Arts groups aim to increase access

By Todd Cohen

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

DURHAM, N.C. — Art of Cool Project, a Durham nonprofit formed in 2011 to provide jazz and build an audience for it, wants a physical home and a way to expand its audience, build its donor base and find corporate sponsors.

American Dance Festival, which also is in Durham and is celebrating its 82nd season this summer, wants to establish a year-long presence and know more about its audience.

Artsplosure, a Raleigh nonprofit that for nearly four decades has produced big arts festivals each year and worked to promote the arts, also wants to know more about its audience, and to host first-time events and performances.

And 14-year-old Deep Dish Theater Company, which stages four shows a year in a storefront at University Mall in Chapel Hill that seats 70 people, wants new space that can handle constantly-changing programs and will attract a steady flow of visitors.

Key to making the arts and culture more accessible in the Triangle, representatives of all four groups told the Triangle Donors Forum on April 14, are capacity-building and technical support for small and mid-sized arts organizations, as well as collaboration among them.

Economic driver

The arts are big business and big contributors to the economy and the health of local communities, Lori O’Keefe, president of Triangle Community Foundation and moderator of the panel, told several dozen guests at the Donors Forum, which was hosted Foundation and held at the Carolina Theater in Durham.

Sixty percent of employees in North Carolina work in the arts or creative industries, which generated $22 billion in revenue for the state in 2014, O’Keefe said.

“This is real work for our region and for our state, with real people working real jobs in the arts, and the majority of those jobs are in the nonprofit sector,” she said.

Arts offerings contribute to the health of downtowns and communities, and can have a big impact on the way children learn, O’Keefe said.

“Immersion in art has such a ripple effect on how a child can be set up for success later in life,” she said.

Arts and culture represent an important focus of grantmaking at the foundation, which last year granted nearly $2 million to organizations that support arts and culture in the region and beyond, O’Keefe said.

Providing leadership in building the cultural identity of the Triangle also is a focus — along with building the capacity of groups that address youth literacy and community development, and supporting environmental conservation programs — of a “People and Places” program the Foundation launched last year.

Yet while larger arts institutions in the region may seem to find it easier to sustain themselves, O’Keefe said, smaller arts organizations faces challenges, including a lack of “ready-made venues,” lack of knowledge about how to use technology to attract audiences, and a business model that will sustain them.

Providing access

Adequate and appropriate space to perform and show art, and the accessibility of that space to a regional audience, are big challenges for smaller arts groups, members of the panel told the Donors Forum.

The Triangle, for example, lacks a “home” for jazz, a single space to house jazz performance, teaching, rehearsing and related activities, said Cicely Mitchell, president and co-founder of Art of Cool Project.

The idea that led to the founding of Art of Cool was to “provide space where we could help expand the audience for jazz,” she said. “It’s all about accessibility.”

Paul Frellick, artistic director of Deep Dish Theater Company, said that while ticket sales generate only about half of the funds it needs to operate, its capacity of only 70 seats makes it tough to attract corporate advertisers for its printed programs or corporate sponsors.

After operating in two locations at University Mall, he said, the troupe aims to find new space and move over the course of its next season.

Maintaining momentum

Arts groups like Artsplosure, Art of Cool and American Dance Festival that concentrate many of their activities into a few events or times during the year face the challenge of maintaining a presence or momentum throughout the year, panelists said.

Multiplying that challenge for an arts group can be a lack of data about its audience, a hurdle that many arts groups face.

Michael Lowder, executive director of Artsplosure, said venues in themselves can carry a brand that can “trump whoever the presenter is.”

The Artsplosure festival this year was moving to Fayetteville Street from Moore Square, he said.

Yet because Fayetteville Street has attracted both “great events and not-so-great events” and has only a “so-so brand,” he said, the move carried some risk.

“Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd,” he said.

To help promote and market itself throughout the year, he said, Artsplosure has made aggressive use of social media such as Instagram and Facebook.

“We really try to maintain a relationship with our audience,” he said. Yet at Artsplosure, he said, “we really don’t know our audience.”

