CASA of Los Angeles closed its 2013 fiscal year on June 30, and the results from it were staggering: more children served with intensive advocacy than ever before, more volunteers mobilized than ever before, and more funds raised than ever before. We sit down with CASA of Los Angeles’s Executive Director, Dilys Tosteson Garcia, to talk about the secrets of this success and what the future holds for the only agency in L.A. County with volunteers appointed by the dependency court to advocate for children.

With so many achievements in 2013, what stands out most?

The 748 children we served with intensive advocacy! It was the most CASA of Los Angeles has ever served and 18% more kids than the previous year. Plus it’s about 36% higher than the agency’s average from 2009 to 2011. I think it puts us in a great position to meet our goal of advocating for 1,000 kids over the next 12 months.

Eighteen percent is a huge increase, especially for an agency that is decades old. How did you do it?

We spent a lot of time looking at what kind of staffing is needed to support higher levels of service, and we’ve been hiring to hit those higher levels. Plus, volunteers are taking on bigger roles and new responsibilities. For example, we instituted the Peer Coordinator Program, where experienced volunteers coach newer Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs). All volunteers are now more empowered to take initiative, and we are recognizing that different volunteers require different levels of support and assistance. But I also have to give credit and a million thanks to our board of directors for setting the strategic direction for the organization and working so hard to develop the resources needed to carry it forward.

You also had great success in fundraising.

We did. Our revenue was $2.7 million, which was $200,000 over our goal and $900,000 more in private funding than the year before. It’s all the more remarkable when you consider that last year was the first time in almost ten years that we didn’t have any significant federal funding. We had about $135,000 in government grants, but every other dollar came either from a foundation or an individual gift or a corporate gift. That’s a huge accomplishment that speaks to the dedication of board members, donors, all stakeholders. Everybody who uttered the CASA story in some way contributed to that outcome.

Which initiatives performed best?

The highlight was the Evening of Dreams Gala, which was our first gala as a fully independent nonprofit, and that alone raised $800,000. It was generated purely by board initiative, and it showed that there was quite a bit of untapped giving out there. Previously, when the agency was run and funded by the court, there hadn’t really been a need to make a deep ask, so many supporters hadn’t felt the need to write a large check. It proves that our message has hit a sweet spot.

What is that message?

That the community has a responsibility for children whose families, for whatever reason, have failed them. If you look at transition-age youth, kids with learning disabilities, medically fragile children, or crossover kids who have one foot in the delinquency system, each has incredibly compelling needs. Each, in fact, tells the story of human existence. And that’s what fuels us as a CASA community. But the power of the CASA approach is you’re not just throwing money at the problem—it’s about caring men and women, volunteering their time to get to know each child and her or his circumstances, and working hard to help that child overcome a traumatic past and have a promising future. And this work is backed up by solid research.

How so?

Take early childhood development, for example. The science behind it demonstrates that intervening in the first five years of a child’s life is far more effective than waiting until a child is older and has been in the system for years. So we got help from experts in creating a specialty track of training in which CASAs learn very specifically how to bring a child development lens to advocacy, and this has both changed the recommendations CASAs make and helped us attract new institutional donors interested in funding that work.

What about volunteers? CASA of Los Angeles also set a record in the number of volunteers it mobilized.

Historically, our volunteers have been predominantly women, people over 50, and residents of the Westside, South Bay, and San Fernando Valley. But in the last few years we’ve been committed to increasing diversity, and now we have more young people and more professionals joining our ranks.

Part of it is just because we had more people getting the message out, but we’ve also been more targeted in our approach. We have an African-American network, a Quarterback Club working on attracting males, and individual CASAs taking the message to their faith-based and community organizations. All of these efforts helped us recruit 143 new volunteers and mobilize more than 400 to support the agency’s mission last year.

Click here to read part two of the interview with Executive Director Dilys Tosteson Garcia.