Volunteerism in Perspective

 By Marty Johnson ’81

Marty Johnson '81

   Thanks to the AlumniCorps for organizing last month’s “Engaged At Every Age” (EAEA) Conference to explore volunteering from a variety of perspectives. While a schedule change prevented me from joining as a panelist, I enjoyed the chance to sit in on an afternoon panel.

   It triggered some thoughts about what I’ve learned over the last 30 years as a manager at Isles, a nonprofit community development and environmental organization based in Trenton that works with over 1,000 volunteers annually.  In addition, I serve as a volunteer with organizations statewide and nationally.  AlumniCorps asked me to share a few of those lessons here.

Volunteerism in Perspective

   Historians and social scientists write about voluntarism as a uniquely American concept. With over one million private, registered charities across the country, burgeoning numbers of Baby Boomers reaching retirement age, and millions in search of more “mission-driven” and meaningful lives, an entire industry of voluntarism has arisen. A Google search of Volunteer Opportunities offers over 15 million hits.

   No wonder that voluntarism often becomes an end goal. Questions like, “What’s a good volunteer opportunity?” often quickly move to a discussion of technique (Does the organization make it easy for volunteers? Do they manage them well? Are there clear, identifiable objectives, etc.?). Or the discussion will turn to the type of organization that works best for volunteers. At the EAEA Conference for example, some speakers suggested that small organizations are better for volunteers than big ones, “staff  driven” organizations are worse than “volunteer driven” ones, or that organizations that volunteers can really influence are better (at least for those from Princeton) than those you can’t influence.

   To me, this focus on technique or type of organization is a part of the picture, but not the main part. The real goal for organizations is to perform at the highest level in relation to the resources (money, volunteers, etc) flowing into them. The best organizations are those that focus on being the best organizations—not the best volunteer opportunity.

   What we hope, is that organizations can perform highly while also effectively involving volunteers—because volunteers add to their performance.

   In my experience, I have seen volunteers destroy organizations, and I have seen staff do the same. I have witnessed large organizations give volunteers better experiences than small ones. I’ve been a volunteer board member of a staff-driven organization (think Princeton University) that functions quite highly. And I have seen “smart” volunteers that tried to control organizations and systematically undermined them.

So what’s the best advice for those seeking to volunteer? 

1. Keep your eyes on the prize.

   Life is short, so try to find the best organizations working on the things you care about. “Best” organizations ask hard questions of themselves and others,  maintain continually improving systems to manage information (financial, contacts, volunteers, etc.), admit that which they are not doing, and strive to get upstream or to the “core” of the challenges they address.

2. Remain humble.

   You may or may not know what the organization should do. Be open to being wrong. Be open to how volunteers can get in the way. The art of managing nonprofit organizations is a relatively young specialty, and bringing your “business”-like approaches may not be what’s needed. We are all learning as we go.

3. Then ask about the techniques and types of organizations out there.

   There’s a place for this discussion. It’s just at the bottom of the list.


    Marty Johnson ’81 is President and Founder of Isles, Inc., a nonprofit that fosters self-help approaches to community development, education, energy efficiency and urban environmental restoration. (www.isles.org)

The Keystone Society – What Better Way!

by George Hackl ’55

Forward-thinking donors who include Princeton  AlumniCorps and Project 55 fellowships in their legacy planning comprise the heart of The Keystone Society. In order to become a member of the Keystone Society, one indicates in writing that they have made a planned gift to Princeton AlumniCorps. George Hackl ’55 is the Chair of the Development Steering Group and a charter member of the Keystone Society. As a charter member, George leads the way for others to help sustain and grow our impact.  

George Hackl '55

   Young Princeton graduates, one after another, followed John Fish and Chet Safian into inner city agencies in Chicago and New York to learn what programs—whether in education, housing, community or healing—work well to lift society. The graduates number in the thousands now, working in cities all around the country. They come from universities far beyond Princeton. We know there are many institutions in our society that don’t work well and these young people are finding out why, taking responsibility, and changing them. We need thousands more leaders just like them.

   I spent a good part of my retirement years with Project 55, encouraging and helping lead this work. It takes dedicated people. It takes organization. It takes money. I see how grateful these young people are for the experience, for the knowledge it brings to their future civic roles. I have heard many of them say, “Project 55 changed my life”, and I realize this has been the most significant part of my retirement years.

   Embracing this 20-year endeavor is the way many of our classmates responded to the questions “If not us, who? If not now, when?” And I ask myself, “What better way is there?” This has proved to be a remarkably successful journey.

