From Little ideas

Wear your allegiance on your name tag

I’m on the board of WaterFire Providence.

At our meeting last week, I got a good chuckle out of the name tag fellow board member Peter Van Erp was wearing.

An architect, it wasn’t surprising that Peter designed his own custom tag.

Knowing him as I do, I guessed immediately Peter’s board commitments — WaterFire Providence and Habitat for Humanity of Greater Providence are on the ends. Can you guess the organization in the middle?

I can’t begin to count how many name tags I end up disposing of and feeling terribly guilty about. I try to give them back when the organization wants them. I even own one of those long permanent pin-on name tags from a peace trip I went on to the Soviet Union back in 1981 — I think I know where it is but I always forget to bring it with me.

I thought Peter’s name tag was a commendable example of efficient reuse.

He said I could share it with you.

Do you think maybe I’ve been in this business too long… getting excited or irritable about name tags? This is my second post. My first Preparing name tags – a facilitator’s lament was about how crazy I get when the name on the name tag is so tiny it’s basically invisible.

Reminds me of the long conversation on a facilitator’s list serve a few years ago about what flip chart markers people used. It was one of the most engaged discussions I remember on that list.

Unplug to recharge this summer

Instead of being connected online, we spent the time reconnecting with the natural world in the warm embrace and good company of dear friends, attending the wedding of our honorary niece Lilly and her new husband Jon, rocking out at their reception on beautiful Sylvan Lake and bicycling the Mickelson Trail from Hill City to Custer and back again (where you get to ride by the Crazy Horse monument).

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Is the word “volunteer” limiting recruitment?

I’m concerned that the word Volunteer may be limiting our ability to recruit some very needed assistance.

If I had to wager a guess, I’d bet that when most people hear the word Volunteer they are likely to think of direct service — like building a house for a deserving family, or serving meals at a soup kitchen, or cutting trails or dragging debris out of a river on Earth Day.

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Green musings on a Monday

On the bike ride home from a meeting with a client this morning, I decided to take a quick inventory of the ways we’ve tried to lower our environmental footprint over the years. While I never feel sufficiently green, I hope that our small acts have had some small impact over the years.

I thought you might enjoy seeing the list. It’s organized by the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle.

Reduce/ Conserve:

  • Bicycling. Jon and I love to bicycle for pleasure and exercise. We are blessed with a number of lovely rail trail bikepaths in cycling distance from our home. Jon Now, whenever I can, I try to take the bike to meetings that I can get to in a 20-30 minute ride. I’m still figuring out what “dress up” clothes work on the bike –  so far, knee length skirts, capri pants, and some knee length dresses. (I’m a casual kind of gal and so are many of my clients so I don’t find myself in business suits a whole lot.) Jon’s better about biking than I am. I’m a wimp about the weather, so I don’t bike when it’s raining. And as its icy and snowy here a good part of the year, I skip those months as well. But I’m trying, and every ride is a time I’m not using fossil fuels.
  • Walking. We live in a fabulous neighborhood, Summit,  in a great city, Providence. Our neighborhood is like a small village. Within a half mile walking, we can be at an artisan bread bakery/coffee, myriad restaurants, a couple of pharmacies, a deli, an Indian grocery, our work and personal ATMs, cute cute gift stores, a  flower shop, a Saturday farmers market and two city parks. We’re also really close to this incredible tree-lined boulevard that has just under a 4 mile round trip walking path and is bordered by one of the loveliest cemeteries on earth near a river and that the public is allowed to stroll through. Did I mention our wonderful neighbors? And the bus runs through it. I rarely drive to bank or run small errands but whenever I do, I make sure that I have Hensley Legal Group‘s contact just in case I got involved in a car accident.
  • Books. I can’t say enough about public libraries. In our case, the public library is a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Someone in our house always has a book out of the library. It was particularly a godsend when my daughter lived with us as she devoured a book a day. While I love a good bookstore and try to shop in an independent when I must buy a book (as I’ll often do as a present), I have to admit that I do a lot of “shelf shopping ” (kind of like window shopping) for new book titles and then order them up from the library. With our statewide lending system, I rarely wait more than a few days for even the very latest books. Plus, our closest branch is just a half mile away so it’s a lovely walk as long as you are careful with any uneven sidewalk along the way which can make you trip and fall.
  • Tap water. We’ve got some pretty good tap water here in Providence and with a water filter, the taste and safety can’t be beat. We fill our water bottles (which we’ve got for the bikes anyway) and try to take them with us, even on long trips, to reduce our purchase of bottled water to infrequent occasions.
  • Cloth napkins. We’ve used cloth napkins for all of our regular meals and for small dinner parties since we started housekeeping. I find them so much more pleasing than paper.  If we are having a really big party, then I’ll use paper dinner or cocktail napkins. I save leftover napkins, plastic plates, forks, knives and spoons and wash and reuse them. ( Though now I’m nervous about doing that with all the concerns about plastics exposed to heat. Luckily, we really don’t use them very often… maybe once or twice a year).
  • Buy local. I’ve been trying to revamp my buying habits to buy from local stores as much as possible with the hope that we can reduce the need for more big box stores and their miles of pavement. Unfortunately, the big boxes have been winning. Though I think the recession has slowed them a bit for now.
  • Washing. We’ve always waited until we have a full load of laundry to run the washing machine. And a full load of dishes to run the dishwasher. I’ve been feeling guilty, though, about not stringing a clothesline across the back yard. I know I’ve been reluctant on the clothesline as I hated hanging clothes as a kid — cold fingers in the winter and leaning over the third floor porch railing to pull in the clothes line was just frightening to miss afraid of heights me.
  • Energy. We switched all of the incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescents very soon after CLFs came onto the market, with the exception of the few lights that are on dimmers. We also upgraded our ancient refrigerator to an energy star version a few years ago. I now walk around the house with an eye to shutting lights off though we haven’t purchased one of those super shut off gizmos that you plug appliances into to stop them from consuming electricity even when they are off.  And while we do own two cars, one of which is a minivan which was essential for a family of five, we also worry about gas mileage. I balance the minivan by owning a compact car that gets good mileage. Right now I’m driving a 2000 Honda Civic which does pretty well.
  • Toxins: We try our best to buy non-toxic cleaning products and use a lot of white vinegar. We are organic gardeners which means I spend a lot of time picking evil bugs off my flowers (has anyone figured out how to scare away lily leaf beetles?) and tolerating a fair amount of diversity in the small amount of lawn we have left remaining. With all the rain this spring, we haven’t had much watering to do.


