education

The Business of Giving Visits the Offices of First Book

Better Than Most is a regular feature of The Business of Giving examining the best places to work among social good businesses and nonprofit organizations. 


Denver: Today, we will be heading down to our nation’s capital and to the offices of First Book, a nonprofit social enterprise that provides new books, learning materials and other essentials to children in need. We will begin with their President and CEO, Kyle Zimmer, and then hear from the other members of the staff about the secret sauce that makes First Book a special place to work.

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Kyle Zimmer and Denver Frederick

Kyle: Culture of the organization is paramount because it will affect everything you do… and a lot of things that you can’t do. It’s been important to us from the day we opened our doors. I believe strongly in team leadership. I don’t believe that having a single lone wolf at the helm of an organization is a healthy strategy; I don’t think it is a sustainable strategy. And so for starters, we have a team of four people at the top of the organization who are really co-equals in running it. In addition, we really work hard to elevate entrepreneurial thinking and to attract entrepreneurs into the organization

Jennifer:  I’ve been given opportunities to be challenged and to really manage up. So to do things that I’ve never had the opportunity to do before and really show and prove myself as a professional, and I think that’s really special and not every organization gives their employees an opportunity to do that.

Michael: The thing about First Book that always has me coming back for more is it’s kind of like coming to a playground of challenges every day and hanging out there with your friends. And so, under the big umbrella of getting more books out into the world, there are all of these smaller umbrella challenges, and smaller problems and issues and tasks to go through, whether it’s how do we get books to rural areas more effectively, whether it’s how do we let our network talk to each other so that they’re using our books more effectively or how do we make it easier for everybody in the US or people abroad to get books. There’s always this sense of there’s another great challenge, there’s another thing to work on, and you’ve got a lot of cool, interesting, smart people to roll up your sleeves with and try to figure them out.

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Dan: And after we hit a great milestone, we’ll pop some champagne, we’ll eat and we’ll laugh and have a good time, and then we clean up and we get right back to climbing that hill. So I think it’s critically important that you’re able to come to a job that challenges you, that has a great mission, but also allows you to have a good time.

Paula:  I’ve been at First Book for almost 10 years already, and one of my favorite things about the organization is how fearless we are and how we don’t settle for things that we have already achieved. We keep looking for more. We set challenges and goals, but once we have achieved those, we look for more.

Anna: But we really are trying to meet the goals of that corporate partner and the goals of First Book. So as we grow and change and the partner grows and change, we want to make sure that we’re fitting in and making the best out of all of the goals and the needs of both parties.

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Jennifer: So in every single performance evaluation that I’ve had at First Book, my manager has given me the opportunity to talk about my performance and how I feel about it, but also talk about their performance and how I feel about their management style, what’s working for me and what’s not working for me, and what they can do better to make sure that I feel supported, to make sure that I feel successful, and to make sure that I’m challenged and see a future for me here at First Book. So that, I think, is really important to me. It makes me feel valued in the same way that each one of our members feel valued.

Dan: I ask them questions like “What is your professional Shangri-La when it comes to work environment?” “Would you prefer to work in an office alone or with other folk?” “Can you make a joke or take a joke?” These are things that are important to the culture here, so these are questions that I’m constantly asking candidates when their potentially looking for jobs, including “Why First Book? Why would you want a job here?”

Roxana: I think that’s the kind of environment that we come to everyday that makes it really easy to come to work, and I think we get to celebrate it with traditions that we sort of look forward to. I’m going to say one that I enjoy a lot just because I think it defines, for me, First Book – it’s our Halloween celebration. Because we go all out, people get very creative and very competitive about “What are we going to do for Halloween? Because we have to come up top. We’re going to have to really rock it this year.” And people are so committed to the work that they find ways to put thematic/themes into their costumes and just really have a lot of fun, so that makes coming to work really, really special.

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Paula: We not only do that through our program such as the Stories For All program in which we try to bring to schools titles that speak to minorities and different groups of people, but we also do a lot of that within the organization. Wherever you look in the offices here in Washington, you’re going to see a diverse group of people from different backgrounds, and First Book does a great job of making them feel inclusive, included in every single thing that we do as an organization.

Chandler: I was going to talk about work life balance, which maybe I don’t achieve so well all the time, but, in a way , I kind of love that because work life balance sort of implies that the thing that you do during the day is somehow other than who you are at core. And I think for me and I think for a lot of us here, I get a lot of my identity out of this organization and who we are in terms of the work that we’re doing together.

 

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Chandler: I think one thing that I’m really proud of with regard to our culture is really trying to encourage a culture of innovation. I think that a lot of groups do that and they tend to focus on good innovative ideas that work, which is great, but we also really try to celebrate good innovative ideas that fail.

