From Nonprofit Highlights

Blog Action Day 2009: Climate Change

While a local land trust or watershed organization may not be able to stop climate change in its tracks, their work creates healthier ecosystems which may prove more resilient to climate change. Resilient ecosystems are better prepared to resist, tolerate or recover from climate change.

On Blog Action Day 2009, I hope that you’ll take seek out and support some of these critical organizations or similar organizations in your own community.

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16/100 Things I’ve Learned: Innovative administrative collaboration already exists

An rich example of effective nonprofit collaboration is the Chattanooga Museums Collaboration. This innovative partnership was one of the eight finalists in the Lodestar Foundation National Collaboration Prize.

I was fortunate to participate yesterday in a webinar led by Heather DeGaetano, Development Director for the Tennessee Aquarium, at the 2009 Conference of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, RI Chapter.

I sat with rapt attention listening her describe this extraordinary collaboration between three very different museums which are sharing a variety of back office services such as finance, human resources, retail, and information systems.

They have even collaborated on the third rail of nonprofits … you guessed it … fundraising! The three museums working together on a transformational waterfront program raised — hold onto your hats— $120 million in 90 days!

Over and over again I see opportunities for building strong partnerships like this. Joint ventures that don’t require giving up your sole through merger. Partnerships that could emerge organically and not by a forced marriage orchestrated by funders. Sharing back office functions can result in stronger and more competent operations, shared expertise, and even cost savings or revenue generation for providing that support to another.

What did Heather tell us this collaboration learned? Among other lessons:

  • That collaboration can work.
  • That good faith and trust are essential elements of strong collaboration.
  • That the benefits of their partnership just keep on coming… and run so much deeper than just cost savings or additional revenue. One example, the Hunter Museum of American Art and the Tennessee Aquarium jointly opened new exhibits called Jellies: Living Art. (wish I lived nearby, the photos are fabulous)
  • That they can no longer imagine doing this another way.

I was reluctant to write this piece as they’ve been inundated with calls for information and support since the articles came out. But you really don’t need to contact them to understand what they are doing (after all, they have museums to run rather than spending their time fielding questions). Heather’s report, A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats, provides a pretty comprehensive description of what’s involved.

Instead of calling the museums, how about calling your own colleagues in your community and asking “if they did it, why can’t we? What can we offer each other? How will this help us be better at serving our communities? What would make each of our organizations stronger and more resilient?”

Know that you know it’s possible, you don’t really need to know a lot about the Chattanooga how. What you need to know is whether this is the kind of collaboration you are willing to say yes to. And then make it happen.

Celebrating a landmark decision, unfinished business and the next justice

Today is the anniversary of Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark, unanimous decision of the US Supreme Court in 1954. In this ruling, the Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, decided that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

The lawyer for the plaintiffs was Thurgood Marshall, who in 1975 was the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court.  The cases that led to Brown v. were sponsored by the NAACP. (underscoring the critical role of advocacy and justice organizations in sparking systems change).

Sadly, we still have a largely segregated school system today. I witnessed this first hand.

My three children went to public schools in the city of Providence, RI. We live in the city and sent our kids to public schools because we believe that public education can be the great equalizer and because we want our kids to live in an inclusive society.

Out of three schools they attended, only their exam high school, Classical, came close to representing the fairly equally distributed racial and ethnic make-up of our dynamic city. The enrollment of students in the urban core are predominately children of color with large numbers of low income and first generation immigrant children who deserve more support than they are receiving.

Get outside the urban core and it’s much harder to find children of color. We’re not a lot different here than schools in many parts of the country.

I have seen first hand the struggles of schools trying to make do with few resources, too many kids per teacher, widely divergent student needs, uninspired leadership, too much bad or poor teaching and ever changing mandates. At times I’ve been jealous of the countless resources and one-on-one attention that our private school friends have attested to.

Yet I have to say, there is nothing more powerful than showing up at awards night at the high school and looking out on a stage filled with kids of every color and from every side of town. Than standing shoulder to shoulder with parents from many lands for whom the belief in the American dream where education is the path to a brighter future is a powerful to them as it was for me.

