Rob Arning said he was shown the importance of generosity from an early age thanks to his parents, who were always helping out and giving to those in need. The New Yorker has carried that spirit of giving back throughout his entire life, evident by his active involvement with not one, but several volunteer organizations for the past two decades. For much of his volunteer work, Rob has been able to incorporate his workplace and serve with his coworkers. He is the former Vice Chair of Market Development at KPMG LLP as well as the KPMG Foundation Chairman and Client Care Executive, and will soon be retiring after more than 37 years at the firm. The numerous organizations he supports span from helping eradicate hunger to promoting childhood literacy, funding cancer research, assisting in natural disaster relief, and more.
Rob volunteers with PENCIL, which led him to unofficially adopting P.S. 161 in Manhattan and offering numerous resources and support to the school and its students. He helps donate books to Title 1 schoolchildren through KPMG’s Family for Literacy program, which has distributed more than 5 million books. Rob led an effort to create an annual fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, the Financial Services Cares Gala, and remains a Co-chair for the event as well as a Co-chair of the New York chapter of ACS’s CEOs Against Cancer. He supports organizations including City Harvest, New York City’s largest food rescue organization, and Concern Worldwide, a global aid and humanitarian organization. Rob serves as an Honorary Co-Chair for both the New York Says Thank You Foundation as well as Stars of HOPE, a healing arts program started by the Foundation. In addition, he serves as a Trustee Fellow for Carnegie Hall, and is an active school board member at Loyola University Sellinger School of Business and Long Island University College of Management and School of Accountancy. Rob has served many of these various organizations for over a decade or more.
Describe your volunteer role with PENCIL.
PENCIL stands for Public Education Needs Corporate Involvement Leadership. About 20 years ago, I served as principal for a day, which is a program that they offer. I was randomly assigned to P.S. 161 in Manhattan, on 131st Street and Amsterdam Avenue. I absolutely fell in love with the school, the students, the teachers, and the work they do. I, in effect, adopted P.S. 161 unofficially. There was no adoption program, but I sort of adopted the school and wound up going back there every year since, and leveraged a lot of different resources and teams from KPMG to provide all different kinds of support to the school, the teachers and the students.
What did you do with P.S. 161 that you are most proud of?
I think the thing I’m most proud of would be focused on the book programs that we brought to the school. This ties in to one of the other organizations, KFFL, which stands for KPMG’s Family for Literacy program. We run fundraisers where KPMG people and our families get involved. We generate funds and then we buy books from First Book, which is an organization focused on fighting childhood illiteracy, and then we deliver those books in person to students at Title 1 schools around the country. We did several of those book readings at P.S. 161. They’re incredibly moving, because you sit on the floor and read to first graders and second graders. They ask you questions. It’s so much fun and it’s so emotionally gratifying to see the looks on their faces, especially at the end of the session. We hand each of the students the copy of the book that becomes their copy to take home, and in many cases, it’s the first book that child has ever owned. I would say of all the programs we did at P.S. 161, our KFFL book reading program are among the most inspiring.
Can you talk about your volunteer work with the American Cancer Society?
I got involved in the American Cancer Society 15 years ago, when our then-Chairman Gene O’Kelly passed away from brain cancer. We were looking for a way to honor Gene and also support the ACS. We came up with a new gala, the Financial Services Cares Gala. For 15 years, we have run that dinner. I’ve been a Co-chair of the dinner since we started. It started as a fairly modest event and has grown to a giant ballroom-style dinner. We’ve generated north of 22 million dollars in proceeds for the American Cancer Society. In addition, I was asked to be a Co-chair of the New York chapter of CEOs Against Cancer, where we rally other business leaders to get involved in the fight against cancer. … I like to say that I may not be able to do the work that the Cancer Society does, or I may not be able to do the work that the doctors and nurses do, but I can help them do their work. The way that I can help them is by raising awareness, raising support, and raising funds to help them do their jobs, and do their jobs better, each and every day.
What is your role with City Harvest?
City Harvest is an organization that harvests, or rescues, more than 60 million pounds of food each year and distributes it to needy residents in the five boroughs of New York City. The food is rescued from cafeterias, restaurants, and local farms, and then redistributed. When I first heard about City Harvest probably about 20 years ago, I thought the simplicity and the purity of their message was amazing. There are hundreds of thousands of people in New York City who don’t get three meals a day — many don’t even get a meal a day — and City Harvest is fighting to make that change. I got involved by being a volunteer with the Skip Lunch Fight Hunger campaign, and remained a champion of that campaign for the last 20 years. The people of KPMG have been huge supporters of that effort.