While 30,000 to 50,000 people attend the organization’s First Night activities, and 60,000 to 80,000 attend Artsplosure, less than one thousand attending those festivals actually fill out surveys about who they are, he said.

Artsplosure tries to communicate with the arts community through arts agencies, and through roughly 25 media outlets.

Still, Lowder said, maintaining a year-long presence and momentum “with who you perceive your audience to be” can be challenging.

Sarah Kondu, director of communications and marketing at American Dance Festival, said it performs at venues such as Durham Arts Center yet, because of a policy by intermediaries that sell tickets online, it can not get information on the people who buy tickets to its performances.

So knowing and communicating with its audiences is a “real struggle for us,” she said.

Mitchell, who suggested that venues do not share information on ticket buyers to protect their privacy, said that while Art of Cool has built an email list of people who attend its events, its marketing budget is small and so it relies on social media to reach its audience.

Showing value

O’Keefe, who worked as a fundraiser and arts administrator at performing arts institutions in California and New York City before joining Triangle Community Foundation in 2005, asked the panelists whether the new residents who have swelled the Triangle’s population recognize the value the arts add to the region’s quality of life and are “opening their pockets and engaging in ways other than just buying tickets.”

Mitchell said Art of Cool launched its festival last year entirely through a Kickstarter social-media campaign.

Tondu said modern dance is a “hard sell, even in larger cities,” and that American Dance Festival is “still trying to educate, to get people to give it a try.”

Frellick said that because tickets sales generate only about half the income Deep Dish Theater needs to operate, and because its limited seating capacity has made it tough to attract corporate sponsors, the company depends on individual donors and patrons to sustain it.

On the other hand, he said, when corporate giving fell after the economy crashed in 2008, Deep Dish was not as hard hit as some other organizations because it already lacked corporate support.

Lowder said Artsplosure six years ago saw a 60 percent spike in ticket sales for First Night, and asked a statistician to try to find out why.

The only correlation the statistician could find after looking at a broad range of indicators was that “the more we spend on art, the more tickets we sold,” Lowder said.

“We want to be perceived as an entry point, the gateway, to what others are doing,” he said. “It’s about the art we’re presenting, and presenting in an accessible way to encourage people to learn more and get involved.”

Making the arts accessible is important, he said, because of the “influx of people from all over the country with expectations about what sorts of art they’re going to find here.”

Capacity and collaboration

A big challenge for smaller and mid-sized arts groups is building their organizational “capacity,” panelists said.

Mitchell at Art of Cool said finding corporate support has been tough.

The group participated in a training program at the Durham Chamber of Commerce to learn how to ask companies for money, and was the only nonprofit in the program, she said.

“A lot of younger organizations would jump over the opportunity to have mentorship and camaraderie,” she said.

O’Keefe said a “big push” in the nonprofit sector is for greater collaboration, and “the arts tend to be on the forefront of this, using statistics, data, having a revenue producing model.”

Through tickets and products, “the arts have always had,” she said. “The arts, particularly in the Triangle, are constantly thinking about ways to work together to raise each other up.”

Nonprofits, funders looking for community partnerships

By Todd Cohen

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

DURHAM, N.C. — Fixing local problems can be tough.

Charities that focus on community issues can find their work slow, messy and fragmented. With limited resources, charities face growing competition for funding, as well as rising demand from donors to show and measure their impact.

And because they often focus on a single issue or group of issues, many charities are not positioned to address the underlying and interconnected causes of the broad range of complicated problems in their communities.

The way charities operate, however, is beginning to change. A small but growing number of charities and funders are starting to work together to make a “collective impact” on local problems.

The challenges facing charities and funders working on the issue of community development, and the solutions they are developing to address those challenges, was the focus of a recent meeting of Triangle Donors Forum.

“Nonprofits don’t work in silos,” said Katie Loovis, director of U.S. community partnerships and stakeholder engagement for GlaxoSmithKline, and a panelist at the Donors Forum, which was hosted by Triangle Community Foundation on November 20. Building healthy communities “requires each [nonprofit] working together,” as well as sectors working together, Loovis said.

