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28 posts from October 2014

Two Years After Sandy: What the Robin Hood Foundation Has Learned About Disaster Relief

October 31, 2014

Emary_aronson_for_PhilanTopicOctober 29 marked the second anniversary of Superstorm Sandy. While for some the devastating storm is nothing but a bad memory, for too many in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, Sandy remains present every day as they struggle to rebuild their homes and their lives.

Over the last two years, the Robin Hood Foundation’s Sandy Relief Fund has tried to do what it could to aid those in the tri-state area affected by the storm. With the help of many generous donors, we have provided more than $74 million in grants to nonprofit organizations and have helped tens of thousands of families.

While Robin Hood is not a traditional disaster-relief organization, we were prepared to help after Sandy made landfall. Thanks to our twenty-five years of experience as New York's largest poverty-fighting organization and our expertise in providing assistance to the families of victims of the September 11 attacks, we knew that many of the frontline, grassroots organizations that assist New Yorkers every day could benefit from our help. We made our first grants within three days of the storm to organizations already in the Robin Hood network. Ever since, we've been allocating funds for Sandy recovery efforts within a hundred days of receiving donations for that purpose. Two years after Sandy, we have made more than five hundred and fifty grants to over four hundred organizations in New York City, New Jersey, Long Island, and parts of Connecticut.

Along the way, we have learned many lessons about grantmaking, partnerships, and the nature of disaster relief. Two of the most important lessons have to do with the importance of being flexible and being transparent. Because we had "boots on the ground," we quickly got to know communities we hadn’t worked with before and were able to adapt to their post-storm needs. In terms of transparency, we made all our grants public on our website, including the name of the recipient organization and the amount and purpose of the grant, and located all those grants on an interactive map.

Two years on, the question we are asked most frequently is: What compelled Robin Hood to allocate funds so quickly? There are three reasons:  

1. Immediate need. Many people who found themselves in the storm's path quickly realized they were in urgent need of essentials. In many cases, they had lost their home, or had no heat, hot water, or electricity. Their place of work had been damaged or destroyed, or their child’s day care was shuttered. They began to run out of food and, if they were poor or disabled, could not access their benefits. They were traumatized. It is no accident we called our fund a "relief" fund. Our efforts were about providing assistance in the short term, not about preparing for the next disaster. Moreover, when we had engaged in post-disaster relief efforts before, we had made a point of focusing on the specific conditions of the disaster. In the days after Sandy hit, it was clear to us the situation required getting funds out to frontline organizations quickly.  

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Spotlight on Philanthropy in Colombia

Headshot_AFEMaria The Asociación de Fundaciones Empresariales (Association of Corporate and Family Foundations) is a Colombia-based association that works to promote accountability among corporate and family foundations in the country, encourage the sharing of best philanthropic practices, and act as a collective voice for its members in order to achieve greater impact and contribute to social equity and sustainable development. Recently, the Foundation Center's Marie DeAeth spoke with Maria Carolina Suarez Visbal, AFE's executive director, about the impact of current and historical events on the country's philanthropic sector, the challenges grantmakers face, and the opportunities they have to move Colombia forward.

History

After a civil war in the mid-20th century, Colombia experienced more than fifty years of violence at the hands of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an "irregular military organization" that is still active in certain rural areas of the country. The country also has had to deal with violence perpetrated by drug cartels that help drive the global cocaine industry. "Violence, corruption, guerrillas, paramilitary groups, drug cartels — all are present in Colombia and have definitely affected the different sectors of the economy, including the philanthropic sector," says Sra. Suarez. "At the moment, the country is engaged in a peace-building process in which we all have to be prepared to accept many changes. Nonprofits are not immune to this, and, indeed, they have an important role to play in a post-conflict situation."

The problems in rural areas are a big challenge for those engaged in philanthropic work, Suarez notes, particularly as the government is trying to negotiate a peace settlement with the FARC and civil society in the country remains focused on the process. Peace-building in rural areas is important to many AFE members, and they, almost uniquely in Colombia, have the human and social capital, knowledge, and capacity to empower and strengthen rural communities. As Suarez notes, "These challenges confirm that we must go into territories beyond where the foundation's family is from or where the foundation's parent corporation is located."

