20 Years of buildOn:Supporter Geoffrey Norman has a buildOn Family

Over the last 20 years, buildOn’s mission has inspired the support and passion of many individuals whose enthusiasm has, in turn, rallied the aid of others. But Geoffrey Norman is a special case. “Once you come into contact with buildOn, you get infected with it,” he told me over the phone. “And there’s no known cure!” What he didn’t mention then, but what became clear throughout our conversation, is how quickly one can spread the contagion. A former asset management executive at General Electric who witnessed one of the first presentations that our founder and CEO Jim Ziolkowski gave to the leadership team at GE, Norman inspired his entire family to join the buildOn team.

[pullquote]Once you come into contact with buildOn, you get infected with it![/pullquote]

Norman described his initial meeting with Ziolkowski fondly. “In the early 1990s, probably around ‘93, Jim was invited to present his story to GE Asset Management’s leadership team. He was such a young guy, and spun an incredible story about building schools in places like Nepal. I was intrigued by the story, and impressed by Jim’s passion and charisma. I went up to him afterward and asked if I could help. I still am.”

Norman’s initial relationship with buildOn was as a sort of traffic cop within GE. He arranged meetings between Ziolkowski, COO Marc Friedman, GE leaders, and potential donors, and helped to organize events as well. “But somewhere along the line,” he said, “I became more like a mentor. I counselled Jim early on that despite the great things that were happening, he needed to prepare for growth with a strong team and money to be put away for a rainy day.”

Norman eventually filled a slot on our board of advisors, from which he continues to provide incalculable assistance. As our U.S. afterschool programs were taking off, Norman’s wife Christina also became involved, starting a buildOn program at the high school in which she taught. “My sister and I saw our parents getting involved with buildOn around 15 years ago, I think, when I was 22,” said Norman’s daughter, Catarina Schwab. “I grew up in a very European family. I heard from my parents that living in England and Sweden, the government takes care of things through social services. Neither of them grew up with an organization like buildOn. But my grandparents gave back in other ways–volunteering during WWII, etc. Social good is in our blood.”

[pullquote]Social good is in our blood.[/pullquote]

The support of Norman, his wife, and his two daughters–Schwab and Camilla Field, both of whom nurtured buildOn’s fundraising presence in the San Francisco Bay Area–has been important to buildOn’s growth. Norman remembers when buildOn events were raising “maybe a couple hundred thousand dollars,” and how he hoped to break that mold. “In 2000 John Myers, also from GE, and I planned a breakfast in New York rather than a dinner in Connecticut. Breakfast was cheaper, and we thought the location would attract a difference audience.” Norman also used a surprise announcement for that year’s honoree to make buildOn’s impact relevant to his corporate audience, amplifying the drama achieved by Ziolkowski when discussing the needs and successes of inner-city high school students and overseas villagers. “Myers, who was the honoree that year, didn’t know was that a school was being dedicated to him in Haiti. He took the stage with his wife and they had their arms around each other when the announcement was made. It was an emotional moment, absolutely astounding, and when it was all over, we’d raised $1.3 million.”

This emphasis on family is a crucial element of buildOn’s culture, and it’s also part of what inspired Norman’s wife and children to get involved. “It was fun as a family activity,” said Schwab. “Something we could all bond around. When my English grandparents passed away, the buildOn leaders dedicated a school to them…that meant a lot because we all knew that if my grandparents had had a buildOn in their neighborhood, they would have been involved, too.”

Schwab’s participation also grew through the years — the more she heard, the more she wanted to help. “We all went to the Connecticut dinners and I started helping my sister Camilla host the dinners out in the Bay Area as well. Camilla had already been working for buildOn in the Bay Area, drafting applictions for fund grants throughout the country. I remember the first Bay Area dinner I helped with very well. The student speaker was Haben Girma, and she blew me away–the fact that a student who was visually and hearing impaired could do so much for her community, and even go overseas to build a school, just floored me.”

[pullquote]My son is 5 and he tells me he’s going to go and build a school in Nicaragua.[/pullquote]

She adds, “We did the Bay Area dinner for a year without a VP. After I was asked to join the regional board, I offered to help the search for candidates and, a few weeks in, I realized that I was interested in the job. So I interviewed for it, and got it! Three years later, we’re so much more than just a dinner on the west coast, and I was really proud to be part of expanding the presence out here. We really understand how programming and development go hand in hand at buildOn.”

Schwab also made the decision last year to embark on a school building trip to Nicaragua, an experience she describes as “life-changing,” and one that cemented the global importance of buildOn’s work for her. “When I said goodbye to my host family at the end of the trip,” she noted, “the mother said that until the school was built they hadn’t felt like part of the world. But now they were going to start writing their history.” She added, “While we were talking, she was holding her baby, and the baby started going to the bathroom down her arm. She continued our conversation without removing her gaze from me and it occurred to me how distracted we are in this culture, always on our cellphones, checking email etc. That memory will always be with me.”

Both Schwab and Norman hope to make even more memories with buildOn–indeed, the future is much on their minds. Norman continues to provide counsel to our CEO and COO, and Schwab is raising a collection of soon-to-be buildOn supporters. “My son is 5,” Schwab said proudly, “and he tells me he’s going to go and build a school in Nicaragua. He’s seen my photos. That’s the next big step for us: To have a family trip to build a school. I’d love for my immediate family to be able to do that. It’s been such a big part of our lives.”