Tough economic times force many of us to search for income-generating opportunities in ways we never anticipated. With freelance writing work dwindling, I signed with a temp agency to fill the financial gaps. I was thrilled when they called about a position with a non-profit organization; I do a lot of volunteer work for non-profits and financially support many others.
Illustration by Shelby Kelley
When I learned I’d be working at National FFA (formerly Future Farmers of America) headquarters, I was pleased, certain I’d find a squeaky-clean, wholesome organization dedicated to helping young people. My assignment with the scholarship program interested me; I am still struggling to pay off my own school loans and wish I’d had some of the opportunities I saw available through FFA. But step by step, day by day, I quickly became disillusioned by some of the actions I witnessed. Inept mismanagement and insensitivity, rather than deliberate corruption, lie at the heart of the numerous problems. Nevertheless, I remain disturbed by the apparent disdain, carelessness, callousness and total disrespect displayed by too many key players.
The FFA scholarship program — First Round
National FFA is a non-profit youth organization of more than 450,000 student members and 12,000 teachers in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Emphasis is placed on developing leadership, promoting personal growth and furthering education for agricultural-related careers. The scholarship program plays an integral role in furthering that goal. This marks the 19th year FFA has managed the scholarship funds donated by business and industry sponsors. Over the past 18 years, nearly $15 million in scholarships has been awarded. In 2003, National FFA expects to award 1,926 scholarships, amounting to $1.9 million. Those numbers may be impressive, but they aren’t the whole story. As the application deadline approached, mail flooded into the national headquarters. The entire Delivery Team division of the Education Department was recruited to open and sort. But what I thought was a great display of teamwork soon clued me in to the predominant attitude of the key clique. Speed was the name of the game with the young 20-somethings, most in their first professional post-college job. The goal: open and sort as quickly as possible. In addition to sponsor piles, applications found their way into an immediate disqualification stack. Disqualification occurs if the post mark is past deadline, if the application is handwritten, if signatures are missing, if the application isn’t a current 2003 form or if it is incomplete. Just how incomplete would later become a major issue. To make the task more enjoyable, the all-female group gossiped and giggled their way through the stacks of mail. On the surface, it appeared to be a happy, cohesive unit.
The Wall of Shame
The joking turned ugly when student photos were discovered in a few applications. To get noticed, some of these enterprising students personalized their applications by using a fancy font or FFA binders, attaching impressive academic records or by including a photo. All photos were immediately scrutinized before the program coordinator, Jody (Editor’s Note: Names in this main story have been changed), confiscated them for her “Wall of Shame.” I was a little confused at first, not sure what to make of it, until one envelope revealed a photo that forever changed my impression of FFA. The photo showed a young man who was more than chubby, wearing knee-length baggy denim shorts and a golf shirt, posed on one knee in front of his tractor in the middle of a field. He had a bright smile; he looked happy and filled with optimism. I thought he was rather sweet — a cute kid, from the inside out. His photo was passed around the table, where he quickly became the butt of numerous so-called “jokes” as the vicious schoolyard comments flew fast and furious. I was embarrassed, yet afraid to say anything for fear of losing my job. I regret not defending the poor boy by putting a stop to the childish ridicule. My cynical young supervisor appeared delighted with this crowning jewel for her infamous wall. She seemed to take a perverse joy in covering one wall of her office cube with photos of smiling teens in their blue FFA corduroy jackets, young farmers with their prize hogs or cattle, fresh-faced kids excited about life and hopeful about the future. At first glance it might have looked celebratory, but a note dedicating it to Jody’s predecessor — along with the crude comments and malicious laughs — indicated that, to the Delivery Team, it was one big joke. There were others: more chubby kids, more kids with less than perfect looks. A few sob-story letters even made the wall — stories of misfortune that would break your heart, if you had one. I vowed to keep my head down, eyes front, mouth shut. I needed the job. But it wasn’t long before I broke my vow.
Round Two: a flawed process
In addition to the offensive behavior displayed toward applicants, the extent of gross incompetence astonished me. Admittedly, sorting, cataloging and judging nearly 7,000 applications was a colossal task. But poor preparation (clumsy filing allowed some 2002 applications to mingle in the 2003 files), lack of communication and cooperation, and the value of speed over accuracy contributed to cheat some students out of the chance at a scholarship. Problems included: • FFA advisors were not instructed in how to properly and completely fill out the applications. “I find it disconcerting that some students don’t get the guidance needed to properly fill out the applications,” was how one frustrated judged expressed it. • Judging criteria was not adequately reflected in application questions. Preference is given to those with financial need (all else being equal), but without questions specifically addressing that, staff speculated about the need of applicants, usually with very little evidence to support their guesses. • In other cases, criteria were too specific. Some scholarships called for involvement with Morgan horses or dairy goats, prompting Foundation representative Tanya to “fib by omission” to the sponsor when she called to inform them how few students met their requirements. She mentioned the handful with “goat experience,” failing to elaborate it was with meat goats instead of dairy goats. • Written feedback indicated that many judges were in the dark about their duties. Direction was lacking. A promised half-hour orientation for new judges never transpired. Instead, they were directed to team with “veteran” judges — some of whom were better teachers than others. “The first day explanation was weak and unclear,” wrote one judge. Other comments included, “A written explanation of the process would be helpful.” Winners selected by these judges were sometimes rejected. • Unwritten criteria caused the elimination of more winners. Often, unwritten criteria were mishandled — forgotten even when it was properly communicated. For example, Monsanto’s hidden criteria for its 100 scholarships required 20 non-FFA member recipients and five minorities. This information was relayed to Jody, but disregarded. There was no explanation for this lapse, and no apology. Two weeks after judging, 20 “winners” were rejected, and the search began for 20 non-member new winners. The 20 former