The Littlest of These

Last April, after attending a business function downtown, I was stopped by a woman as I approached my car. She was tousled and a bit unkempt, though clean. Strapped to her chest was an infant.

April weather here is incredibly unpredictable and on that day there were snow fluries in the air. She looked cold and desperate as she explained her situation. she asked for a few dollars to help her find shelter and food for her and her baby that night while she waited for her name to rise to the top of an affordable housing waiting list. Her baby slept peacefully on – unaware of his circumstances.

I ached to give her more than I had – a few dollars and a clean fleece blanket from my car’s emergency kit – yet she received them as if I had given her far more. Tears misted both of our eyes. I returned home that day deeply changed.

That incident has stayed with me the last seven months, especially since I gave birth to my second child in August. As the weather begins to turn cold again, I find my thoughts frequently turning to that young woman – so desperate to provide for her baby that a few dollar bills and a blanket were received as if they were life’s grandest treasures. I have since learned that with the economic turmoil of the last year, shelters, food banks and other providers of basic necessities are in dire need of supplies for infants and young children – formula, diapers, wipes, blankets and the like. As a group, babies are among the most overlooked by those donating items to emergency shelters and clinics – and yet they are among the most vulnerable, especially during the harsh winter months.

As a result of last spring’s experience,  my husband and I have decided this holiday season to provide some much-needed necessities to the local March of Dime’s Teddy Bear Den – a community based prenatal health program for low-income pregnant women – in lieu of gifts to family members. I cannot fathom the hollow ache that must fill one’s soul when the necessities are beyond one’s grasp.  I don’t want to have to meet another mother and her baby on a snowy afternoon with nothing to eat and nowhere to go.

As I put my children down to bed tonight – in a warm home, with their bellies full – I am thinking again of the woman and the baby who are wrapped up somewhere in my purple fleece blanket. This year, my Thanksgiving holiday is dedicated to them and others like them – may this winter bring better fortunes, a warm place to sleep and enough food to not have to put your little one to bed hungry.

If you have a warm place to sleep and enough food to satiate your hunger during this season of giving, count your blessings and join me in sharing what extra you might have with the littlest of those among us.

-Sara Brueck Nichols

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What You Give Away

This past Friday I had the pleasure of attending an event where Amy Grant and Vince Gill received the Jack C. Massey Leadership Award for their substantial efforts in assisting the work of the Mental Health Association of Middle Tennessee.

The evening was as emotional a gathering as I think I have ever attended. The reason being, as is often the case when people give so deeply, there was a personal connection for Amy and Vince that was beautifully conveyed.

Each of them have had experiences with mental illness in their family circles that they were generous enough to share. And they are not the only ones. According to the National Institutes of Health, An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older — about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. The holidays can be the toughest time of year for families who struggle with mental health issues, and it seems appropriate to comment.

I have always thought that songwriters must experience some outlet or release in expressing themselves in lyric and song. I can see that when it comes to Amy and Vince, this is indeed the case.  Each sang a couple of songs that were even more meaningful when the “back story” was revealed. One example (or maybe two):

Vince sang a beautiful song entitled “Bread and Water” chronicling the last hours of a homeless man. Vince said the song was inspired by his brother, who followed a downward trajectory after a near fatal car wreck and months in a coma, but according to Vince, “possessed more character than anyone he has ever known.”

He then revealed a great deal about himself with a song entitled “What You Give Away.” I must tell you this song takes on an entirely different emotional level when delivered in that beautiful tenor voice, but the lyrics are worth a visit regardless of your religious affiliations or lack thereof:

You read the business page
See how you did today
You live up on the hill
You’ve got a view that kills
Never wonder why

After you’ve counted everything you saved
Do you ever hit your knees and pray?
You know there’s gonna be a judgment day
So what will you say?

[Chorus:]
No matter what you make
All that you can take
Is what you give away
What you give away

There’s people on the street
Ain’t got enough to eat
You just shake your head
The measure of a man is one who lends a hand
That’s what my father said

No matter what you make
All that you can take
Is what you give away

A timely message as we approach the season of giving. As you rush about preparing for seasonal observances, be aware of those around who may be struggling. If you sense someone may need help, be the one to help. There are resources all around. You may want to check the website of your state or local mental health department, or here are a couple of suggested sources for you or a loved one, neighbor or co-worker, you can get information at:

The Mayo Clinic

National Mental Health Association

For highlights of the evening I would encourage you to visit TheLostLyrics.com and share in the stories.

-Rick B. Larsen

 

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I give to charity, but I am not a philanthropist….or am I?