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Making Philanthropic Investments Last: The Role of Financial Sustainability

October 30, 2014

Headshot_schneider_kidron_300x600Launched in 2010, the Jim Joseph Foundation's Education Initiative has supported the development and expansion of eighteen degree and certificate programs as well as leadership institutes at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), and Yeshiva University (YU).

The foundation provided the resources needed for program development, staffing, student tuition assistance, and marketing/recruitment activities. The investment was substantial – each institution received $15 million over a period of up to six years. As part of its independent evaluation of the initiative, American Institutes for Research (AIR) assessed not only how well the three grantees delivered these programs, but how they planned to financially sustain their programs into the future after the foundation's investment wound down.

Financial sustainability requires careful planning, typically using a dynamic document that is reviewed and revisited periodically. Such a document – the financial sustainability plan – describes strategies to contain costs and to cover them through fundraising and program revenues.

Informing Financial Sustainability Plans Through Break-Even Analysis

A common tool in financial planning is break-even analysis, which identifies the circumstances in which costs and revenues are balanced. To help Jim Joseph Foundation Education Initiative grantees, we developed a program-level Break-Even Analysis Calculator, allowing program administrators to project revenues and expenditures by changing variables such as tuition, numbers of students, and staffing levels. This interactive tool can be used to:

  1. Identify the resources required to implement a program, including personnel, facilities, equipment, and materials, whether paid for directly or contributed in-kind, and subsequently to calculate program costs.
  2. Explore ways to reduce costs.
  3. Identify the effects of different levels of tuition and scholarships.
  4. Calculate fundraising needs and demonstrate to potential funders why their help is needed.

Review of Financial Sustainability Plans

We created benchmarks for reviewing the financial sustainability plans submitted by each institution. The four criteria described below are based on the assumption that financial sustainability is a process, not an end. In other words, although the process aimed at achieving financial sustainability may not yet be completed, the financial sustainability plan contributes to a road map that programs can follow into the future.

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Philanthropy as a Partner in Implementing Post-2015 Development Goals

October 29, 2014

UNDP_in_PakistanPhilanthropy is evolving rapidly as a sector, taking new shapes and forms. Although philanthropic contributions are poorly measured because difficult to estimate, total philanthropy from Northern countries (DAC donors) was reported to be $59 billion in 2011.

Traditional philanthropic giving has been complemented by innovative new approaches such as impact investing and advocacy, and more voices are calling for strategic philanthropy to engage in the conversation around the post-2015 development agenda, another new development within the sector.

When we first reached out to foundations asking their views on future development goals, our conversation was mostly about explaining the MDGs. The language and the measuring mechanisms of the MDG framework have not been well known or used by foundations, despite enormous philanthropic resources committed to global issues such as education and health. Indeed, the Global Philanthropy Forum (GPF), which is dedicated to global development, did not mention MDGs during its 2014 annual gathering.

But the conversation has shifted dramatically. Committed foundations and associations have stepped up their efforts to mobilize and educate peers about the importance of the conversation around future global development goals as well as the implications of that conversation for philanthropic strategies.

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‘Under Construction’: Healing With a Groove

Under_construction_logoUnder Construction is a multimedia online exhibit showcasing some of the best and brightest organizations working with males of color. The UC team of filmmakers, photographers, writers, and nonprofit experts worked directly with each of these organizations for several weeks. The collaborations yielded comprehensive portraits of the services men of color receive. Each profile features a short video, a photography exhibit, a visual program model, and a narrative essay detailing the efforts of these organizations.

Under Construction is a project of Frontline Solutions and was made possible through the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. For more profiles, click here.

Where there is joy, there is music. Frustration, music. Hope, music. Love found, love lost, music and more music. It expresses emotion when words alone are inadequate and provides a soundtrack for our lives.

In the Mississippi Delta, the cradle of the blues, the black experience has been chronicled by enduring and endearing songs that lament racism, relationship problems, social inequity, and the aggravation of being broke. The blues are a gift to the world, one that the Delta is best known for. The music spills out of unassuming juke joints that come alive after dark and that have produced more GRAMMY Award winners per capita than any other region of the country.

