Volunteer’s Volunteer, Leader’s Leader
Ann Wilson Cramer enters the room like incandescent electricity: warm, bright, a gracious force of nature. She greets her new acquaintance with an honest hug; blows goodbye kisses moments later, after a lively discourse on Mel Torme, family, Inman Park, injustice and DNA.
The director of community relations and public affairs for IBM, Cramer might be the busiest executive/community activist/civic leader in Georgia, a woman who is on a first-name basis with Atlanta’s CEOs and parking attendants. Any discussion about her will inevitably include the words, “energy” and “enthusiasm.” To wit:
“She is the personification of energy. You keep up with her by allowing your tongue to hang out of your mouth.” - Neil Williams, chairman of the Woodruff Arts Center’s Board of Trustees, one of the many boards Cramer serves on.
“Her excitement and enthusiasm ought to be bottled and sold as a tonic for what ails America.” - Stan Litow, vice president of IBM corporate relations and president of the IBM International Foundation.
“Ann has an unlimited reservoir of energy and enthusiasm.” - Rosabeth Moss Kanter, author, Harvard Business School professor and adviser for IBM’s education initiative.
All of this rings true enough, but barely scratches the surface.
“Ann is probably the most naturally enthusiastic person I know,” says Neil Shorthouse, who co-founded the Communities in Schools (CIS) program 35 years ago (with Bill Milliken and David Lewis) in Jeff and Ann Cramer’s Inman Park living room.
“You could look at that enthusiasm and think veneer, but underneath there is tremendous caring, a genuine response to whoever she meets, whenever she meets them,” Shorthouse says. “There is also an enormously deep intellect driving her, a perfect complement to her moral and spiritual commitment.”
She is also totally absorbed with education and youth issues, has been for decades. Husband Jeff teaches physics at Grady High School. Together, the Cramers hosted those early meetings, when Shorthouse, Milliken and Lewis were devising better ways to fill a child’s soul, spirit, mind and stomach by integrating community resources with public schools. The CIS mission stresses public/private partnerships that help keep at-risk students in school. Today, more than 2 million students in 28 states have access to services through CIS.
“I’d always been involved in education, dropout prevention, child advocacy,” Cramer says. “But it’s really fun to think that what is now Communities in Schools, this idea of education as an avenue to a more productive and meaningful life, was sort of birthed in our little house.”
Cramer is the immediate past chair of CIS-Georgia. She also chairs or has chaired the Georgia Partnership in Excellence in Education, the Georgia and Metro Atlanta chambers of commerce education committees and the World Class Schools Foundation. She chaired the Workforce Development Task Force for the Governor’s Commission for a New Georgia, the Governor’s Child Protective Services Task Force and the Governor’s Commission on Children and Youth.
She serves on boards that include the Carter Center Board of Councilors, Woodruff Arts Center, Voices for Georgia’s Children, the Alliance Theatre Company, Georgia Shakespeare Festival and the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.She’s past chair of the United Way of Metro Atlanta and Research Atlanta and past president of the Junior League of Atlanta.
To those most dedicated to causes like education, arts and community building, Cramer is the face of IBM in Atlanta. She represents the company as chair of the United Way of America’s National Corporate Leaders Council, serves on the Center for Corporate Citizenship Advisory Council at Boston College, the Council on Foundations Corporate Committee and the Southeastern Council on Foundations Communications Committee.
“She sets the bar for what corporate community involvement should look like,” says Karen Beavor, president and CEO of the Georgia Center for Nonprofits. What I mean by ‘involved’ is, she doesn’t just attend things. She directly contributes her time, talent. Ann is one of the first people in this community that really understood that nonprofits are not causes. They are the businesses that support causes, so the business side of charity has to be strong and sustainable to make a real dent in the issues and to fully leverage the donor investments that have been made in them. This is leadership thinking that we don’t see enough of. If every leader involved in nonprofits focused on making them stronger for the long run, like Ann does, our community would be unstoppable.”
Cramer’s small office at the IBM campus in North Atlanta is a condensed cityscape of business cards and books piled like skyscrapers on spare flat places. Trophies and plaques, lifetime achievement awards, distinguished service honors stand or hang like exclamation points. She was awarded the Legacy of Leadership Award (from Leadership Atlanta), which she calls “the Mel Torme Award, because it isn’t about being the star, it’s about being recognized by the people you work with, the people who know you. Mel Torme wasn’t the star, he was the singer’s singer.”
Ann Cramer, the volunteer’s volunteer, the leader’s leader. “She connects people to one another,” Kanter says. “Connects organizations to resources, connects everyone to the power of networks. Her ability to get things done comes from the confidence she inspires in other people … that they can tackle big problems and set higher goals than they thought possible.”
Cramer explains, “I’m a math major which means I’m a problem solver. See the big picture and all the pieces and how they fit together.”
Her activism, her desire to be involved, comes from a deeper well. “I’ve thought about this a lot over time, and I think it’s part of my DNA,” says Cramer, who grew up in Jacksonville, Fla. “I can remember from the beginning, my mother being involved in the church. I was a student council representative in the first grade. Who wants to be on the student council in the first grade? Also, I have the gift of faith. A lot of people have this huge conversion experience. Mine has been, like, since the beginning, part of who I am. For me, it’s the gift of understanding that God is in every person.”
The Cramers have lived in their (circa 1909) Inman Park house across from the Horizon Theater in Little Five Points since 1972. They came on a mission during a time of school integration.
