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Posts from the ‘Nonprofits’ Category

Your Vote Counts: Especially When No One Else Goes to the Polls

Buck the trend and get out to vote on August 12.

Buck the trend and go to the polls on Tuesday, August 12.

You can be a powerful political influencer on Tuesday, August 12.

How?  Just go to the polls and cast your ballot in the Minnesota primary.

Your vote will be extra valuable because such a low turnout is predicted — just 9 percent, according to Humphrey School of Public Affairs Professor Larry Jacobs.

So, when you hear candidates saying “your vote counts,” they won’t be kidding.  If just 200,000 Minnesotans go to the polls statewide, you will have considerable influence — especially in local and hotly contested races.

Significant Races for All Parties
Whether your politics fall hard to the right, hard to the left or somewhere in-between (research shows the majority is in the middle), you have a lot of good reasons to vote in this primary.

For instance, four Republican candidates are fighting an extremely tight gubernatorial race, each hoping to win the bid to face off against DFL incumbent Mark Dayton this fall.  And in a surprising political twist, DFL-endorsed Secretary of State Rebecca Otto is being challenged by a self-financed foe.

And those are just some of the statewide races. You may live in a state House district in which the primary outcome will be determined by literally a handful of votes — including yours.

Where and How to Vote
The Minnesota Secretary of State’s website is the go-to place for all things election-related.  You can find your polling place, look at a sample ballot and even click through to candidate websites . . . including the ones for those hard-to-remember judicial contenders.

To quickly sort out which major candidate best matches your own political views, you can also check out MPR’s Select A Candidate tool.  For the Republican and Independence races for U.S. senate and the Republican race for governor, you can plug in your answers to key issue questions and rate their relative importance for you.  The tool will then tell you which candidate is your likely pick.

No Excuses
And remember, “I’m not registered” is not an excuse.  Same-day registration at the polls is still an option in Minnesota.

So wield your influence and step into the voting booth on Tuesday!

Magic Messages: What’s Your Favorite Formula?

Historic photo of woman in chemistry labDoes your nonprofit organization have a bright shining message that’s like a beacon to your supporters?  Do you have a tagline or a compelling one-sentence description of your services that makes volunteers race to your door and donors open their wallets wide?

Asking the Right Questions
Crafting those magic words that draw in your constituents and move them along the engagement continuum . . . from awareness to interest to desire to action . . . is more art than science.  Yet, nonprofit communicators — myself included — are always in search of magic formulas that will unlock the mysteries of message development.

For instance, I recently facilitated a communications planning session using Marc Fest’s Message House method.  (Fest was a vice president of communications at The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, a leader in media innovation and community engagement.)

His simple system poses four key questions that push you toward discovery of the societal benefits of your services (What gives you goosebumps?) and the personal benefits to key audiences (What’s in it for me, or WIIFM?).

The Message House model reminds me of how creative teams at ad agencies sometimes use the “Why?” exercise so they can find the hidden benefits of sometimes dull product features.  (This toothpaste contains secret ingredient “X.” Why? To remove stains from your teeth.  Why? So your teeth sparkle.  Why?  So your boyfriend likes you.  Why?  So you can live happily ever after!)  Success with the “Why?” activity requires not going so far that your message becomes vague or grandiose — like “we advance the common good” or “we spread world peace.”

What’s Your Favorite Messaging Formula?
No message development exercise  is right for every organization and every situation.  So that’s why we communicators, like alchemists, keep searching for new formulas to transform simple words into magical motivators.

So, what’s your favorite message creation method? How did you use it?  What were the outcomes?  Comment here to describe your successes (and failures), or drop me an email .  I’ll be glad to share your ideas for discovering messages that will light the way for us all.

Make the Census Count for Your Cause

Colonial Ship's LogHave you ever attended a family reunion where you didn’t know a soul?

It may sound improbable, but this summer I was a first-time attendee at a national reunion of the descendants of two German brothers who emigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1730s.

At this gathering I didn’t know any of the dozens of my relatives (except, I confess, my history-loving brother who recruited me for the trip).  These new acquaintances reported that I am just one of more than 10,000 living U.S. “cousins” who are descended from these long-dead ancestors.