The blues is not necessarily the preferred language of the young men coming up now, though. They speak hip-hop and make personal heroes out of Southern-born rappers like Lil' Boosie and Yo Gotti, artists celebrated for their lyrical realness and rags-to-riches success. The issues that both genres address are the same, but the stories born out of them are set to a different beat.

It’s fertile ground for Healing With a Groove.

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A Message From GuideStar President/CEO Jacob Harold

October 27, 2014

Headshot_Jacob_HaroldIn 2013, I joined with partners at the BBB Wise Giving Alliance and Charity Navigator in writing an open letter to the donors of America explaining that "overhead ratios" are a poor way to understand nonprofit performance. We named this campaign "The Overhead Myth."

I'm glad to report that the response to the campaign, including the original Overhead Myth letter to the donors of America, far exceeded our expectations. More than one hundred articles have been written about the campaign. It comes up every time I hold a meeting or give a talk. For many in the field, it's been a deep affirmation of something they've long known. And, indeed, many leading organizations — the Donors Forum, Bridgespan, the National Council on Nonprofits, and others — have been working on the issue for years. 

But we also know we have a long road ahead of us. The myth of overhead as inherently "wasteful" spending is deeply ingrained in the culture and systems of the nonprofit sector, and it will take years of concerted effort for us to move past such a narrow view of nonprofit performance to something that fully reflects the complexity of the world around us. That effort is essential, however, if we want to ensure that we have a nonprofit sector capable of tackling the great challenges of our time. 

That's why last week the CEOs of Charity Navigator and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance and I released a second Overhead Myth letter — this one addressed to the nonprofits of America. In that letter, we suggest a set of steps nonprofits themselves can take to help dispel the Overhead Myth. We all share responsibility for allowing things to have reached this pass. And it will take all of us to fix it.

We direct this letter to nonprofits not because we feel they are the originators of the Overhead Myth but because they are in the best position to communicate with their donors and funders. We want to recruit nonprofits to help us retrain donors and funders to pay attention to what really matters: results. In the end, that means nonprofits have to throw away the pie charts showing overhead versus program — and  step up to the much more important challenge of communicating how they track progress against their mission.

In simple terms, we must — collectively — offer donors an alternative. In the letter, and on the accompanying website, we call on nonprofits to do three things as their part of this evolution:

  1. Demonstrate ethical practice and share data about their performance.
  2. Manage toward results and understand their true costs.
  3. Help educate funders (individuals, foundations, corporations, and government) on the real cost of results.

We have provided a list of tools and resources related to each of these  goals. These tools give nonprofits tangible steps they can take to engage their stakeholders around this critical issue. As the sector develops new resources and tactics, we will add them to the website.

We believe it will take a shared effort to focus donors' attention on what really matters: nonprofits’ efforts to make the world a better place. It doesn't matter whether you work at a nonprofit or donate a few dollars to a favorite charity every year, please join us as we seek to move from the Overhead Myth to the Overhead Solution.

For more information, or if you have a resource related to this issue that can help advance the cause, email overhead@guidestar.org.

GuideStar, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that connects people and organizations with information on the programs, finances, and impact of more than 1.8 million IRS-recognized nonprofits, serves a wide audience inside and outside the nonprofit sector, including individual donors, nonprofit leaders, grantmakers, government officials, academic researchers, and the media.

Weekend Link Roundup (October 25-26, 2014)

October 26, 2014

Alloween-blackcat-660x500Our weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the nonprofit sector.... 

Economy

In Salon, author and political analyst Thomas Frank (What's the Matter With Kanasas?) tries to square the immense popularity of Ted-like talks and books about creativity with the "easy assumption that creativity was a thing our society valued....[I] had even believed it once," Frank writes, "in the way other generations had believed in the beneficence of government or the blessings of Providence.

And yet [my] creative friends, when considered as a group, were obviously on their way down, not up. The institutions that made their lives possible — chiefly newspapers, magazines, universities and record labels — were then entering a period of disastrous decline. The creative world as [I] knew it was not flowering, but dying.

When [I] considered [my] creative friends as individuals, the literature of creativity began to seem even worse — more like a straight-up insult. [I] was old enough to know that, for all its reverential talk about the rebel and the box breaker, society had no interest in new ideas at all unless they reinforced favorite theories or could be monetized in some obvious way. The method of every triumphant intellectual movement had been to quash dissent and cordon off truly inventive voices. This was simply how debate was conducted....

