Doing Well By Doing Good

Giving time to children in the community can improve a firm's image — and its bottom line.
BY COLETTE P. NASSUTTI

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
  • ONE CALIFORNIA FIRM DEVELOPED a program—$KiddAccounts—to teach elementary school children the basic concepts of budgeting. Steve Miksis, a CPA and manager, tailored the program to the young audience, using ideas they could easily understand. Taking an interactive approach and using Budgetbuck, a large cartoon version of a dollar bill, he reviewed the four basic uses of money—spending, saving for emergencies, saving for special things and giving.

  • THE FIRM FOUND TEACHERS AND STUDENTS in local elementary schools reacted enthusiastically to the five-week program. Other members of Linkenheimer attribute much of the program's success to Miksis' teaching style, which involves asking a lot of questions, moving around the room and using the Budgetbuck to illustrate his points.

  • THE FIRM RECEIVED MANY REQUESTS from local schools and clubs to present the program. It's already studying how to "teach the teachers" at various schools to present the program and it is working on developing a similar presentation for middle and high schools.

  • THE PROGRAM ENHANCED THE FIRM'S REPUTATION in the community. In addition, the firm's revenue is growing, even though employees devote a good amount of time to the program. The $KiddAccounts program has also helped Linkenheimer members learn to communicate with each other and it has created a spark of excitement in the firm.
COLETTE P. NASSUTTI is director of contract consulting at Accountants Plus, a finance and accounting human resources firm based in San Jose, California. She is the editor of The Marketing Advantage: How to Get and Keep the Clients You Want, and the author of Turning Sales Over to the Pros: Fourteen CPA Firms Share Their Experiences, both published by the AICPA management of an accounting practice committee. Her e-mail address is cnassutti@nelsoncorp.gonelson.com.


What do a lynx, a bunch of third-grade students and a CPA have in common? And why would a CPA want to spend otherwise billable hours developing a program that conveys the basic concepts of budgeting to kids? The answer to both of those questions begins with learning about $KiddAccounts—a program for teaching grade-school children the fundamentals of budgeting—developed by Linkenheimer LLP CPAs and Advisors, a one-office firm based in Santa Rosa, California. In addition to teaching about budgeting and what CPAs do, the program has created tremendous goodwill within that firm's community and improved productivity within the firm.

WHAT IS $KIDDACCOUNTS?
According to Steve Miksis, CPA, a manager at Linkenheimer who played a leading role in developing this program, "The basic goals of $KiddAccounts are to have elementary school kids think of their money as more than something they immediately spend, to convince them it's okay to think and talk about money and how to use it and to help them understand they really can be smart about it."

While for adults the budget and financial planning process involves a number of abstract issues, Miksis and his team tailored their presentation to their young audience—using ideas they could grasp. "Adults," he explains, "have long-term savings, tax planning, investments, but the place where it all begins is budgeting and how each dollar that comes in is apportioned."

Miksis, who has taught groups ranging in size from 15 to 40 students, keeps children's attention focused by using an interactive approach. "I like to get kids involved in dialogue right away," says Miksis. "Typically, I'll begin by asking, 'How many of you like to spend money?' All the kids wave their hands frantically. Then I ask, 'How many of you think it's okay to spend money?' Interestingly, only about one-half raise their hands. Kids really do think about money and its uses, but they aren't clear about how to make reasonable decisions," says Miksis.

That's when Miksis reviews the four basic uses of money—spending, saving for emergencies, saving for special things and giving. Although the spending category is quite easy for children to grasp, the "rainy day" and "sunny day" savings categories need some explaining, so Miksis has the students come up with their own definitions. For example, rainy day savings are those used to repair damage to a much-loved bicycle or skateboard, while sunny day savings are those used to pay for tickets to an amusement park.

Miksis illustrates the notion of dividing a dollar into four categories with the Budgetbuck, a large, cartoon-version of a dollar bill. He also uses a booklet produced by the firm, Tracking My Money with Lester Lynx , which features a cat that guides readers through the budget process, and offers reminders on how to allocate to each category by using envelopes that are included in the booklet. ($KiddAccounts, Budgetbuck, Lester Lynx and the image of Lester Lynx are trademarks of Linkenheimer, LLP.)

This approach reminds Miksis of his own parents cashing their paychecks and dividing the money into little white envelopes. "It was a simple but highly effective way to allocate a scarce resource and make sure it would be around when you needed it," he says, adding that for kids the act of physically dividing money into categories helps them grasp the notion of budgeting.

The program is taught in five weekly lessons. During the first classroom visit, Miksis talks with students for about 45 minutes. In the second and fourth sessions of the program, the classroom teacher follows up using materials the firm provides. In the third and fifth sessions, a CPA presenter from Linkenheimer comes in for 15- to 20-minute discussions. At the end of the program, all students receive certificates saying they participated in the $KiddAccounts money program.

Do kids actually take the materials home and use them? Miksis and his firm wanted to know the answer, too. To find out, after roughly three weeks, they revisited several classrooms where they had taught. Of the students surveyed, as many as two-thirds had taken home the workbooks and begun to use them. Of those who had not, the most interesting reason was offered by one third-grader: "My father took it away from me-he's using it himself."

Getting permission to teach was not difficult, Miksis says. He and another firm member, Judy Thomson, a supervisor who has been with the firm for seven years, contacted several teachers in their districts and asked if they could meet for lunch to go over the concept. The teachers were enthusiastic and worked with Linkenheimer's team to schedule in-class presentation time.

