Teach for America Taps Titans

No. 10 on our list of the Best Places to Launch a Career, the nonprofit is raking in big bucks and raising its profile

The scene is a swanky dinner party at the Waldorf Astoria. Seated around the hotel’s glamorous ballroom are such titans of finance as Cerberus Capital chief Stephen Feinberg (days after his firm purchased a majority stake in Chrysler Group), Wachovia (WB) Chairman Ken Thompson , and Jon Winkelried, president of the Goldman Sachs Group (GS). What event brought out New York's A-list financiers? A benefit for Teach for America, the nonprofit organization founded by a Princeton University senior to recruit college grads to teach in low-income communities across the U.S. for two-year commitments.

The high-profile soirée held this spring raised $4 million for Teach for America—its biggest fundraiser to date. The money will help the organization realize a plan announced two years ago: to more than double in size, from 3,500 to 7,500 members, by the end of the decade. Today, the organization has more than 5,000 members in 26 regions across the country. Teach for America is one of BusinessWeek's Best Places to Launch a Career, jumping from No. 43 last year to No. 10 on our annual ranking of the top U.S. employers for young professionals entering the workforce.

The 16-year-old organization fared well in our ranking, not only because of its increasing influence in the education community—some 282 former corps members now run their own schools—but also due to its increasing popularity with students and career-services directors. This is at least partially explained by the community-minded-but-savvy mindset of Gen Yers entering the workforce today. They are drawn to organizations like Teach for America and the Peace Corps (which rose from No. 38 to No. 23 on our list), says Claudia Tattanelli, CEO of Universum USA, the research firm that provides data for the student popularity component of our ranking. "These are nonprofits that have a reputation that will look good on a résumé."

Forging Powerful Partnerships

Teach for America has even forged partnerships in recent years with 100 graduate school programs and 15 employers, including Deloitte & Touche (No. 1 on this year's list), Google (GOOG) (No. 5), and General Electric (GE) (No. 12). These companies let students defer their job offers to spend two years teaching. Corporate Partner JPMorgan (JPM) (No. 17) gives students their signing bonuses before their two-year stints at Teach for America and offers summer programs to keep them involved with the company while they are teaching.

Bob Corcoran, vice-president of Corporate Citizenship at General Electric, says that his company's partnership with Teach for America is a win-win. "We [GE and TFA] look for the same types of people, people who want to make a difference, people who have good leadership qualities and who truly want to jump in and lead something. Teachers do that everyday," Corcoran explains. "When these students come out of college and they defer to take on these roles, they learn how to lead. And Teach for America gets some great students who otherwise would have been nervous to jump out of their discipline and teach."

Meanwhile, young workers view Teach for America as a valuable launching pad to an assortment of careers and paths. Former D.C. corps member Rachael Brown is amazed by the strong support network of alumni.

Brown is one of the 12,000 alums who have chosen to continue working in education, for the advocacy group the Strong American Schools Foundation, a position she learned of through Teach for America's alumni job bank. "I never expected Teach for America to be so influential in my postgraduate plans," Brown says. "Their mission is a great deal more about what happens when you leave the classroom," referring to Teach for America's aim to cultivate strong leaders in all disciplines who will be able to influence policy in the fight for public education.

Teach for America already is an aggressive recruiter, but to reach its goal of doubling its corps members, critics worry that it may push people who aren't up to the challenge into jobs they can't handle. Skeptics in the education community have long argued that the organization's structure is based on a faulty model, that bright, enthusiastic 21-year-olds, many of whom have had little to no prior teaching experience, are ready to handle the extreme challenges of these tough assignments. Says Arizona State University Regent's Professor of Education David Berliner, "Teach for America candidates are generally weaker than regular candidates in the classroom. Particularly the first year, they are really in trouble."

