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Speaker examines connection between service, passion in business

| Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Mendoza College of Business kicked off its Ethics Week — which offers lectures from experts in a range of professional fields — Monday afternoon with a talk and panel featuring Bob Burke, founder of Ladder Up, which is a nonprofit tax-assistance program for low-income families and individuals.

Chris Collins | The Observer
Three seniors involved with a local tax assistance program contribute to a panel discussion during a lecture about the ethics of helping the community through business professions.

Throughout his talk, Burke said he sees value in taking chances and forgoing the safest or most comfortable option. The pay cut, he said, is worth it. 

“You will learn far more doing service than any for-profit job you can find in America,” Burke said. “Why? Because a nonprofit has limited resources, which means they have to stretch you. They have to have you do 12 different jobs, not one job. My point is, take a chance. Do something different. There is no risk at your age. There is no risk. The only risk is not taking that chance, doing something different and really doing it.”

Burke said he started the tax-assistance program that would become Ladder Up as a young employee at Arthur Andersen in Chicago following his 1994 graduation from Notre Dame. He said he pitched the program as a way to develop young employees’ skills in finding client needs. His business model, Burke said, was based on three corporations: Walmart, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.

“Walmart in the sense of a superstore: You go into Walmart. You can get Goldfish. You can get clothes. You can get groceries,” he said. “You walk into one of our Ladder Up organizations, and no matter what your situation is, we can help you — supercenter of service.”

The program was immediately successful, Burke said, so he convinced Arthur Andersen’s biggest clients and other accounting firms to get involved. Since then, Ladder Up has expanded into 12 cities across the United States, he said. Through the difficult task of growing a nonprofit, Burke said he learned three skills applicable to any entrepreneurial endeavor.

“One, how to motivate people without material incentive,” Burke said. “No. 2, how to be a good steward of people’s money, not only in terms of foundations and contributions, but the clients you’re helping. The poorest of the poor need your help more than any client you’ll serve at any Big Four firm. I repeat, the clients you serve need your money and your advice moreso than any client you’ll serve in the for-profit world.”

Another valuable skill, he said, involves properly formatting an organization to allow everyone to contribute.

“The third thing is how to build scale through standardized operating procedures,” Burke said. ”At Ladder Up, we have defined roles and responsibilities for every single person in the organization.”

Those responsibilities include making clients feel welcome and comfortable during the intimate process of relaying financial information, marital status, social security numbers and other highly personal information, he said. To do the job well, Burke said, building relationships and trust is necessary.

“The ability to serve somebody is a gift,” Burke said. “You get more out of it than what you’re helping with a family. There’s dignity in service.”

Burke said working in nonprofit has been far more rewarding than his work in the for-profit company he also founded. For some of the families Ladder Up serves, Burke said, their tax return is their single largest paycheck of the year.

Following Burke’s talk, three seniors involved in Notre Dame’s local tax-assistance program in the South Bend community expressed similar feelings toward their interactions with clients.

“When you’re applying specialized knowledge, in this case tax knowledge, to help people … that can be really empowering and exciting, because you know that if you were not there, if you hadn’t learned those things in your classes, if you hadn’t put the time in to learn how to do that stuff, then these people would not be able to accomplish what they’re trying to accomplish,” senior Asher Enciso said. “It’s really gratifying to talk to these people and know you’re making an impact.”

Burke said he advises people to do what they love rather than to do what others perceive to be the smart decision.

“To me, if you’re doing something you’re passionate about, you don’t look at it as a job,” Burke said. “If you’re punching the clock and you have one of these traditional jobs, I think there’s only so much satisfaction you can get.”

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