Unsung Heroines

Meet five women who are making a difference in Memphis.

(page 2 of 6)


Jenny Turner Koltnow

Grizzlies Charitable Foundation

With a giving spirit and determination to succeed, this local philanthropist has rewritten the rulebook as she works for the community she now calls home.

The Memphis Grizzlies are world champions.

That’s not wishful thinking or a headline hopefully ripped from a future newspaper; it’s true right now. The Grizzlies are the best at what they do — not on the basketball court but in philanthropic terms.
In July, the international organization Beyond Sport named the Memphis Grizzlies the 2012 Team of the Year. The honor recognized the benevolent efforts of the Memphis Grizzlies Charitable Foundation and the team’s Community Investment department. The Grizzlies beat out such finalists as Premier League soccer clubs in England and the storied Boston Celtics.

Not bad considering the team has only been in Memphis since 2001 and the foundation has only been in existence since 2004, formed by executive director Jenny Turner Koltnow.

The Grizzlies relocated to Memphis not long after Koltnow herself arrived. The Wisconsin native had attended Vanderbilt, where she received a bachelor’s in human and organizational development and English and a master’s in higher education administration. That kind of background, she says with a laugh, “prepares you for anything or nothing.

She formed the idea in grad school that she might like a career jogging toward being a dean of students or similar position in academia. She took her first job coordinating student organizations at the University of Memphis.

She came to realize, though, she wanted her career to be focused more on helping the broader community beyond the college campus. She was particularly interested in how companies and organizations work to benefit the community philanthropically. When the NBA team came to town in 2001, she saw an opportunity to help others on a large scale. Her character was clearly strong enough that she was willing to alter her career course after the race had already begun. Koltnow was one of the earliest hires the Grizzlies made in Memphis.

She joined the team as the coordinator of Community Investment before being promoted to manager. Koltnow developed the charitable giving programs and funding partnerships for the new team. Soon enough, it was evident more infrastructure and intentionality around the team’s philanthropy was needed.

“Every sports team approaches community involvement differently,” Koltnow says. “It’s driven by the ownership or the orientation of management. We were fortunate because the owners saw the Grizzlies as an engine to drive community engagement and civic pride.”

Koltnow was given the unique blank slate of being with a young sports franchise in a new city. It presented an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

“We’ve never been beholden to one way of doing things,” Koltnow says, “except how best to operate in this community. We can’t call the HQ in some other city and ask, ‘What do we do next?’”
The learning curve of the foundation has followed Koltnow’s own to an extent. “It’s pretty personal,” she says. “There’s been a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. When there’s no template to follow, no how-tos in this business, you go with your gut and where your resources are. There’s a lot of ‘throw spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks,’ and a lot doesn’t.”

She and the foundation have clearly figured some things out. “The Grizzlies Charitable Foundation made a name for itself early because we were giving 10 times what an average sports team was giving,” she continues. “We’ve committed more than $29 million to the community since 2001. That statistic alone makes my colleagues’ [from other cities] jaws drop to the floor.”

Where the journey has taken the foundation is a mold-breaking new way of looking at mentoring. The foundation formed TEAM UP, a community-wide initiative that forms groups of three mentors and nine students. The change in the traditional one-to-one model came about as a way to reach many more children than would otherwise be possible and as a way to strengthen the depth and range of experience on the mentor side. “We created it ourselves with some inspiration from around the country,” Koltnow says, “and it’s been extraordinary.”

TEAM UP began in January 2011 with 15 mentors and 45 students. As of this fall, the program has evolved to encompass 162 students from Power Center Academy, Soulsville Charter School, and KIPP Memphis Collegiate School. TEAM UP helps enhance students’ academic achievement and conduct and helps teach the students that graduation and college are possible.

The vision has led to building a charter school as well. The Grizzlies are one of a couple of U.S. professional teams involved in a school and the only one with their name on it, Koltnow says. The all-boys middle school Grizzlies Prep opened downtown this year.

Wins on the court don’t necessarily translate into community support for the foundation, but Koltnow has seen an outpouring of interest since spring 2011, when the team made a run into the second round of the playoffs. “Whether or not you liked basketball, suddenly the Grizzlies took on more significance in the community,” Koltnow says.

“Things are clicking,” she adds. “The Beyond Sport Award reassures everyone what type of organization you get to do business with. You can trust us. Few teams around the world have that commitment and depth of engagement.”

Koltnow and her husband, PJ, have two boys, ages 6 and 3. “It’s important to me to not only spend time with them but also to expose them to being involved in the community,” she says.

 A number of mentors have helped along the way, of course. Koltnow cites specifically founding Leadership Academy CEO Linda Bailey, who advised that, “When you say ‘yes’ to one thing, you say ‘no’ to another.” That lesson underlines the importance of time management, prioritizing your responsibilities, and finding balance between home and work life. Koltnow also names Memphis businesswoman and philanthropist Gayle Rose, whom she first encountered through the Grizzlies. “Rose would always ask me, ‘Do you have all the tools in your toolbox?’ It’s a simple question but it’s why I still feel I’m challenged in my work: I don’t have all the tools, and we haven’t mastered this. [The foundation] has achieved some exciting success but there’s so much more work to be done.”

Koltnow mentors other Memphians and has further expanded the scope of her personal philanthropy, serving on the board of the Leadership Academy and the advisory committee of Healthy Memphis Common Table.

Koltnow is an athlete as well: She has always run to stay in shape or train for a sport, and she ran her first marathon in 2004. After the birth of her second son, she was interested in proving to herself she could run another marathon.

In 2011, Koltnow ran the Boston Marathon. While doing it, she raised more than $9,000 for the Massachusetts Mentoring Partnership.

Vision, commitment, and belief in the value of the goal: Those are what win the race. — Greg Akers

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