Take A Rare Opportunity To Review Others’ Reflections

Back in August I called attention to a transmedia project in Reading, PA, “This Is Reading,” that playwright Lynn Nottage and a host of others worked on creating to help the community tell stories about itself.

I had initially learned about the project via a post by Margy Waller and must credit her again for tweeting about a follow up conversation that occurred.

With such a push for placemaking and community building projects like “This Is Reading,” having access to the reflections of project participants is of great value to others engaging in similar work.  There are a number of observations and lessons learned that can provide guidance about what worked and what needed to be done better.  It is rare to have this type of material shared publicly so take advantage of the opportunity.

Not only does the newspaper article provide a summary of the report, the report itself is embedded in the webpage and is available for download.

The first thing that caught my eye was that the meetings from which the feedback was collected appeared to be driven by the participants’ desire to continue the momentum started by the project.  The impression I got from the article was that a post-mortem conversation hadn’t been planned, but the project leadership were wise enough to recognize the need to do so.

“The reason we wanted to do this meeting is because this was a more than five-year process,” he said of the installation. “A lot of the volunteers and a lot of the participants expressed interest in what’s next. To me, it was ‘Let’s debrief, let’s talk about it.’ “

The fact of Reading’s decline plays a large part in the content of the project and the subsequent feedback. (Recall the railroad was famous enough to be included in the Monopoly game.) There are multiple times in the report that the investment young people have in the community is called into question. This is in tension with the perception that the nostalgic project content had a greater resonance with older attendees than younger.

The article mentions that the phrase “Reading was…” kept coming up in conversations during the development phase of the project so the title “This Is Reading” was an attempt to emphasize the need to break from a focus on the past and dated thinking.

Given that this exactly mirrors the conversation occurring in the arts (perception youth are not committed, content only relevant to older generation) there are any number of lessons here for the arts and culture community.

Here is the summary listed in the newspaper article:

• Being a person of color in Reading is wrought with stress, tension and discomfort.
• Reading can be a vibrant center of arts and culture if there are significant outreach efforts to invite and welcome; the art is interesting to people of different ethnic, racial or economic backgrounds; and obstacles that prevent or deter participation are eliminated.
• Its self-perception impedes the city’s ability to move forward.
• There is a strong interest and desire in the resurrection of a rail system that would connect our community with nearby communities.
• Long-held community “stories” or narratives can be rewritten by the arts in public spaces.
• There is a desperate need for a shared downtown public performance arts space.
• The city needs a vision that focuses on what Reading is and can be, not what it was.
• Youth and young adults in Reading need to be encouraged, developed and engaged.
• Leadership is needed to champion efforts to build on “This Is Reading,” and the most effective champion would be the city.

Judging Yourself As You Judge Others

Something I don’t really often see people write about are the benefits of sitting on a grant panel, especially for an organization that funds you. First of all, the organization will love you for helping them out, especially during the heaviest period in their granting cycle.

Perhaps the biggest benefit for you will be identifying those areas people like yourself do well or fall short in making the case for their programs.  You can get advice about how to write an effective proposal on a monthly basis, but until you apply a critical eye to a proposal from outside disciplines, geography and demographic attributes with which you are familiar, you aren’t likely to appreciate all the potential pitfalls.

I recently participated in a panel for my state arts council for a program my organization wasn’t eligible to participate in.

There were a number of times people referenced discipline specific shorthand or neighborhoods/towns they were doing outreach in. I suspected that this information would be more compelling if I better understood the relevance.

Recognizing that I was probably making the same mistake of assuming reviewers would be excited by similar discussions of accomplishments for which they had no frame of reference, I started to pull out old grant proposals and found a number of places that could probably use additional information about why it was important that certain groups were involved or being represented in our programs.

During the panel review process I made additional notes as panelists would comment about things they wished they had seen more detail about. In other cases, it was observed too much time was spent talking about other organizational activities rather than focusing on the proposed project.

Now I will grant you, often space limitations imposed by the application form makes it difficult to provide the detail that will really allow your project to shine. It is important to make a case with the granting organization that 3-4 more lines of text would make all the difference.  Volunteering to serve on a grant panel can provide you with the opportunity to make that case in person.

I also want to acknowledge that when you are faced with a tall pile of proposals to review, the last thing you want to do is engage in prolonged introspection of the strengths and weaknesses of your own submissions. But it can be worthwhile to at least take the time to make duplicates of notes that represent potential areas of concern in your work for later review.

Then, of course, there is benefit in seeing what other people are doing. What novel ideas and approaches are out there? How are others executing their programs? How are they defining and measuring success? What strategies are they employing to deal with challenges?