   It is not a hard leap from there to ask: “How do we keep this going?” Our class has built a solid    organization. We have brought younger alumni and others onto the Board of Directors to perpetuate the process. There are   hundreds more volunteers around the country playing significant roles. These younger people are taking this work to a higher level under a new umbrella name, Princeton  AlumniCorps, serving graduates of all ages. The enthusiasm, the knowledge, the inspiration, even the name, The Princeton Project 55 Fellowship Program, are the heart of Princeton AlumniCorps.

   Time is running out for all of us. How do you keep this work going? What better way? Ann and I decided to make a bequest in my will to Project 55 and Princeton AlumniCorps to cover my annual contribution from interest payments.

   It’s a gift that will make a real difference and will build civic leadership indefinitely. What better way! A bequest celebrates what we have done and what we can continue to do long into the future. I hope you will join me in the Keystone Society.

To learn more about becoming a charter member of the Keystone Society, please contact Kathleen Reilly, Executive Director, at kreilly@alumnicorps.org.

Regional Updates

-Bay Area-

   The Bay Area is continuing its efforts to grow its program. Two new partner organizations, including the Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula, where Peter Fortenbaugh ’89 is the Executive Director, are currently interviewing applicants for fellowship positions next year. The local committee has also begun brainstorming possible seminars for 2011-12 fellows, and looks forward to continuing its partnership with Stanford’s SPIN and Harvard’s CPIC program for these events.


   Fellows, AlumniCorps supporters, alumni and local members of the class of 1955 recently attended a seminar at The Food Project, where they visited the organization’s greenhouse. Looking ahead, AlumniCorps and the Harvard Center for Public Interest Careers will be volunteering at CitySprouts’ school gardens in Cambridge, MA for a half day of service. Boston is always looking for new Project 55 partner organizations to increase the number of placements!  If interested, visit the Boston area page on the AlumniCorps website.   —submitted by Rebecca Nemec ’05


   Over the last few months, the Chicago Area Committee has continued to stay busy, organizing weekly seminars with the Northwestern and University of Chicago Public Interest Programs as well as regular events for fellows. In February, fellows explored the city’s emerging arts scene as part of the Chicago Arts District Gallery Night. On March 5, PP55 Fellows, mentors, and Area Committee members gathered at the home of Amanda Peluse ’02 to discuss, over wine and cheese, fellows’ experiences thus far. Finally, we’re excited to announce our upcoming joint AlumniCorps/Princeton Club of Chicago precept on “The Future of Education Reform in Chicago”, organized by Committee members Erica Jones ’06 and Stacy McAuliffe ’98. The precept will take place on May 17 and will feature a panel of local Princeton alumni active in the education sector. Executive Director Kathleen Reilly will be attending. —submitted by Aiala Levy ’07


   Two fellows have already signed on to be a part of the 2011-12 fellowship year in Connecticut, both at Norwalk Community Health Center. Two other organizations are currently interviewing applicants and Harry Berkowitz ’55 is hopeful that we’ll be able to continue to grow the program.

-New York-

   On March 23, Dr. R. Gordon Douglas ’55 moderated our seminar on Sustainable Food and Public Health. Panelists included Nancy Easton ’88, CoFounder/Executive Director of Wellness in the Schools. We also invited fellows from Harvard, Stanford and Dartmouth to participate in the seminar. On April 3, Mike and Lois Robbins ’55 hosted the first ever Princeton AlumniCorps Alumni Fundraising Phone-a-thon during which 136 successful calls were made. We are also looking forward to welcoming more fellows to New York and participating in our annual “Politics and the Press” seminar which will be moderated by the First Lady of Princeton AlumniCorps in New York, Judy Hole Suratt. —submitted by Kristen Smith ’03


   Carol Rosenfeld ’05 and Katie Thaeder ’09 have teamed up to strengthen the Philadelphia program. They met with the Princeton Club of Philadelphia in February and Carol has led a successful effort to recruit new partner organizations for the 2011-12 fellowship year. If you’re interested in volunteering in Philadelphia, visit the Philadelphia area page on the AlumniCorps website. 

-Washington, DC-

   After a workshop on “Career Next Steps” in January, the DC program is wrapping up its seminar programming with a string of content-based sessions, covering education reform, federal government service, and health care reform. In February, AlumniCorps Board Member and Managing Director of the National Council for Teacher Quality, Arthur McKee ’90,  joined Shantelle Wright of Achievement Prep Academy to discuss the challenges and promise of DC public education. In  March, fellows heard from a panel of alumni working across the federal government, and  in April, they’ll be joining a health economist at the Department of Health and Human Services and one of President Obama’s senior policy analysts at the Office of Health Reform to understand how the implementation of the Affordable Care Act is fairing one year after its passage. For our fellows, it’s like they never left Princeton precept!  —submitted by Kate Lewis-LaMonica ’08

Find out who our newest fellows are! Click here to see the list.