The way we do that is something called the First Book Brick Award and our Brick Wall Award, sort of illustrating the fact that we know that sometimes you have a great idea and for whatever reason, you hit a brick wall and it doesn’t work. But the thing that we want to celebrate is the people that have ideas that really are passionate about them. They think about ways to lay them out. They don’t let a fear of failure stop them from sort of pushing the boundaries of creativity, pushing the limits of what we usually do, challenging conventions that we might always have held in the past. So by purposefully calling out once a year the best ideas that failed, we really try to encourage everyone to not let the fear of failure prevent them from trying that thing that might really propel us forward.

Denver: I want to thank Joyce Johansson who helped organize my visit and to all those who participated, Anna Anderson, Chandler Arnold, Jennifer Cobb, Michael Jones, Dan Stokes, Roxana Barillas and Paula Neira. Podcast, transcript and pictures of the participants in the office of the First Book are all up on denverfrederick.wordpress.com

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The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at http://www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving

The Business of Giving Visits the Offices of Year Up

Better Than Most is a regular feature of The Business of Giving examining the best places to work among social businesses and nonprofit organizations. 


Denver: One of the most popular guests we’ve had on the show was Gerald Chertavian, the Chief Executive Officer of Year Up. And this evening, you’ll be going up to their headquarters located in the financial district of Boston. We’ll start with John Bradley, their Chief Operating Officer who will tell us about Year Up and then we’ll hear from other members of the team.

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John: So Year Up is going into year 17-plus. The great news is the mission is as we started the mission. It is very much about making sure that we are an organization that is really effective at taking opportunity to youth, giving them the opportunity to have access to great learning, great internship opportunities with a guide towards better employment, and an opportunity to pursue educational outcomes that they deserve and so rarely get.

BobI think there’s a unique culture here at Year Up. I think it’s unique because we’re a mission-driven organization and one of the things that’s really important, especially as we get bigger and we scale up, is that we want all of the employees connected to our students, so some level of student experience. I think that helps to drive a lot of the culture here. So you see around the room, you’d see things like core values. The core values in all the conference rooms and around the workplace, but they’re also in the classrooms with the students, so we’re all collectively kind of living by those

JonathanThe last thing I’ll mention is that having come from a public sector where mentorship is kind of ad hoc or it doesn’t always happen, I think having a culture where it’s really emphasizing, for our students, having mentors but also providing not just feedback, but having great managers who are able to be mentors and help me deepen my knowledge and skill set and my capacity to be a thought leader in the field. I really appreciated just getting a diverse set of more people from different backgrounds that I’ve come from being able to really help build my capacity to be better at what I do.

Elaine: All the staff really are very, very focused together on our mission and on our students. And the reason why that happens I believe, is because every staff, whether you’re an executive director or on the marketing team, traditionally non-direct service type roles, we still have roles involved with students, so all of us are still mentoring students, coaching students on a daily, weekly basis. And so whenever those tough moments come in where tough decisions need to be made, the students are kind of our north star, so we’re always able to kind of go back to what is best for the students, what decision would be most in line with our core values, how do we really live out what we are teaching our students to do. That’s where feedback really comes into place. If we’re teaching our students about how to give and receive feedback in a productive way then we, as staff, also have to live that.

Jose: One of the things that really stood out to me when I first did the program as a student was how fully vested and committed the whole staff was and what a really family environment it was. In the beginning, for me it was almost unreal. I almost asked myself “Is this serious?”  I caught myself asking “What’s the catch?” But as I went along with the program I really started to notice that everyone really cared. Everyone really wanted to see me succeed. Everybody really wanted to give me the tools that I didn’t necessarily have coming into the program to take into corporate America.

Tyra: For me the feedback is just evident every single day, how important and intentional it is. It can happen in the elevator running into the CEO and saying “Hey, what feedback do you have for me?” Or “We’re rolling this initiative out, what do you think about it?” So really being prepared to offer the thoughts and feedback on that in the moment. We live on Plus/Deltas for every single meeting, group function. We talked about it constantly, consistently. We even have it in the calendar as “It’s feedback week. Make sure you’re giving someone feedback.” I think what’s incredible about Year Up is the fact that we do it with our students once a week in a big room setting, in a big circle and it’s given publicly to really ensure accountability. I as a staff member, I can get feedback from a student of “This is what you did well this week and this is where you really didn’t hit the mark.” Then I have to own that and sit in that at the moment and just listen and absorb and not respond because that’s our feedback model.

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Year Up Wall

John: There’s a phrase that we use and we rely on, and the phrase is, “We don’t care what you know until we know how much you care.” It sounds a little bit trite but, honestly, there’s a lot of work here that isn’t rocket science and we can train and help people in. What we can’t do is help people get mission-connected. We can’t help them sort of like this culture. It is very different from anywhere I’ve ever been. It’s excitingly different, but it doesn’t work for everybody. And it’s important to make sure that we get people who are effective, efficient, productive, and excited in this environment.

