Sloane Keane knows what it’s like to be a Big Sister.
About 10 years ago, a friend convinced her to begin mentoring a young child for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County and the Inland Empire.
She thought so highly of the program that a few years later in 2013 she joined the group full time as the director of development, leaving behind the business world of advertising sales.
“I entered through the front door of the agency as a volunteer,” Keane recalled.
In 2018, she became chief executive of the agency, the second largest among the group’s 250 agencies nationwide.
Under her leadership, the number of children mentored by the nonprofit has grown 20% since 2018. She also successfully navigated the pandemic, where she knew standing still wasn’t an option.
For her efforts, Keane won a 2021 Women in Business Award on Oct. 28 at the Business Journal’s annual ceremony in Irvine.
“Oftentimes people only see the success. They don’t see the work and the failures and what went into it in order to make it a success,” Keane told the Business Journal.
“There’s no leadership 101 through a pandemic. There is no game plan.”
After graduating from Penn State University in 1998, Keane began an advertising career in New York City, where she worked in prominent media like the Discovery Channel and after moving to Southern California, OC Metro, before moving to the Orange County Register.
When she first joined the nonprofit, Keane directed her passions toward improving funding strategies and increasing volunteer recruitment.
“I firmly believe in mentorship. It’s not just a nonprofit career for me. I very strongly believe that none of us succeed alone.”
Between 2014-2015, Keane led a capital campaign that raised enough money for the agency to not only cover normal programs and operating costs, but to also purchase a 52,000-square-foot building in Santa Ana.
In mid-2018, she restructured recruitment efforts to involve more fundraising and marketing that resulted in a rise in new mentor matches by 11% from the previous year. That year’s annual Gourmet fundraising dinner grew to record-breaking gross revenue of $2.9 million.
By the end of 2019, she had established multiple collaborations with other organizations, such as Girl Scouts OC and the Orange County Community Foundation, bringing in more resources and expansion opportunities.
Then the pandemic struck.
Revenue fell 9.3% to $6.8 million for the 12 months ended June 30, 2020.
When the pandemic shut down almost all OC operations in March 2020, Keane immediately transitioned the Big Brothers Big Sisters and its 4,000 volunteers to a fully virtual mentorship model.
The nonprofit built an online resource guide, planning virtual events and offering online training such as TikTok dance lessons, cooking classes and how to become a local museum docent.
“I had to embrace fear, like any other emotion and celebrate it. Use it. Harness it,” she said.
“I didn’t know what the correct thing was to do but I knew that standing still was not.”
The swift pivot came from necessity and practiced through trial and error to maintain the support and communication for her team while they were isolated and helping others.
The nonprofit’s focus shifted to the effects from COVID-19 challenges of economic stress, mental health, and distance learning that youth were experiencing. The programs’ mentors found themselves providing more critical and educational needs that were missing from the lack of access. Revenue for the 12 months ended June 30 rebounded to $7.1 million.
Among these changes, Keane also began a timely virtual leadership development program to make sure high school students could continue to build critical skills from home.
After all this, 98% of the OC Big Brothers Big Sisters high school class of 2021 graduated on time, and 67% of those graduates will be a part of their family’s first generation to attend college.
In accepting the award, Keane emphasized the importance of mentorship—to keep “lighting the potential of the next generation,” she said.
In a LinkedIn post, she said she accepted the award on behalf of her team “who does all the heavy lifting every day” to inspire the youth of their community.
She plans to continue supporting the newly expanded service horizons, now providing a more strategic mentorship model to young adults, 18-24, by partnering with corporate fellows and community colleges to ignite their potential.
“We’re not going back to normal. We’re going to go back to better.”