Doug Pitt and What We Can Do When We Care to Learn

Biz 417 sat down with Doug Pitt, founder of the nonprofit Care to Learn, to discuss his career, philanthropic interests and the things that he says “have my heart.”

by Lucie Amberg

Jan 2023

Doug Pitt
Photo by Brandon Alms Purchase Photo

“Some things choose you,” Doug Pitt says. “It really wasn’t my choice. I remember the exact second, sitting at a stoplight, when I just knew.”

It was 2007. Earlier, while attending a meeting of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, he’d heard outgoing board member Morey Mechlin describe the challenges faced by kids living in poverty. She’d shared details that grabbed a hold of Pitt and wouldn’t turn him loose. He kept thinking about the three siblings who used a single toothbrush and the boy who wore his mom’s jeans because he didn’t have pants of his own. In the same week, Dr. Norman Ridder, then-superintendent of Springfield Public Schools (SPS), proposed starting a fund that could help students with targeted needs like the ones that were haunting Pitt. 

“Dr. Ridder said he needed $50,000,” Pitt says. “SPS funds are allocated [to specific costs], and if a kid needed something, they couldn’t pull out a dollar and help them. Some of the fixes are significant but easy; they just don’t have the budget to make them happen.” 

So there it was: a painful problem and a possible solution—all in one week. “I knew I was going to do it,” Pitt says. “There wasn’t a big business plan I’d written out and thought about for weeks. It was on my heart, and some things came together, which I’ll call divine intervention. Sitting at a stoplight, that was my moment, and here we are.” 

Fifteen years later, Care to Learn, the nonprofit Pitt founded to address those “significant but easy” fixes, is going strong. Last year, Care to Learn crossed a big milestone—meeting its two millionth need—and set organization records for both fundraising and dollars spent on the children it serves. From its roots as a resource for kids in Springfield, it’s organically grown to include 41 chapters across Missouri. 

The model of service is simple but insightful. It’s based on the understanding that kids spend a lot of time in schools, which means that bus drivers notice when one of them lacks warm clothing. Lunchroom staff learn to spot a kid who’s hoarding food so she’ll have something to eat when she goes home, and if a child’s getting bullied because he doesn’t have access to proper hygiene products, teachers see it happening. As Pitt says, “Many of them are beautiful people who are going to their own purse. They’re pulling out 20 bucks and taking care of these needs behind the scenes. They’re getting a kid fed or getting shoes because they’re going home with these things on their heart.” Care to Learn offers a similar kind of immediate, compassionate help, but it’s more sustainable.  

“Rather than one person looking out for that child’s best interest, there’s a village,” says Krystal Simon, who joined Care to Learn in 2021 as its CEO.  School employees know that they have a steady partner in their concern for kids, and in contrast to many critical services that help alleviate poverty, the resources Care to Learn provides are “quick, easy, and there’s very little red tape,” Simon says.

Krystal Simon, CEO of Care to Learn
Photo by Inner Image Photography

Applying Business Principles 

The elegance of the model might have something to do with the fact that Pitt says he never set out to found a nonprofit. He came up through Springfield’s business scene, which helped him bring an outside perspective to the work. In 1991, he founded ServiceWorld Computer Center, although he jokes that at the time, he “couldn’t even turn on a computer.” This was well before computers became the driving force in offices, but Pitt could see their emerging impact on the workplace. He sensed that soon, every business would need the kind of IT support ServiceWorld provided.

In the company’s second year, “Great Southern Bank took a chance on us with a large service contract,” he says. “That put us on the map, and I’m grateful to them.” More clients followed, largely through referrals and word of mouth. Pitt became active in the Chamber. “I met everyone I could,” he says, and ServiceWorld grew. In 2013, it merged with TSI. Pitt stayed on as a leader of the company’s Springfield operations, and the merger opened up time for his interest in real estate development. With Brian Hayes, his partner in the commercial real estate company Pitt Development Group, he began specializing in medical office space. 

Around this time, Kevin Waterland, who was now 25 and had started working at ServiceWorld when he was just 18, approached Pitt with a business idea. “It was a small cloud storage company, and it worked,” Pitt says. “I funded it, and we sold it off.” Waterland came back to Pitt with an idea for a new company, Syndeo, which grew very profitable. Syndeo became TSI’s client. In time, it started doing so much business with TSI; it felt natural to buy back the TSI operations that had originally belonged to Pitt. In 2017, Pitt and Waterland reacquired components of TSI to form Pitt Technology Group (PTG). Since then, PTG has grown. Late last year, it announced its third acquisition, Protel Systems and Supplies. “I believe in Kevin,” Pitt says. “I like the way the company is working, and I’m super proud of him.” 

If it sounds like it’s been a dynamic ride, it has been. “You can say you want to stay the same and not grow, but life doesn’t work that way,” Pitt says. “Businesses are organic—they’re living, breathing things.” And he isn’t afraid to change course. “Anytime I wake up with a better idea than the day before, I’ll make that change. Why wouldn’t I?” he asks. 

