Bob Giannino-Racine
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Bob Giannino-Racine

Chief Executive Officer, ACCESS

As a child, Bob Giannino-Racine just didn't see college as a possibility for him. After all, no one else in his family had ever attended college. Neither his father, who drove a forklift, nor his mother, who was a Head Start school bus monitor, had even graduated high school, and as the youngest of six children, Bob had always thought that, as he puts it, "The issue of paying for it made college seem not to be a possibility."

As he made his way through the public school system of Somerville, Massachusetts, however, Bob discovered that he enjoyed learning—and was good at it. Others noticed, too. "A few very important teachers saw something and took a special interest in me," he recalls. "I always knew that college was something I should do; I just didn't know how to get there." Fortunately, these mentors began to show him the path. And he found that his scholastic record and extracurricular activities could qualify him for scholarships.

When the time came for him to apply to colleges, he cast a wide net: large schools and small, urban and rural, close by and far away. It is emblematic of his humility that he was astonished that he was accepted by a lot of these schools—including Harvard University. "It was a no-brainer decision," Bob laughs. "My dad's family grew up in Cambridge, and my aunt worked as a housekeeper at Harvard. Plus, they gave me a generous financial package. Besides, Harvard is a tough place to say 'no' to."

Giving back to the community had always been a part of Bob's nature, and even in college, he continued to be involved in community service. When he graduated, however, "I was pushed by my dad to live the American dream—to make a lot of money and live in the business world."

From Supermarkets to Schools

Bob did live in that world, for three years, serving as a field sales and marketing representative for Procter & Gamble, representing the company's products to small grocery chains. "It was very interesting to partner with the smaller chains—the little guys trying to win against the Walmarts and Stop & Shops," he says. "That appealed to the social justice side of me."

In fact, Bob has nothing but high praise for his days at Procter & Gamble, offering that he "learned a ton" that has continued to inform him throughout his career. But he also realized that, as he puts it, "driving shareholder returns was not satisfying my soul. You ultimately have to do what makes you happy every day."

Jumpstarting a Career in the Nonprofit World

What made him happy then was joining Jumpstart, a national early-education organization that helps children from low-income neighborhoods attain the language and literacy skills they need in order to be successful in school.

Working out of the Boston office, Bob started out as the director of new site development and, after early success, was made executive director of Jumpstart in Boston. Following this time spent increasing the organization's impact on the city, Bob took on a larger role at Jumpstart as its director of growth and government relations. Under Bob's leadership, Jumpstart expanded its local reach from four locations to nearly 40. While he enjoyed the experience, he had begun yearning to apply the experience and knowledge he had accrued to a position at the head of a nonprofit organization, not just a branch of one.

Serendipitously, that's when ACCESS came calling.

Giving Kids ACCESS to a College Education

ACCESS (the Action Center for Educational Services and Scholarships) is a Boston-based nonprofit organization that provides support services to help make college affordable for all students, educating them about the process from middle school right through college graduation. "There's a misperception that college isn't affordable," Bob explains. "Sometimes kids do everything we ask of them, academically and extracurricularly, but can't afford to go to college. Our focus is providing the information early on that helps them get to and through college."

When he was approached to assume the leadership mantle of ACCESS, Bob was delighted to find an organization that had such personal meaning to him and that was built directly on his own area of expertise.

ACCESS works in three stages. For middle school-age children, ACCESS works in partnership with Boston-based community organizations, such as West End House Boys & Girls Club and Artists for Humanity, to deliver the message about the importance of college and its accessibility. Twelfth-grade work is "the biggest," according to Bob. At that stage, ACCESS's full-time staff of trained financial advisors enter city schools three to four days a week to provide one-on-one counseling as often as the individual student needs it—three to four times a year, on average. Once they're in college, ACCESS staff continues to monitor the students' progress, through one-on-one counseling or "light-touch" methods, such as email and social media.

There are no requirements for taking advantage of ACCESS's services. Any child who attends a school where ACCESS has a presence can avail him or herself of these mentoring programs.

Take, for example, Jonathan, a "smart, talented kid" in Springfield, Massachusetts, who, in the fall of his senior year, saw his brother murdered. Bob explained that, in the inner-city culture in which Jonathan lived, it was expected that he would take a path of violence, proving that he was a man and that he cared about his brother by avenging his death.

Instead, Jonathan took a path that led him out of that environment. He turned to his ACCESS advisor for help and was accepted at Holyoke Community College. Then, his advisor took him to look at four-year colleges: two of University of Massachusetts' eastern campuses. It was the first time Jonathan had ever seen the ocean. In the fall, he will matriculate at UMASS Boston, where he'll see the ocean "every single day," says Bob. "That's the kind of transformative experience ACCESS can have."

A Continuing Growth Pattern

It's stories like this that make Bob want to extend the reach of ACCESS. When he took the helm at ACCESS, 1,000 students were being served, usually with one contact during their senior year. Bob made a priority of deepening that experience, so that now the number of students served has nearly tripled, and the counseling sessions each receives on average has quadrupled.

Bob's administration has also extended the continuum, so that it's not just high school seniors who benefit, but children in middle school right through their college graduation. After all, once a student gets into college, the need for financial counseling doesn't end. Trying to keep up with his wealthier classmates at Harvard, Bob himself ran up some bad debt that took time and effort to put behind him. So the struggles of a "poor kid in a rich place" strongly resonate with him.

The program has also expanded geographically, with a new office recently launched in Springfield, an educationally challenged city in central Massachusetts, and further expansion envisioned in Massachusetts—and even throughout the nation. "Every kid deserves to go to college and needs to understand how to pay for it," Bob says. "That's what's so compelling about the work of ACCESS, that moves us to want to reach more kids."

Bob sees the issue of who does and does not go to college as the next civil rights issue: one that is gaining visibility as it is being embraced by more and more people, including President Obama—and Harriet and Alan Lewis, the leaders of Grand Circle Foundation.

Sharing Ideas through the Foundation's Community Advisory Group

In 1999, Harriet and Alan created the Community Advisory Group (CAG), a forum in which Boston nonprofit leaders can gather to share best practices and explore ways to resolve common issues, including handling budgets and fundraising, developing boards, coordinating volunteers, and more. As a former educator, Harriet has always had a special passion for creating opportunities for inner-city children, so she and Alan have unveiled an ambitious new plan for the CAG. Between 2012 and 2018, they hope to measurably increase high school and college graduation rates among students from Boston's Allston, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury neighborhoods who participate in CAG programs.

As a new member of the CAG, Bob is delighted to "be a part of this amazing group of leaders." "I've just gotten started," he says, "and we're hoping to play as great a role as we can."

Additionally, Bob is thrilled that ACCESS was named a recipient of one of Grand Circle's Associates' Fund grants, in which—as the name implies—the associates themselves nominate and select local charitable organizations to receive an award of $500 to $5,000. ACCESS received the maximum amount in 2010.

While he's passionate about his job and generous with donating time to the CAG, Bob does make a point of finding a "personal and professional balance." He is a "huge" sports fan, he enjoys travel, and his family time is important to him.

Sometimes, however, that line gets blurred. Like right now, for example: his 17-year-old son is getting ready to apply to college. "I hope to bring my professional experience to bear on the process," Bob smiles.

Given the success of ACCESS under Bob's leadership, that's valuable experience indeed.

Featured in our March 2011 E-Newsletter. Read full issue here.