Free Tools, Free Data, Free Help
So how do we know we’re all  related and, more importantly, why should you care?

One valuable tool of avid genealogists is data from the U.S. Census.  My newfound cousins have used handwritten entries on census forms from decades long past to reveal interesting information about parents, siblings, births and deaths, residences, occupations and much more.

But that’s ancient history.  Today’s U.S. Census and American Community Survey data are rich repositories of information that you can use to build support for your nonprofit cause.

Free government data sources and tools, such as American Fact Finder, can help you sort, compare and configure data — about age, education, employment, poverty, housing, race & ethnicity and a seemingly endless variety of other topics.  Plus, you can slice the data into tiny geographies in order to present persuasive evidence of community needs and illustrate clearly your programmatic impact.

And you don’t need to be a data geek or computer whiz to access useful information. At a recent U.S. Census workshop co-hosted by the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, data dissemination specialist Ryan Dolan almost begged attendees to call or email his government colleagues or him to assist with data searches.

Minnesotans for the American Community Survey
While you’re using these free resources, don’t take them for granted.  Also present at the workshop was a representative of the Minnesota State Demographic Center who updated everyone on recent challenges to the American Community Survey and threats to U.S. Census funding.

She spoke on behalf of Minnesotans for the American Community Survey (MACS), a coalition of concerned citizens, business leaders, educators, social service providers and others who have joined together to educate elected officials and the public about the importance of census data to drive a strong economy and improve the well-being of all Minnesotans.

MACS supporters are not political.  They are simply people like you and me who believe in data-driven policies and actions.

Make the Census Count
So whether you’re counting cousins or keeping tabs on community needs and organizational outcomes, use the U.S. Census.  It’s free, it’s accurate and it’s easy to access.  And while you’re at it, tell your elected officials to maintain funding and current participation rules for this vital public resource.

Potholes on Road to Women’s Equality

Rocky Road to Women's Equality

The measurable obstacles on women’s road to equality cause set backs for our children and families, too.

When I attended a Women’s Foundation of Minnesota “Road to Equality Tour” event last week, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a boss many jobs and many years ago.  It went like this:

Me: “Why is John paid more than I am?  We have the same title, work the same hours and produce the same amount of copy every week.”

Boss: “Because John has a wife and kids to support.”

Me (out loud): “Okay.”  Me (silently): “That doesn’t sound right, but I better not say anything more or he’ll fire me.”

True story.

The Unexplained Women’s Pay Gap
Supervisors today may not be so blatantly biased, but discrimination still causes a significant pay gap for women.

According to the latest “Status of Women & Girls in Minnesota” research, published by the University of Minnesota Humphrey School’s Center on Women & Public Policy in partnership with the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota,  white women earn 20% less than white males.  Asian American, African American and American Indian, and Latina women earn 26%, 38% and 43% less than white men.

Why is this data so important and so alarming?  Because working mothers are increasingly the primary breadwinners for their families.  Nearly half of white moms are the  main wage earner in their families, and 60 to 80 percent of Latina, African American and American Indian moms bring home most or all of the bacon.

So, maybe we should put an ironic twist on my  former boss’ (convoluted) logic:  Women today should therefore earn more — not less — than men, right?

Underpaying Women Hurts the Kids, Too
Another report finding I found shocking is that over the last decade the number of Minnesota families with children living below the poverty line rose 64%.

That means more than 80,000 families struggle to cover essential needs . . . food, housing, transportation, child care and more.  Hmmm.  It’s not hard to see the connection between the poverty rate and another research fact:  That 36% of Minnesota’s homeless population are children with parents and unaccompanied minors.

More on Women and Leadership, Health, Safety and Economic Status
The 2014 “Status of Women & Girls” research is rich with eye-opening economic data, plus much more on safety, health and leadership.

I found the statistics on women in leadership particularly compelling because of their potential correlation with women’s diminished economic status. For instance:

  • Since 1998, gains in women’s political representation has flat lined in Minnesota.
  • In female-dominated sectors (e.g., nonprofits and education) where 70% or more of the workforce is women, more than 70% of the top leaders are male.
  • For every 50 new independent directors who are added to Minnesota’s corporate boards each year, only about a dozen are women and virtually none are women of color.