First row, from left: Debbie Shantz Hart, Doug Pitt, Mark Walker, Marshall Kinne. Second row, from left: Pam McCoy, Jann Holland, Sarah Hough, Jami Peebles, Jessica Harmison Olson, Alexis Childs. Third row, from left: Derek Day, Dr. Chance Wistrom, Jason Johnson, Monte McNew, Dr. Tom Prater, Dwayne Fulk. Lacie Clark, Jeffrey Gann, Brian Todd
Photo by Inner Image PhotographyCare to Learn’s Governing Board is filled with 417-land business minds. First row, from left: Debbie Shantz Hart, Doug Pitt, Mark Walker, Marshall Kinne. Second row, from left: Pam McCoy, Jann Holland, Sarah Hough, Jami Peebles, Jessica Harmison Olson, Alexis Childs. Third row, from left: Derek Day, Dr. Chance Wistrom, Jason Johnson, Monte McNew, Dr. Tom Prater, Dwayne Fulk. Lacie Clark, Jeffrey Gann, Brian Todd and Jeff Tynes (not pictured) also serve on the board.
Doug Pitt with Kevin Waterland, co-owner/general manager of Pitt Technology Group; Pitt Technology Group headquarters in Springfield MO
Photos courtesy Doug Pitt, Pitt Technology GroupPitt with Kevin Waterland, co-owner/general manager of Pitt Technology Group (left). When Waterland was just 18, he began working at Pitt’s first company, ServiceWorld. The two are now partners. Pitt Technology Group headquarters (right) are located in Springfield Underground.

All the twists, turns and mile markers on Pitt’s professional journey influence the culture at Care to Learn. As he says, “I’ve grown up as a businessperson. I only know one way.” For example, while mission creep is understandable, Care to Learn stays focused on its core objectives. “In nonprofits, we want to help the world,” Pitt says. “We want to do everything, but you don’t do that in your business. You’ve got to do what you do and do it really well.” For Care to Learn, this means providing immediate assistance with needs related to the health, hunger or hygiene of children. Kids often have additional challenges, like a lack of school supplies, and their parents have needs as well. But rather than expanding—and diluting—its scope, Care to Learn connects families with additional resources in the community. 

This relates to another critical principle of the organization: its localized approach. Every school district is different. Some have existing clothing banks or food pantries that work well. Care to Learn seeks to supplement these resources, not supplant them, which means more people can get the resources they need. “At the end of the day, it’s never about us,” Simon says. “If a child needs help, whoever can best provide it, that’s what we want.” 

And it’s crucial that Care to Learn is genuinely wanted, everywhere it establishes a chapter. The superintendent has to believe in the mission, and there has to be a teacher or staff member who can serve as the chapter liaison and provide local direction. “Someone who isn’t forced to do the job,” Pitt says. “Because their plates are full already. There’s no pushing—no ‘round peg/square hole’ here, because we know how that will turn out.” 

He also resists what he calls the “discount mentality” that creeps into the nonprofit world. When nonprofits focus on providing much-needed goods and services, they sometimes feel inclined to settle for shabby office environments or equipment that doesn’t truly meet the organization’s needs. Pitt says this is a mistake. Donors who give money for a mission are hoping for results. An organization that presents itself as sophisticated and well-run earns donors’ trust—it seems like the kind of operation that can achieve big goals. “It’s not about being ostentatious; it’s about being professional,” Pitt says. “So what does that mean? Being the best at what we do. I don’t know any other way.”

Care to Learn and the Future 

Principles like these, which Pitt workshopped in his businesses, have taken Care to Learn from the $50,000 fund that Ridder initially requested to an organization with a budget of nearly $2 million—from one school district to 41 chapters across the state. And there are more plans for growth. “We’ve never left the state of Missouri,” Pitt says. “That will change... I like taking care of our own in Missouri... But if we’re going to talk about efficiency in helping kids, why are we putting boundaries on things? What’s the path of least resistance to help the most kids?” 

It started with that moment in 2007: Pitt sitting at a stoplight, haunted by the “significant but easy” fixes that were out of reach for too many kids. “I’m a fixer; that’s what I do,” he says. “It’s where a businessperson’s brain is.” And while Care to Learn began with the coat, the shoes—simple items to improve a child’s quality of life—it’s kind of become about how kids are programmed to see our world. 

Pitt came up in the tech industry, where programming is typically a straightforward process—specific inputs lead to specific outputs. The reality is: Kids who are living in poverty receive a lot of demoralizing inputs. No matter how well intentioned, the big services that are meant to help can be complicated and unwieldy, which means even small outcomes might take a while. Much of the world runs on certain assumptions, including that kids will have enough food and baseline stability, so kids in poverty can feel like the exception, like they’re always left out of the equation. It can seem like nothing really works. 

But then an organization like Care to Learn comes along, and it works. Someone notices that you’re cold or hungry or dirty, and they’re able to do something about it. They can do it quickly and without much fuss. It’s a totally different kind of input, and like a rogue piece of coding, there’s no telling how it might resonate inside the developing mind of a child. “At the end of the day, does a jacket or new shoes solve it?” Pitt asks. “Maybe not long term, but that day it does. Self-esteem is really what we’re doing. That’s what we’re building up in these kids because we’re helping them feel whole and feel good and not invisible.” 