Grantmaking

On the GrantCraft blog, Kris Putnam-Walkerly, author of the Philanthropy411 blog, shares three things she has learned from ride-sharing service Uber that foundations could use to improve the experience for their "customers" (i.e., grantees).

International Affairs/Development

In the most recent issue of the London Review of Books, Paul Farmer, a professor of global health at Harvard and a co-founder of Partners in Health, offers a no-nonsense assessment of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and what the global community must do to contain the virus. "First," he writes, "we need to stop transmission....Transmission is person to person, and in the absence of an effective medical system, it occurs wherever care is given: in households, clinics and hospitals, and where the dead are tended. Infection control, must be strengthened in all of these places....

Second, we need to avoid pitting prevention against treatment. Both are necessary....

Third, the rebuilding of primary care [in the region] must be informed by what has been learned from the response to this outbreak....

Fourth, the knowledge gained from the response must be built on. Every attempt to prevent the spread of Ebola should involve proper care for quarantined patients....

Fifth, formal training programs should be set up for Liberians, Guineans and Sierra Leoneans. Vaccines and diagnostics and treatments will not be discovered or developed without linking research to clinical care; new developments won't be delivered across West Africa without training the next generation of researchers, clinicians and managers. West Africa needs well-designed and well-resourced medical and nursing schools as well as laboratories able to conduct surveillance and to respond earlier and more effectively. Less palaver, more action.

Should you, the individual donor, donate to Ebola response efforts? The folks at GiveWell examine that question as only they can.

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[Infographic] Corporate Philanthropy: The Win-Win

October 25, 2014

As we reported earlier in the week, a new report from CECP shows that while giving by corporations in the U.S. increased between 2010 and 2013, the rate of growth in giving slowed. Based on a survey of two hundred and sixty-one companies, the report, Giving in Numbers: 2014 Edition (54 pages, PDF), found that the rate of increase in median total giving among companies which gave at least 10 percent more in 2013 than in 2010 — about half of the companies surveyed — fell from 21 percent in 2011 to 17 percent in 2012 to 6 percent in 2013. And among all other companies, median total giving fell 6 percent in 2013, the largest drop in that metric since the end of the Great Recession.

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New Philanthropy Center, Fund for 2025 Respond to Funders’ Needs

October 23, 2014

Headshot_michael_remaleyPhilanthropy New York, a "regional association of grantmakers with global impact," announced on Monday that it plans to establish a new Philanthropy Center at the "crossroads of the world" – Times Square. We also announced early commitments of more than $2 million to our Fund for 2025 campaign, an initiative to grow the capacity of the tri-state region's philanthropic sector. To that end, PNY aims to raise at least $2.5 million to underwrite its next decade of growth, including the new center, technology upgrades, expanded programming, and a public policy fellowship program.

The Philanthropy Center isn't some sort of shiny new apple of our collective eye but a concrete response to what we've heard from our members about the needs of the region's philanthropic community. At the end of last year, Philanthropy New York members, board, and staff wrapped up work on a Strategic Plan for 2014-2016, a plan that represents both a continuation of our mission and substantially revises the strategies we employ in pursuit of that mission. We believe that for our members to be fully positioned to tackle complex issues at the city, national, and international levels, PNY must be able to provide an appropriate level of support. We aim to do that by adding new programs, increasing member engagement options, and growing our public policy work;  improving our technology infrastructure; and developing fee-based business lines that further diversify our revenue streams and enhance our long-term sustainability.

As we start to plan for the move, I can't help but think it's another example of past-as-prologue.  In 2004 – a time when PNY occupied a small office with a windowless conference room and offered much more limited programming hosted at the offices of our member organizations – we faced the end of our lease and took a leap of faith, sub-letting more space in a Flatiron District building from the Foundation Center. Before that move, we typically produced fewer than a hundred meetings a year.  After the move, with a lean staff and better facilities, we typically produced a hundred and forty to a hundred and seventy programs a year. Having more-than-adequate, dedicated meeting space has made a huge difference in our capacity to be a convening organization and a center for cross-sectoral activities.

