In 2009, Colin Smith left a highly lucrative job in private equity to become CEO of Change for Kids, a young non-profit focused on supporting low-income schools in New York City.
In less than 6 years, Colin has helped CFK move past primarily providing school supplies to deploying effective and sustainable transformation models at eight schools. By the end of the decade, Colin hopes to achieve the same at another 25 schools.
So what drove Colin to pursue this unique career path? What is it really like to run a non-profit? Read on to hear more about Colin’s transformative experiences.
Pursuist: Colin, let’s start with where you grew up and what you enjoyed doing as a kid. What were some of your biggest influences?
Colin: Sure! My family and I moved around in the US nearly every year when I was growing up. My siblings and I were often the new kids at school and that led us to embrace sports and other activities that helped us “fit in.”
I was also a math nerd. My parents still tell stories of me sitting on our porch at 4 years old with the newspaper, memorizing box scores from the latest baseball games.
When you move that often, your biggest influences are your family. I was also blessed with a number of fantastic coaches and teachers everywhere we went.
Pursuist: Interesting, we can see how those early influences were relevant, and assume the love of numbers led you to finance?
Colin: Yes, I went to the commerce school at the University of Virginia and majored in Finance so I knew I’d be heading into the industry. Beyond generally enjoying working with numbers, I was drawn to opportunities in which I helped small business raise the capital they needed to succeed.
I worked at Banc of America Securities in the Private Equity Placements group. When we did our job right, companies added employees, investors made a profit, and products like cancer drugs were developed. It was not unlike how doing good work at Change for Kids makes a huge difference for our schools.
I continued raising capital for small organizations in my next job, joining a great firm in Greenwich called Atlantic-Pacific Capital where we raised over $1 billion in private capital.
Pursuist: That’s quite the career start! And what did you take away from your time in finance?
Colin: It taught me how to find and communicate the value that all organizations have. I have put that skill to work at Change for Kids and with our schools.
In addition, I learned that by doing my homework to really understand upsides and downsides, I could more confidently take the risk of making the investment — in a company, in a school and in all areas of my life.
Finally, I realized that there are always resources available in this world for a wise investment. The key is to be able to communicate why a person, a company, a school or another institution is a good thing to invest in.
Pursuist: A very interesting perspective. Now the question we’ve been waiting for, what ultimately drew you out of finance and into a non-profit?
Colin: Sure, I would say my decision to leave finance came down to three primary factors. First, I had been asked to join the various boards of Change for Kids and, shortly after, it looked like the organization would fail around the 2008 recession. I felt a responsibility to help CFK get back up on its feet.
Around the same time, my parents adopted three foster children — through them, I saw first-hand the importance of opportunity for young folks and it made a big impact on me.
Lastly, I was a young guy who relished the challenge and education of running an organization at an early age. I knew this would be an enjoyable, temporary mission, but I never thought I would love running Change for Kids as much as I have.
Pursuist: That’s really special about your parents adopting three foster children — could you tell us a bit more how that’s impacted you?
Colin: Absolutely. My newest sisters — Alexis, Gabby and Raleigh — have helped me appreciate how lucky I am to have had so many opportunities in my life. Like the rest of my siblings and me, different activities have spoken to each of my sisters and helped steer them onto the right path. For Alexis, it has been cooking, for Gabby math, and for Raleigh, it was gymnastics.
I’ve often said at CFK that we never know what opportunity will provide the spark for a young child’s confidence, but when we find that opportunity, it’s a wonderful thing. My parents and siblings are a special, constant source of inspiration for me in my professional and personal life.
Pursuist: Got it, and we understand CFK wasn’t a 1–2 year stint for you. What do you think made you so committed?
Colin: I was first drawn to Change for Kids because I have always believed elementary education is one of the most important investments we can make. After I joined our Junior Council and we dramatically grew our contributions to the organization, I was asked to join the main Board.
A few months later, the late 2008 recession and significant Board turnover left the organization on the verge of closing its doors. The organization needed a new Executive Director and I offered to step up.
My strong commitment has come from a sincere desire to make the biggest impact I can in whatever I’m doing — since 2009, there really has been no place where I could make a bigger difference than for CFK’s students and schools.
Pursuist: And what have you learned from running CFK?
Colin: I’ve learned something every day. I’ve learned how to manage personalities and processes, and about the intricacies and importance of marketing. When we started, I actually thought we could just whip up a new logo from clipart overnight… It’s been a battle, but I’ve learned perfectionism isn’t possible.
In addition, I’ve learned that my job as an executive is to achieve the goals we’ve set and that folks don’t have much sympathy for excuses.
Pursuist: Is being a CEO and running a non-profit what you imagined it would be? How has it been different?
Colin: It’s been an enjoyable challenge, but also more challenging than I expected. There’s nothing that really prepared me to be a CEO. There are always so many personalities and constituencies that I’m inevitably going to upset someone with a decision.
I’ve realized that it always works out when I make a decision based on what I think is in the best long-term interest of the organization, rather than what will be a short-term win or make a particular person happy.
As for a non-profit, I’ve learned that there is even more generosity and potential out there than I imagined. There is no shortage of needs in our communities, but there is also no shortage of resources. I truly believe CFK has been successful because we’ve been able to connect those two things efficiently.
Pursuist: What have some of the main challenges been and how have you overcome them?
Colin: Well, as you can imagine, trying to convince folks to donate to a new cause when the economy was on the verge of collapse and everyone was pulling back commitments was a lot of fun…
The way we did it was the same way we see change happen under the great leaders at our schools: we concentrated on finding and empowering strong advocates who believed the same things we believed.
To rally our supporters, we had to get them interested and sell them on our vision. We held low-dollar awareness events, as little as $15, to simply get folks in the door.
We spent a lot of time constructing a plan for how the organization would grow, clearly articulating that vision and outlining how someone could help. From there, the web of dedicated, supportive advocates continually built on itself and we’ve been off to the races.
Pursuist: What satisfies you most about your work?
Colin: It gives me tremendous joy to know that what we’ve built together results in thousands of students walking into a better school every day.
A great example is our Brooklyn Landmark partner school. Under the leadership of a tremendous principal, Robin Davson, and with the support of CFK, the school has transformed in two years. Student reading and math scores have increased more than 50%, family engagement has shot up, and the school provides a safe, wonderful learning environment for the entire community.
A similar story holds true across our network of partner schools.
I think of all the hard work from so many people that’s gone into building CFK into a great organization: Board members; staff members; volunteers in our schools; marketing volunteers; donors who supported us when we were down. We simply wouldn’t be here had those generous contributions not happened.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I am responsible for results, but that’s only going to happen if I can rally a whole lot of folks to the cause. I believe we are just at the start of our growth potential because of all those contributions.
Pursuist: Before we wrap up, please tell us what’s in the future for Colin Smith?
Colin: I want to make the biggest impact I can with my limited time. At this point, making sure Change for Kids is growing and set up to continue that growth is most critical.
It’s essential that every child have access to a great school — we can make that a reality for more students if we continue to expand Change for Kids in the years to come.
Pursuist: Wonderful, thank you Colin. Finally, as is customary at the Pursuist, could you please share any last words of advice for our readers pursuing their own meaningful work?
Colin: I take any opportunity to preach the value of continuous improvement. While that may sound obvious, many folks don’t really commit to that because it can be exhausting for yourself and those around you. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that a willingness to be self-analytical is the most important quality for success over time.
Thanks so much for including me in your wonderful site and best of luck to your readers with their own meaningful work!