Bob: It probably starts with the mission. You’ve got to be mission-aligned, but then it’s also what you bring from a functional and expertise perspective. We go through a very rigorous process to vet candidates. They actually meet with students. They meet with other staff members. So there’s probably four or five different interview cycles that we go through to vet a person and make sure that they’re aligned. We have metrics, we measure folks in terms of their performance and how they do with this on-going feedback. Those are really important pieces of the process.

Elaine: The first is performance review. I first started working at Year Up seven years ago and up until that point, I had never had a performance review that felt useful to me. It was always kind of, “You’re doing great. Keep doing what you’re doing.” “Okay, great!” It was just kind of checking a box. My first performance review at Year Up I really remembered it because it was about 12 pages of feedback for me, that was very useful, it was very specific. As Tyra said we try to be balanced,  but we also try to be specific and we try to make sure that it’s coming from a caring place. This was feedback from not only my manager, it was from people that reported to me, it was from peers on other teams. And I really, in looking at the quality of the comments and the spirit of the comments felt like each person took it so seriously. Spent a lot of time to offer me feedback of “What can I tell Elaine that’s going to make her a stronger leader, a stronger employee that’s going to help her in her career.”

Jose: For me I would say is that on any given day you can have our CEO, Gerald, walk by your desk, come shake your hand, ask you about your weekend, how your day is going. And to me I haven’t really worked for any CEOs like that that were reachable and would want to talk to you and have a conversation about you genuinely. So I think that’s something great that he does, it’s a real tone setter. I think it definitely gets everybody else in a great mood and definitely motivates everybody else to kind of reach out to different people, walk around the building, talk to somebody on the elevator, at lunch go for walks, things of that nature.

Terence: It almost feels like it’s on-going but it’s all in the spirit of developing the employee. I’ve been here for almost six years and it’s like you haven’t seen it all, you haven’t done it all because it’s just this continuous cycle of improvement and investment. And because of this organization just keeps growing, there’s always opportunity. You’ll never kind of get settled because the company is always moving and shifting in different ways that you never thought possible.

Tyra:  There are areas about diversity when you think about our staff make up and hiring where we know we can do better, we’re not where we want to be, but we don’t shy away from even talking about that, being transparent around “This is what diversity looks like on a leadership level.” “This is what our board looks like.” “This is what we want it to look like.” This is our strategy to get to where we want to be.” We don’t shy away from those conversations. I think what’s interesting too is we treat our staff and students with the same respect as well as around how important diversity is and for us to engage in important dialogues.

John: The other thing we do, and it’s not strictly related to recognition but it helps people feel recognized, is we still have a sabbatical program. So everybody who is with us for six years gets to take either a four-week or an eight-week, and some of it is paid and some of it is unpaid, sabbatical. And the only requirement is it needs to– and you can think creatively about how you get there but somehow, it needs to be connected to the mission of helping opportunity and youth connect better with talent pipeline. And we do it not only the first six years, but every six years you’re here.

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Denver: I want to thank Tiffany Perez for organising my visit and to all those who participated: Bob Dame, Jonathan Hasak, Elaine Chow, Jose Castillo,  Terrence Chan, Tyra Anderson-Montina and John Bradley. You can hear this audio again, read the transcript and see pictures of the participants in the Year Up offices just by going to denverfrederick.wordpress.com where we will also have a link to my full interview with Gerald Chertavian, their CEO.


The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving

David Wippman, President of Hamilton College, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between David Wippman, President of Hamilton College, Aron Ain, Member of the Board of Trustees, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.

151211_hml_wippman_015cropDenver: There hasn’t been a Broadway show that has captured the public’s imagination in quite the same way that “Hamilton”  has.  And, Oh, about 250 miles northwest of Broadway, in Clinton, New York, there’s another Hamilton.  And this one has captured the attention of scholars, parents and students. It’s Hamilton College, named after the subject of that Broadway musical. And it’s a pleasure for me to welcome to the show the President of Hamilton College, David Wippman, as well as a member of their Board of Trustees, Aron Ain. Good evening, gentlemen, and thanks for being with us this evening!

David: Thanks so much for having us.

Aron: Yes, thank you.

Denver: David, for those listeners who may not be familiar with Hamilton College, tell us about the school and its history.

David: So, we like to say that before there was the musical, there was the college, and I’d say it’s about 200 years before. The college actually started as a project of a man named Reverend Samuel Kirkland in 1793.  And he set up an academy that was intended to educate the children of white settlers in the area, and the children of Oneida Indians. He went to George Washington for support for his educational plan and got his support, and that of Alexander Hamilton, who eventually lent his name to the college. The three chartered it as a college in 1812, and not too many years ago, we celebrated the bicentennial. So it’s a residential liberal arts college of about 1,900 students located in Clinton, New York.