Now it's time to move again. Even as more and more information is disseminated electronically, we have considerable anecdotal evidence from our members, other affinity groups, and foundations across the country that there is a need for a central meeting hub for the philanthropic community in New York City. With that in mind, we envision a facility that is roughly the size of our current space but has smaller offices for staff; larger, more flexible meeting spaces; and technology options that enable us to grow the digital audience for certain types of PNY programs. The new center also will allow us to provide our members with opportunities to host their own convenings in state-of-the-art facilities. 

We recognize and appreciate the fact that the field of philanthropy has entered a new era of increased visibility and greater expectations. With the Fund for 2025 and our new center in Times Square, Philanthropy New York is positioning itself it to meet the philanthropic community's needs for years to come.

Michael Remaley is senior vice president of communications and public policy at Philanthropy New York.

 

Slow and Steady Wins the (Fundraising) Race

October 22, 2014

Headshot_derrick_feldmannAre you suffering from "ice bucket" envy? Most nonprofit fundraising professionals and development officers are, whether they admit it or not. During the conferences and conventions I've attended over the past few months, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has dominated many of the conversations I've been part of. And it's easy to see why.

To date, the viral phenomenon has raised a jaw-dropping $115 million for the ALS Association. And its success has led other organizations to ask, Why not us? But should organizations try to replicate the Ice Bucket Challenge? And if they do, should they expect to see equally amazing results?

There's a phrase, "Fear of Missing Out," for what many of these organizations must be feeling. Regular users of social media will see it hashtagged a lot as #FOMO – that anxious feeling you get when your train (or plane) is leaving without you on it. Professional fundraisers often experience FOMO when we see other organizations' causes going viral. Yes, we're happy for them, but we'd almost certainly be happier if it was our cause that was breaking through the noise and becoming the focal point of everyone's attention.

Let's face it, too many fundraising professionals make the mistake of investing precious organizational resources to replicate other organizations' successes. What these professionals fail to realize is that organizations with causes that go viral don't follow repeatable rules. Instead, in almost every case, their success is rooted in being the exception to the rule.

Your cause is unique, just like you and the members of your fundraising team. Replicating someone else's idea is simply not "authentic," and when your donors and potential donors figure that out, they're not likely to be impressed.

My colleagues and I host an annual conference called MCON, a national event that highlights the future of cause engagement. At last year's conference, Jeffrey Raider, co-founder and -CEO of Harry's, spoke about the company's mission ("we make shaving a little better every day") and business model. For those of you who don't know it, Harry’s makes well-designed shaving products and ships them to the customer's home at a reasonable price. They've achieved a lot of success in a short period of time, and lots of organizations are trying to replicate their success.

During the Q-and-A following his talk, Raider was asked about this. Here's what he had to say:

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5 Questions for...John Kordsmeier, President, Northwestern Mutual Foundation

October 21, 2014

In August, the Northwestern Mutual Foundation marked the two-year anniversary of its Childhood Cancer Program, an initiative to raise awareness of pediatric cancer and generate additional funding for research on treatments and a cure, by announcing a $900,000 grant to the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation. Earlier this month, PND spoke with John Kordsmeier, the foundation’s president, about the program.

Headshot_john_kordsmeierPhilanthropy News Digest: When did the foundation decide to focus on childhood cancer? Describe the process that led to that decision.

John Kordsmeier: Over the years, we've supported a number of causes in our hometown of Milwaukee and have provided assistance for families and individuals in the surrounding communities. In 2012, we refined our strategy and created a vision that identifies tangible social outcomes where we can make the greatest impact through our funding and the volunteerism of our employees. To help us realize that vision, we reviewed more than fifty social issues and narrowed the list to issues that are closely aligned with the company's support of children and families. We then further narrowed the list based on feedback from employees and company leadership.

As a result of that process, today childhood cancer is our signature cause. Cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in children under the age of 15 in the United States, yet research on pediatric cancer remains underfunded compared to other cancers. We're focused on accelerating the search for a cure for childhood cancers and helping children and their families receive the assistance they need to fight this terrible disease.

PND: The foundation commissioned a national survey of childhood cancer researchers in the fall of 2013. What did you learn from the survey?

