How One New Question Transformed an Organization

By: Lou DiGioia, CAE

At MATHCOUNTS, the core program was successful, but growth was stale. When one person asked a question that no one had asked before, staff and board members started to think outside the box, and it changed the organization deeply.

In the early part of the past decade at the MATHCOUNTS Foundation, the same question came up at board meeting after board meeting: How do we get more participation in the MATHCOUNTS Competition Program? Things got to a point where that one question was casting a shadow over every facet of our organization.

For eight years, I have had the privilege of working at MATHCOUNTS, the nation's largest nonprofit dedicated to middle-school mathematics. Chances are, if you have heard of us, you know us for our signature offering, the MATHCOUNTS Competition Program. Started in 1983, the competition annually draws more than 100,000 students from all 50 states to take part in a multilevel competition run by volunteers from the National Society of Professional Engineers. Participants advance through a series of local and state competitions to win the right to be one of four representatives from each state at the national competition. At this event, students answer math questions in a head-to-head, bracket-style competition until one emerges as the year's national champion. It is an incredibly successful event that has helped MATHCOUNTS deliver on its mission of increasing enthusiasm for and achievement in middle-school mathematics.

And yet, that success was the cause of our biggest organizational problem.

It was obvious to anyone involved how beneficial the competition program was for the student and teacher participants, so naturally there was an organizational focus on getting more schools and students to participate. We tried a variety of tactics to increase its reach, but by the early 2000s it seemed participation in the program had reached a plateau. This leveling off was a cause of great concern. Because it was clear the competition program was so critical to accomplishing our mission, we devoted more time and resources to increasing the number of schools involved. It was a question that plagued us. How do we get more participation? How do we raise our numbers? Lucky for us, one new question at a board meeting was the cure that reframed our entire way of thinking and pointed us in a better direction.

One new question at a board meeting reframed our entire way of thinking and pointed us in a better direction.

In early 2007, during yet another board discussion on how to increase participation in the competition program, someone asked, "Does it matter?" This brought the discussion to a complete halt, because it seemed like all it required was the obvious reply of, "Hell yes!" The speaker then continued: "Does it matter if we increase the number of students participating in the competition program if we can achieve our mission through other means?"

Phrased that way, the obvious answer switched from an emphatic yes to a considered no. Once the group accepted that the competition program was not the only way we could accomplish our mission, we were able to put energy into developing programs to work in conjunction with the competition to achieve our goals. Later that year, we unveiled the free MATHCOUNTS Club Program that provides the resources, structure, and prizes for teachers to hold math-club meetings after school that do not include a competitive aspect for the students. Thanks to this new program, school participation in all MATHCOUNTS programs for the 2008 school year increased six percent, which was our largest increase in school registration in more than 20 years. In 2009, school participation increased more than nine percent—the largest increase in MATHCOUNTS history.

The ripple effects of that meeting are still evident at MATHCOUNTS today. One obvious change was a new mission statement for MATHCOUNTS that explicitly states we will achieve our goals through "fun and challenging math programs," a constant reminder that we must offer multiple programs to reach the vast spectrum of student and school environments today. We continue to offer new programs—some big, some small—that help us expand our reach every year. There is no doubt that the competition program at MATHCOUNTS is our greatest success story and will always be one of the strongest tools we have to accomplish our mission. Thanks to one well-timed question at a board meeting, we learned it's not the only one.

Lou DiGioia, CAE, is executive director at MATHCOUNTS in Alexandria, Virginia. Email: [email protected]