Michael Lynch, CEO & Co-Founder of Improve Your Tomorrow
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
"I’m really curious and interested in impact. I want to be able to change as many lives as possible."
Michael Lynch is the CEO and Co-Founder of Improve Your Tomorrow, a college access and completion nonprofit organization focused on getting young men of color to and through college. He has had an extensive career as a senior legislative aide at the California State Capitol and is making a profound impact in Sacramento, California.
We sat down with Michael to find about the world of nonprofits and his goal of improving the lives of young Black men:
I grew up in Stockton, California in a single parent home led by my dad, which is really unique for most Black males. Faith and family have always been tremendously important. What I often saw and what surrounded me, my neighborhood, and family were folks who had great ability—but very few actually achieved anything of substance. Most of my family members, especially males, have been in prison or jail. That was the backdrop of my life growing up: Incarceration.
I recognized that growing up and was really fortunate because I had a dad at home, I was a decent athlete and a pretty good student. I got an opportunity that other folks didn’t, an opportunity to go to college. I had this life-changing experience freshman year at University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) playing football. I got a phone call in the middle of the night during training camp that one of my friends was shot and killed. I remember this like it was yesterday because I had two feelings. One, I was sad. I lost a friend. But two, I felt guilty that I was away from my community and my neighborhood.
Can you speak to any influencers that helped you succeed?
The influencers in my life were of course my family but definitely my dad who was my consummate community person. Sometimes we had enough. Sometimes we had more than enough. A lot of times we didn't have enough. But whatever we had, we shared. I saw that a lot growing up—a person who gave whatever he could.
My mom left when I was eight or nine years old, but at each transition in my life I had another woman, primarily a Black woman from my community, who served as a motherly figure. From my primary school, middle school, high school, college, to my first year in the workforce—even now there has been a Black woman who has shepherded me along the way.
Can you recall anything your influencers have said to you which stuck with you throughout your transitions?
I would say not really a phrase or statement but rather in actions. The Black woman in high school who was my motherly figure, she was our registrar at the school, my best friend’s aunt. I can remember on a daily basis I would go in and ask for lunch money. Without fail, every single time I’d asked her, she gave. Giving another person lunch money to eat wasn’t easy to do, but she did it without hesitation. She fed me for four years. It was those actions from folks like that.
Sometimes we had enough. Sometimes we had more than enough. A lot of times we didn't have enough. But whatever we had, we shared.
What was your major when you went to college?
My intended major was criminal justice. My plan was that if I didn't go to the NFL, I was going to become a juvenile attorney working with young people. I transferred to Humboldt State after my sophomore year. Humboldt State had given me a football scholarship, but they didn’t have criminal justice. I was like, “What would be applicable no matter what I decided to do?" It was business. It paid dividends in running a nonprofit and a for-profit consultancy.
What happened after college?
I knew I wanted to come back to Sacramento and begin to impact my community, but I didn't know how. I had this experience my sophomore year at June 2007 at UNLV: I was going into my sophomore year, and my friend asked me if I wanted to go to this campaign rally. I had no idea how politics worked. I was frankly an athlete/student. There were about 150 people in the room. Every seat was filled. And this guy gets on stage and starts to talk about hope and change and how government can be used as a way to help others. That was Senator Obama.
That was the first time I started thinking about politics and policy, and how I could use that to help change outcomes for folks in my community. I put that away for a couple years, but I knew as I got to my senior year policy was something I wanted to do. So, I applied for this program called Sac Semester. That internship at the [California State] Capitol led to a fellowship, and that led me to being on staff at the Capitol for four years. In 2013 I created Improve Your Tomorrow (IYT) and that quickly grew.
Tell us about Improve Your Tomorrow and your role there.
I'm the CEO of Improve Your Tomorrow, a college access and completion nonprofit focused on getting young men of color to and through college. I’m the chief fundraiser. That's what I do mostly. We have about a $4 million budget. My responsibility is to make sure that we can raise 4+ million dollars to support our young men. Also, I'm responsible for where we go next. We’re in 7 school districts, 3 counties in the region.
A big part of my job, 25% is relationships with our school district partners—stewarding relationships with our current partners and building new relationships. A fourth of my week revolves around following up on emails, reaching out to folks, sending out correspondence, or figuring out where the connection points are for somebody to get me a meeting with a superintendent. Another quarter of my week is internal: meeting with my director of development, meeting with my director of finance administration. A big portion of that is fund tracking for grants. Another quarter is external where I'm talking about the work we do. I do presentations at conferences or with media. Another quarter is meeting with partners who aren’t fundraising or in business development directly but can be valuable to the mission, other nonprofit and college access folks who I can learn from.
Can you elaborate on the process of someone coming to your nonprofit?