JK: We commissioned the survey so as to better understand the state of childhood cancer research. Among other things, the survey found that one in five respondents – 21 percent -- would consider leaving the field of childhood cancer research and that their number one reason for leaving was lack of funding. More than a third of respondents – 34 percent – know a colleague who is considering leaving the field in the next two years, and of those who know a researcher who is considering leaving the field, the top reason, again, is lack of funding. Seven in ten respondents know of a researcher whose project is in danger of not getting additional funding, while nearly four out of five are concerned that future advances in finding better treatments and cures for childhood cancer will suffer due to lack of new researchers going into the field. Overall, nine in ten respondents are concerned that researchers are not pursuing research in childhood cancer due to a lack of funding.

Childhood cancer research is a field filled with hope, passion, and promise. There are research projects under way that have the potential to help children. That is why Northwestern Mutual is committed to increasing research funding to find life-saving cures for this disease.

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Archiving Simply: How FACT Prioritized Sharing

October 20, 2014

Headshot_diane_feeneyOver its eighteen years of existence, the French American Charitable Trust focused its grantmaking on strengthening community organizations in the United States and France. (We are a bi-national family.) So when we made the decision to spend down the foundation in 2012, we soon realized we had boxes and boxes of files to sort through – not a task on my to-do list I was looking forward to!

Fortunately, a colleague suggested I get in touch with Brown University, which has a program on community organizing and was looking for additional resources. The librarian at Brown asked me to send her a complete accounting of our files, which included documents ranging from board meeting notes to program assessments to grantee reports. She was interested in all of it, and her staff was able to sort through the files, catalog and archive them, and make them available to students and faculty. What a relief!

But we had more to do. Some of our documents were more relevant to the philanthropic community, and we didn't want those to only be available in Providence, Rhode Island.

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Four Cornerstones of Online Fundraising

October 18, 2014

Headshot_john_kenyonMany tactics contribute to successful online fundraising, but there are four elements that I consider to be essential cornerstones of success. Whether you are just getting started with online fundraising or are an old hand at it, they bear reviewing:

1. User-Centric Donation Process. Make your online donation process simple and easy for donors to use ― one click to the donation page from anywhere on your organization's website. If you have recently revised your donation page or are switching vendors, make sure to have actual donors test it out to identify any issues. Do the same if you suspect there is something off-putting or confusing about your existing online donation process. Ideally, your donation page should provide options for giving via mail, phone, and online. Also provide options for monthly giving and memorial/tribute gifts, as well as links to information on planned giving, stock transfer options, and even volunteering.

2. Ongoing Engagement. Provide interesting, useful content in a steady stream throughout the year, not just in your year-end appeal. Offer a variety of content that increases knowledge and awareness about your programs, results, contributors (staff, volunteers, board members, donors), and the communities you serve. Be thoughtful about the way you move prospects along your ladder of engagement, from not knowing anything about your organization to becoming a friend, donor, and more.

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Knight Cities Challenge: We Want Your Best Idea to Make Gary More Successful

October 17, 2014

Knight_cities_challlengeThe City of Gary, Indiana, is ushering in a new era. The days when the city was synonymous with urban blight and crime are fading into the distance.  Once a symbol of disinvestment standing next to City Hall, the Sheraton Hotel is being demolished and will be replaced with community green space.  Marquette Park has undergone an extensive renovation, making it a hub for community and family-focused events, including Gary's first marathon. Thanks to hundreds of volunteers, a newly renovated Boys and Girls Club sits in the once vacant Tolleston School. Gary's hometown brewery is producing critically acclaimed beer and continues to grow. And, IUN and Ivy Tech have partnered to build a new Arts and Sciences building on the corner of 35th and Broadway to serve as a cornerstone for future redevelopment projects.

The city is on the upswing, and everyone from teachers to business owners is feeling it.  But what's behind Gary's revival, and what can we do to maintain, support, and build on the transformation? How do we ensure that Gary continues to become a more vibrant place to live and work?

Over the next three years, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a private, independent foundation based in Miami, will invest $15 million to answer these questions in Gary and twenty-five other communities across the United States. The foundation believes it is the city's own activists, designers, artists, planning professionals, hackers, architects, officials, educators, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, and social workers who have the answers, and it wants them to take hold of their city's future. To that end, all are welcome to submit ideas to the Knight Cities Challenge in one of three areas that the foundation believes are the drivers of future success for Gary: attracting talented people, expanding economic opportunity, and creating a culture of civic engagement.