Moderated by Farad Ali, president and CEO of the North Carolina Institute of Minority Economic Development and a member of the board of directors of Triangle Community Foundation, the Donors Forum was held at the Holton Career and Resource Center in Durham.

Building capacity

Strengthening the organizational capacity of nonprofits is the focus of a “People and Places” initiative Triangle Community Foundation launched this year that focuses on groups working on the issues of community development, youth literacy, land conservation, and the arts.

That initiative grew out of a two-year effort by the Foundation to assess its grantmaking with advice from donors, nonprofits and civic leaders from throughout the region. A key goal was to identify “community benchmarks” the Foundation could use to find ways to make a greater impact with the limited discretionary funds it invests in the community.

As a general funder that is a “proxy for so many donors, and a vast number of nonprofits,” and with “limited resources and a vast region and many microcosms of communities,” the Foundation wanted to find “that sweet spot of funders and nonprofits and volunteers where we start to chip away” at addressing pressing community needs, Lori O’Keefe, the Foundation’s president, told the Donors Forum.

While the Foundation’s community conversation initially focused on finding ways to improve the delivery of services, she said, it eventually shifted to the organizational capacity and infrastructure of nonprofits.

Recognizing the widespread need of local nonprofits to strengthen their operations so they could make a greater impact through the services they deliver, the Foundation decided to make capacity-building the focus of its discretionary grantmaking.

Partnerships key

Alice Lutz, CEO of Triangle Family Services and a panelist at the Donors Forum, said partnerships are critical to the impact of her organization, a 77-year-old agency that focuses on mental health, financial stability and family safety.

“It’s partnerships that make a difference,” she said.

But partnership also are challenging, she said, because “the work doesn’t stop” while staff members responsible for delivering services also are devoting time to building partnerships with funders and other agencies.

Maggie West, program coordinator for the Community Empowerment Fund in Chapel Hill and another panelist, said her organization depends on collaboration and partnerships “more than we depend on funding.”

The Community Empowerment Fund operates with 250 student volunteers from Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, pairing two students each with individuals who are homeless or at risk of being homeless. In 2015, it plans to add students from North Carolina Central University.

The students work to help each client focus on their goals in the areas of employment, housing and financial security.

“Communities are people that know each other and in relationship to each other can build mobility,” West said.

And while the organization’s volunteers, known as “advocates,” help their clients navigate through courts, housing agencies, health clinics, public-benefits systems and other agencies, “student volunteers are not going to be the experts,” she said. “So we depend on partnerships” with shelters, clinics, housing agencies, workforce development organizations and other groups.

Investing in collaboration

Loovis said many issues in a community are interconnected, and funders struggle to “change the way we fund and foster more collaboration” to address those issues.

“As the funding community, sometimes we get it all wrong,” she said. “The very things we have funded to create sometimes exacerbate the very things we don’t want to see.”

While they may “know fostering a healthy community requires addressing a broader array of factors,” she said, funders may opt to fund individual nonprofits, in effect forcing nonprofits to compete with one another for funding rather than encouraging them to work together.

Funders also tend to invest in short-term programs, even though fixing complex problems can take longer.

“How do we fund things and recognize this isn’t a one-year deal, change the funding stream and realize this is a long-term approach,” she said.

And while funders “want nonprofits to show outcomes,” she said, funders may not be providing the funding nonprofits need to evaluate their work.

GlaxoSmithKline wants to change the way it funds nonprofits, and is working with Triangle Community Foundation to “figure out how not just to fund one nonprofit but groups working together,” possibly with “more than one business funder at the table,” she said.

“If we do want healthy communities, this is complicated work,” she said, “and we do all have some room to improve.”

Incentives for partnerships

Bob Johnston, who is founder and executive director of Global Vaccines, a nonprofit in Morrisville, and attended the Donors Forum, suggested that philanthropic funders that want to invest in solutions to complex community problems might take the approach of agencies like the National Institutes of Health that fund scientific research.