At the time, the area wasn’t the trendy neighborhood it is today. They became the third owners of the house they’ve lived in for 33 years. Jeff did most of the wiring, plumbing, modernized the place. “This is not an exclusive neighborhood; it has always been very inclusive,” Ann says. “We’re rooted here.”
They volunteered, hosted events, introduced black and white kids from different backgrounds to one another. Jeff was teaching and Ann was a systems engineer with IBM. But when their first child, Megan, was born she took what she calls “a 10-year leave of absence,” to focus on her true passions: family and community. At the time, she was president of the Junior League, chairman of Leadership Atlanta and chairman-elect for United Way.
The Cramer kids were born into a sense of community. Megan, the oldest, is an actress in New York who works with youth in the nonprofit sector, using drama as an after-school confidence builder. Will, a senior at Villanova, spent last summer working with Habitat for Humanity. It must be in the DNA.
In 1989 Cramer was lured back to IBM to work in what was called “external programs” at the time. For decades the company had been the largest cash donor in the world. It is still among the world’s top five, but when “external programs” became “community relations,” it represented a shift in strategy. IBM improved its understanding of what Cramer calls “its competencies and skills and gifts and expertise.” We’re now able to use those things in ways that address what the community has defined as a need.
“IBM was a leader in redefining those local relationships, creating a new philanthropic approach,” Cramer says. “What it means to be a good corporate citizen isn’t just doing good in the local community. It’s lifting that up a notch, taking a strategic approach to making a difference, going from spare change to real change.”
So, under the hands-on leadership of Cramer, Litow and other IBM corporate community relations wizards, the company has evolved beyond checkbook philanthropy, but remains one of the largest contributors of money, people and resources, particularly information technology, to nonprofit organizations around the world, especially educational institutions, which jibes neatly with Cramer’s personal interests.
“When I speak about education, it’s not like IBM told me to say this, or said I’m supposed to cover this or that issue,” Cramer says. “The people who know me say, ‘Oh, that’s Ann, she’s been promoting education for 30 years.’ “
It’s been something Cramer and her employer have both been committed to for a long time. Since 1994 IBM has invested some $75 million in school reform through its flagship Reinventing Education program, which stresses technology-driven solutions to raise student achievement.
Sitting in her little office with the new acquaintance, who now feels as important as a CEO, Cramer is buzzing over IBM’s newest education initiative, Transition to Teaching, unveiled a few days earlier. The plan is to fill the growing void of math and science instructors with IBM employees leaving Big Blue, to leverage their brains and experience, empower them to become fully accredited teachers.
“We recognized a critical need, really we call it an urgent need, for teachers in math and science. And we have so many IBMers, people who are only 53 or 55, who are retirement eligible but who are so gifted and smart,” Cramer says.
The U.S. Department of Labor predicts an increase of 6 million job openings for scientists, engineers and technicians by 2008. An estimated 260,000 teachers will be needed by the 2008-2009 school year to prepare these budding Poindexters.
If it’s successful, IBM hopes to expand the program well beyond the current level (about 100 employees across the U.S.), including other companies. Shouldn’t be too difficult to recruit from IBM ranks, though. About 44,000 employees have donated nearly 2 million hours of service to local schools through the Reinventing Education program.
And the company has made it easier for employees and retirees to boost their volunteerism through its OnDemand Community, an online initiative that includes career day presentations, information to help nonprofits manage themselves, community grant applications and volunteer opportunities. In its first year of operation, OnDemand has inspired a 33 percent increase in employee volunteer hours.
“This is like an apple falling out of a tree when you need it,” says Cramer, predictably and genuinely geeked about the program.
Cramer spends more time in meetings or on the telephone finding solutions and working the angles, sits on more boards, volunteers more hours, builds more human bridges than anyone that anyone else can think of. She’s the connection, whose eyes light up a room as she thinks of someone else she can invite or recruit or inform.
“She’s creative, imaginative and tireless in her commitment to bringing business and community together,” says IBM’s Litow. “Few people in business have the in-depth understanding of social issues that Ann has and even fewer can communicate and work so effectively to bring people across the public, private and voluntary sector together.”
On a day following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, Cramer has a phone grafted to her ear. She has a geographic responsibility to IBM. It’s North America. But today she’s focused on the region hammered by the storm and floods.
IBM has made a $3.2 million commitment in technology and services for problems identified by the local leadership of the affected areas. They’ve sent people armed with 100 Think Pads to Louisiana State University, the philanthropic staging area. They’re using the corporate bread and butter, information technology, to help assess environmental ramifications, to help local nonprofits gather information and help local citizens whose workplaces were destroyed find new jobs.
She just got off the phone with Morehouse College and she’s about to call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She’s been organizing efforts of IBM employees to meet the immediate needs of colleagues, clients and citizens in theravaged Gulf Coast states. BellSouth, a huge customer, has made a list of things its employees in the region need, so the IBMers are gathering toilet paper to put on a plane.
Cramer is happily going about the grim business of pitching in following a monstrous disaster, doing what she does best, getting others involved, recruiting, informing. She’s navigating the Atlanta network with a sense of community and purpose implanted at the cellular level.
“If I was playing that game which asks you to say the first thing that comes to mind when a particular word is mentioned, I would immediately say ‘Ann Cramer’ at the mention of the word ‘community,’ ” says Karen Beavor. “You simply cannot separate the impact on the Atlanta community and Ann Cramer. Anyone that knows anything about this community understands that it is impossible.”