One really, really general piece of advice I will give based on what I have seen is to make sure your website has links to your social media accounts. This is website and social media 101, but I was surprised at how many people mention they promote their events on social media, but don’t have links on their websites. Web searches will turn the social media accounts up, but there was often no easy way for someone who discovered an organization through their website to stay connected through social media.  (Actually, it might be more accurate to say that a web search turned some of them up, I have no idea if I found the full range of online presence.)


Volunteering Ain’t Free

Somewhat apropos of yesterday’s post, Non-Profit Quarterly had a post about Phoenix Comicon’s recent decision to charge volunteers to work their convention.

I am not sure this is really a scandalous decision given that many outdoor festivals I know have had this policy for going on two decades. The more controversial aspect might be that the Con is a for-profit company that was requiring people to become members of a 501 (c) (7) non-profit for which the Con leadership were officers in order to become volunteers. Many objected that this was a major conflict of interest.

But as the Non Profit Quarterly noted (and as I suggested yesterday), co-ordinating the work of volunteers ain’t cheap:

Finally, for charitable nonprofits, or 501(c)(3) organizations, requesting payment for volunteering is an increasingly popular practice, and one that helps organizations sustain their operations—and, in particular, recruit, manage, and sustain the volunteer workforce they often rely upon. While it can feel counterintuitive for volunteers to pay to serve, the effort required for nonprofits to absorb and deploy a volunteer workforce is significant. As both formal corporate volunteer programs and solo entrepreneurs looking to build up their client base increase, volunteers are a plentiful resource for 501(c)(3) organizations. It’s critical to balance the value these volunteers deliver with the cost it takes to engage them.

Another reason to charge volunteers many event organizers, both for and non-profit, will cite is that it shows investment and provides incentive to actually work their shift. As someone who has run an outdoor music festival, I can attest that there is always a segment of the volunteer base that sign up just to get free admission to the event. According to a re-post of a letter by Phoenix Comic-con’s director, combating no-shows and reining in ballooning staffing was the primary reason for pursuing a pay to volunteer model.  In the last few days, they have re-evaluated their decision to have volunteers register as members of the aligned non-profit.

If You Give Me More Helping Hands, Give Me More Cash

The idea of mandatory national service gets bandied about a lot, especially during presidential election years. This year it seemed to pop up more frequently due to the proposals for free college tuition being floated by some of the candidates. People were suggesting at the very least those who received free tuition needed to reciprocate in some fashion such as national service in the military, Peace Corps, Americorps, etc.

Last week a discussion held by a local public radio station on the pros and cons of mandatory service came across my social media feed. The host and his guests made a lot of good points about the cons, not the least of which is that people are supportive of the idea for younger people, but when you suggest a mandatory service of even one hour a month for all citizens, there is fierce resistance.

Most of the negative outcomes they mentioned were from the point of view of those who would be providing service. Something they overlooked was the fact that there is expense involved in administering a service program, regardless of whether the participants are being paid or not. This is true whether the service is military or civil. I am going to mostly address it from the civil side, but the basic factors are almost identical. This issue is overlooked pretty much everywhere I could find a national service discussion online.

Supervisory infrastructure, materials, equipment, space, facilities and dozens of other details are necessary if there are any expectations of a meaningful experience with meaningful outcomes from a mandatory service experience.

Mandatory service on a national or even state level can be a boon to the work that non-profits and other service organizations do, but it will require a significant increase in capacity building funding from some combination of governments and foundations. Otherwise having service workers becomes more of a hindrance than a help to an organization.

This issue needs to be raised a lot more emphatically when these ideas are discussed. Otherwise, people will be looking askance at the non-profit sector wondering how it could be screwing things up so badly when they were being provided with the service of 3 million high school graduates every year.

I think it is too easy to equate added labor with industrial productivity and revenue generation and see mandatory service as a boon to organizational sustainability. But very little work non-profit organizations do generates revenue. Being able to teach more children will require more space and instructional supplies. Being able to feed more homeless or elderly will require more food, vehicles and food preparation equipment. Being able to provide health services to people will require more space, medicine, diagnostic equipment.

More capacity to do these things means more money than ever will be spent. Unfortunately, the organizations’ capacity to generate the money to cover these costs probably won’t increase a whit.

The only area in which I could see any sort of return on investment would be in terms of the old WPA type infrastructure projects. If you have people planting trees that can be harvested decades down the road, clearing/creating parks that can be used to generate revenue or gentrify an area to increase the tax base, then you might tie a tangible result to the service. However, a lot of the needed services have intangible results.

So yes, ultimately the nation would be more unified and healthier for having a stronger ethic of service. But getting there ain’t free.