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The top 10 Heroes: Taking the next step

By Christie O'Reilly, CNN
updated 5:26 PM EST, Fri December 20, 2013
This year's top 10 CNN Heroes will receive free nonprofit training from the Annenberg Foundation.
This year's top 10 CNN Heroes will receive free nonprofit training from the Annenberg Foundation.
  • The Annenberg Foundation is focusing on supporting leaders in their philanthropy
  • It customized a special training program for CNN Heroes past and present
  • "The training gave us the confidence to know that we can take big leaps," one Hero said

(CNN) -- Five million dollars in five years.

That's what CNN Hero Razia Jan's foundation is setting out to raise for its girls' school in Afghanistan. The group will begin rolling out its first-ever large-scale fundraising campaign in January.

"It will create a fund so that the girls in Deh'Subz can go to school for free as long as the school exists," said Patti Quigley, executive director of Razia's Ray of Hope Foundation. "This will have a huge impact on their future. It would be like investing in a girl for 13 years with one donation."

The funds will also help the group create a two-year program for the school's graduates to get certified in teaching, midwifery, computer training or tailoring.

A year ago, building a campaign of this magnitude would not have been possible for the group. With only Quigley and Jan handling the bulk of the work, they had little time to focus on the foundation's long-term plan.

This year, however, they were able to make significant changes thanks to a special training program created by the Annenberg Foundation, a leading supporter of nonprofits worldwide.

Last December, Jan and other top 10 Heroes from previous years, along with members from their organizations, attended the three-day intensive training designed to help the Heroes' nonprofits build a strong, sustainable foundation for long-term success. Annenberg provided the training -- known as Alchemy -- for free.

"We're here as a foundation to invest in visionary leaders so they can improve the quality of life for everyone, and these Heroes embody that perfectly," said Sylia Obagi, director of operations for the Annenberg Foundation.

The Heroes underwent a condensed version of the foundation's multiple Alchemy trainings, which typically take place over 13 months. Annenberg, which has trained more than 700 organizations, tailored the program for the Heroes, who often start small and lack background in running a nonprofit.

"Getting the (CNN) attention internationally, they're given a gift that cannot be allowed to go by the wayside," Obagi said. "Alchemy helps the Heroes leverage the affirmation and public attention of their work to benefit their organizations and put them on a path towards greater sustainability."

David Puckett, who travels to Mexico to provide prosthetic and orthotic care to people in need, translated what he learned at Alchemy into more consistent financial support for his group.

"(It) has broadened my view on how to cultivate and sustain relationships with donors," said Puckett, whose group in the first quarter of 2013 raised almost as much as its 2012 annual budget. "I have learned that sharing our mission's vision is not just about telling the story, but that it needs to go more in depth by telling the story with passion in order to involve the potential donor."

On the last day of the program, the trainers had one-on-one sessions with each organization and helped them develop a customized plan, prioritize their goals and commit to taking necessary actions toward achieving them.

After the training, participants worked for 90 days to implement specific goals. Each Hero then had a follow-up phone call with a trainer to review their progress.

Obagi said the trainers specifically commented about the "exceptional motivation" they experienced with the Heroes and that they worked very hard achieving many of the goals.

"When we compare them with the regular Alchemy group, they're completing their goals at higher rates," she said. "The steps they're taking, and the partnership they've developed with their board, are moving their organizations in the right direction."

Taryn Davis said Alchemy played a strong role in her group's growth this year. She and her American Widow Project nearly tripled the number of workshops and retreats they held for military widows in previous years.

"The training gave us the confidence to know that we can take big leaps," Davis said. "They made us be open in our strong suits and our weaknesses. Hearing from other Heroes that their struggles were similar to ours really helped me and our team realize they're not just an issue in our organization."

Carolyn LeCroy expanded her organization internationally this year, which she attributes to a lot of what she learned at Alchemy. Her Messages Project, which helps children stay connected to their incarcerated parents through video messages, recently filmed messages with mothers in a Malawi prison and delivered them to their children.

"The trainers, speakers and interaction, with the feedback we received, made this one of the best trainings I know I have been to," LeCroy said. "We walked away with stuff that was usable and practical. ... It not only showed us what we could improve on, but how to do it."

For Scott Strode's group, which provides free athletic activities and a supportive community for ex-addicts in Colorado, the training helped them bring on new board members with the experience and background needed to scale the program into new communities.

"In the spring and early summer, we'll be opening in Orange County, and we've tried to do it very thoughtfully," he said. "Without the training, we may have run at a lot of different opportunities and spread ourselves thin."

In addition to the invaluable guidance, many participants were able to build friendships and network with fellow Heroes.

"Just being in a room with present and past Heroes who are making a difference was an honor," said Marie Da Silva, whose school in Malawi provides free education for AIDS orphans. "Apart from working nonstop, we had many laughs and an opportunity to meet each other on a personal level, knowing more about each other's work from their hearts."

This year, Annenberg is again providing its free Alchemy training as part of the award package for the Top 10 Heroes. Along with a group of past Heroes, they will attend the seminar next month at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

The group will be treated to a special evening event under the Space Shuttle Endeavour, which is on display at the Science Center, and an astronaut will address the Heroes.

"The kind of vision, aspiration and dreams the individuals who built the shuttle have to have embodies what the Heroes represent as well," Obagi said. "It will be a fabulous night of inspiration that makes us rethink the importance of community service and how to give back, and how rewarding it is when we do."

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