Doug Pitt with family
Photo courtesy Doug PittDoug Pitt with his son Landon, daughter Reagan, wife Lisa and daughter Sydney. “Nothing’s better than when I have the five of us together,” Pitt says. He and Lisa met in middle school and have been married for 32 years. “She’s super loving and caring and a great mom,” he says.

A Reason to Smile

Last spring, an educator came to Hannah*, one of the liaisons for the local Care to Learn chapter, with an unusual request. The educator worked closely with Amy*, a teenaged girl who’d gotten braces years ago—when her family was on more stable financial footing. Since then, Amy’s parents had divorced, her mom had moved away from town and her dad had lost his job. As a result, things fell by the wayside, including Amy’s orthodontic care. By this point, she was missing brackets, and the wiring for her braces was in disrepair. Amy had grown so self-conscious about her mouth that she was reluctant to smile or even speak.

The employee wondered if Care to Learn might be able to help. “Being a new chapter, we reached out to the central office for guidance,” Hannah says. “They told us, ‘Why don’t you take her to a consultation and see what it’s going to look like?’” When they arrived at the orthodontist’s office, the general manager was eager to help. The orthodontist agreed to perform the necessary work at a dramatically lowered cost, along with critical dental work that Amy needed, including several fillings and a root canal. Care to Learn covered the bill and paid an outstanding balance on Amy’s account.

This month, Amy is “about to get her braces off,” Hannah says. “They did everything expedited, and she’s been the best patient—doing everything she’s supposed to do.” It’s especially meaningful, Hannah says, because before Amy’s parents divorced and her father lost his job, they’d sacrificed to afford the braces Amy needed. “The money they spent, it took a lot,” Hannah says. Although they hadn’t been able to make other major purchases, such as buying their own home, they’d gotten Amy braces, and they’d paid for her ongoing orthodontic care—until they couldn’t pay for it anymore. Being able to finish the process not only gives Amy healthy teeth and a confident smile; it helps her clock a win on a long-term goal that mattered to her family.

Without Care to Learn, Amy still would have needed orthodontic care. The educator still would have felt concerned, but there wouldn’t have been an entity that could help. “The needs have always been there for students, and the school budget restraints have always been there,” Hannah says. “Care to Learn is a bridge between the two. It’s able to go where the school budget ends.”

*Hannah’s and Amy’s names have been changed to protect Amy’s privacy. 

Water Works

Doug Pitt photographing a gorilla on a visit to Africa
Photos courtesy Doug PittWhen Doug Pitt is in east Africa, working on projects that improve water quality for communities, he often brings his camera along.
Herd of zebra photographed by Doug Pitt
Photos courtesy Doug PittPitt enjoys photographing the people he meets, the natural beauty and the wildlife. Photography helps keep him in touch with the human stakes of his work with water.
Portrait taken in Africa by Doug Pitt
Photos courtesy Doug Pitt“It’s okay to step back and look through another lens,” Pitt says. “It’s a big world, but it’s also really small. We’re all just people, trying to do what we do, and we deserve to be happy.”

In 2006, John Bongiorno, president of WorldServe International, reached out to Doug Pitt through Pitt’s pastor. Bongiorno wanted to talk about WorldServe’s water projects in east Africa. He invited Pitt to travel to Kenya and Tanzania and see the projects for himself. Pitt agreed that it sounded interesting.

“He’s calling me literally within five days and booking a trip,” Pitt says. “And I was like, ‘This is on. Okay, let’s go.’” It was a smart move on Bongiorno’s part. “If you can get someone in a village and show them ‘before water’ and ‘after water,’ you’ve got them,” Pitt says. “It got me.”

Since that first visit, he’s returned again and again. In December, he took his 30th trip to the region. During these visits, he’s seen programs aimed at worthy goals like strengthening infrastructure, improving healthcare and combating malaria. “But those don’t have my heart,” he says. “Water has my heart. It chose me, and it’s what I like to put my energy behind.” He loves the lasting nature of a new well—it’s a resource the community can use for two or three decades, and it raises the quality of life for everyone who depends on it. “It’s the people who keep me coming back,” he says.

He often brings his camera along. “I’ve been able to experience some things that take your breath away,” he says. “For someone who loves photography, you can’t shoot enough.”

Pitt enjoys photographing the people he meets, the extraordinary natural beauty and the wildlife. And his camera gives him a different way of seeing the world—something he thinks he might have picked up from his mom, Jane, a visual artist. “I do like that artistic switch,” he says.

It also helps keep him in touch with the very human stakes of his work with water. “It’s okay to step back and look through another lens,” he says. “It’s a big world, but it’s also really small. We’re all just people, trying to do what we do, and we deserve to be happy.” 

Get Involved with Care to Learn


If you want more information about Care to Learn, including how to donate and how to become a partner, head to the official website.