I’ve been fortunate to consult with charter schools (and some small independents that serve low income kids) that are trying to remodel urban education. But even they are faced by huge financial and educational struggles. Luckily we are seeing small, but bright experiments across the US. While it will be extremely costly to roll these models out across all schools across the US, it is too costly not to.

Even Senator John McCain has called access to quality education “THE civil rights issue of the 21st century.”

There is much work to be done. If we truly aspire to achieve what we profess, it will require our resolve as a society to not just talk a good game, but to put our money where our ideals are. There is no better investment in our future, whether that is in our health, our wealth or our quality of life, than an educated populace. All kids deserve high quality public education.

Which brings me to the Supreme Court. As we’ve witnessed over the many decades, the court has enormous power to bring forth a more just society, or to allow power to remain entrenched. Who is selected matters. A lot.  We hope President Obama chooses wisely.

Give praise for Community Development Corporations

CDCs rock! Many of these community benefit nonprofits take big risks to create healthy, safe, affordable homes and rebuild neighborhoods. You can read more about the history and work of CDCs in Comeback Cities, by Paul Grogan now the CEO of The Boston Foundation.

When CDCs work well, they demonstrate what is right with this sector. They are embedded in community, asking questions, responding to need, engaging residents. They exemplify the word partnership, making change happen through a complicated set of relationships and interactions with national powerhouses like Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and NeighborWorks(R) America, local for-profit lenders, public planning departments, sister organizations, community members, local public servants like the police, and more.

I’m in awe of their knowledge, commitment and ability to make big change happen.

I’m singing the praises of CDCs coming off five hours yesterday facilitating a strategic planning retreat with the Board and staff of Community Works Rhode Island, an affiliate of  NeighborWorks America.

Staff and board committees have been meeting and thinking over the last few months and this was an opportunity to come together and synthesize the work that has been done to date. For me, it is always a pleasure to work with caring, really smart, fun and engaged boards and staff, so thank you.

And WOW for their commitment — meeting together on a Friday afternoon till 8:00 in the evening. (I don’t know about you, but I do my best to avoid work on Friday nights).

There are a still a few more details before the plan is finished, but this organization already knows how to think and act strategically which is what ultimately matters.

Did I mention Community Work’s commitment to change that transforms communities? That word, transform, is in their mission statement and they take it seriously.

What’s as impressive is that this organization is the child of a recent merger between the Elmwood Foundation and Greater Elmwood Neighborhood Services. Based in the Elmwood neighborhood of Providence, both CDCs have worked in Providence’s Southside for more than 30 years, creating close to 1,000 units of affordable housing and investing more than $60 million in the community. Kudos once again to my friend and colleague MJ Kaplan of Kaplan Consulting LLC for guiding these groups through the merger and for lining up a really stellar board.

Next for me, typing up those flip charts (not my favorite task) and merging all the details on paper into a written framework that reflects all the smart and truly strategic thinking that went on last night. Then guiding this phase of planning to its conclusion.

Now I’m worried – who decides what is effective and who should be funded?

I’m just amazed at the hubris of GiveWell, an unknown self-described nonprofit outcome evaluator, to believe that they have the credibility to issue the ratings they have and, by doing so, to tell donors not to give to these organizations. If this is the quality of analysis that we can expect from the type of “intermediary” organization being promoted by the Hewlett study, then it is hopeless to expect any real forward motion in understanding what works and what doesn’t.

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More on online fundraising

Thank you to Heather Mansfield and all the folks at Change.org for getting Latino Dollars for Scholars Foundation of Rhode Island set up with one of their free accounts.

I set up my own fundraising page as it’s my birthday goal to raise $5,500 (I turn 55 next Monday) for college scholarships for deserving Latino students in Rhode Island.

It took a little extra time as LADO is an affiliate of Scholarship America but has its own EIN (but under Scholarship America). I used the wrong EIN for LADO initially (I’m on the Advisory Board and its been my promise to set this up before the end of the year). But Heather kept right at it.

Every organization can start fundraising immediately online through Change.org. It really is pretty simple to set up. I took the free webinar with Heather and she not only explained their site, but shared lots of incredibly valuable insights about fundraising online. Thanks Heather.

I’ll keep you posted on my fundraising… I’ve only mentioned the site on my Facebook page. I still need to send to my friends and colleagues. But we’ve got $150 raised so far!.

Gayle