We Can Smooth the Bumpy Road
I admire the Women’s Foundation and the Humphrey School for raising up these data that mark the giant obstacles on the road to equality.  And I also commend their unflagging efforts to create pathways to prosperity for women and girls.

Be sure to read the last section of the research report (pdf).  It features practical, actionable steps you and I can take to change outcomes for women today.  Think of our actions as filling the potholes on the road to equality.  Together we can build a smoother road that benefits everyone —  women, our families and our communities — here in Minnesota and beyond.

Photo cc Amanda Slater


Who’s an Environmentalist?

Center for Diversity & EnvironmentWho do you picture when you hear “environmentalist?”

Someone fit and wholesome, wearing earthy clothes and hiking boots?  A young man?  A young white man?

Marcelo Bonta wants you to imagine another — more inclusive — image.  He is executive director of the Center for Diversity & the Environment and founder of the National Environmental Professionals of Color.

Bonta’s mission is to change the complexion of the environmental community.  At this week’s annual member meeting of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, he appealed to the audience to step back, look around and listen.  What, he asked, can each of us do to transform institutional cultures to be intentionally inclusive instead of unintentionally exclusive?

People of Color Care More about the Environment
Why does diversity and inclusion matter in the environmental movement?  Of course there’s an overriding moral imperative and there’s the well-documented demographic changes in the U.S. population, but there’s also the business case:  engaging people of color and other diverse individuals in the movement dramatically increases the chance of success.

Bonta cited research that indicates that people of color support environmental issues at substantially higher rates than white populations.  Plus, voters of color support greater financial investments (including from their own pockets) in conservation.

So getting everyone engaged in the conversation and working together will broaden the base, build critical mass and enrich the movement.

Bringing Whole Selves Benefits the Cause
To attract diverse constituents and foster inclusivity, Bonta advocates a holistic approach . . . creating organizational cultures that encourage individuals to bring their whole selves to their work to protect the environment.

Remember who you originally imagined as an environmentalist?  Sometimes the picture looks like this:

Are  John Griffith and his California Conservation Corps crew members afraid to bring all their talents to their work?

Maybe Minnesota environmentalists aren’t ready to break out their dance moves, but Marcelo Bonta hopes they’re ready to break into some diversity moves that will bridge differences and create a welcoming, integrated atmosphere for all communities — from Native mining activists, to Hmong farmers, to African American  urban teens, to . . . everyone who cares about conservation and environmental protection, justice and health.

Bonta advocates intentional leadership, ongoing learning and listening, informed action, and a balance of head and heart to create new multicultural pictures of “environmentalists.”  Here’s to seeing that picture in Minnesota.

Homelessness: Upbeat Message on Downbeat Problem

Heading.Home.LogoOn Tuesday I caught a snippet of an MPR interview with Cathy ten Broeke, Minnesota state director to prevent and end homelessness.  She was discussing the problem of homeless veterans as she prepared to leave for Wednesday’s White House event on the subject with Michelle Obama and state and local government officials.

When I heard ten Broeke’s voice, my ears quickly perked up.  While I have long been interested in our state’s homelessness problem, I was also drawn into the broadcast by her delivery.  Ten Broeke sounded so upbeat and positive — almost like she was smiling. (They say you should smile when you call someone on the phone — your listener can tell!)

Skillful Interviewee
Her delivery was articulate and direct, too — no dodging of the interviewer’s questions or bridging awkwardly to self-serving messages.  And she didn’t fall into a little cynical trap laid by the interviewer when he asked whether the White House event was timed to shift attention from the developing Department of Veterans Affairs scandal.

The facts ten Broeke delivered were easy to understand and memorable.  She reported that at last count in January 2014 Minnesota had 317 homeless veterans, and that’s down from nearly 600 in 2010.   She stated confidently that Minnesota can reduce the number to zero veterans sleeping outside by January 2015.