His own university labs once operated like “an island,” said Johnston, a former professor of microbiology at North Carolina State University and former professor of microbiology and immunology at the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“You wrote a grant, got funding, and there was competition, and actually drives a lot of innovation,” he said. “But as science has moved forward, the goals are too big for individual labs.”

So the NIH now issues “calls for proposals” that spell out a big goal, knowing that “no one entity can satisfy that goal,” said Johnston, who created a donor advised fund at Triangle Community Foundation.

It then becomes “incumbent on people applying for funding to assemble the consortia that are important to whatever that goal is,” he said.

So if philanthropic funders want to set an ambitious goal for addressing a community problem, they can issue a call for proposals that will give community groups “an incentive to organize themselves” to apply for funding, he said, “Having it come from the ground up could be a real advance. It would be up to individual people and agencies to come up with consortia and the groups that can do it. Your decision the would be who can do it best.”

‘Coopertition’

Lutz said nonprofits working in the area of human services have “little room for mistakes.”

While nonprofits ought to be able to learn from and build on initiatives that don’t work, she said, “funders move on to another organization.”

The challenge is to find ways to pilot new programs, “identify mistakes, and then turn to funders and in partnership move through that system,” she said.

What is needed, she said, is “coopertition,” or a combination of cooperation and competition.

Loovis said there is a “push-pull” between funders and nonprofits.

“In some ways, nonprofits are ahead of us,” she said. “In some ways, funders are a little ahead of nonprofits.”

When GlaxoSmithKline decided to pursue a strategy known as “collective impact,” she said, it wanted to invest $500,000 each in tackling community problems in two communities in other parts of the U.S.

It assumed local nonprofits in each community were ready for a collective impact strategy “and we would come in and work and learn from them,” she said,

One of the communities already had a strong funding community, largely because of several big funders, she said, but that philanthropic infrastructure was lacking in the other community “and we really struggled as a funder.”

So instead of making a collective impact investment in the second community, GlaxoSmithKline shifted gears and is considering making a planning grant to pave way for a collective impact initiative.

Collaboration and mergers

Haywood Holderness, who is pastor emeritus at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Durham and attended the Donors Forum, said the Triangle is “ripe for more collaboration and mergers among nonprofits.”

The number of nonprofits in Durham, for example, has soared and now is many times the state average on a per-capita basis, yet many nonprofits operate in silos, he said.

But with the Baby Boomer generation of nonprofit founders retiring, the time is ideal for funders “to talk to nonprofits about more collaboration or even mergers,” he said. “You guys can make that happen.”

Steve Toler, who is a public relations and communications consultant, former vice president for public affairs in North Carolina for Verizon, and attended the Donors Forum, said the business community was “light years ahead of nonprofits” in mergers and acquisitions.

“We’re not seeing that” in the nonprofit sector, he said.

Lutz said mergers require mediators and investment from funders to provide incentives to nonprofits to talk about merging and give them the time needed to pursue merger conversations while continuing to serve clients.

As part of its People and Places initiative, Triangle Community Foundation is working to better understand and address the challenges of building the capacity of nonprofits to address pressing community issues.

“We know all our donors are not ready to fund that capacity-building infrastructure…yet,” O’Keefe said.

Collaboration seen as key to improving youth literacy

By Todd Cohen

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

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — At age three, Travis Mitchell got a first-hand lesson in the value of literacy.

Growing up in southeast Raleigh, he says, he spent many afternoons with his grandmother while his mother, a teacher, worked to earn credentials so she could get a counseling job in the Wake County public schools.

Although his grandmother had not gone to college, she “created an environment of learning,” he says. “There were books around I was required to use. There were conversations I was required to know something and share something about.”

Enriching kids with a culture of reading before they start school is critical to prepare them to succeed in school, in the workplace and in life, according to Mitchell and two other education leaders who spoke on October 9 to the Triangle Donors Forum.