I was drawn to the campaign by the simplicity of the campaign and the immediacy of the effort. You skip lunch one day, you take the money you would have spent on lunch, and donate it to City Harvest. They buy food and they feed a hungry person. The simplicity, the purity, and the immediacy that you know you support City Harvest today, they’re feeding somebody tomorrow — that really made me attached to their mission. And just the simple notion of being hungry. We’ve all been hungry, or at least, we think hungry. We don’t really know what hunger is, but when we’re hungry, we really know it and feel it and it doesn’t feel good. The notion to think there’s hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, who we’re walking past each and every day, who are hungry — it’s just completely unacceptable.
How do you volunteer with Stars of HOPE?
Stars of HOPE was born out of the tragedy of 9/11. It’s really all about 9/12 and how we responded. It started as an effort to pay back the other communities around the country for the help they provided New York City in the days following 9/11. People came from everywhere to help clean up New York and rebuild. Stars of HOPE was basically a New York Says Thank You effort, where we went around the country and helped people who were hit by hurricanes and floods and tornadoes and wildfires, and rebuilt their communities as a way of saying “thank you” for helping New York in our time of need. One of the things that was born out of the effort was this notion of making these little wooden stars and painting messages of hope on them, and hanging them all around these communities that had been struck by disaster. This small gesture took off and became such a powerful message platform that tens of thousands of stars were produced and hung in communities around the country and around world that have been struck by disaster, and brought hope and peace and healing to some of the most troubled spots in the world. The very targeted and immediate impact that the organization was having is what struck me and made me feel like this is a place where I can help and make a difference.
Stars of HOPE started as financial support, and then coaching and providing advice to the founder, Jeff Parness, as he was putting the organization together. I then also participated in a few field trips where there were rebuilding efforts. Joplin, Mo. was one, following a terrible tornado. The Hurricane Sandy rebuild was another. I also went on some missions where we were repairing a flag that had been damaged in the 9/11 attacks. That flag was being rebuilt state-by-state all around the country, and I visited and participated in a few different of the flag restitch and repairing efforts as well. I’ve stayed involved as an advisor as well as a financial supporter of the Stars of HOPE organization.
Can you talk about your volunteer work with Concern Worldwide?
Concern Worldwide is an amazing organization that goes into some of the most challenged parts of the world. What’s so amazing about Concern is they go in and they stay until they help towns and villages and communities rebuild themselves into a sustainable footprint. It’s not like they just go in when there’s a flood or a hurricane, stabilize for a couple months, and then they leave. They go in and they teach people how to thrive on their own and how to maintain a healthy lifestyle, whether it’s by building schools or wells or creating businesses, and basically change the trajectory of how these folks live and enable them to be a healthy, self-sustaining community. I got involved through fundraising and as a spokesperson for Concern 15 years ago, maybe more, and have remained involved and helped talk up and raise visibility for their mission ever since.
What inspires you to be involved in so many different ways?
I guess I didn’t wake up one day and say, “Let me find five or six things to get involved with.” Somehow I heard about things, or read about an issue, or something or someone crossed my path that caught my attention. I advise young people at our firm to put themselves in the traffic. What I mean by that is just be out and about and know what’s going on in the business world, but also know what’s going on in your community. When you’re out and about in the traffic today, and you’ve got your eyes open and your ears open, you’re going to see and find places where you can make a difference and make the world a better place.
Why do you think it’s important to give back?
I think it’s really important for people to volunteer because, not getting political, but I don’t think government alone can solve the social issues of the day. I think it really takes a village to address the issues of today, whether it’s health and human services issues, education, the environment. This is a team effort. We all need to come together. There’s strength in numbers. Imagine if we all said we were going to eradicate illiteracy, or we all said we were going to eradicate hunger on earth, and we all worked toward that common goal. The impact would be extraordinary. This is not somebody else’s job. We’re all in this together, and I think coronavirus has showed us that. It doesn’t matter where you live, what your economic situation is, what part of the country you’re in, what you do for a living — every one of us is at risk, some more than others for sure, but everyone is sort of in this together. I think it’s become this wake-up call that we all have to care for each other and think about each other a little bit more than we have in the past.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
What I would want people to learn is that no matter what our situation is in life, no matter what we do for a living, where we live — every one of us on earth can make a difference. All you have to do is pause, think about what is going on around you, look, listen, and reach out and make an impact that you’re comfortable with. No matter how big or how small, it’s going to make a difference.
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