Her skillful description of solutions to homelessness reminded me of a communications strategy used by my former colleagues at a marketing agency.  To test alternative positioning statements, they used the RUB test: Is the message Relevant, Unique and Believable.  Her messages easily passed the test.

Props for Partners
Finally, ten Broeke gave credit where credit was due.  She complimented the federal government for funding permanent Section 8 housing vouchers and providing V.A. services for former military men and women.  And she cited the Minnesota Legislature’s allocation this year of $100 million in bonding resources for affordable housing.

A very successful private/public partnership called Heading Home Minnesota has also contributed to significant progress on ending homelessness in Minnesota.

Are You an Articulate Spokesperson?
I recommend taking a few minutes to listen to ten Broeke’s interview.   And then think about what strategies you can use to convey hopeful, meaningful messages about intractable problems your organization is trying to solve.

Even if you aren’t the official spokesperson for your nonprofit, you should be prepared to represent and present your organization well.  The more staff and volunteers who speak up in positive, forthright ways, the more likely you’ll garner much-needed support for your cause.

The (Ethnic) Medium is the Message

Working on a project yesterday about diversity in the environment, I ran across a new (to me) national ethnic media resource: New America Media.

This nonprofit describes itself as “the country’s first and largest national collaboration and advocate of 3,000 ethnic news organizations,” and it’s funded by some top national foundations, including ones familiar to us in Minnesota: the Knight Foundation, the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Ethnic Media in Minnesota
Part of New America Media’s network is Minnesota’s own Twin Cities Daily Planet, a project of the Twin Cities Media Alliance (which also receives support from local philanthropies, including the Bush Foundation, The McKnight Foundation and The Minneapolis Foundation).

The Twin Cities Media Alliance publishes a Minnesota Ethnic Media Directory and offers citizen journalism classes and media skills workshops.  Here’s a snapshot of its work:

Why Diverse Media, Anyway?
If you’ve read this far, you might still be wondering, why are these diverse media outlets important?  You might be thinking: “If our nonprofit gets mentioned in the Strib or on MPR (or if we’re on Facebook), won’t we automatically achieve our outreach goals?”

I could write an entire post about defining and segmenting target audiences, but for now, I’ll just refer us to Marshall McLuhan’s now famous concept: “The medium is the message.”   Quite simply, we should never underestimate the vast social implications and overriding influence of the media vehicles that we choose to deliver our nonprofit news.

So who are your constituents and which communities do they represent?  And which ethnic media outlets do they prefer?  Think about this as you develop your outreach strategies . . . and explore diverse media options in Minnesota and beyond.

Shed Some Light on Your Nonprofit

Window washer, blinds and drapes

What’s obscuring donors’ views of your good works?

A coworker once told me my favorite word was “transparency.”

She might have said that because I was constantly extolling the virtues of transparency for nonprofits, foundations and corporate grantmakers.  After all, freely sharing information about your organization builds trust and lasting support from your constituents.

Or she might have remembered that I sometimes refer to an editor as a window washer.  A good editor cleans away the grime (murky phrases, muddled grammar and the like) that obscures the reader’s view.

Either way, it’s essential that every nonprofit displays itself in the best light — because a crystal clear image will attract and retain donors and build vital support for its mission.

Three Steps to Spotlight Your Nonprofit
I’m always surprised when I go to a nonprofit’s website and I can’t find the basics — such as an annual report, a link to the organization’s IRS 990 or basic contact information.  Without such information, the nonprofit not only has dirty windows . . . it’s drawn heavy drapes that are completely hiding its good works from the world.

If you are a nonprofit leader, have you:

Posted your latest annual report on your website?  Is it easy to find (just a click or two from your home page) and easy to read?  Annual reports don’t need to be onerous and expensive to produce.  Sometimes simpler is better.  (For a quick list of what to include in your annual report. see the “Public Information” section of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofit’s “Transparency and Accountability” principle.)

Completed the Program Service Accomplishments section of your IRS990?  Your tax form is not just about the numbers (although they’re essential for transparency, too!).  Marry your positive financials with a restatement of your organization’s mission and accomplishments and your IRS990 can become another useful communications tool.  (Review “Give Your 990 a Workout” by Kate Barr at Nonprofits Assistance Fund for some more tips.)