Denver: Which is where?

David: Clinton, New York is about four hours from New York City. It’s about an hour, a little less, east of Syracuse.

What need-blind does is make it possible for anyone to apply to the college, whether they have an ability to pay the full tuition–or any tuition, in fact, or any fees–to go to the college.

Denver: Aron, let me ask you about something that is quite unique to Hamilton. There are not many colleges and universities that are “need-blind” when it comes to admission… three, perhaps four dozen in the entire country. What exactly does it mean to be need-blind and how did the school ultimately come to this decision?

Aron: Sure. Hamilton has always been a college that really takes very seriously its role in making itself available to students of all backgrounds, all abilities.  And as you know, colleges today are quite expensive. And so the college– part of its ethos– is that it wants to be as open and available to as many people as possible. So, what need-blind does is make it possible for anyone to apply to the college, whether they have an ability to pay the full tuition– or any tuition, in fact, or any fees– to go to the college. So the admissions department does not take into account whether someone has the ability to pay to go to school when we’re making decisions about who can come to the school.

Now, this is not easy to do. It really took the deep support of lots of people who love Hamilton, including the trustees and parents and staff and faculty and a broad group of supporters– that raised over $40 million, starting in 2010– to go and create an endowment to be able to make it possible for Hamilton to be need-blind. And today, Hamilton is completely need-blind. Anyone who gets in and has a demonstrated need… that they need financial support… can come and be part of Hamilton College

Denver: That’s absolutely fantastic. And this all happened spontaneously at a meeting here in New York at the Yale Club?

Aron: That’s right. So it was a dream of the leadership. The staff, the executive leadership of the school, the professionals, as well as members of the board wanted to do it and came up with how much it was going to cost.  And it was determined that it was going to cost about $2 million a year to be need-blind– the additional financial aid that was required.  And if you think about an endowment, it meant to raise about $40 million of endowed funds.  We thought how long would that take. And at that meeting, members of the board of trustees, one by one, raised their hand and said, “Let’s not wait. I’ll pledge this; I’ll pledge that; I’ll pledge this!” And before the meeting was over, there was enough money raised to get the need-blind started immediately. Really a wonderful moment!  And really a reflection of what the values of the school are!

Hamilton is preparing students for a lifetime of not just economic success and career success,… but we’re preparing them for lives of meaning and purpose, and that’s something that you can’t really put a price tag on.

Denver: Absolutely. That is a great moment in Hamilton history. Well, let’s talk a little bit, David, about the cost of college. As you know, in recent years people have questioned the value of a college education, and specifically, a liberal arts education. Accenture did a college graduate survey, and 51% of college graduates consider themselves to be underemployed. A Gallup poll recently came out indicating that 42% of Americans  believe college is not necessary for success.  That is a 13% drop from 2009. So, what do you make of these findings?  And what’s the case you would make today for getting a liberal arts education?

David: So, it may be true that college isn’t necessary for success, but I can tell you it’s an enormous advantage. And if you look at the data, what I think you’ll find is that there is a huge wage premium for anyone with a four-year college degree.  And the better the institution you attend, the more likely you are to benefit from that premium. I also would say to people, it’s probably a mistake to focus only on dollars and cents when you’re looking at return on investment. We are preparing students for a lifetime of not just economic success and career success, although we do do that, but we’re preparing them for lives of meaning and purpose.  And that’s something that you can’t really put a price tag on.

So, what I would say to parents or to students who are concerned about reports that you can’t do well with a liberal arts degree: The statistics don’t bear that out. Our graduates are doing great, and so are graduates of peer institutions. You may have to be a little bit more creative sometimes in your career search, but you are given the tools you need to succeed.  And you’re given the tools you need to have a really rich and productive life.

Denver: Very well said. And I think you’re also looking at nations who are looking at GDP and wondered how we ever got to the point where we measure the success of the nation based on GDP, and GDP alone. It really seems to be quite limited. Is the concept of a liberal arts education changing in the 21st century, where you are embedding engineering and computer science and so on, or is it still pretty much the classical one we all think of? (more…)

A Company’s ‘Social Promise’ Sends Kids to School

In November 2013, CommonBond, a company that offers low-rate refinancing of student loans, and Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit that builds schools in developing countries, launched a partnership: For each completed CommonBond loan, the firm will fund a year’s schooling for a Pencils of Promise student. In the next year the program will provide up to $1 million for the education of children in need.  In this segment, David Klein, CEO of the loan company, and Michael Dougherty, head of Pencils of Promise, discuss the “1-for-1” philanthropic approach and the ethos of “social promise” that undergirds CommonBond’s business model.

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