Collaboration, flexibility seen key to change

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This was written for Triangle Community Foundation.]

RALEIGH, N.C. — Sustaining the Triangle’s growth and making it a better place will depend on how well individuals and organizations can adapt to sweeping, rapid change and work together to fix the region’s most pressing social problems.

That message was the focus of What Matters, an event hosted by Triangle Community Foundation on April 1 at the Raleigh Convention Center.

Struggling in prosperity

The Triangle is home to stark contrasts, leaders of Triangle Community Foundation told the 450 civic and business leaders from throughout the Triangle at the event.

“In the midst of prosperity, many among us struggle daily to survive and thrive,” said Lacy Presnell III, chair of the Foundation’s board of directors and a lawyer at Raleigh firm Burns, Day & Presnell.

Lori O’Keefe, the Foundation’s president, said the Triangle is the fastest-growing region in the U.S. and ranks fourth in economic growth. Raleigh is the sixth-most-affordable city to live in, Durham is among the 10 most-educated cities, and the region’s quality of life ranks highest in the U.S., she said.

Yet four in 10 public-school students in the region are enrolled in a program for lunch that is free or at a reduced price, one in five children live in poverty, and nearly half of all home renters spend 30 percent or more of their incomes on housing costs, she said. And nearly one in five public school students who enter ninth grade do not graduate in four years, she said, while people of color earn $7 less an hour than whites.

“As proud as we are of this region,” she said, “we must not lose sight of the real challenges we face as we continue to grow.”

Framework for change

Making change happen requires “crystal clear direction about where we’re headed,” motivation for the emotional side of the brain, and the need to “shape the path,” make it easy to “get to from point A to point B, remove the obstacles, create a culture conducive to change,” author Dan Heath, senior fellow at the Center for Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, said in his keynote speech at the event.

He cited a Stanford University study of a food drive in a single dormitory there. Testing the hypothesis that “there are nice people and they give, and there are jerks and they don’t,” the study canvassed the dorm to rank all students from the most to least kind.

Then it tested two versions of a letter promoting the food drive, with one version providing only basic instructions, and the other suggesting that, if students could not figure out what or how to donate, they should bring a can of beans and pick a time to drop off the can.

The second version provided a map showing where to drop off the donation. Among students who received the basic instructions, eight percent of the those identified as “saints” in the canvas and none identified as “jerks” donated food.

Among those who received the detailed instructions, 42 percent of the “saints” and 25 percent of the “jerks” made a donation.

Those findings suggest the food drive was “three times better off betting on a jerk with a map than a saint without one,” Heath said.

In times of change, he said, people are quick to put people “in buckets,” treating them as “saints and jerks,” he said.

“A crucial lesson for leaders of change,” he said, is that “when the path around us changes, people change, so we’ve got to be thoughtful about shaping the path.”

Shaping the path

A key to finding effective solutions to change is to “get better at meeting people where they are, shaping the path for them, not shaping the path” preferred by many advocates of change, Heath said.

He described a challenge faced at the airport in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where the men’s room had a problem with “spillage” that was “caused by poor aim.”

After considering a range of solutions, the committee decided to hire an artist who etched the likeness of a black housefly into every urinal in the men’s room.

Suggesting that the male psyche tended to see a target around the etching, which served as the bull’s eye, Heath said spillage in the men’s room immediately fell by 90 percent.

“We’ve got to shape the path to make change a little easier,” he said.

Bright spots

The social sector often gets so bogged down focusing on its ideal goal that it sometimes fails to see what is real and can lead to an effective solution, Heath said.

In the 1970s, he said, Jerry Sternin, director of Save the Children in Vietnam, wanted to fight child nutrition. Rather than address the problem’s root causes by trying to reform the education system, cure poverty and provide access to clean water, Heath said, Sternin focused on how families in a single village actually were feeding their children.

First, he identified which children in the village were well-nourished for their age, then watched how their parents prepared meals.