An Alumna with an Edge: An Interview with Jessica Brondo ’04

Jessica Brondo ’04 founded The Edge in New York in 2005, just over a year after graduating from the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.  While at Princeton, she tutored for the SAT for four years and took a position at a well-known SAT preparation company based in New York after graduating, until she founded The Edge.  The Edge is an elite international educational consulting company that specializes in test preparation and admissions counseling for students applying to US universities, grad schools, and private high schools.

Jessica Brondo '04

What is your previous involvement in volunteering and college preparation, and what first motivated you to found The Edge?

I have been volunteering all my life and have been tutoring since I was a sophomore in high school.  I’ve always loved teaching and continued tutoring and teaching SAT classes throughout my time at Princeton.  After I graduated, I worked for a different SAT prep company for a year as a Site Director.  That company only focused on the SAT and only offered classes and its methods and business practices were a little shadier than I would have preferred, so I ended up leaving to start The Edge with an honest approach to test prep and a motto that we can make students’ college dreams come true.  It was important to me to incorporate the values I learned from volunteering with V-Day and from my time with Princeton Against Cancer Together (PACT), which I founded at Princeton.

What tools and strategies do you use to improve students’ testing scores?

We start off with a StratEDGEy Session that pinpoints students starting scores and dream schools, and helps form a plan of the amount of points needed to improve, the best way to improve the scores (tutoring or classes or a combination), which test is more suitable (SAT v. ACT), and whether any modifications need to be made to a students transcript or extra-curricular activities.  Then during the test prep, we utilize wrong question journals, shorter study sessions to maximize retention, the making of notecards, and a gradual approach to score improvement through different levels of materials.

How have you seen your work impact students worldwide?

We really have had tremendous success with the program.  Our average score improvement for the SAT is 260 points and our average score improvement for the ACT is 4.5 points, which more than doubles those of most of our competitors.  Also, 100% of our students are accepted to one of their top 3 schools and getting those calls from excited students when acceptance letters come out is incomparable to anything else.

What motivated you to expand your work internationally?

A friend of mine from Princeton was working at the American School in London (ASL) and told me that the school was not renewing its contract with its existing test prep provider and were inviting other companies to come make presentations.  I flew over from New York, made the presentation, and 3 months later was invited to come to London to launch a new SAT prep course at ASL.  

What do you enjoy most about this work?

I love that fact that I get to work with students at such a transitional point in their lives and hopefully help them find outlets to showcase their passions and assist them in placing them at a school that is ideal for them.

What are your hopes for the future work and impact of The Edge?

We have been expanding our reach globally and I hope to launch a fellowship program for recent graduates to work abroad for a year teaching test prep and admissions counseling to students living abroad looking to apply to US universities.  We would combine this with volunteer opportunities in each city as well.

As a young, successful entrepreneur and founder of your own company, what career advice do you have for other Princeton alumni dedicated to public service work?

I would say never give yourself the option of failing.  I’ve made a lot of business decisions that wouldn’t necessarily be safe bets, but I knew in my gut that I could make it happen and took a chance on myself.  A lot of business success comes from the confidence of the person launching a particular program or company.  I would also say, don’t be afraid to ask questions.  Starting the business just over a year after graduating from college, I definitely had a lot of business skills I needed to learn and spent that first year asking people who had done it before an enormous amount of questions.  People genuinely like to help people and I think if you reach out, you’d be surprised at how forthcoming alumni are.

For more information, and to learn about the programs offered by the The Edge, please visit http://edgeincollegeprep.com/

The Princetern Point of View: Two Undergraduates Explore PP55 Fellowships in Chicago

The Princeternship Program is a career exploration program that offers Princeton undergraduates the unique opportunity to start investigating a career field of interest and make professional connections by spending time with alumni in their workplaces. Both Sophie Huber ’12 and Meicen Sun ’12 share below about their experience shadowing PP55 fellows in Chicago this winter.

Sophie Huber ’12

During my three-day Princeternship, I had the chance to visit Chicago, a major hub of Project 55’s AlumniCorps fellowship program, where I shadowed recent fellows Kristen Molloy ’08 and Whitney Spalding ’07 at the Chicago Public Schools Office of New Schools. ONS authorizes and oversees all charter, contract, and performance schools in Chicago. Kristen and Whitney were hired by ONS after completing Project 55 fellowships there, and they had a lot of knowledge to share about charter schools and their role in Chicago education.

