Tuesday, April 29, 2008

It's not like plopping a fish into a nice, clean bowl...

It's more like tossing a tiny fish into a mired swamp. When people talk about bringing issues to the fore of key stakeholders and the general public they tend to address the situation as if the issue, a nice goldfish, or beta since they are still all the rage right now, can be dropped directly into the mind, the clean bowl, of the populace as if there is nothing already there. In reality, a person's mind is a quagmire of issues and responsibilities and being ignorant of that fact will do little to help you. Marketing is key - you have a target audience so how do you best contact them? Well, you have to know what other things they might like besides your issue/cause/whatever and use those things as some sort of leverage if your initiative is very new or little known.

In the afterschool realm it isn't quite as hard. People can be parents. Parents have kids and tend to care about them. Parents have to work so their kids can eat and have clothes and whatnot. Kids might not have anything productive or constructive to do after school. The problem is there and if your afterschool program has a good relationship (best option is clearly to be in the school) with the school and school district then it isn't hard to get parents to put the kids in the program.

However, what about the important people who aren't parents? Or who used to have school-age children and might want to get involved? What about the business community? All these potential stakeholders probably, especially in the Northeast of the United States, do some sort of volunteering, sponsorship, donating, etc. for at least one organization or cause. That does not mean, however, that people are maxed out at one cause. Gathering support is not about finding the Monopoly guy and asking him to give you enough money to be sustainable. It's about being the fish in the swamp that doesn't get lost amongst the reeds and using the momentum you gain to build relationships. These relationships can turn into life-long volunteers, donors, suppliers of in-kind goods, and general visibility expanders.

Turning to a highly specific example, my program, the 21st CCLC is part of the Manchester School District. Currently, budget season is upon us and things are especially brutal this year. With the downturn in the economy caused by the sub-prime mortgage crunch and the extreme weakness of the dollar causing higher prices for gas and food added to the inflated revenue expectations and one of the snowiest winters in history, the City of Manchester is in dire straights. Either everybody needs to cut everything under the sun or taxes will go up... a lot (by the way, the state of NH has also been adversely affected by these things and is also in the hole monetarily). Last night over 2,000 people went to Memorial High School for a chance to appear before the Board of Mayor and Alderman and be heard. All talk was about the school district's budget. Currently set at $147 million for this year, the Board of School Committee requested a proposed $153 million for next year. The Mayor returned with a budget of $140 million which, along with the rest of the city, would result in the absence of a tax increase. Of course, cutting $7 million dollars is a lot so, obviously, teachers fear for their jobs. The Mayor has repeated said that if administration is trimmed the school district should be able to figure it out but the number of people who work in the administrative offices where I reside is nowhere near enough for that to happen.

Now, with people wondering if athletics and arts&music will be disappearing from classrooms, and it is a big possibility that happens much more, nationally, than anyone would care to admit, and how many, it isn't a matter of 'if', teachers will be pink slipped, how the HELL am I supposed to get support for an afterschool program????

Monday, April 14, 2008

VISTA and fun are not mutually exclusive...

I know there are VISTAs out there who sit at home all day and night, in the dark, shivering, eating only ramen noodles in front of a candle by which they read. This is entirely unnecessary. Just because you survive on a living stipend doesn't mean you have to go without heat, electricity, or food that may actually nourish you. More importantly, there's no need to sit around doing nothing all the time bemoaning how you can't ever have any fun. Effective fiscal management, combined with some wheelin' and dealin' maybe, can create a situation where you can go out and do things and not absolutely hemorrhage funds.

Case in point - this coming Friday is the party for one of my oldest friends. Taner is turning 23 and, since we rarely get to see him since he's pursuing a doctorate of pharmacology, we usually go all out we usually go all out for his birthday. They key here is the sheer number of people involved. We found a band made out of guys we know who will play for free. I found a company that makes ice luges for a mere $35. Finally, a half keg is setting us back, not counting the deposit, about $130. Now, if I had to pay for all this stuff by myself... it would be the only thing I could do all month (but that would probably be worth it). However, charge $5 for admission and I'm pretty sure I can cover any expenses now... except for maybe the 6-foot party sub.

In other situations, it's all about managing... everything. You don't want to spend more than your allotment of food stamps for food so you need to manage what you eat. Exercise is a great, low cost way to not only help make your food go farther, but also give you something to do. I used google maps to figure out a loop that's 3.2 miles which exits where I live by turning right and eventually comes all the way around to me entering where I live by turning right. Other low cost fun could include getting to know your local high school or AAA sports instead of shelling out the mondo bucks for, in my case, the Red Sox or the Celtics or the Patriots. I'm attending a Fisher Cats game tomorrow night, minor league Baseball team for... somebody, for a mere 10 bucks. In May I'll be attending an arena football game for a discounted price.

On the more artsy side, the Currier Gallery of Art just reopened and, in order to have a really big grand opening, offered free admission to everybody the first week. Lots of towns organize gallery nights as the weather gets nicer where a number of small galleries will be open to the public in efforts to get people walking the downtown strip and such. Movies can get pricey if you like to go to those but your local library probably shows at least a couple movies every week for free. Obviously, matinées are the best bang for your buck at the local cineplex - however, the theater can also be your best friend. You can watch sporting events on certain nights on the giant screen with a bunch of your friends. At certain theaters you can even watch the Metropolitan Opera or the San Francisco Opera perform for much less than the price of admission to a traveling troupe going through your town.