Several Thanksgivings ago, my wife and I found ourselves at Arlington National Cemetery.  As we stood conversing near Robert E. Lee’s old mansion, admiring the view of the Potomac below, we were approached by a woman.  She wished us a happy holiday and then went on to tell how she had traveled to DC the day before so that she could attend the funeral of a son who had been killed in action in Iraq and buried at Arlington.  I was surprised by the sudden appearance of the woman and by the recounting of her grief.  Not quite sure what to say, I expressed some generic statement of sympathy and we quietly parted ways.

Fast forward a few years and I find myself this Thanksgiving eagerly waiting for the return of a family member who is serving in Afghanistan. It has been an incredible year for our family as we have watched this young man transition to military life and depart on his first tour of duty. While his time with us on leave will be short, our Thanksgiving together this year will be particularly meaningful. But with his homecoming, I am reminded of that experience at Arlington. Looking back, there was definitely more that could and should have been said. I am not one to live in the past; I simply wish that I had understood the woman’s loss with the same clarity that I do now. If I had, I would have done more to share my sincerest gratitude for her son’s service and my heart-felt grief at his sacrifice.

It is amazing how age and life experience can deepen our understanding of the value of people and blessings in our lives. And it has been my experience that with that self-reflective discernment comes an enhanced capacity to take action.  There is certainly reason enough this year for us to be particularly grateful for blessings that we might have taken, more or less, for granted in years past.  You don’t have to look far to find many that have lost jobs, lost homes and lost hope. Unfortunately, at the same time, the nonprofit sector finds itself in an interesting predicament.  While the needs of many have grown, corporations and foundations have had to cut back their funding to accommodate their own financial losses.

This year, more than ever, we need philanthropists – individuals who value clarity, effectiveness, and significance in their giving.  And philanthropy is not something reserved for only those of high net worth.  It is the distinction granted to individuals who are grateful for their material capacities, who personally identify with the needs of people and causes that parallel their own experience, and who wholeheartedly pursue their self-perceived charitable duty. So this year, as charitable opportunities abound, take a moment to reflect on what inspires your giving and volunteering. In doing so, not only will you have a much more rewarding experience, but you will also ameliorate the circumstances of those around you.

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Who Are You? What Can You Do?

Who is your favorite charity? What do they provide?

With over 1 million registered nonprofits in the United States and more than 30,000 primarily focused on children’s needs and issues, it is critical that nonprofit organizations are able to clearly and succinctly define who they are and what they do, as well as articulate the services they provide.

But as a nonprofit organization, can you define who you are and what you do? From a fundraising and development perspective you should be able to clearly outline those benefits you offer donors for associating with your organization. Sometimes this is defined as a brand platform, but it can also be as simple as answering the question, “What do we want the public and our target constituents to immediately think of when they hear our name?”

For instance, when any of us hear the words “Coca-Cola,” what comes to mind? What about “Nike” or “GEICO” or “American Red Cross”? It is not a fluke or simple luck that when we hear these organizational names we all generally conjure up the same images, feelings, and expectations.

These organizations have gone to great lengths to define who they are as a brand, the “technical equities’ and the “emotional equities” they own, and how they differentiate themselves from other brands in the same product or service category. This process is no less important to nonprofit organizations who are trying to grow and prosper in a space where the competition for the charitable dollar is fierce.

In James C. Collin’s powerful management book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t, Collins suggests great organizations take the time and effort necessary to develop what he calls the “Hedgehog Concept,” which, in short, when applied to nonprofit organizations, asks three defining questions that must be clearly answered:

  1. Can the financial model of our nonprofit organization become stable, sustainable and viable?
  2. What can our nonprofit organization be the best in the world at?
  3. What “lights the fire” of those working for our nonprofit organization?

The exercise of defining who you are, what you are, what you can provide (and be the best at the world at!), led me to a discussion with an associate of mine who founded and runs a billion-dollar, multi-national company. He asked me this compelling question, “If you only had 30 seconds during an elevator ride with a potential donor or client you had been trying to reach for months, how would you best introduce and explain Operation Kids?”

Out of that conversation came our own 30-second “Elevator Speech”:

Operation Kids is the leader in providing customized philanthropic services for individuals, families and companies. For more than a decade, we have managed the charitable giving process for our clients, helping them make informed giving decisions and achieve greater impact. Our philosophy is that by supporting a researched community of charities serving the most important issues facing kids, we improve the lives of more children while increasing the accountability and effectiveness of charities serving them. Our clients know…their giving is “OK.” And because of the ongoing generosity of our founders and supporters, our service is free. This is the charitable gift Operation Kids offers its clients. Your passion, our work, more lives changed.