The Donors Forum, hosted by Triangle Community Foundation and held at the offices of Research Triangle Park Foundation, spotlighted youth literacy, which is a focus of Triangle Community Foundation’s “People and Places” initiative to invest in pressing community needs in the region.

The challenge

Bob Saffold, who moderated the session and is vice president of the Smarter Learning Group, a national education consulting firm, said two-thirds of third graders in the U.S. do not read proficiently, a share that rises to 80 percent among third graders who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch at school.

In North Carolina, he said, 66 percent of fourth graders do not read proficiently, a share that rises to 78 percent among those who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

According to newly released state data, one in eight of last year’s third graders throughout the state either were retained in third grade this year or are in a special program to transition to fourth grade, Saffold said.

In the Triangle, the share of last year’s third graders who were retained or are in special transition programs this year total 18 percent in Durham County, 13 percent in Orange County, 10 percent in Wake County, and 6.5 percent each in Johnston County and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, he said.

Yet despite huge gaps in reading levels between low-income children and those in middle-income and more affluent families, and between what those two groups of children achieve in life, Saffold said, “it’s within our capacity to make a difference.”

Starting early

Communities in Schools of Wake County in recent years has expanded its focus to children before they start school.

“We were beginning programs in kindergarten,” Mitchell says. “We were missing something. Students were already behind.”

To bridge the gap between students who were falling behind and those who were entering kindergarten prepared to read, Communities in Schools launched programs aimed at “preventing students getting behind in the first place,” he says.

In partnership with the federally-funded Head Start pre-school program and with Meredith College, for example, Communities in Schools retrofitted the SAS Learning Center in the Kentwood community to take a “holistic approach to invest in an earlier portion of the pipeline” of students headed for kindergarten, Mitchell says.

Long-term studies have found that students who participate in pre-school programs are more likely to graduate, be employed, earn a significantly higher median annual income, own a home, have a savings account and be arrested less often, he says.

“If we’re going to change the trajectory of children, we have to start early,” said Mitchell, who joined Communities in Schools as president four years ago after a career in broadcast journalism.

Teaching, tutoring, professional development

The Hill Center in Durham takes a three-pronged approach to youth literacy, Denise Morton, director of outreach at The Hill Center and former chief academic officer for the Orange County Schools who has a doctorate in education leadership, told the Donors Forum.

With one teacher for every four students, it operates a private school that provides three hours of instruction a day in reading, math and written language to 170 children from 77 other schools in the Triangle.

It provides tutoring after-school and in the summer for students from public schools in Wake, Durham and Orange counties and from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools.

And it provides professional development for teachers who want to learn its specialized technique, known as the Hill Reading Achievement Program, for reading intervention.

Over the last six years, the Hill Center has served over 12,000 educators, including 125 teachers from 13 school districts in the state who are putting those techniques into practice for the first time this year.

And the Hill Reading Achievement Program has been replicated in Geneva, El Salvador, and Colorado Springs.

The Hill Center “wants to spread understanding and services to help children learn to read and read well,” Morton said.

Collaborating on early literacy

Improving the way young children and students learn to read requires careful collaboration among public schools, nonprofits and funding organizations, the experts at the Donors Forum said.

And effective collaboration, they said, requires changing the thinking about reading programs; securing funding over multiple years from multiple funders; and collecting and sharing data to measure the impact of early-intervention reading programs.

Schools and school districts “often have real difficulty engaging with community partners” and “sometimes have a real tin ear on collaboration and public relations,” said Saffold, a former teacher and school administrator whose father also an educator.

Mitchell said “political gridlock and partisan debates” often can stifle innovation. “The environment is very risk-averse,” both at the district level and often at the school level, he said.

So collaborating with schools requires that nonprofits “change our own mindset.”

The best way to engage a school system, Mitchell said, “is to come in willing to listen to possible gaps and how to help, and bring in resources to make it easy for the principal or superintendent to engage.”

And to be effective, he said, partnerships require taking risks and working hard.

