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: For this edition of Better Than Most, we went out to Colorado Springs and to the headquarters of Junior Achievement USA, an organization that inspires and prepares young people to succeed. We’ll begin with their President and CEO, Jack Kosakowski, and then hear from some of the other members of the team.
Jack: And so, our culture is very much decentralized. I know when I hire folks that report directly to me, I say, “Hey. I’m hiring your brains, not your time,” and so there’s a bit of latitude that folks have in terms of being creative, in terms of how we accomplish our goals.
Lisa C.: From the very beginning we were literally founded to change the country. As people were coming in from the agricultural fields and needed skills to be able to take care of themselves in the more urban environments, we were giving them those jobs skills from the very beginning in 1919. We still are trying to find those ways today to make sure that what we’re offering is relevant, that the kids are learning by doing so that everything that they produce are real artifacts, not just sort of head knowledge, but actual life skills. We can change the world. We can literally change the world.
Hundreds of thousands of people across the country giving us their time, which sometimes is even harder to ask for than someone’s money. They go into the classroom and they give of themselves to the students. When you ask a lot of students, they don’t maybe always know who JA is but they’ll tell you all about this person who was in front of their classroom, who brought in all this world advice, and they could ask them how much they make. That’s like the number one question our kids ask, which is very embarrassing, but it tells you they want to know that practical information from this volunteer.
Lisa R.: But just to tag on to that, there are some testimonials that come in that are crushing, too. There really are. You’ll have kids who take this information that they learn in their classroom home because their parents can’t pay bills, or they’re homeless. Or they are having to give up something in their life because there’s not enough income to do something and if only their parents understood this lesson, maybe that would help their parents. It’s powerful stuff.
It’s a neat thing to be able to come to work and know that you are changing the lives of kids and helping them to “adult” and figure out how they’re going to fit into their community once they’re out of high school. And there are so many high school programs that don’t even touch that.
Hannah: I’m going to address: What’s your favorite thing to do at work and your favorite day of the year? I’m going to have to say it’s JA in a Day. I’ve done it twice so far and it really does give a lot of context behind what we do every single day here. But it’s an entire program that we’ll teach in a single day. So usually those programs are spread out through four to five weeks, for about an hour a day of each visit that they have, and we do it in one single day. S,o, there’s kindergarten programs up to high school and seniors. It’s just a really great time to really interact with the kids and see how well they connect with the materials that we have and be able to share our professional experiences of “this is what we do here, and this is how it relates to what you guys are learning about.”
Tami: I think the transparency, and the openness, and communication that we have, not only just driving thoughts, ideas out and down to our field markets but getting a buy-in if you will, and the ideas that bubble up from those local markets to us here at the headquarters to be able to have the resources to roll them out and get them to where they need to be.
It’s transparency across the board that “You know what? That’s not going to work in Boise, Idaho, but Atlanta, Georgia can absolutely do that.” We’ve got the whole spectrum of what needs to happen and what we see and the needs out there. But open conversations and the transparency and just being able to talk amongst ourselves – no idea is a bad idea – and it works.
Susan: Many of us who work for Junior Achievement were JA kids – I’m one of those. And so, I’m a product of JA and our programming. And so many of us walk around the building knowing exactly the impact that it makes because we’re living that impact. We also make sure that as many times as we can, that we engage with students. And so, someone mentioned earlier, like one day a year, the staff of the national office are invited to go into the classroom, use our curriculum, look those kids in the eye and see what questions they have, and work with our educators.
And I think lastly, I would also say that we work very hard also to then bring the students to our larger corporate events. For example, at our conferences, we will have students come and speak to us about the impact that we’ve had on their lives. And in many ways, we’re lucky to work for Junior Achievement because we teach students about how to manage your money. We teach students about how to be a productive worker in the workforce. We teach students about how to start up their business if they want. Those are all common sense things.
Ed: I think of the major reason why people stay at the organization kind of goes in cohort with what you brag to your friends about.