Our backyarnd compost bin


  • Hand me downs: Thank goodness for friends and family with older children. With a few exceptions, we didn’t need to buy very much for our kids when they were babies and toddlers. We were very grateful to accept any offers of clothes, equipment, toys and furniture. We even rented car seats from the local chapter of the Red Cross. And while I do like new clothes, I also enjoy second hand stores where I’ve found some of my favorite wearables.
  • Recycled paper: I look for recycled paper with as much post-consumer content as possible. That includes our office paper as well as toilet paper, tissues and the paper towels that feel very indulgent to me (though a standard roll of paper towels lasts about two weeks around here). I buy the paper towels that you can tear off in small sizes so we don’t have overuse them.
  • Composting: We’ve been composting yard and kitchen scraps almost as long as we’ve lived in our house – and that’s 26 years.  We keep a bin in the kitchen where we toss the inedible vegetables and other non-meat scraps (though I do recycle shellfish shells) for the compostor. We miss having the buckets for other scraps that we remember from our childhood – when the farmers came to get them for the pigs. Or at least that’s what we remember. Fall leaves go into the compostor, and with a fair amount of turning, some peat moss and lime now and then, we get enough compost to add to my flower garden and containers where I grown vegetables.
  • Reusable grocery bags. I can’t remember when I started bringing my own bags to the grocery store. My sister bought me one of the cotton string bags many years ago that weren’t the best grocery bags but were all we thought of then. I’ve added to my collection over the years. It now includes about a dozen canvas bags, including some from the many years defunct Almacs Grocery Store (which closed in 1995),  Bread & Circus (which became Whole Foods) and just about any conference that I’ve been to where they were handing out tote bags. I’ve been getting better about keeping a few in the trunk of my car so that I have them ready to use beyond the grocery store and can take them on clothes or other shopping sprees.
  • Diapers. When my children were born (my oldest is 25, sons are 20), we signed up for a diaper service first thing. (I remember the stacks and stacks of newborn diapers that arrived each week when the twins were born — 140 total! Scary) The diaper service was heaven.  I don’t even think there are diaper services anymore in our whole state. We were just at my niece’s baby shower and she informed us that there was one service in all of Massachusetts! Sad.  As the kids got older and the diapering got a bit more under control, we laundered our own diapers. We also used washcloths rather than those icky baby wipes. I know that cloth vs plastic is still controversial as to which is more ecofriendly , but I just can’t imagine that producing and disposing of those plastics is better. We weren’t total purists and did use disposables when traveling and away from laundry.