When my co-Princetern (Destiny Ortega ’12) and I arrived for our first day at the office, Kristen gave us a presentation on new schools and the nature of ONS’s work. We learned about Renaissance 2010, an initiative by Mayor Daley to open 100 new schools between 2005 and 2010, and heard about some of the challenges ONS has been facing since its recent budget cuts. We then spent some time helping Kristen with her research projects. In Kristen’s work as Compliance Manager, she is responsible for evaluating schools and keeping them accountable for performance and adherence to protocol. We got started on a compliance data project, where our task was to create spreadsheets of compliance rates by school type and grade level. We also got a chance to meet with some of Kristen’s co-workers to discuss their roles in ONS’s work.

We spent most of our second day away from the office, beginning with our visit to two charter schools in the North Lawndale community. The first was the Catalyst Howland Elementary School, one of two schools in Chicago’s Catalyst network. The Catalyst schools emphasize respect, values, and character-building in combination with a rigorous curriculum. We began our visit with an informational meeting, where we met the principal and other school leaders. After the meeting we took a tour of the school. Since college matriculation is a huge focus at Catalyst (as is the case at many charters), Destiny and I said some words to the older students about our Princeton experiences and encouraged them to apply.

The second school we visited was North Lawndale College Prep, which shares a building with Catalyst. NLCP had the day off school when we came, so we didn’t see many students there, but we got a chance to talk to President John Horan about the school’s philosophy and approach. NLCP is also highly college-focused, sending almost 90% of their students to postsecondary institutions (they rank #1 for college graduation among Chicago’s non-selective public high schools). The school emphasizes non-violence, replacing security guards and metal detectors with a special “peace” curriculum. After speaking with President Horan, we toured the school; it was mostly empty, but we did get to see some great murals by the students.

We spent the afternoon learning about charter-related nonprofits in meetings with Stacy McAuliffe ’98, of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS), and Rachel Ksenyak, of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). Stacy is herself a former P55 fellow; when we met her, she had just started a new job as the Chief Operating Officer of INCS. INCS is committed to supporting and advocating for charter schools, whether by facilitating the establishment of new schools, offering education and assistance to managers of existing schools, or lobbying for charter-friendly public policy. Stacy told us all about INCS’s roles and described her own journey to her current work in the charter movement. She gave us lots of useful information about charter-related organizations and opportunities in Chicago and beyond. It was great to learn about INCS from such a well-connected fellow Princetonian.

I started Day Three working more on Kristen’s compliance data project; this time I was able to look at how several other factors correlated with compliance, including school type and the years schools were founded. Then I had coffee with former P55 fellow Colleen Poynton ’09, who had a lot of great advice and knowledge about post-college work in nonprofit and social enterprise. After graduating from Princeton, she did a Project 55 fellowship at Bethel New Life, a community development corporation in Chicago’s West Side. Now she is undertaking a second P55 fellowship at a local social enterprise called Investing in Communities. Colleen explained how IIC endeavors to drive market-based philanthropy by connecting socially-minded merchants with customers.

In the afternoon I had the opportunity to talk more with our second Princeton host, Whitney Spalding ’07. Whitney is singlehandedly in charge of determining which new charter proposals will be recommended for authorization. When she described the process to me, it became clear that Whitney actually has to balance lots of outside opinions in making her decisions, from consultants’ advice to community preferences. Her job is very demanding, but essential to ONS’s work.

I had a wonderful time at my Princeternship, and I’m so grateful to have had this chance. I was able to explore the Windy City, experience work at a nonprofit, and learn firsthand about a great Princeton fellowship opportunity. I’ll definitely be keeping Project 55 in mind as I consider options for after graduation!

Meicen Sun ’12

My first day as a Princetern started off with the weekly Princeton Project 55 seminar in downtown Chicago, which was attended by other PP55 fellows and staff. The seminars were intended to be educational, informative, and at the same time a means to keep everyone in PP55 connected as a group. This week’s seminar featured guest speaker, activist Bill Ayers, who gave us a talk on public service in today’s U.S., especially with regard to the role of the individual in a democratic society. After the talk, I followed my coworker Andrew Kinaci, a PP55 fellow at NLEN, to take the blue subway line which would take us to the neighborhood of North Lawndale—one of the most poverty-stricken and crime-infested areas of Chicago. The office of NLEN was a small and compact house that stood alone in a fairly deserted and worn down district. It also served as the factory and workshop of Sweet Beginnings, LLC—a social enterprise under NLEN that employed the formerly incarcerated to manufacture its unique beeline® skincare products with locally produced organic materials. My direct supervisor, a Princeton alumnus Michael Malecek, proceeded to show me around the office and acquainted me with staff members and clients. He also gave me a tour of the office’s backyard where beehives were kept. Michael then introduced me to Ms. Brenda Palms Barber—Executive Director of NLEN and CEO of Sweet Beginnings. Before long, I began working on my main project as a Princetern—drafting a policy paper addressed to Chicago government, to appeal for a revision of a recent ordinance that would restrict urban agriculture in Chicago, and to explain the advantages of urban agriculture which provided the basis for many small-scale social enterprises like Sweet Beginnings. The day culminated into my making a closing announcement through the general paging system at the end of the day, as Michael suggested. Andrew jokingly said that I was now officially an NLEN employee.

