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Chicagoans of the Year 2011: Robert Burke

The Tender Taxman

LADDER UP

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In 1994, Robert Burke, then 22, stepped nervously into the office of Jim Kackley, a managing partner at Arthur Andersen. Burke had a business plan for an idea he had hatched while volunteering as a basketball coach on Chicago’s West Side. A player’s mother had come to him seeking financial help, and Burke had offered to do what he knew best: help her and others like her navigate the morass of U.S. tax forms so they could get back some of their hard-earned dollars.

Burke, a business analyst at the now-defunct financial firm, was given two minutes to describe his plan. Instead of presenting a do-gooder spiel, he appealed to Kackley’s business sense. “The number one reason why we should do this is not what you think I’m going to say,” Burke recalls telling Kackley. “We’ll be better business professionals if we know how to interact with a completely different demographic than ourselves.”

Impressed by the recent Notre Dame graduate, Kackley approved the plan, and Burke spent his two-week vacation drumming up volunteers from among his colleagues and elsewhere for the new Tax Assistance Program. His efforts paid off. “Some of those first volunteers are still volunteers today,” Burke says. “Everyone understands that taxes are complex, no matter what economic background you have.”

Since its founding, the program has returned $295 million to 148,000 clients in the Chicago area, with the help of more than 16,000 volunteers. Last year, the organization—renamed Ladder Up to reflect the breadth of its services, which now include college financial aid and banking assistance—helped more than 25,000 clients and returned about $47 million to the community in tax refunds and other areas.

“The need is greater than ever with the economy, and for our clients, [the tax refund] is their biggest paycheck of the year,” says Burke, who went on to graduate from Harvard Business School and start his own private-equity firm. But he continues to volunteer at Ladder Up while soliciting financial and community support for the group. “The business sector has an obligation to give back,” he insists. “If this were an easy fight, there wouldn’t be any working poor.”

 

Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp

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