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Arts Education and Human Development: Creating Space for Transformation

October 15, 2014

Selvon_waldron_PhilanTopicArt can change lives.

For over eighteen years, we have lived that reality at Life Pieces To Masterpieces, a comprehensive arts-based youth development nonprofit serving African-American males from the most underserved communities in Washington, D.C. We have seen — over and over, with more than a thousand young men — the transformation that happens when youth connect to and embrace their creative potential. We have learned that individual brilliance is a universal trait. It only needs the space to grow.

The research is clear: the arts play a crucial role in positive youth development. They stimulate imagination; build problem-solving and critical thinking; develop perception, vision, and self-confidence; teach delayed gratification and the ability to complete long-term tasks; stimulate memory; and motivate children to learn[1]. These benefits are particularly pronounced among youth from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Across all measures of academic achievement and civic engagement, youth from low-income backgrounds with high exposure to arts outperform their peers from similar backgrounds, and they reach outcomes “closer to, and in some cases exceeding, the levels shown by the general population studied.”[2] For funders seeking to assist in closing gaps in opportunity and achievement, arts education has proven to be among the most efficient and impactful investments available.

Of course, not all arts education is created equal. As an organization committed to holistic human development, we know that process and approach matter. All that we do with our Apprentices (program participants) is rooted in our award-winning Human Development System, a concrete set of beliefs, values, and strategies to help individuals connect to their sense of purpose. Our unique, collective process is structured not only to make art fun and creative (though it certainly is) but also to serve as a vehicle for processing experiences, healing wounds, and navigating challenges. For youth facing violence and trauma, it becomes a therapeutic outlet, a chance to reconnect with a sense of control and personal power in an often chaotic world. For youth too frequently told, shown, and exposed to ideas of their own inadequacy, it becomes a powerful tool to rebuild a sense of self-worth and reconnect to the reality of their brilliance.

The philanthropic community tends to operate in perpetual pursuit of silver bullets, hunting out promising outcomes and attempting to copy-and-paste the programs that create them into new environments and communities. We are very proud of our outcomes. In a city where the graduation rate for African-American males is well under 50 percent, for eight years in a row 100 percent of our Apprentices have graduated high school. And an external evaluation of our program found that 100 percent of program participants’ parents and guardians reported improved attitudes toward the future in their children. Still, we don’t claim the specifics of our programs or our artistic process to be any type of panacea. We have grown, developed, and innovated based on the specific needs and experiences of the community of which we are a part. That is why, rather than attempting to franchise or spread nationally, we are focused on reaching more of our target population in Washington, D.C.

We do, however, believe that one of the key factors to our success can and should be applied universally. And we believe that funders seeking to create a truly meaningful and sustainable impact should put this factor at the center of their funding priorities: the intentional commitment to building an environment of love, security, and expression. In an increasingly data-driven world, that can sound soft and unscientific. But it is the truth, as we have experienced it for more than eighteen years. The type of creative expression that produces real, transformative change is only possible when youth are able to immerse themselves in a loving, safe space. What matters is not handing a young man a paintbrush; what matters is allowing that young man to experience an environment that honors and respects his potential greatness.

So before asking an organization about its outcomes, ask about the kind of space they create. How do they make space for unique identities and means of expression? How do they ensure that each individual’s specific talents, abilities, and interests are engaged? How do they provide opportunities for participants to connect with themselves, their peers, and program staff? How do they make sure, every day and in every interaction, that youth in their programs feel loved, safe, and able to express their true selves? When those questions are answered honestly, with thought, care, and intentionality, you can trust that positive outcomes will follow.

Art can change lives. Creating an environment in which it does so is the real art of arts education.

Selvon Waldron, executive director of Life Pieces To Masterpieces, is a youth development leader and human rights activist.


[1] “Fact Sheet About the Benefits of Arts Education for Children,” Americans for the Arts. Washington, DC. 24 September 2013

[2] James S. Catterall, Susan A. Dumais, and Gillian Hampden-Thompson. “Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies.” Arts.gov, National Endowment for the Arts. Washington, DC. March 2012

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