Kevin Priest has been involved in the leadership of youth and family service organizations since 2002. In Ocala, Florida he was the CEO of Arnette House between 2002 and 2010, an organization providing an emergency youth shelter, family counseling services, and fostercare group homes for several Florida counties. He subsequently took a position with Capital City Youth Services (CCYS) in Tallahassee, Florida from 2010 to 2020 and also was granted a Master’s degree in Executive Management from Northwestern University in 2016. Kevin is currently looking for his next opportunity to take a youth and family services organization to its next level in terms of funding and program management.
Kevin was born in Portsmouth, Virginia. Because he was born into a military family, he lived in several states growing up, including Florida for several years and then graduating from high school in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. After high school he joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in Frankfurt, West Germany. After his time in the U.S. Army, he went to Hastings College in Hastings, Nebraska, a private Presbyterian school and got his Bachelor’s degree in Human Services Administration and Sociology.
His first professional job was as a juvenile services officer in Omaha, Nebraska and he held that position for five years. During that period of time, he also got his Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Nebraska on Omaha. Then he became a program services director for a group home for adolescent boys. He only had that job for about six months because then he joined the FBI and became a special agent for about two and a half years. After his time with the FBI, he served on the Federal Task Force back in Omaha, Nebraska, was offered a job in Las Vegas, Nevada, and shortly thereafter he ended up moving to Florida and began leading youth and family service organizations.
Where did the idea for your career come from?
My first opportunity working for youth and family service organizations was as the CEO of Arnette House beginning in 2002. That organization started primarily through a tragedy that took place when a local family in Ocala, Florida had lost their teenage son to drug abuse. The community was small and tight enough that they knew the family really well and a lot of monetary donations were made to the family and the family wanted to contribute that money to start an organization to provide services to youth and families. Initially, it was just youth, but then it grew from there into family services such as counseling.
When I worked with Capital City Youth Services (CCYS) in Tallahassee, that started as a small organization and it provided similar services to Arnette House. Both of the organizations launched a family services network across the state of Florida, so a lot of the services and contracts were the same. Both organizations received much of the same federal money and both worked with United Way.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Every day is different because it depends on what major challenges you are trying to work on. With CCYS, we had multiple programs that we were offering to the community and there tere different challenges with each one. We had an emergency shelter, the individual and family counseling programs, a transitional living program for older youth, a street outreach program offering services to homeless kids on the streets, the SNAP – stop now and plan which was working primarily with younger kids and teaching certain skills to help them to develop more positive relationships with their parents.
How do you bring ideas to life?
It is really about strategy, particularly when it comes to developing programs. I’m not big into replicating what’s already being done. I’d rather look at what the need is in the community itself and be able to address the particular need. Rather than replicate what someone else is already doing, I would rather collaborate with an organization and work together to meet the needs of the community.
New ideas come from identifying what the needs are and then doing what makes the most sense in addressing that need. It involves getting a lot of information from other people, not being close minded. You need to have those conversations with other people to get their ideas, see the vision they have, and work together.
What’s one trend that excites you?
One particular trend we are seeing a lot more now is addressing the needs of older adolescent youth, particularly when it comes to making sure they finish their education, giving them opportunities to extend their education, making sure they have someone coaching them into opportunities in college and job training.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I just don’t ever shut things off. I am always thinking in my mind how to make things better. It is my personality. If I don’t have an answer right away, I will continue to think of different ideas to address a problem or a challenge.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Slow down and think about your decisions before you enter into some type of action. What your knee-jerk reaction initially would be is not necessarily the right decision. Slow down your thought process and try to work through certain ideas as you address problems and not overreact.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
There is not one particular thing where I feel I have the right answer and everybody else is wrong. In my field, if you are going to be successful it’s by learning how to work together and to provide a solution to a problem that is collaborative in nature.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I constantly reevaluate. I continue to look for ways to improve or transform an idea, a program, or a service, continue to measure the positive effects to the community, and address areas that are not working very well. I continue to refine what a program is offering because over time the population that you serve will change and their needs may be different. It is not going to fit everybody perfectly so you want to address the changing needs.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
A helpful strategy is building relationships within the community itself and with community leaders and trying to strategize as to who can help develop needed programs. You start to build an energy and people will get behind it. The more you can define your vision, the more ideas you start getting from the community itself. When you start to implement the ideas of people from the community, they start to really feel like they are part of the process.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
It is a challenge to try to find the right fundraising opportunities. When I was working with CCYS, we had a hard time creating a great event that people would look forward to. But we found a volunteer group that had started their own event which was called the Tally Awards and it got to be so big that it became too much for the volunteers to handle. They wanted to give their event to an organization that could benefit from it, and we took on the Tally Awards and it was fantastic for quite a few years.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
There is a need for more job training and independent living skills area for older adolescent youth. This population needs more coaching and support. We need more collaboration in this area. An organization that wants to take on this population and still connect them to the relationships they have and be able to case manage that, I think that would be a great thing.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I recently spent $100 recently on software to upgrade my laptop.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I have used customer relationship management software for fundraising efforts, specifically Raiser’s Edge and Blackbaud.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
The book that has been the most inspiring to me is Forces For Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits by Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant. I appreciated it’s all-encompassing approach as to how to take nonprofits to the next level, especially in means of strategy and creativity in addressing challenges that face nonprofit organizations.
What is your favorite quote?
“If it’s to be, it’s up to me.”
• Coming up with a strategic plan is important for any organization to measure your success and learn how to change your processes and improve.
• Collaboration is a huge positive for community organizations.
• When it comes to fundraising, you have to be strategic and look for ways to connect with the community.