Updated your Nonprofit Report on Guidestar?  Chances are your donors and other constituents are using Guidestar to learn more about you (particularly if you haven’t posted your IRS990 on your website).  Using your existing communications (such as copy from your annual report), it’s relatively easy to reinforce your key messages in your Guidestar profile — and at the same time build legitimacy and support for your cause.

These are just a few ideas to help you start polishing your image so donors and other can see perfectly your positive impact in the community.  Do you know of other ways to easily and effectively increase the transparency of your nonprofit?  Please share your suggestions . . . the more of us washing the windows, the better the view of the nonprofit world.

photo cc Jonathon Hutchings

Going on a Scavenger Hunt . . . for Food

Grocery cart filled with items food for seniorsLast Friday was my first day as a volunteer shopper for Store to Door.  Yes, a volunteer shopper.  Does that sound like a dream gig for a “shop-a-holic”?

But shopping for Store to Door is not as frivolous or simple as it sounds.  Volunteer shoppers meet up at 6:00 a.m. at a local Cubs Food store and fill grocery orders for home-bound seniors who are unable to get out to the store and shop for food, medicine and other necessities.  (The orders are created by another group of volunteers who call the seniors every other week and enter each requested item into a nifty computer system.)

The orders are very detailed — brand, size, flavor, expiration date and much more.  Matching the items from the store shelves with what’s listed on the order sheet is challenging . . . like a scavenger hunt.

The need for this service is large and growing.  Minnesota Compass reports that 30 percent of seniors 65-plus in the Twin Cities have a disability.  And 10 percent of the 75-plus population lives in poverty.  Without Store to Door and other human services organizations, some of these seniors would face malnutrition, mounting health problems and consequences even worse.

I was impressed on Friday with the dedication and efficiency of the volunteers (some were 20-year veterans) and the professionalism of the Store to Door store coordinator and drivers who deliver the orders.  I look forward to going back again this week to shop for everything from soup to nuts — and whatever else these elders need to stay well-fed and healthy.

Do you know of a senior who is homebound or having difficulty walking through the grocery store or lifting heavy bags?  Do you have a couple hours a week to spare to become a volunteer order taker or shopper?  Check out the services and opportunities at Store to Door . . . it’s a vital service in our community.

photo cc Phil! Gold

Teenage Girls are Blooming Flowers

GIA_2012When supporters at a Girls in Action fundraising luncheon last week heard this line — “Teenage girls are blooming flowers.” — they broke into broad smiles and enthusiastic applause.

Was it just spring fever?   Maybe, but that phrase does seem to capture the essence of this group’s work . . . to make sure every young woman — from North Minneapolis to Guatemala City — receives the nurturing she needs to blossom and achieve.

For a quick introduction to this dynamic mentoring program, take a look at this KARE 11 clip that features founder Dr. Verna Cornelia Price and girls in the program:

In the years since this aired, Girls in Action expanded across the metro, across the country to Detroit, and even to Guatemala.  Now reaching well over 2300 girls, the program focuses on motivating, mentoring, empowering, engaging and educating girls to succeed in school and life.

At the luncheon, program director Natalie Johnson Lee shared an impressive list of outcomes, such as a 95-percent graduation rate.  Lee and others thanked many partners and supporters, including such philanthropy leaders as Catherine Jordan (previously with AchieveMpls), Sandy Vargas of The Minneapolis Foundation, and Wokie Weah of Youthprise, among others.

Attending this event was my first chance to learn about Girls in Action.  It seems the group’s close collaboration with the schools is a real plus — because it breaks down barriers to access and boosts academic achievement.

Enthusiastic, emotional testimonials from program alumni also provided ample evidence that mentoring programs such as Girls in Action really do make a difference.  When they give and receive respect, girls can definitely bloom and thrive.

(For more about the benefits of mentoring, see my post on the Minnesota Council on Foundation’s Philanthropy Potluck Blog, “Young or Old, Mentoring Matters.”)