  • Paper. I worked for the Social Security Administration from 1976 through 1983. With my friend Sarah, we became the first workplace in downtown Providence to recycle office paper. We recycled boxes of outdated forms and computer paper, which the office burned through each week. We had to separate all of the paper (computer vs color vs white) and load them on the truck from Ecology Action for Rhode Island once a week. Unfortunately, the truck was always breaking down so Sarah and I frequently had to load the boxes into her VW Rabbit and my VW stationwagon and haul them over to Liz’s  garage where Ecology Action stored the collected paper.
  • Plastic bags. When I do end up with a plastic bag, I save them during the week and drop them into the recycling bin at the grocery store.
  • Curbside recycling. Providence has curbside recycling for paper, newspapers, cardboard, #1 and 2 plastics and even textiles. (I wish they would take more plastics). They also take organic yard matter so we send them the stuff that doesn’t fit in our small compostor like branches and the leaves we simply don’t have room for. We rarely fill our regular trash bin, even half way.
  • Clothing. Cotton socks with holes beyond repair are great for dusting. Torn cotton shirts make good rags. What can’t go into the yard sale or to Big Sisters will end up in the recycling bin.

Okay, that’s all I can think of for now. I’ll probably think of more things as soon as I send this to publish.

Wait… there is one thing more. Because we know we aren’t perfect and can’t do it all, we contribute to environmental causes. We believe in supporting organizations that are working hard to protect our land, water, air and diversity of life. We hope you will as well.

We’d be happy to share the small things that you’ve done in this column.

10/100 Things – Sometimes you need to help with the fishing

While we’ve all heard the Confusion quote, “Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime,” I’d like to put a plug in for fishing together.

Among our clients are a number of very small nonprofits. What it takes to build capacity for a tiny organization with few, if any staff, and a limited number of self-managing volunteers, is significantly more intense than a larger, professionally staffed organization.

At our larger clients, we can help them design a path to the future, and, if they have talented people in place, we are fairly confident that they can traverse the path ahead.

Not so tiny organizations. While these organizations also receive significant benefits from crafting the route ahead, they need much more hands on assistance. Their reality is that they simply don’t have a person or another spare hour to take on a new project.

The people who are there are already responsible for more tasks than any human being could possibly do  proficiently.

In a tiny organization, the staff and volunteers are still expected to know and manage all of the tasks, reporting, regulations, best practices, etc that a large, multi-staffed organization has to manage. I often see the desperation in the lone staff member’s eyes when contemplating how he or she can make more phone calls, take on new projects, or even do things a little differently. Not that they want to be resistent. Just that they can’t figure out how they will ever find the time.

As consultants, our job is to help find new ways to build capacity for these organizations. How do we find experienced volunteers willing to role up their sleeves and do? How can we convince capacity building funders that they need to invest in more people doing – along with their investments in planning or redesign or training?

6/100 Things – Put those 2 degrees of separation to use

By now you know the concept of “Six Degrees of Separation” from the John Guare play of the same name. In the world in which I live, it’s more like two degrees. Here’s an example from last week:

Ilene Perlman, a friend of mine, is a fabulous photographer and documentary photojournalist. She shared a new promotional video via Facebook with her friends and the friends of her friends. The video was aimed at wedding photos, though Ilene’s work has taken her around the world (we first met her when she was commissioned to shoot photos for PLAN International). The videos included a few testimonials from satisfied clients in Boston.

Wouldn’t you know it. The next day, a RI Facebook friend (colleague and client) posted on my wall… a friend and colleague of hers was in the video!

This happens regularly. I like to think it is part of the Rhode Island mystique, but when I talk to friends and colleagues in other states, they frequently have the same experience.

Why does this matter to your nonprofit? A few reasons:

1. Never burn a bridge. You’ll never imagine how how frequently people who matter to you or your organization have family ties to the relationship you’ve set on fire.

2. Want to meet someone? Looking for a contact? Ask your board members, your staff, your volunteers, your supporters. Chances are, someone has the connection.

3. You want to connect to Kevin Bacon. Okay, maybe not Kevin Bacon, but perhaps an author, politician, sports figure, or other celebrity who might be available, with work, to appear at a future event, annual meeting, charity auction. You’ll be surprised when they turn out to be the former roommate or childhood friend of someone in your organization’s relationship web.

4. If you use Social Networking sites, you’ll be closer than you think to just about anyone.