Twenty Years of buildOn: The First Finance Team

Like most non-profit organizations, buildOn started out small. Our very first headquarters was, in fact, the kitchen of CEO/founder Jim Ziolkowski and his brother Dave. As the operations team grew in size, the Ziolkowskis drew upon support from legions of volunteers. Marc Friedman, who would later become our COO, contributed many hours and crucial ideas, as did individuals recruited from the finance team at General Electric where Jim worked prior to the flash of inspiration that would lead to buildOn.

Our first treasurers came from this pro-bono GE pool. These individuals devoted much of their own time to helping balance our books, secure our grants, and build the financial infrastructure for donor confidence that has allowed our organization to celebrate 20 years of success this autumn.

Tim Owens first met Jim Ziolkowski when the two were working in GE’s finance department. After Ziolkowski’s departure, Owens kept hearing stories from other volunteers who were visiting the house in Stamford to construct buildOn from scratch. “I started asking about it and next thing I knew Jim was asking me to help with the books,” Owens recalls. “I wound up being their first volunteer treasurer and worked with them for 4 years.”

[pullquote]Jim would always say to me: ‘Do it for the kids, Tim!’ I still remember that battle cry.[/pullquote]

Owens was instrumental in developing a professional environment for buildOn’s donations. “My main contribution in those early days was to transition the books from paper and binder to Quickbooks,” he says. “I also dealt with all our 1099 consultants, getting them set up, and I kept track of all matched gifts from GE.”

Owens was a full member of the buildOn team during his tenure, even orchestrating service projects in Stamford. “We did volunteer work all around the city…helping out in homes, freshening up yards, painting. I really enjoyed it because those guys were just such a positive influence. Jim would always say to me: ‘Do it for the kids, Tim!’ I still remember that battle cry.”

After Owens relocated to Atlanta with GE, fellow finance professional Jane Hackney stepped up to take his place. She remembers being fascinated with buildOn’s approach from the get-go. “We’re very interested in investment, being in finance…and this was an investment in education, really. An investment in a whole new generation.” Hackney would continue in Owens’ footsteps, helping with our books and allocation of funds. “I put Marc Friedman on the payroll!” she proudly points out.

By the time Hackney joined the team, buildOn had expanded from the Ziolkowskis’ kitchen to a small office space donated by GE. “I remember the tiny room with four cubes or so where everyone worked. Those were definitely the bootstrapping days! We often had to really think about purchases to ensure that we wouldn’t run out of money by the end of the year. It’s incredible that now buildOn has offices all over the country.”

[pullquote]buildOn isn’t a lot of Kumbaya fluff. They aren’t afraid to measure themselves.[/pullquote]

Commenting on buildOn’s success, Hackney observes that “Jim and Marc really are a yin and yang. Jim has a lot of passion and Marc is sort of quietly behind the scenes with a plan to make the passion work. And their dynamic, along with mentoring from business executives, has really allowed buildOn to scale. It’s not a lot of Kumbaya fluff. They aren’t afraid to measure themselves.”

Owens similarly states, “I was always amazed when Jim and Marc would come back from overseas trips, the stories they would tell. They were going out and representing our organization and getting involved in global issues, but they didn’t just throw money at poverty. They wanted to work in tandem with people in remote and urban areas. Folks in the communities where we work take ownership in what they do with buildOn. We help create community pride.”