A couple of the things that immediately come to mind are: We have, in my opinion, a “we” versus a “me” focus.
A lot of that comes down to the trust in the relationships we have with each other, regardless of title, regardless of tenure. It’s really a thought leadership-driven organization. I think the end result is we, globally, can have an impact on millions of kids nationwide because of the power of our teams, not just the power of one.
There’s ongoing regular, consistent communication cross-departmentally around the organization. So, you’re eliminating the silos to where you understand how what I’m doing in finance may affect BI and their technology needs. Or I understand what her needs are – How can I correlate that with finance?
Lisa C.: We do have an operating agreement. I know that that’s probably not the best way to say culture, but I think that is because we’re a federated franchise, the operating agreement was a negotiation that was deciding what we agreed upon, truly agreed upon. We want our programming to look a certain way so that there’s a common branding. We want our programs to have certain characteristics. We want the kids to actually be doing things, not just sitting and listening to somebody speak.
There are those things that we agreed upon that come together to create our culture. And again, it’s all driven by the mission.
Tami: I have heard over the years, being a nonprofit and working with many corporate donors over the years, that maybe there was a donor or some money that was there that was not a fit.
That would have to be a very tough decision to turn that down knowing that that money sure could fund this technology project that we have, but it doesn’t fit into who we are as an organization or where we’re going, or the connection and the tie to the bigger picture comes into play.
Lisa R.: We had a great donor, a food product that was – they would have been a great partner, but what they wanted us to do just didn’t match what we do. And if we have mission creep, then we lose sort of some of our secret sauce.
Ed: I, myself am a “boomerang” with Junior Achievement USA and the headquarters, but my relationship with Junior Achievement goes back 15 years. So I was a trusted advisor for Junior Achievement, working with the finance team for six years where I prepared the organization’s Form 990 tax return. So I knew the ins and outs of what the organization was doing and how well they were doing it, and thoroughly enjoyed the mission and the passion behind it.
I left the organization and grew my skill set and have recently come back as the Chief Financial Officer. One of the reasons that I made this selection to come back here was twofold: One, the mission of the organization of serving the youth of our country and empowering those young people to own their economic success; and two, the people that live the mission behind it.
Susan: For our year-end celebrations, our talent team does a great job. One year, they took our conference room and turned it into like an ice cave. And so, you walked in the conference room, it felt like you were in an ice cave. And we were like drinking blue-colored sodas or whatever it was, and little snacks.
Did we have hundreds of thousands of dollars to throw against that event like some other organizations might? No, we didn’t. But did we have a great time and enjoy yourselves, just catching up with each other and having a fun time? Yes, we did. And so, I think JA has found some magic in trying to figure out how to make folks feel appreciated and recognize that they are appreciated without having a big budget buster, if you will, to do those kinds of things.
And we make a big deal around folks’ anniversaries. I’m always shocked at how many people have invested 20-, 30-, 40 years of their lives into this organization.
It’s really fabulous to see folks get up on stage, and our CEO says a little bit of something about what that individual has contributed to the organization. There’s typically something funny that we’re kind of like poking at that person for fun. But then everyone in the room is cheering for that individual and really showing appreciation of that individual’s tenure and contributions to the organization.
Hannah: When somebody wins, it’s the team’’ win. When somebody loses, it’s the team’s loss. We work so well together that it is something that – it’s like a perfect formula. It’s not really like we’re working as a department. We can collaborate with one another and we can share ideas, and all of us will come together to make sure that happens.
Denver: I would like to thank Ed Grocholski and Wendy King for organizing my visit and to all those who participated in this piece: Susan Luu, Hannah Henry, Tami Godsey, Lisa Riley, Ed Priem II, Lisa Connor. To hear this again, read the transcript or see pictures of the participants and the offices, just come visit denver-frederick.com, where we’ll have a link to my full interview with Jack Kosakowski, the President, and CEO of Junior Achievement USA.
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