Mission-driven organizations were first popularized as a term in the early 2000s, but have recently gained even more momentum and popularity as consumers begin to demand that the companies and organizations they support act in socially responsible ways.
However, in those few short years, the sector has both expanded and changed dramatically. In education in particular, mission-driven organizations have begun to feel some tension as the students they often reach out to prefer screens to paper, styluses to pencils, swiping to flipping a page. Junior Achievement, the Colorado Spring, Colorado-based nonprofit organization that aims to "inspire and prepare young people to succeed in a global economy," has in fact, however, taken this potential strain in stride. The organization's Company Program, which engages teens age 15 to 19 to build and launch their very own businesses, worked with over thirteen-thousand young entrepreneurs last year in building not only financial literacy and business acumen skills, but also in familiarizing students with e-commerce, crowdfunding, and even mobile app development. The entire program culminated in national recognition for students at the JA National Student Leadership Summit.
It seems that the effects of JA's training curriculum stretch long past students' graduations from high school. Claire Carden, a current student at Drexel University in Philadelphia, found herself drawn to accounting after being a part of a JA program that gave her insight into the finance department at Aqua America, a company that provides drinking water and wastewater treatment infrastructure for residents across the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and Southern United States. As a past participant in JA's National Summit, Carden also mentioned the strong network she's built with other students around the country. They even still keep in contact with each other she said, laughing.
When I spoke with Jack Kosakowski, JA's CEO, on the phone, he explained that JA's goal has always been to teach students about how to run a business. However, through support from The Hartford, the program has been updated and has transitioned to a blended learning approach that hopes to bring the curriculum to students in a way that is more engaging to them as ever. It wasn't that the curriculum needed to be overhauled - "what they're teaching is just as relevant as it's ever been," Kosakowski told me. "What's not as relevant was the way it was delivered - on a paper based system." Now, lessons are delivered online, which allows for a modular approach that encourages a customized experience for each team, depending on their interests and engagement. The program even includes its own proprietary eBay-like marketplace that feeds into a larger learning management system.
Even on the back end, the new digital system allows JA to keep up with an "expectation of almost real-time change," says Kosakowski. Jacqui Pernicano, JA San Diego's COO, agreed, saying one of the biggest benefits of the new digital system was the ability to make "real-time changes" to course-correct and tweak materials when needed. Further, "the beauty of it is that we can make changes on the fly, and if we see something's not working, we can correct it," Kosakowski added. "A lot of people think that in creating a blended educational experience...you just take a textbook and digitize it. It's not - it's [actually] creating a lot of new experiences and activities for the students." Paul Kappel, the President of Junior Achievement of Delaware Valley, further affirmed that using technology as a delivery model allows student to learn the new "skills [needed] to succeed in a 21st century model," with JA providing a "broad enough skillset that prepares [students] for whatever jobs [they pursue]...It's not just about financial literacy and entrepreneurship, but the opportunity to work in groups, take appropriate risks, and problem-solve." "[We want to both] teach the skills that help you get the job and [also] the soft skills that help you keep the job," he explained.
I also had the chance to speak with some of the students recognized for their JA business at last year's Junior Achievement National Student Leadership Summit, from Canyon Crest Academy (CCA), in Carmel Valley, California. Hannah Bush, the Chief Marketing Officer of the team, told me a little bit about their idea and business model, saying the team hoped to develop a "common information point," leading them to develop what became the CCA Today app, which aggregated news and updates for students, staff, and parents in the CCA community. Lorenzo Patino, the team's CFO, added that in doing so, team members were able to test and refine their "teamwork and communication skills," a sentiment also echoed by Madison Moreno, the team's Chief Sales Officer. Bush and Moreno mentioned that their experience in JA even led them to pursue business administration and marketing majors, respectively, in their current university studies.
All in all, as the needs of students continue to change, organizations will need to remain responsive and dynamic in their missions to do so. Junior Achievement seems to be staying on the cusp of that demand, even using it to deliver more targeted, relevant material to its students - and it seems to be working. As Kappel put it, "as great as this is, the demand is still more than [we] can keep up with - we need more volunteers!"