Today, my first task was to help our clients with their resumes. I stayed in the computer lab where they worked on their resumes and took any questions they might have. It was a delight to see that my limited knowledge nonetheless proved helpful to them. Since the clients’ employment with Sweet Beginnings was only transitional, another big part of NLEN’s work was to impart essential job search and interview skills to the clients to facilitate them in their long-term career plan and reentry into society. In the afternoon, I continued working on the policy paper in Michael’s office, where he would patiently take any questions I had regarding the history and background of NLEN. Later in the afternoon, I had a very pleasant and inspiring talk with NLEN Executive Director and Sweet Beginnings CEO Brenda, who shared with me her mission and vision of Sweet Beginnings, and basically anything and everything on social service in today’s world. Both Brenda and Michael pointed to me the immediate dangers that surrounded our office—drug-dealing and violence that happened literally right next-door. Yet in the middle of this there was Sweet Beginnings which served as a shelter and more: Even some patrons would not have imagined that the beeline® products they used were manufactured in this tiny office building, by people who, if not for this employment opportunity, might be (re-)exposed to the dangers of drugs and violence any moment. I was thrilled to know that Michael and Brenda would forward the edited version of my policy paper to be presented at an upcoming Chicago Zoning Committee meeting. It was an incredibly fulfilling two days that I spent at NLEN as a PP55 Princetern but more importantly, it touches my heart to know that however little I have done, it is having an impact. I am very glad and grateful for this invaluable opportunity to have worked with such amazing people for such an admirable cause.

The merely two-day experience with PP55 was well-planned and well-tailored for students like us who long to gain an idea of how public service works on a daily basis. Despite the relatively short duration, we were each allowed to have deep exploration of the particular sector, and to have meaningful contact with the professional personnel. The unsparing willingness of the PP55 fellows to share with us their professional experience and insight, as well as their exemplary work ethic both made our Princeternships an eye-opening and rewarding journey.

To learn more about the Princetern program, please visit http://www.princeton.edu/career/undergrads/special/princeternship/ . Please contact Helen Yu ’08 at fan.yu@alumni.princeton.edu for questions regarding the PP55 Princeternships initiative in Chicago.

New York Food Seminar by Reilly Kiernan ’10

Last week’s AlumniCorps seminar was a very engaging conversation about many aspects of the problems that exist in our food system—from nutrition, to health, to factory farming, the discussion was far-ranging.

The topic was “Sustainable Food and Public Health”, and the panelists attacked the topic from different points of view.  Dr. R. Gordon Douglas ‘55, Adjunct Professor of Medicine at Cornell and former President of Merck Vaccine Division, moderated the panel.  Douglas began by asking the two panelists to explain the problem of food and sustainability sat they saw it.

David Benzaquen, a former animal rights activist, provided a well-researched presentation replete with statistics about the interlocking problems of public health, nutrition, environmental degradation, climate change, and animal welfare.  He emphasized the interconnectedness of the issue.

Nancy Easton ’88, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Wellness in the Schools, told a number of stories recounting anecdotes of the challenges she’d faced in her efforts to bring healthy food and nutritional education into inner city schools in New York City.   She shared her frustration with a school where the cafeteria offerings included healthy gourmet bean burritos, but children were still smuggling in Pringles and Oreo cookies while school staff sat by.

Douglas then encouraged the panelists to talk about potential solutions to this complex and far-reaching problem.  The discussion ranged from entreaties to reduce (and ideally cease) meat consumption to policy recommendations about corn and soy subsidies to an analysis of the role that class, tradition, and culture play in our food choices.

Though the panelists agreed that the problem can be daunting, the ultimate tone of the evening was one of guarded optimism.  Easton stressed the fact that there seems to be a groundswell of interest in this topic reflected everywhere from Michelle Obama’s initiatives to the popularity of farmers markets; Benzaquen talked about the fact that unlike other social justice issues, food and nutrition issues can be tackled through individual and incremental actions.