Sitting Down With Des Moines By Degrees' Foundation CEO, Emily Westergaard

Sitting Down With Des Moines By Degrees' Foundation CEO, Emily Westergaard


Iowa AMA is excited to host “Bingo and Beer Benefiting By Degrees” next month at Flix Brewhouse for a night of BINGO and trivia to benefit the By Degrees Foundation. As we get ready for the big event, we wanted to share a little more about this great organization. We sat down with Emily Westergaard, CEO of the By Degrees Foundation, and asked her to share more with our members.

Check out her interview below, and make sure to register to save your seat!

Tell us a little bit about the foundation. How was it formed? How long has it been around? Who does it impact?By Degrees logo

By Degrees was founded in 1990 as an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization as the Des Moines I Have a Dream Foundation,​​​​​​​ and originally operated as an affiliate of the national I Have a Dream network. Our original goal has remained the same after almost three decades: help more Des Moines students graduate from high school and go on to receive postsecondary education.

Since our founding, we have worked to increase high school graduation and postsecondary readiness rates in Des Moines’ most underserved communities. We originally operated using a cohort model (used from 1990 to 2018), which identified and supported small groups of students throughout their entire academic careers, providing resources and programming to meet their needs in preparation for the future. We worked with and supported these students throughout high school and then providing them with postsecondary tuition assistance.

Using the original model, we launched three cohort programs of around 45 students at a time:

  • Moulton Elementary 5th graders in 1990
  • Homes of Oakridge 1st graders in 1996
  • King Elementary 1st graders in 2006

In the spring of 2018, our King Elementary cohort of students graduated from high school. Of the students who maintained contact with our program, 95% graduated from high school and 70% began postsecondary journeys in the fall of 2018. Support for our graduated cohort students remains strong, regardless of where they are in their postsecondary and post-graduation journeys.

You were affiliated with the "I Have a Dream Foundation". Why did you choose to become a local organization?

On December 5, 2018, we disaffiliated from the national network. We chose to become a local organization in order to better customize our programing to meet the needs of our students, and create local solutions to fit the central Iowa community. Through the years, our model has expanded from helping 50 students at a time, to whole schools of students, and we’re now able to support over 1,000 students in the Des Moines community. As we add more schools, this continues to grow.

Our new name, By Degrees, reinforces our belief that incremental changes can have a significant long-term impact on a child’s future. Through disaffiliation and this name change, we believe we are better able to serve the Des Moines community as a local and independent nonprofit focused on a future-ready approach to education.

We also love the name, because we recognize the kind of significant, long-term impact for each student that we aim for does not happen suddenly. It happens in hundreds of small increments—or by degrees.

How long have you been with By Degrees? What drew you to the organization?

I joined the organization in 2010, and knew quickly that this role was the perfect fit for me. Every day, I get to use my skills and experience in fundraising, community organizing and nonprofit management, to ensure more kids have life-changing educational opportunities, just like I did. Education is incredibly important to me personally as well as professionally. I was born and raised in Des Moines and graduated from North High School. I attended Grinnell college, which was possible because I had incredible mentors and teachers in middle and high school that helped me navigate the complex path making Grinnell College possible for me.

​​​​​​​What should we watch for in 2019 for By D​​​​​​​egrees?

​​​​​​​We are very excited to begin expansion into North High School, where our kindergarten through 8th graders attend high school, and pursue opportunities to expand into additional elementary schools. We believe breaking down the systemic cycle of poverty is best achieved through business and community partnerships that benefit more students and families, and are focused on affecting change through whole neighborhoods.

How can people support By Degrees?

We strive to make sure donors to By Degrees understand the impact their investments are making. Whether it’s a gift of $20 or $20,000, we want every donor to know how we’re making a difference for the students we serve. Our “Sponsor a Scholar” program (for gifts of at least $1,000), enables donors to make a deeper connection with the students we support. Through the Sponsor a Scholar program, donors will hear from our students regularly, and can participate in events at the school throughout the year. We also host two annual events. Our spring event, called Sweet Dreams, will be on April 30th. More info on events and donation information is available at

What kind of volunteer opportunities are there?

We are currently developing volunteer opportunities and encourage people to reach out to us as interested.

Are there other ways to get involved?

We are always looking for energetic people to join our event committees! We hold two large events throughout the year and love to get more members of the community involved. If you’re passionate about education and enjoy a good party, reach out!

Is there anything else we didn't ask that you'd like to share with our readers?

I’ll leave you with a quick statistic: Research shows that $500 in a college savings account makes a student three times more likely to attend college and four times more likely to graduate. This fact led us to develop our unique College Savings Account program, where all students at Findley Elementary have the chance to earn up to $200 per year into their own CSA through meeting personal, academic, and family milestones. We know that $500 (or $2,000 if they stay in our program for all 13 years) won’t pay for all postsecondary costs, but we know it’s enough to start the conversation.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

About Emily: Emily Westergaard is the CEO of the By Degrees Foundation (formerly called the Des Moines I Have a Dream Foundation), which works to ensure more kids graduate from high school and pursue education after high school. As the chief professional officer of the organization, Emily has led the development of an innovative new model for program delivery called the Dreamer Academy. Launched in 2014, the Dreamer Academy is the first of its kind in the nation to partner with public schools and create long-term, sustainable, and proactive support for students in under-served neighborhoods, and to pair th​​​​​​​at support with comprehensive financial capacity building and college savings accounts.

Emily has over 15 years of experience fundraising and managing programs within community organizations and higher education institutions. She has a Masters in Public Administration from Drake University, her Bachelor’s in International Development from Grinnell College, and spent her first few years after college as the Research Associate at the Desert Research Foundation in southern Africa. Emily is in the current Leadership Iowa class, a co-chair for Neighbors for Growth, which is working to pass a local option sales tax in Des Moines, and volunteers with United Way, Polk County Early Childhood Iowa and the John Stoddard Cancer Center. She’s also a Girl Scout Troop Leader.

03/08/2019 3:34 PM |Add a comment
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