“Collaboration is messy,” he said. “Nobody wants to talk about what happens when collaboration doesn’t work. You need a willingness to fail in order to succeed. If you don’t meet your goals, retool, don’t stop.”

Adding value

Morton, who was a special education teacher for 14 years, mainly in Alamance County, said efforts to partner on youth literacy programs with public schools should begin with identifying what the schools need and want and then finding ways to work with the schools to address those needs.

Understanding the larger context of policy and funding discussions and decisions at the state legislature is key to avoid being “left in a silo,” she said, as is understanding “what you’re walking into in a school district. Every one is different.”

It also is important in approaching a school system “to know the right person to get to at the central office,” she said, “There are layers of people. You have to know who has the power or you spin wheels.”

Data essential

Equally essential is agreeing in the partnership contract with schools to gather and share data on the progress students are making.

Saffold that “one of the key barriers to effective collaboration with school systems is around the systems’ reluctance to share data needed to track progress and identify gaps in programs to tweak programs,” he said.

Morton agreed.

“It’s real important we have data,” she said. “People won’t pay attention unless there’s a proven track record.”

Mitchell said data not only are essential for funders and partners but also can make a big difference among the staff of the agencies partnering with the schools.

“If you can begin to explain to staff how effective they’re being with the use of their time,” by the end of the year they “can see how they really changed the game for their students,” he said. “Our theory of change is that programs don’t change people, relationships do.”

So having data that measure the progress of a collaborative effort has helped “increase morale and momentum for the organization internally,” he said.

Going to scale

Fostering a culture of collaboration is essential to the success of youth literacy programs, the experts told the Donors Forum.

“We make every effort to connect with as many organizations as possible with a similar focus,” Morton said.

Mitchell said funders want to know in advance what the “return on investment” will be and are looking for metrics that will gauge the “collective community impact” of their funding.

They also want to invest in partnerships that can be expanded and already have the “administrative capacity” to expand, Mitchell said.

Taking such programs “to scale,” he said, requires funding from three to five funders over multiple years.

Morton said the least successful initiatives are those that involve funding for one year only, known as “one and done.”

Collaboration essential

Schools and school districts cannot on their own improve student performance in reading, Saffold said.

“We need to craft and implement a set of community solutions to improve literacy,” he said. “There’s a major role for nonprofits and foundations to get involved to move the needle on literacy.”

Conservation seen central to Triangle’s prosperity

By Todd Cohen

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

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — As the Triangle’s population and economy continue to boom, the region is getting thirstier, and protecting its water supply is as essential to sustaining and improving its health and the quality of life for all its residents as making sure it has good roads, schools and other basic infrastructure systems.

What’s more, the job of conserving the land that the region’s supply of clean water depends on is interconnected with addressing other critical needs ranging from food and health to economic development and fighting poverty.

Yet land conservation often is perceived as a marginal issue, making it tougher to include environmental planning in the regional thinking and collaborative strategies the Triangle needs to continue to thrive.

That was the message at Triangle Donors Forum, a quarterly meeting of philanthropists that was held June 12 at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill and sponsored by Triangle Community Foundation.

“Many people think about conservation as something that happens ‘out there’ and not relevant to our lives,” Chad Jemison, executive director of Triangle Land Conservancy in Durham and a panelist at the Donors Forum, told about three dozen people who attended the session.

Jonathan Howes, senior public service fellow at the Institute for the Environment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and retired director of UNC’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies, told the Donors Forum that land conservation issues need to be integral to policy discussions in the region.

Howes, who moderated the panel, said North Carolina traditionally has preserved its natural assets, in large part through trust funds created by state lawmakers, funding that recently “has declined or been eliminated because of the state of the economy and changing politics.”

The drop in public funds for conservation has created “an opportunity for private philanthropy to fill that gap,” he said.

Robin Jacobs, executive director of the Eno River Association in Durham and another panelist, said money was the biggest issue for conservation in the region.

While some funds are available to help with the actual purchase of land or easements for conservation purposes, she said, it is more difficult to secure the dollars needed for the “transactional” costs associated with the purchase of land and for the “stewardship” required to take an environmental inventory of the land and make sure it remains protected.

