Love at First Sight: Wharton EMBA Alumnus Changes Careers to Help Nonprofit through Turnaround

For 20 years, Wharton Executive MBA alumnus Rick Rockelli had worked for leading Congressional-based publishers in the private sector. However, after reading an article in The Washington Post about the Close Up Foundation – an organization that helps students become informed and engaged citizens in the U.S. democracy — the course of his career literally changed overnight.

We asked Rick, who graduated from our program in 1992 and also happens to be a former high school teacher and attorney, to tell us about that career transition and how his Wharton education has helped him along the way. Here’s what he had to say:

“Five years ago, I was reading The Washington Post and came across an article about how the founder of the Close Up Foundation was retiring after 40 years and that the organization had fallen on hard times. So I called them up and said, ‘I can help with a turnaround.’ They invited me to meet with them that same day and by the end of the day, they had hired me. It was love at first sight!

Close Up had lost money nine out of the 10 years before I started.  In each of my first four years as COO – without bringing anyone else in from the outside – Close Up added $1 million dollars or more to its bottom line. We now have $4.4 million in the bank.

That’s not too bad, especially considering that the nonprofit group competes with two large for-profit organizations that are 10 times its size. Even more remarkable is that we are the only one in our industry that serves economically disadvantaged kids — 25% of our participants receive financial aid from the organization.

Today, in addition to publishing an annual textbook, our flagship product is a six-day intensive civic education and leadership program in Washington, D.C., for which high school students can earn college credit at the University of Virginia. Students from all 50 states, every territory, and several countries graduate from the program every year with over 75% of the funding  coming from school districts and tuition payments made by parents. The other 25% comes from funders such as Congress, which gives $2 million per year for scholarships.

As for whether our programs actually work, students and teachers seem to think so.  In anonymous surveys, over 90% of participants say that the program helped them better understand their role as citizens and over 98% said they would recommend the program to a friend.

But my contributions to this turnaround would not have been possible without a Wharton education. Everything I learned in Wharton’s MBA Program for Executives about strategy, competition, customer focus, and innovation is coming into play right here. We have a clear vision, we’re differentiating, we’re focusing on acquiring and serving customers, and we’ve increased staffer productivity 40%.

And the coolest part –in addition to working with a few Wharton classmates on several Close Up projects — is that I’ve created a mini-MBA program that all staff members now attend. We’re turning Close Up into a learning lab that truly applies what I learned at Wharton on a daily basis.

While an MBA degree is a big investment, it’s definitely a slam dunk even for small nonprofits. The education you receive in Wharton’s EMBA program empowers you to metamorphosize your entity. It’s a tiny investment compared to the perpetual payback to the individual, the organization, and current and future customers.”

Thanks to Rick for sharing his experiences at Close Up. We wish him and his organization continued success!