While many organizations can easily be introduced and explained in 3-5 minutes, it is a very productive and positive exercise to craft an introduction (who you are/what you are/what you can provide) that is deliverable in 30 seconds or less. Not only will having this distilled-down, crystal-clear “Elevator Speech” prepare you for that oh-so-important opportunity with a targeted donor or client, it also becomes invaluable as your organization further defines what benefits it can offer your key audiences, including donors.

As you better understand who you are, what you are, and what you provide, this organizational solid-footing also helps you better formulate and package the benefits you can and must deliver, to either direct-service recipients or to participating donors and supporters. It forces your organization to ensure that what you are offering is a natural extension of who and what you are.

You become an organization that not only succinctly talks the talk, but also effectively and efficiently walks the walk.

In 2 Weeks: Step #3: Information is Currency!

This is the second part of a 10-part series The Only Difference is Zeros: 10 Steps to Improved Nonprofit Development and Fundraising

-Don Stirling

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The Only Difference is Zeros

10 Steps to Improved Nonprofit Development and Fundraising

In 1984, as part of the first real job of my career, I had just come to New York City and joined NBA Properties, the official licensing arm of the National Basketball Association. In Denver that year, we were about to introduce to the basketball world a new concept—the NBA All-Star Weekend. Back then it was to include two showcase events—the Slam-Dunk Championship and what we called then, the Old Timers Game. (Soon after we found that our participants in that game preferred we call it the Legends Game!).

My responsibilities that year included putting together a shoe deal for those participating in the Old Timers Game. We identified a provider and put a deal together that, at the time, seemed like huge dollars. The shoe provider would provide the shoes and $5,000! But, if more than 13 of the 24 participants would actually wear the sneakers during the game, NBA Properties would be paid $7,500. As only 11 of the players actually wore the shoes in the first half, I actually went into both locker rooms at halftime and aggressively campaigned for two more players to wear the shoes the second half—thus earning us an additional $2,500! Days not soon forgotten.

Flash forward to 1997, and I am now serving as the managing director of marketing for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. I am now participating in sponsorship presentations where the asking price is $50,000,000. Many times it was not lost on me that certainly some things had changed from the $5,000 asks to now the $50,000,000 asks. And yet, in taking a closer look, the development/fundraising process was, for both asks, very, very similar. The only difference is the zeros!

Over the coming weeks, now having spent over 25 years in the fundraising/development/sponsorship world, I will be sharing what I have come to see as 10 Steps to Improved Nonprofit Development and Fundraising. Steps that I have come to trust and use along the way, and which have served me well—from the NBA to Children’s Miracle Network to the Massachusetts Sports & Film Partnership to Operation Kids. Hopefully this list of steps will be of value to you as you pursue development and fundraising activities for the organization you represent.

Step #1: Love what you do and love who you represent!

Before you embark on any capital campaign, annual fundraising effort, donor program or revenue-generating activity, make sure you are passionate about the organization you represent, energized about the services and impact your organization provides, and that you flat-out love what you are doing. With so much competition for individual or family donor dollars, foundation dollars, or corporate dollars, the very first impression that the person you are presenting to needs to know and feel, is that you, as a representative of your organization, has a true passion and burning emotion for that which you are presenting and offering.

If you don’t truly care about the mission and purpose of the organization you are representing, and the services and assistance they provide, why should the person you are presenting to care either?

You have to have it inside of you. It needs to burn…not real hot some days and cooler other days. That passion for your organization and what it stands for and provides must burn steady, and burn bright. That passion for what you do and who you represent must be that “special sauce” that gets you out of bed everyday, and inspires you, day in and day out, to work hard, to prepare and to compete.

Without it, potential donors partners will see through you and will likely share in your transparent disinterest. With it, potential donors will say to themselves, “There is something deeper going on here and I need to find out more.” Before a person believes in your organization and your mission, they first must believe in you.

Next Week:    Step #2: Define who you are, what you are, what you can provide, and what you are offering!

-Don Stirling

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Teaching Children to Give

Our founder and board chair Dennis Webb addressed an audience in Connecticut this past week hosted by the Family Office Association. The conference was designed for the benefit of high net-worth families, but Dennis addressed an issue that we should all consider, regardless of income level.

Whether we are wealthy or just getting by, it is quite typical that we as parents or perhaps grandparents, experienced struggles that our children have not. When parents or grandparents make the necessary sacrifices for education or to build wealth and security, the children and grandchildren are the beneficiaries without a full perspective of the efforts made on their behalf. Without dismissing the challenges of youth, many kids today live lives of relative ease, complete with cell phones, cars and laptops – sometimes failing to understand what it takes to be productive and independent or to act for the welfare of others. They are often spared the struggle and experience only the fruits.