“None of us any more will accept donations for land or buy land unless we know where we’ll get the money to pay forits stewardship, said Jacobs, who also is a partner in the Chapel Hill law firm Epting and Hackney.

Jemisen said conservation will play an increasingly critical role for the Triangle.

“There’s an incredible opportunity to make conservation more relevant to urban neighborhoods and metro areas, creating access and linking to health and poverty issues,” he said.

Triangle Land Conservancy, for example, is helping to develop urban gardens and provide access to food, trails and parks, he said.

Five years ago, Triangle Land Conservancy received 200 acres outside Carrboro through a bequest. Now, through partnerships, parts of that land are used for after-school and camp activities by a kindergarten and preschool, and as farmland by Burmese refugees.

Jemisen said the national Land Trust Alliance has land trusts in nearly every county in the U.S.

“Historically, at the state and federal level,” he said, “there’s strong bipartisan support for conservation.”

Jacobs said North Carolina has the biggest share of accredited land trusts in the U.S.

“We’re working hard and doing a good job,” often in partnership with local cities, towns and counties, she said.

Jemisen said a national survey by the Trust for Public Land found an 80 percent approval rating on the willingness to finance bonds or sales-tax increases for clean drinking water.

“The will is there,” he said. “We need to get an increase in political pressure locally.”

Howes, a former mayor of Chapel Hill and a former secretary of the state Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources, said raising public awareness and conveying a sense of the importance of conservation to public officials will be critical.

Conservation, he said, “ought not to be a red or blue issue.”

Jemisen said state funding for conservation likely will return over time in some form.

“But we can’t wait for that to happen,” he said.

Particularly as the region continues to recruit companies and talent, he said, “the pace of growth in the Triangle demands more immediate action.”

Community solutions to homelessness urged

By Todd Cohen

[Note: I am working with Triangle Community Foundation as senior communications adviser.]

MORRISVILLE, N.C. — While homelessness can seem beyond any solution, efforts to reduce it are working.

Actually ending homelessness, however, will take truly collaborative community efforts that require patience and hard work, and are well designed, driven by incentives and shared goals, and tracked with useful metrics that show the impact of those efforts.

That was the message of four experts who work on homelessness issues and served on a panel at the April meeting of the Triangle Donors Forum.

Hosted by Triangle Community Foundation and United Way of the Greater Triangle at United Way’s offices in Morrisville, the Forum offered a window into local efforts to fight homelessness by adapting to changes in the funding environment and in perspectives about the causes of the problem and effective strategies to address it.

Roots of homelessness

Characterizing homelessness as “one of the most complex societal problems,” Denise Neunaber, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness, told the Donors Forum the keys to ending the problem all are rooted in access — to affordable housing, to services and to income.

In the early 1980s, she said, homelessness was treated as an “emergency situation”  and a problem that eventually would “go away.”

Declines in the development of affordable housing and in wages, however, along with changes in the mental health system and other social forces, have resulted in the spread of homelessness, she said.

Yet the system created to fight homelessness, rooted in the belief it was a temporary crisis, has “taken on a life of its own,” she said.

Shifting strategies

The system that emerged to serve homeless people operated below the “safety net” to “catch people when the safety net doesn’t work,” Neunaber said.

But that system became a kind of “sticky net.”

“We created a system where you need to get services while you’re there,” she said, creating few exits for people in temporary housing who needed ongoing assistance.

But that system should be a “trampoline,” she said, to stabilize their housing while they get other support, including assistance with rent and in securing jobs or disability benefits, or services such as mental health programs or case management.

“People fall out of housing into our system and we try to bounce them back into housing and services,” she said.

Ultimately, she said, getting people out of homelessness requires permanent housing.

“Instead of investing just in services and a temporary place for individuals and families to stay,” she said, “we’re taking it to the next level, investing in housing, in rental assistance and security deposits, to see how quickly we can get people out of the system.”