Most families in the village served their children two bowls of white rice a day, but the “bright-spot” mothers divided the same amount of rice into more meals during the day, making it easier for their children to digest more rice at each meal.

Sternin invited the “bright-spot” mothers to share the way they were preparing meals with other mothers in the village. Six months later, two-thirds of children in the village were better nourished. And after word of the success spread, leaders of other villages traveled to learn how the mothers in the village were preparing food.

Eventually, the more effective approach reached over 2.2 million Vietnamese in 265 villages, Heath said.

Sternin “did not cure child malnutrition in Vietnam,” Heath said. “But he put an enormous dent in the problem with a meager budget, and never solved any of the problems allegedly responsible for child malnutrition. That’s the power of looking at bright spots.”

So rather than “spending all your time obsessing about problems,” he said, community leaders should “steal some time to think about successes.”

Working together

The problems communities are trying to tackle, Heath said, are “daunting, long-standing, will not yield to easy solutions.”

And while it may not be apparent from day to day, he said, big changes do take place over time.

“Nothing great is ever accomplished easily,” he said. “But together, we’ll make it possible.”

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Building community by investing in nonprofit capacity

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This was written for Triangle Community Foundation.]

RALEIGH, N.C. — Marbles Kids Museum created a program to train its staff to help develop early literacy skills in visitors to the museum.

Triangle Family Services developed metrics on the use of its space that helped dramatically reduce the “no-show” rate among its clients.

Both Raleigh nonprofits were among 22 in the Triangle that received grants from Triangle Community Foundation to assess their operations, and among 21 that received additional grants to use those assessments to strengthen their organizational “capacity.”

The Foundation’s total investment in the effort, which included learning “cohorts” designed to provide training for participating nonprofits and help them share best practices with one another, was $330,000.

“Running a nonprofit is a business, and one with an extremely important outcome,” Pat Nathan, a member of the Foundation’s board, told 85 guests attending TCF Connect, an event in October at the North Carolina Museum of Art attended by 85 Foundation donors and nonprofits.

A similar event for donors and nonprofits was held in Durham and attracted 40 people.

Building capacity

Building the capacity of nonprofits in the region that work in the fields of youth literacy and community development is the focus of the first phase of a “People and Places” initiative Triangle Community Foundation launched in 2014 that also will invest in nonprofits working in the fields of land conservation and the arts.

The Foundation decided to make capacity-building in those four fields of interest its focus as the result of a two-year effort to assess its grantmaking with advice from donors, nonprofits and civic leaders from throughout the Triangle.

Lori O’Keefe, the Foundation’s president, told donors and nonprofits attending TCF Connect that its dollars for making discretionary grants are limited and its donors want to see the “direct tangible impact” of grants from their funds.

“As much as we want to give from our hearts, we have to invest in organizations’ ability to grow and expand and be successful,” O’Keefe said. “We have to be accountable for what the return on investment is.”

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2014, discretionary funds available for grants to community programs totaled $1 million, or the investment income on 15 percent of the Foundation’s $189 million total assets.

“It’s important for us as donors to recognize that for organizations to feed more kids or buy more books,” O’Keefe said, “they have to be able to invest in their infrastructure, much like a business.”

Literacy, community development

Nathan, founder and president of Dress for Success Triangle NC and a former sustainability executive at Dell, moderated a panel that focused on the issue of organizational capacity and included Sally Edwards, president of Marbles; Alice Lutz, CEO of Triangle Family Services; and O’Keefe.

Since Marbles was formed seven years ago through the merger of Exploris and Playspace, hundreds of thousands of children have visited the museum, Edwards said.

“We knew we had such an opportunity to make such an impact in early literacy but didn’t have the capacity to make it,” she said.

So with a grant from Triangle Community Foundation, Marbles assessed its capacity in the area of youth literacy, looking at factors such as its staff and exhibits to determine how it might best improve its organization to better focus on early literacy.

A second grant from the Foundation allowed Marbles to develop and launch a program in collaboration with Motheread, a Raleigh-based national training and curriculum development organization, to train its staff to help develop the early literacy skills of visitors to the museum.