winners missed subsequent rounds of judging, losing valuable opportunities to win other scholarships. • Database errors caused by lack of complete and accurate input caused numerous omissions and errors in matching applicants with the correct criteria. The staff seldom exerted themselves in overcoming the errors, resulting in qualified students not being pulled for consideration in some rounds of judging. • A fortnight after judging, 16 Texas Ford winners were rejected once someone realized they didn’t meet the known criteria requiring them to be high school students. This time it was too late to pull replacements: Those scholarships were escrowed for next year. • Inexperience within the team slowed and confused the process. Jody had been at her job less than a year. Former North Carolina Ag teacher Jeremiah had been in his position for a month — although that didn’t stop him from pushing his agenda. Only the Foundation rep and the database administrator were veterans. • The lack of an established written procedure and cooperative communication resulted in a lack of consistency and continuity when the most experienced Foundation representative took a medical leave of absence. • Vague language in the application instruction booklet led to discrepancies in judging, as well as arguments over disqualification. Several applications had been disqualified before the scoring round because the Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) section had not been filled out. Typically specific about required vs. optional sections, the instruction book was gray regarding the SAE. Tanya wanted them re-qualified for inclusion in judging for the Ford scholarships. George, her boss and Foundation team leader, agreed. They pored over the bulky instruction book to make their case against an idealistic and conservative Jeremiah, who maintained that any student who didn’t partake of the entire FFA experience wasn’t worthy of a scholarship. Foundation members protested that disqualifying these applicants represented a change in direction at mid-point, and the only fair thing to do was to allow them. Jeremiah staunchly defended his vision of a “proper” FFA member, and insisted that awarding a student who hadn’t completed the supervised experience would “send the wrong message.”
The Idiots file
I wondered how many kids missed a chance at a scholarship due to errors made by FFA staff. Some of the best-qualified students were rejected and dozens of scholarships went unclaimed. Subjectivity and inconsistencies in judging can be attributed to the human equation, but there was really no legitimate excuse. Sponsors’ complaints poured in; Tanya fielded many angry and/or tearful phone calls. Some discrepancies were traceable to gray areas in the signed contracts. To mollify one irate Ford sponsor, FFA agreed to pay for one wrongly awarded scholarship. More often, errors were traced to inaccurate or incomplete information in the database. In the name of speed, no one on the apathetic Delivery Team bothered with other means of searching for qualified applicants. But most of the problems resulted from simple human error — or arrogance. Confusion reigned. As did cruelty. Jody had enough time to create an “Idiots!!” file, which I had to update. In addition to the regular disqualified file, this contained partial applications — forms that might have come apart in the mail, or single pages re-sent by the applicants because of errors or omissions on the initial form. Their plaintive notes begged forgiveness and humbly requested the correct pages be matched up with the original application for consideration. Not only were they never considered for scholarships, but they, too, endured ridicule and disrespect, much like the students who mis-timed their requests for information and/or applications. In a twist on this series of inappropriately timed actions, students who sent letters of inquiry about the scholarships, along with self-addressed stamped envelopes, were, in the pitiless words of Jody, “either too early or too late.” Everything was tossed. Those kids will never get an answer, and they’ll never know why. That’s what I found so disconcerting. Deserving students won’t know why they lost. Many of them will now join me in spending years repaying college loans — all because FFA’s policies and guidelines are fuzzy, and because too many employees care more about making lunch plans than making sure things are done properly.
“I’m kind of shocked,” said Bill Stagg, team leader for marketing and communication services at FFA. “It’s a shame that someone who has had a limited view of the process decided to paint the process and the persons involved in such a negative light.” When asked to respond to Lori Lovely’s eyewitness criticisms of the scholarship review process at FFA, Stagg replied that the process, while not perfect, was overall fair and effective. Specifically, Stagg stated: • There is no “Wall of Shame,” as such. “It is true that these photos are posted on the wall, but it is not true that they are known or regarded as a ‘Wall of Shame,’” Stagg said. “The supervisor posts the photos of her scholarship kids because it reminds her of who she is working for.” • Although he says the applications are self-explanatory, a few applicants probably do not get all the assistance filling out the forms that they need, Stagg acknowledged. But the students have to rely on the help of the local FFA supervisors around he country, he said. “There is no way the national FFA can provide individual guidance to each applicant,” Stagg said. • Quantitative financial need information is requested — and not labeled as optional — on each application for a scholarship where financial need is a factor to be considered. • Promised judge orientation was not conducted on the first day of judging, but was provided on the second day for judges who requested it. FFA intends to provide more detailed written information to judges next year. “The suggestion that the judges were disgruntled is not true,” Stagg said. “We ask for their suggestions and criticisms so we can improve the process. This is a very gratifying experience, which is why so many return as volunteers every year.” • The 20 applicants who erroneously were awarded the Monsanto scholarships were never notified they had won, but they did miss subsequent rounds of judging for other scholarships as a result. “That was a regrettable error,” Stagg said. “But when you are talking about 1,500 scholarships, this was not a widespread problem.” • Applicants who were disqualified because they did not fill out a section detailing their Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) failed to notice that the section was not labeled as “optional.” Stagg says FFA will label all future application sections as either “required” or “optional” to reduce the chance of confusion. • The “Idiots!!” file was not a public tool, it was a folder with about 10 incomplete applications, Stagg said. When asked if the folder carried the label Ms. Lovely reported, Stagg replied, “I don’t know that it did.” “Overall, we think the person supervising this process did a tremendous job and we are very, very pleased,” Stagg said. “There is always room for improvement, and it is one of the hallmarks of this organization that we will change things if necessary.” —Fran Quigley