Our program is based on the school site. You may have been drafted in. You may have had below a 2.0 GPA or a behavior or attendance issue and might have been put on a list. That list we ask for and we draft them into this college access and completion program. That's one way, to identify based upon need. The other way is you're recruited by your friends, or your parents may hear about us. You can enter the program from 7th - 11th grade or continuous through college.
How many youths per year do you help?
This year, we'll serve close to 2000. We have a 75% - 80% retention rate. We’ll have to 1700 guys who are members and another 300 who may move on to other schools, etc.
How long is the program?
It’s 12 years. You can enter the program as early as 7th grade and you can stay with us to college graduation. We also have a postgraduate fellowship called the mentor fellowship where we employ current IYT college students to work in their communities. You could probably be with us for about 14 years. We also have guys who have gone through the program, graduated college, been mentors, and now work with us on staff as program managers. This could be a lifelong endeavor—you can be mentored and nourished and work for us and then retire with us.
How did the process of IYT begin?
It came from a desire to want to help. Specifically, the epiphany moment came when I was a Sac Semester intern. This is when [the California State Legislature] created the Select Committee for Boys & Men of Color. There were surrounding issues and challenges around boys and men of color, and I remember sitting on the couch in my parents’ house. I was watching Nnamdi Asomugha, a former corner for the Raiders. He took a group of kids on a college tour from Oakland to D.C. I was like, ‘I’d love to do that at my own high school.’ I called my best friend and said we should start a program at Valley High helping other folks get to college. That was the first conversation. A year later that actually came to fruition.
I had no former nonprofit experience. For the procedural part, I just googled how to start a nonprofit. The board was a “who was available” board. We needed three people to be legal. As I began to understand what a board is supposed to do, the fiduciary responsibilities to grow and spread your mission, I began to identify folks in my network who could be influential for IYT. I just had a conversation and asked them. Most folks said yes.
What skillsets do you recommend developing to be where you are today?
Be able to listen. You have to be a leader. You have to be bold, be comfortable with a healthy tension. Have a vision for where you want to go and be persistently stubborn.
Can you elaborate on how your organization became financially successful?
Nonprofits are a business. The only thing that separates IYT from McDonald's is our tax status. We cannot give our profits to shareholders, but we still have a revenue model. From the beginning I understood that. We have to have revenue to do good things. So, we have to build up a strong cash flow. That was a process of just making asks. We were intentional early on to build up a savings and build up the cash flow so when we wanted to be able to hire staff we had money to be able to support staff. I didn’t pay myself for a couple years. I just did it for free. If I could make a living somewhere else, I would still do this for free. It was just the process of making asks, building up a cash flow, and when we had a cash flow ready to support, we transitioned.
Are there any roadblocks or hazards you can advise people to avoid?
A financial foundation is so important in a business. Having a good general ledger, having a financial policy and procedures manual, having a clear system for tracking funding, making sure that when you close the books for the month you’re not missing memo transactions or missing items within a transaction which won’t allow you to explain it. Focus on your financial foundation. Especially as you’re growing fast, don’t lose sight that your financial foundation is so important. Ensure your books and records align. Those things are super critical so you can stay compliant.
Be aware of your team's temperature. Are you running too fast? That was advice I got early on which I didn’t care too much for. But when I felt the culture of the team start to slip away, I [understood]. The culture is largely me. The culture is led by the leadership. If I don’t like the culture, then I don’t like the way I’m leading it. It’s a reflection on how I am showing up in spaces. Build a financial foundation and ensure you’re talking to your team where you understand the culture of your organization.
What has been your most rewarding experience at Improve Your Tomorrow?
I’ve had two phenomenal experiences. I got a text from one of my young brothers who was one of the first people in our program. He sent me a picture of his degree. He got his degree from UC Merced. Knowing him really well and knowing all the trials and obstacles and setbacks he had along the way and how he still finished in four. Now he’s a lead mentor at IYT. That’s an exceptional experience.
I got another text on the same day from another one of our young men. He would just show up every day and cause havoc. He was never disrespectful, but he just wouldn’t do anything. He would show up to study hall and not do any work. He was a kid who liked being in the space but showed no academic progress. He sent me a long text saying thank you and what I said to him really resonates, and how he wants to be able to serve others, and he graduated high school and he’s going to go to college. When you get a text like that it's like, ‘Okay. I can keep going.’
What's next on the horizon for you?
There’s no real master plan. I’m really curious and interested in impact. I want to be able to change as many lives as possible. For me, it's whatever God has planned. Wherever he leads, I’ll follow.
What's the ultimate legacy that you want to leave behind?
The value in service to others. I think if folks recognized nothing else about me, they could disagree with every single philosophy or whatever it is I said, I hope folks don’t doubt or ever call into question my heart—the passion for service and assuring that those who are born into challenges they can’t control have an opportunity to improve their lives.
You can check out what Michael is doing at Improve Your Tomorrow at improveyourtomorrow.org