Homelessness and poverty

Perceptions about what it means to be homeless also have changed, Neunaber said.

For many years, advocates equated fighting homelessness with fighting poverty, believing they had to address the poverty of homeless individuals and families by helping them “get better jobs and make better decisions, ” she said, “and make them better people.”

But over the years, advocates have recognized that “maybe ending homelessness is not the same as ending poverty,” she said. “Maybe ending homelessness is a piece of getting to the next step of ending poverty. We may not be able to end poverty for these individuals and families, but I know we can end  homelessness.”

Neunaber said local partnerships to end homelessness had helped reduce the number of chronically homeless individuals and families in communities across North Carolina, including a declines of 35 percent in Durham, 58 percent in Winston-Salem and and 82 percent in Buncombe County.

‘Rapid Rehousing’

Strategies for serving the homeless more recently have evolved to a “Housing First” model that includes a “Rapid Rehousing” approach focusing on first getting homeless people housed and then providing the services they need to get back on their feet and build stable lives.

“It shortens the time they’re homeless,” Terry Allebaugh, executive director of Housing for New Hope in Durham, told the Donors Forum.

Beth Bordeaux, executive director of PLM Families Together in Raleigh, told the Donors Forum that the Rapid Rehousing strategy also provides an incentive for families not to prolong their stays in emergency housing but rather to begin to prepare themselves to move into longer-term housing.

“First we get them stable,” she said. “If your life is in chaos, the first thing you want is to reduce your stress.”

Allebaugh and Bordeaux both said Rapid Rehousing has helped their agencies house more people for less money.

Last year, for example, PLM Families Together moved 57 families into permanent housing, and this year expects to move 70 families into permanent housing.

And in partnership with three core agencies that provide support services and temporary housing , Housing for New Hope housed 173 households in permanent housing over the two-and-a-half-year period ended August 2012, with 89 percent of those households remaining housed.

Community solutions

Advocates at the Donors Forum said the most effective approaches to fighting homelessness involve community-based partnerships that address the problem from the perspective of the systems that serve homeless people.

Those systems range from job-training and financial-literacy services to those serving people with mental illness or substance abuse problems, or both, and people after they are discharged from military service or prison.

“You can’t end homelessness in a silo,” Bordeaux said.

Bernadette Pelissier, a member of the Orange County Board of Commissioners and of the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, told the Donors Forum that homelessness is a byproduct of national policies on a range of issues such as poverty and mental health, and that efforts to address homelessness are supported by multiple funding streams.

So partnerships to fight homelessness should approach the problem from a “systems” perspective.

In Orange County, she said, that approach has produced promising partnerships.

The local Partnership to End Homelessness, for example, has enlisted partners such as an assistant district attorney whose efforts helped establish a local “outreach court.”

That court, which has engaged students at the School of Law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, along with other partners, encouraged homeless people who have been arrested for misdemeanors to take advantage of local services, particularly mental health services.

And a local jobs program works to encourage local businesses to hire people released from prison who may be at risk of homelessness. That effort represents a collaboration between local partners such as the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership and Chamber of Commerce, and is administered by a new nonprofit led by students at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“We’re engaging the community,” Pelissier said, “not just providers” of services.

Critical to local collaborative programs, she said, is the ability to track and measure their impact.

Focus on collaboration

The session underscored the growing focus of Triangle Community Foundation and United Way to work more collaboratively to address urgent needs in the region.

“We have to do it together, think collaboratively,” Lori O’Keefe, president of Triangle Community Foundation, told the Donors Forum. “We don’t have to be the experts. We look for resources and partners.”

Mack Koonce, president and CEO of United Way, told the Donors Forum that collaborative thinking “is important to all our social issues.”

United Way, he said, is “going to work closely with other foundations and individuals to work collaboratively on the donor side and on the service delivery side.”

He said United Way plans to raise “designated dollars to do the next systemic change” in the area of financial stability for families, an effort he said would “keep this going” through “collaboration, the use of data, and scaling what works.”