Triangle Family Services, which works to help families experiencing family violence, financial crisis and mental health issues, was looking for ways to streamline its operations.

With five business units spread across multiple locations and operating seven days a week, the agency was using a complicated process for assigning its rooms for clients to meet with its staff.

Triangle Family Services used an initial grant from Triangle Community Foundation to  identify the need to improve that process, and used a second grant to develop and adopt a “systemizing of metrics and measures across all program areas to make it simple and accessible” to assign space for clients, Lutz said.

The result: A reduction — to 5 percent from 18 percent — in the no-show rate among mental-health clients.

Gearing for change

The “People and Places” initiative is part of a larger effort at Triangle Community Foundation to find ways to be a more effective partner to donors, funder of nonprofits and resource on local community issues, Lacy Presnell, chair of the Foundation’s board, told guests at the TCF Connect event.

“When we work together,” he said, “we are stronger and can increase the positive impact we have on our communities.”

In the fiscal year ended June 30, 2014, he said, the foundation received over 220 gifts totaling over $25.2 million, and made over 3,700 grants totaling over $15.4 million invested back into the community.

In assessing its grants, he said, the Foundation found the biggest fields of interest that received funding were education, arts and culture, followed by housing and human services, religious activities, and health care, he said.

Today, with $189.4 million in assets and celebrating its 30th anniversary and the 100th anniversary of community foundations in the U.S., Triangle Community Foundation is “trying to stay in step with rapid growth in the region,” said Presnell, who serves as general counsel for the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Retooling for impact

O’Keefe said the focus of the Foundation’s grantmaking is local, with three-fourths of all its grantmaking remaining in the Triangle, and donor advised funds accounting for nearly two-thirds of the grant dollars that stay in the region.

The Foundation has been retooling, looking for “how to best deploy the flexible funds that have been given to us by past and current donors, and how to put them back into the community for the best use,” she said.

In talking to donors, the Foundation learned that while they were “excited about the programs, they were not always sure how it connected back to their funds and grantmaking.”

And finding that donors already were funding programs in the areas of youth literacy, community development, the arts and the environment, she said, the Foundation decided to focus on capacity-building in those four areas.

Partnering for success

Jessica Aylor, director of community investment at Triangle Community Foundation, told guests at the TCF Connect event that partnerships with nonprofits is one of central roles the Foundation is playing.

“We are taking more of a partnership approach with our programs, trying to strengthen the capacity of nonprofits, giving them grants and putting them in learning cohorts” where they can learn from one another, she said. “Stronger nonprofits end up with greater impact in the community.”

Funding for the Foundation’s “People and Places” community programs that focus on youth literacy, community development, land conservation and the arts is available from Fund for the Triangle, created through gifts to the Foundation by donors “who wanted us to be more strategic in our funding,” she said.

Getting involved

In addition to donating money, said panelists at TCF Connect, donors to Triangle Community Foundation and to nonprofits have many other opportunities to get involved with nonprofits they care about.

Donors can contribute time as volunteers, either working directly with a nonprofit’s clients or in the back office, or can serve on boards, committees and task forces, they said.

At Marbles, for example, a donor could volunteer to help deliver programs or with committees such as one working on a master-planning process to expand the museum’s campus, Edwards said.

And at Triangle Family Services, donors can serve on boards, task forces or a facilities committee that currently is looking at how to get a sump pump for the organization, or can attend a coffee chat with the CEO on the first Friday of each month from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.

Donors, nonprofits and local residents also can attend the Foundation’s What Matters event on April 1, 2015, that will feature stories about giving and data on the Triangle, and will focus on “how the region is changing and how to be thinking for years ahead,” Aylor said.

This past April, the What Matters event attracted 500 people and focused on community innovation.

“Community foundations,” she said, “are places for people to learn together and support causes they care about.”

O’Keefe agreed.

“The community foundation field is about connecting resources to opportunities and needs,” she said. “The more we learn together, the more work we can do.”