A wise quote says, “We work so hard to give our children everything we didn’t have, that we sometimes forget to give them what we did have.” Dennis addressed this concept of instilling in our children the values that created the lives they now live. This includes a work ethic, a sense of caring and an ability to sacrifice for others. He spoke of personal experiences in taking his children on humanitarian aid missions and the differences in their lives as they experienced real need first-hand. As one of his then teen-aged sons said on a flight back from one such mission, “I had to go half way around the world to understand how blessed I am.”

There is hardly a parent who, in an effort to get a young child to finish their vegetables, has not used this line: “There are starving children who would love to have that food.” The fact is, there really are. About a third of all the children in the world would give anything for the leftovers we discard from our tables. Our children may know this, they may read about these things, but it is very easy to miss the point unless they have seen it first-hand.

The point is this: we have a great deal in this nation. Even if we are struggling at times, we are, relatively speaking, rich. I had the distinct privilege of spending some time with Marc Lubner, a gentleman and philanthropist in the truest sense of the word, from South Africa. As he so powerfully stated, “I have seen people in South Africa who are desperately poor, reach out to help others who are even poorer. That is their wealth; that is their method of coping – to reach out to another in even greater need.”

Wherever you may fall on the income spectrum, you and your children live better than most. We have so much, and while the current credit crunch may round some edges off of our self-indulgent society, we need to dig a little deeper and live with gratitude and awareness of those who have less. We need to teach this to our children so that we can have a hope of changing things. Not only is it the right thing to do, it is also the key to changing the circumstances of the less-fortunate. We would do well to teach our children that caring for others is less about “helping the poor” in the abstract, but more about our global community.

Lila Watson, part of an Australian Aboriginal group said (although she resists taking credit for a thought she claims was born of a collaborative process),

“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, the let us work together.”

An interesting thought as we approach the Thanksgiving season.

-Rick Larsen

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Perfection Not Required

I’m well aware of the pressures parents put on themselves to be perfect – though fortunately my children are too young to roll their eyes at me or tell me that I humiliate them every time I put the trash out in my bathrobe and fuzzy slippers. Yet, as I potty train my toddler or get up to feed the baby at oh-dark-thirty, I am constantly critical of how well I’m playing the role as the adult who shoulders the incredible burden of bringing up the next generation.

I have a laundry list of parenting faults – I’m a little high-strung, I hate to mop the kitchen floor (negating any 30-second-rule for fear my kids will die of whatever has taken up residence there), I don’t find the emptying of an entire roll of toilet paper or tube of toothpaste particularly humorous and sometimes I put the pillow over my head and mutter, “if I ignore you can I sleep just 20 more minutes?”

And yet, my kids are lucky – they have parents who love them and are fiercely devoted to giving them the best life we possibly can. And that is enough perfection for them.

It is also the reasoning behind this month’s National Adoption Month theme: “You don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent: There are thousands of teens in foster care who would love to put up with you.”

Last month, President Obama declared November as “National Adoption Month”, to “honor those families who have strengthened America through adoption, and we recommit to reducing the number of children awaiting adoption into loving families,” and to “renew our commitments to children in the foster care system.”

The observance of National Adoption Month is more than just a celebration of adoption, it is a cry for more than 120,000 children who are in foster care awaiting a permanent family and an end to a life of turmoil. These are children who are not in the “system” by their own choosing, but have become without permanent home, family or support through tragic circumstances and the unfortunate choices of others. National Adoption Month aims to focus on the needs of these children, nearly 25,000 of whom age out of the foster care system each year and to remind each of us of our responsibility to the rising generation.

Every year, we are losing alarming numbers of these young adults who have “aged out” to cycles of poverty, crime, incarceration and death at far above the rate of their peers. Without a support system to prepare them for life on their own, many face an uphill battle that is rarely won.

It is this alarming fact that has lead AdoptUsKids, a  cooperative agreement between The Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children & Families and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, to highlight the message of “anti-perfection” – that even the quirkiest of us have something to offer a teen in foster care. Their PSA campaign reminds us all that each of us – foibles included – can make a difference in the life of a child in foster care by being a mentor, a foster family or by giving a foster child into a permanent, loving home.

We work with many individuals and organizations who champion this same message. This past year we helped Christmas Box International with their Lifestart initiative to help arm teens aging out of foster care with basic necessities. We champion the ideas set forth by Judy Cockerton of The Treehouse Foundation for their ability to make an impact. And we embrace the idea of reminding us all about the “forgotten children” who live among us.

At the very least, we ask that you hug a child in your life today. You’re a far greater parent, example or mentor than you realize. After all, you don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent.

-Sara

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