Recently I joined the NH Sports and Social Club or... whatever it's called. I'm on a team to play kickball with a bunch of my friends. Basically, we get shirts and we go hang out Thursday nights and play kickball with other teams. Afterwards, we go to Murphy's Taproom and drinks are only like $1.50 or something. It may have cost me $50 to join - but I get a shirt and that's basically a wearable coupon for cheap drinks from this Thursday to the end of June so that seemed like a sound investment to me.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Wonderful and Frightening World of Grants...

Grants are a big deal in the non-profit realm these days. Many organizations rely entirely on corporations/foundations/trusts to maintain sustainability. This helps create the environment in which non-profits are currently mired and out of which they must climb if they ever hope to really achieve their vision. Too often non-profits feel that they need to beg and barter for every cent because nobody out in the community cares or wants to donate. Harboring this attitude reflects the belief that you don't really think your cause is worthwhile because, if it were, wouldn't people want to jump on board and help?

I tend to think that this situation happens because non-profits are under staffed and this leads to initiative leaders losing sight of the passion that once brought them into the field. Administrators and capacity builders lose touch with the real effects of what they help build while direct service providers get jaded from the constant inundation of the same problems and issues. This creates an atmosphere thick with a lack of ingenuity and an inability to creativity problem solve. By reuniting members of your non-profit with what made them enter the field in the first place, productivity should rise and a happier workplace is the biggest benefit. This is especially important with direct service providers to youth.

Anyways, grant research isn't always fun. Searching google or grants.gov or the foundation center online is no more exciting than hitting up the nearest library with a funding consortium subscription. However, I have found that writing and editing grants is quite enjoyable - but just for me really. Many people around me find the task boring and very bang-my-head-against-the-wall kind of infuriating. These people probably never enjoy writing anything, may not know how to write effectively or concisely, or feel that, in the end, what was once lost does not equal what you could possibly gain. You are rarely ever assured receipt of a grant. The time you spend on it may not end up paying off with dividends. Though, I would posit that every time you do apply you should at least try to learn something. The more you write the better you get and the more (intelligent) things you read the better you'll write (you can't read romance novels all day and expect to get a grant because you used victorian language and the word 'member' a lot).

I've helped my program apply for two, $1,000 grants so far this year. We received the first one and now the high school dance team has cool uniforms, a foldable storage unit, and another music program to help them create mixes. I have yet to hear back about the second grant, but it could turn into funding for a guitar, bass, and drum set, with all the necessary cords, sticks, and even a microphone, to continue the School of Rock program at McLaughlin Middle School. Yesterday I started working on a Citizen's Bank Champions in Action grant that would actually be quite substantial. If awarded, your non-profit receives $25,000 in unrestricted funding, press coverage, and volunteer support. The deadline is next Friday... oof! The good thing, though, is that I plowed through half of the application yesterday and my boss was pretty amazed. The mere fact that I had answered almost three of the response questions was fantastic to her. I didn't think anything of it because, as a philosophy major, I had to write papers about any number of topics at the drop of a hat. Later today, after one my sustainability subcommittee meetings, I'm meeting with the district's grant writer to go over demographic information that should be included.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Moving around and looking towards August...

When I first took the VISTA position I had recently received my undergrad degree and had moved back in with my parents. I was living no more than 5 miles from my place of work and giving my dad about $500 a month. I basically had the upstairs of the house to myself though living with your parents can always be odd and awkward. However, at the end of January I moved to Concord into a condo/apartment thing with my friend Grant. Now I commute to work, about 22 miles I think, have a much smaller room, and pay only $300 a month. I also gained a community building with an exercise room and an indoor pool. Because of the car accident in December, I have a more fuel efficient car which helps keep me close to staying within my allotted $75 gas card. However, it's really the $200 savings from the rent differential that makes the move worth it (besides being able to sit and drink on the couch without my dad asking me if I'm "making the right decisions" with my life). Even with the extra gas cost and food cost I'm not hemorrhaging any money and my bank account is holding pretty steady. I do have to say that tax returns are awesome though.

Since it is now April and I have to do my third quarter report this week it is once again that time of year where you are somewhat allowed to seriously question every major decision you've ever made and become flat-out frightened of the future... especially if you have a liberal arts degree. Grad schools are increasingly hard, and costly, to break into and once you've gone through the undergrad loan situation I feel most people get jaded by it, to put it lightly. Personally, I am amongst those with the highest percentage of unmanageable school debt, meaning that I went to school in NH - a state which, if it increased its higher education aid by 50%, would still be last out of all 50 states. So, since I'm not going to grad school and I cannot reasonably afford to live at VISTA level again, nor at the level of the coveted VISTA "Leader" position, I must use this resume building experience to 1) build an effective resume that fully captures my year of service and 2) get a job that doesn't pay me with dangling carrots and food stamps.

As a VISTA, if you do your job at all, you will have met many people from several organizations that work with yours, regardless of what your work plan says. I think the time has come for me to really plant some seeds that may germinate into real positions. Currently, I work with the Manchester 21st CCLC afterschool program and PlusTime NH. It makes sense that, since they know me the best, I attempt to find a full-time position in those organizations. However, this can be tough as workers in the nonprofit realm understand that they are probably tasked with the work of what would be at least two positions in the private sector. Therefore, even though a new position may be clearly necessary to all involved it does not mean that it will become a reality. The normal option, of course, is to see if somebody leaves his or her position and snatch that up but I'm not really sure if I have the desire to be a full-time site coordinator. Sometimes it's tough to decide between trying to find something you really want to do and taking that which is readily available - especially when lots of kids are involved.