The nonprofit counters that school principals welcome their volunteers. According to a 2007 survey of principals conducted by Teach for America, 95% feel that corps members are as effective as other beginning teachers in terms of overall performance and impact on student achievement. "The proverbial proof is in the pudding," says Elissa Clapp, who heads recruiting for the organization. "The people running the schools think our corps members are terrific."

Solving the Recruitment Challenge

That doesn't mean the organization has the recruiting process down. Clapp and others at the organization acknowledge that it is a rare individual who is mature and resilient enough to handle the unique challenges the program presents its young teachers. (Teach for America accepted fewer than one in six applicants this year.) Therefore, identifying promising candidates has become the key ingredient in ensuring the organization's aggressive growth plan stays on track. "We have the backing of so many different foundations," says Clapp. "The only thing that's going to keep us from growing is recruiting." Teach for America's 2006 budget was $57 million, and the organization projects an annual budget of $70 million in 2007.

One key tactic that has given the organization an increasingly visible presence on college campuses is its growing army of Campus Campaign Coordinators, college students who serve as ambassadors for the organization, working (for pay) approximately 10 hours a week identifying strong candidates, speaking to students about the nonprofit, and handling administrative duties (flyers, etc.). Although Teach for America has long relied on student-led outreach in recruiting its members, the organization has stepped up these efforts in recent years.

Becoming a Campus Campaign Coordinator is now almost as competitive as becoming a full-fledged corps member. Candidates for the job go through a battery of interviews and endure thorough background and reference checks during the selection process. While they were once unpaid volunteers, they are now given a stipend for their efforts. (Campus Campaign Coordinators at Berkeley receive $1,000 a semester). "We know what we want," says Clapp, "there's a lot of time, energy, and money [put into recruiting], and it's really critical to find the right people who can thrive in the [CCC] role." This school year, 325 Campus Campaign Coordinators will spread the word about Teach for America on 125 college campuses.

Hard-Sell Recruiting Turns Some Off

Although outreach efforts have been successful on a number of campuses, this aggressive approach can occasionally prove offputting to students.

One recent Cornell 22-year-old grad, who didn't want her name used, says she was "thrown by the amount of information they already had about me. I would have likely given a résumé had they asked, but to be researched in a roundabout way is a bit unnerving, especially given that I am not one to voluntarily give out personal information."

The Cornell alum ultimately declined Teach for America's entreaties that she apply, uncomfortable with the fact that the organization seeks details of students' activities and interests through other students. Vassar College banned Teach for America from its campus in February for the remainder of the school year because of its aggressive tactics. "Our students were beginning to feel they were being compromised," says Vassar Career Services director Mary Raymond, who feels Teach for America was overly persistent in pressuring desirable candidates to accept offers. "It was a monkey on their backs."

Clapp says such instances of recruiting misconduct are few and far between. "I think the critical thing that comes through is that it is so exceedingly rare. We enjoy support from the vast majority of the 500 career-services directors and university presidents we work with." Pamela Keiser, career services director at Bucknell University, is a staunch supporter. "We're just thrilled with the opportunities they present our students, our students have never felt bombarded or threatened in any way," she says.

Respecting University Rules

Barnard Director of Career Development Jane Celwyn says she's altered her opinion after meeting with a Teach for America representative. "I think she's interested in making sure they don't overstep and [they] go through appropriate channels to get things done," says Celwyn, who also notes she is appreciative of the increasing number of corporate and graduate program partnerships Teach for America had forged. "I have every expectation that we'll be able to work well together."

Neena Dass, Teach for America regional recruitment manager at Berkeley, says it's important to set boundaries. "For me, it's about respecting the rules of the university. We are guests. That's how I look at it." Some 75 corps members were recruited at Berkeley this year, up from 40 in 2006. Current member Nina Fink, who teaches special education in the Bronx, N.Y., feels Teach for America must be doing something right: "My colleagues and friends from the organization are some of the most genuine and dedicated people I have ever met," says the Lehigh University grad. "The teachers I know are passionate about their students."

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