Arthur Pearson
Home | Gutsy Leaders | Stories of Gutsy Leaders | Arthur Pearson
Arthur Pearson

President & CEO, Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center

For Arthur Pearson, spending time outdoors has always been a big part of his life. And a focus on the great outdoors is a big part of why he chose Dartmouth College as his alma mater. And it's also a big part of why he now finds himself serving as President of Boston's Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center (TIOBEC).

Arthur came to Dartmouth by way of Philadelphia, growing up in a family of five boys. "I've loved exploring the natural world from very early on," he reveals. "Especially the ocean." At age 16, Arthur had his first encounter with Outward Bound, taking a course that changed his outlook on life. "It broke me out of my upper-middle-class, sheltered suburb. I didn't realize how sheltered I was until I met all these people from different walks of life," he says. "It really rang my bell. I always wanted to go back."

Breaking Out through Outward Bound

While at Dartmouth, Arthur was able to realize that ambition by becoming involved in Hurricane Island Outward Bound School in Maine. "I never considered working anywhere but Hurricane Island," he says. Upon graduating with a degree in English Literature, he worked there for eleven years, holding various positions as an instructor and field supervisor on wilderness expeditions, professional development for corporations, service for youth at risk, and urban and school-based programming. His last assignment for Hurricane Island was to help found one of Outward Bound's first urban centers in the U.S., the Baltimore/Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound Center. (The other two were at Boston's Thompson Island and New York City.)

It was when he was promoted to Director of the Baltimore/Chesapeake Bay center that Arthur realized he needed to make a change. "I was in an administrative job for the first time, and for the first time I fully understood the Peter Principle," he says, referring to a 1969 best-seller that claims that employees in a hierarchy rise to their level of incompetence. "I realized I didn't know anything about running a small business."

Embracing the Enemy

He decided to do something about it. "For 14 years, I took a sabbatical in the for-profit sector," is how he puts it. He began by enrolling in Harvard Business School. "I felt like I was embracing the enemy," he smiles, "but it really was spectacularly useful training." Upon earning an MBA with distinction in Finance, he became involved in the utilities industry, ultimately rising to Vice President of Energy Services Group in Rockland, Mass. "It was a great adventure. I got to work with a lot of remarkable business leaders," he says.

Still, it was always at the back of his mind that he would one day return to the nonprofit sector. He began his road back at the place where his career path began: by volunteering as a trustee at Hurricane Island Outward Bound School.

He had been active with Outward Bound in a volunteer capacity for five years, when the opening at TIOBEC presented itself. A drastic a mid-career industry change held a lot of risk. But Arthur has never been one to back away from challenges. "I had promised myself I would get back into nonprofit," he says. "If not now, then when?"

For this lover of the sea, it helped that his Outward Bound center was located on Boston Harbor.

Lessons in Risk & Teamwork

The Outward Bound Center on Thompson Island was founded with a mission of using challenge and adventure to pull the most at-risk students into experiences that develop character, leadership, and teamwork.

The island itself has a 178-year history as a learning center. The first school for at-risk youth was established here in 1833. In 1934, the current footprint of the 204-acre facility was established, with improved accommodations and new dorms, kitchen and dining facilities, and staff housing. In 1975, Outward Bound was introduced into the curriculum, but the organization did not begin operating the center until 1988. It was then that TIOBEC was formally established.

Not surprisingly, bringing change to an organization with such a long history wasn't easy. But when he joined in 2005, Arthur immediately recognized the need to shift TIOBEC's focus to include academics as one of its core strengths. He drew on the skills he had acquired at Harvard and in the for-profit sector to create a strategic plan that would accomplish this goal. "We needed to run the island like a business. We are mission based, with specific outcomes as specified by our customers," is how he describes it. "It's remarkable, the genuine teamwork that has emerged among the field, the administration, and the trustees. Everyone rallied around the new strategic direction to make it work, not knowing for sure what the outcome would be."

Fortunately most of all for the students served, the focus on integrating academics and character development has had tremendous success. Today, the island serves 6,500 students annually, including more than 3,000 critically at-risk students from Boston's Brighton, Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury neighborhoods. Third-party evaluations have shown that TIOBEC far outperformed comparable programs statewide in changing behaviors that demonstrate academic engagement, initiative, communications skills, and relations with peers and adults.

In addition, confidential interviews and surveys of teachers in schools that refer students to TIOBEC indicate that these students demonstrate a strong alignment with in-school curriculum and objectives, increased student engagement with academics, and improved teamwork, character, and leadership development.

Student focus groups support these findings, indicating that the kids themselves achieve a more concrete grasp of academic concepts and principles, as well as a greater appreciation of themselves and the value of collaboration, and a greater awareness and understanding of the natural world.

About the Programs

TIOBEC programs run from late April through the end of October and serve students from the fourth grade through high school. About 60% are engaged in one- or two-day programs that use outdoor activities tied directly to standards-based learning. TIOBEC also runs a five-week summer learning program that students attend daily, a 12- to 14-day sea kayaking and sailing program, and a job-readiness training program for high schoolers. In all of these programs, students learn teamwork, as they work together to accomplish tasks in what Arthur terms, "an environment that is unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and challenging."

TIOBEC also remains active during the off-months, as TIOBEC staff works with participating schools to follow up on the previous season's field expeditions or to prepare for these expeditions in the year ahead.

All TIOBEC programs are supported by user fees and tuition, philanthropic support, and the income earned by providing team-building services to corporate clients, as well as outdoor events and conferences to a wide range of corporate, academic, and government customers.

Support from the Community Advisory Group

Like all nonprofits, TIOBEC faced a challenge in 2008, when "the economic sky fell in," as Arthur puts it. He was inspired, however, by the leadership example of Harriet and Alan Lewis, co-chairs of Grand Circle Foundation, who have supported TIOBEC with contributions of more than $3 million since 1992. Determined to help their long-time partner organization weather the storm, Harriet and Alan stressed the importance of making tough decisions and acting on them in difficult times. "Making changes to implement new programming, especially in the fall of 2008, was not easy," he says. "Having a mentor organization saying, 'Yes, it's tough—be tough,' helped."

Another resource he has found helpful are the fellow executive directors of nonprofits he has met as a member of Grand Circle Foundation's Community Advisory Group (CAG). "The support of others who are struggling with the same issues is of huge value," he notes.

"We're incredibly fortunate to have Arthur as part of the CAG," says Maury Peterson, Vice President of Grand Circle Foundation. "As a values-driven organization, Grand Circle has a lot in common with Thompson Island Outward Bound—and Arthur exemplifies our values with his passion for experiential learning and leadership."

His Vision for the Future

While Arthur is pleased with the direction TIOBEC is taking and the progress it has made, he still sees room for improvement. "We have more demand than we can supply," he says. So TIOBEC staff is working with Boston's school superintendent to find ways to accommodate schools that are currently on the waiting list.

And while he appreciates TIOBEC's setting amid salt marshes, meadows, and upland forests, he hopes to modernize the aging facility so it will "serve into its third century," which begins in 2033.

"We placed our bet with our brains, not just our heart," he says. "It required difficult changes to stick with the plan through difficult times. In retrospect, I'm glad we hung in there when it wasn't easy, because now we're able to serve for the sustainable future."  It's typical forward thinking from a businessman who honed his for-profit skills for the profit of kids in need.

Featured in our September 2011 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.