care.

This individual helped as much as he could to ensure that others in similar situations don’t get to that point that he got to. He came back to San Diego and committed his heart and soul to making a difference. It takes courage to move from that dreadful situation and create good out of it, good that continues to help the community.

Rethinking Service

Every day, thousands of professionals work in tough environments to make a difference. They deserve credit and acknowledgement because it’s not easy working with this population. Many of our team players at Second Chance (case managers, trainers, whatever that might be) have experienced first-hand the journey and the struggle, and those shared experiences help make the difference for us.

Even before that person asks the question, even if they’re too scared to ask what to them is an obvious question, we’re on the approach with them and helping them. It’s that sense of deep empathy and understanding: the person sitting in front of me has the same experience that I have; they’ve been successful, so maybe there’s a chance that I can be successful, too. That certainly makes a big difference in our approach to the individual and in their response to us.

Thirty years ago, our approach to dealing with people who have come from incarceration or who have the disease of addiction was different from our current thinking. We try to inform our curriculum and our approach based on current thinking.

For example, when we first went down the route of getting people ready for employment, it was often characterized as being boot camp: in your face, life sucks, the world sucks, you suck, get over it, show some backbone and get on with it, don’t do this, do that. It was a very regimented approach, because we thought that was how you dealt with people who have had long periods of incarceration. A number of counselors, therapists and professors from the local university sit on our board. They tell us that that doesn’t work anymore. We thought it worked 10 or 20 years ago, but these people are used to failing and think of themselves as failures.

What we should be doing is the opposite. Instead of picking on the person who turns up late and making them feel bad about themselves, you ignore that person, but to everybody who was early you say “Good for you. You did the right thing.” Instead of picking on the thing that people got wrong, you praise the things that people got right. You reinforce positives, and you use that as the example for those people who don’t yet understand. Thinking and approaches change. As one of our board members said, instead of catching me doing something wrong, catch me doing something right. Positive deviance: use that as an example to those who aren’t yet there.

We’re forever changing, tweaking, adding a piece, taking away a piece. How do we know if we’re making a difference? What are the metrics? It’s an awkward, difficult world, but we know it’s been successful, in both outcome and impact. The outcome is getting someone a job, but what is the ultimate impact of that job on that person’s life? Impact is what we’re striving for, not just an outcome. How do you measure your mission? Even if you can measure one job, what’s the residual effect, not only on that individual, but that family and the generations that come, and the contact network and all those kinds of things?

A guy recently told me this was his third time climbing out of the dreadful depths of alcoholism. Each time, he’d been very successful in between. He told me during the class he’d just opened a Facebook page. He’d not seen his son in years. He figured if he had a Facebook page and his son wanted to find him, that would be the best way. It’s not just about a job. He wanted to be a father. He wanted his son to be in touch. Sometimes we see our defined outputs. But what if we didn’t just measure output, but also impact? Impact, for this gentleman, was not only a job; it was having his son back in his life again.

To Get it Right, Ask the People You Serve

If you want to help a population, the best person to ask is them. It’s not rocket science. If we don’t listen to their views, their experiences, we come at it from a purely cold clinical perspective and we’re not likely to be successful.

We have a program graduate, Angie, who sits on our board, along with professionals from the behavioral treatment world, the university, local business people, a whole collection of individuals. But the room often goes quiet when Angie gives her perspective on the conversation.

Angie was born addicted to heroin, because her mother was a heroin addict. At the age of 16, Angie was a heroin addict in her own right, injecting herself. She did that for the next 20 years. For those 20 years, she was in and out of incarceration. She came to us in her mid-30s having had that moment in an 8×4 cell, saying she was done. She wanted a different life. She was someone who had the courage to do something about it. Today, she is a very successful full-time employee, heading up the butcher department at a grocery store and, a few weeks ago, she got a promotion to head of customer services.

When we stop asking questions and learning about their lives, what we’re doing is processing people as opposed to understanding people. Look at the backgrounds of so many of our clients: single-parent families, the parent who’s missing is probably incarcerated, poor areas of town, food stamps, very low educationally, probably because the parent had no educational achievement so they weren’t pushing their son or daughter to educational achievement, often with reading and math levels below grade 8. How do you fill out an application form when you can’t read it? That’s where understanding the individuals comes in.

Every day, you make an effort. A poem written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, called “To Have Succeeded,” says in the last line, “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

That is why I and the entire team here at Second Chance come to work every day. You can’t solve everything. It’s like the father and the son walking along the beach, and the father is throwing starfish back into the sea. The son asks why he’s doing that, because he can’t save them all. But the father says he can save this one. That’s why we do it. I don’t have the answers. I don’t have the resources, for sure, to make all the difference I want to make. And not everyone who comes to our program has the success that we would hope for them. But the only thing we can do is not give up, because maybe we can help the next person. That makes it worth it to me, to our donors, and to the mission of Second Chance. And we make our community a little safer and a little brighter by doing it.


Robert Coleman is the President and CEO of Second Chance, a 501(c)(3) located in Southeast San Diego, whose mission is to create opportunities for people to change their own lives by providing job readiness and life skills training, job placement services, behavioral health services and sober-living housing for adults and youth in need. Prior to his arrival in 2010, Robert served as president and CEO of the YMCA Riverside City & County, overseeing more than 2,500 staff members and volunteers. He was educated in engineering, management studies and business.


This article is reprinted from Vol. 2, No. 3, of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today!

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