DEVELOPING THE IDEA
In 1994, the firm began involving all partners and staff in its annual retreat, which traditionally is held at a 12,000-acre California ranch. In 1995, the structure of the retreat allowed for a great deal of discussion among members on what kinds of clients the firm wanted to serve, what it could do for clients and how it could generate new business (see "A Victorious Retreat," JofA, Mar.96, page 70).

"I can remember," says Miksis, "that we were sitting in one of the most beautiful parts of the ranch, talking in a small group about how to approach practice development." During that breakout session, he says, it just popped into his head: "Every CPA firm tries to talk to clients and prospects. Why not talk to children for a change? Why not do something of value for them and hope the community learns about it, then says, 'What a nice thing'?"

His fellow team members were enthusiastic. And some even offered that perhaps class time with CPAs would help to improve the image of the profession, and make it more attractive to youngsters. Miksis believes that the atmosphere of openness and relaxation fostered by the retreat's location, and the way the partners managed the gathering, was key to the idea's birth. He also thinks that "if the partners had said, 'Give us an outline and a budget,' it never would have gone anywhere," says Miksis. "Instead, they said they liked the idea, and told us to run with it."

From there, Miksis and teammates Thomson and Charity Heasler, executive secretary, developed the idea while surveying budgeting books and products already available for kids. By fall 1996, the group had an outline of what it wanted to teach and was getting a positive reception from teachers and school administrators it approached. In May and June 1997, Miksis taught the program five times.

Miksis' teammates attribute much of the program's success to his teaching style, which involves asking a lot of questions, moving around the room and using the Budgetbuck to help children visualize how money can be allocated. "The kids were riveted," says partner Tim Delaney. "The majority asked a lot of good questions and paid terrific attention."

After the first few presentations, a local journalist observed the program in action and published a feature story in the local daily. That's when, as Miksis puts it, "the phones started ringing." The firm got calls from schools inviting them to come teach and from an educational video company, asking if they could produce a tape based on the program. Clients called and e-mailed their praise of the project, too. "I ran into a prospective client I had been talking with for some weeks," Miksis remembers, "and he told me 'Yours is a different kind of accounting firm, and what you are doing is wonderful.' " That individual and his business are now clients.

Because local schools expressed so much interest in the project for the 1997-98 school year, the firm began exploring ways to pass along its instructional technique to the teachers themselves. "We'll go to as many classes as we can," says Miksis, "but we just don't have the manpower to respond to every request. We're already looking at how we can 'teach the teacher,' thus enabling individual instructors to incorporate the program into their curricula without having to rely on outside support." Miksis also is developing a similar presentation for students in middle and high schools.

The firm also has received requests from local clubs to present the program to them, and a client—a local insurance company—wants its employees to bring their kids to an afternoon meeting so they can hear the $KiddAccounts presentation. "This could be a whole new way to both do good," says Miksis, "and to spread the word about our firm."

To Learn More
Firms wanting to know more about how they can license Linkenheimer's course work and materials should contact Steve Miksis by telephone at 707-546-0272 or e-mail smiksis@linkart.com. The cost of licensing the program varies with the number of times a CPA wishes to teach the $KiddAccounts program.


A SPARK IN THE FIRM
In addition to the more obvious community- and client-relations benefits the program has brought about, Miksis, managing partner R. John Jones and other firm members believe the firm has derived an equally important amount of internal value from the project.

According to Jones, "Revenue is growing, even though we have people devoting a fair number of hours to $Kidd-Accounts. It's possible," Jones adds, "that we could have made even more money this year had we continued to go about business development using more traditional methods, but who's to say? I still think that, in the long run, the firm is better off with this community project as part of what we do."

"Every business needs a spark to succeed," muses Jones. "Profit and net income are a by-product of a lot of other things. You can't manage them directly. It seems to me that companies that have an inner life, a kind of vitality, are much more likely to secure and sustain higher profits. This project has created a spark in the firm."

Because they are involved in such a unique project, team members also are able to work together in innovative ways and to expose and use special talents and creativity that otherwise would have found no outlet in the firm. "This project has brought new depth to my job," says Thomson. "It has added a different dimension, a spark. Let's face it, accounting is accounting. But this project has required a different thought process, and it's been great."

The project also enables firm members to get to know one another better and to learn how to communicate with each other on new levels. "It's been wonderful to listen to other people's ideas and to be able to contribute my own," says Heasler. "This has not always been easy for me," she adds. "This project has given us all a great feeling of pride and has created tremendous excitement within the office, along with an enthusiastic sharing of ideas."

Finally, firm members who in the past have not known how to talk about the firm now have a great conversation piece. "I can talk about the firm any place or time and spark a great conversation," says Miksis, a self-avowed introvert who believes the experience has also greatly improved his presentation skills.

Asked whether other firms could undertake similar projects, Delaney says, "Of course they can, although I think the success of any project like this depends on its springing from the heartfelt feelings of the group and how they want to be involved in their communities." CPAs wishing to start similar programs in their own towns should assess the interest and skills of firm members and also approach school teachers and administrators with their ideas before committing extensive resources to program development.

While putting together this kind of project does take work, Miksis encountered no serious roadblocks. For him, the biggest learning experience came from standing in front of a classroom of students. "As an introvert, I had never particularly liked public speaking, but it all changes when you can talk about something you really love," he says.

An innovative approach to business development, a team-builder, a way to build respect in the community—$KiddAccounts has proved to be all of these things for Linkenheimer. It also may open the door to fostering a new attitude in today's youngsters about the profession of accounting. Says Delaney, "For the first time ever, my 14-year-old said he might actually consider growing up to be a CPA and joining my firm!"

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