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Surfing the Wave

March 1, 2010

Things have been going unbelievably well and moving quickly on the NPO front the past few weeks. God is creating a huge wave of favor and blessing, and I’m having a blast surfing it. Here’s a snapshot view of what’s happened and what I’ve learned.

Recruiting the board: Three experienced, committed, godly people have agreed to journey with me as board members. They will be incredible resources in building the organization. What I learned In the recruitment process, be specific in your invitation to potential board members about why you are inviting them to serve and what you hope they will contribute to the organization.

Forging community partnerships: I had a meeting last week with the social worker at the preschool we are exploring partnering with. She was thrilled that we are interested in working with them and reaching out to the neighboring housing project residents. We exchanged several ideas about how we could begin to work together. She invited me to speak to their monthly parent gathering in March, when the topic will be literacy. That will be a great opportunity for me to begin building relationships and credibility with the families who attend. She also connected me to a monthly meeting of organizations that serve the housing project and the residence manager, who needs to approve our use of the park for the event that I am planning in April.

While I was at the school, I saw the executive director and learned that the school will need help with moving to a temporary facility in May. She asked if we might be able to help and was visibly revealed when I told her we would. The ED was at a community meeting of education leaders that I attended the following day and introduced me to another key community leader working on early literacy and kindergarten readiness. This other leader would be a great advocate for us and could even help with materials and funding. She was excited to learn of our interest and wants to help. What I learned: Be on the lookout for a “person of peace” who God will provide to help you navigate the community you are entering. When you find that person, listen closely to them, be a servant, and find out who else they know who can help you.

Funding: In my last post I shared that I was freaking out about fundraising. I am still a little freaked out, but in the past week God provided a $2400 gift and two consulting projects that will provide me with some supplemental income that is a huge help. One of the projects is so closely related to what we’ll be doing that it is unbelievably incredible that someone wants to pay me to do it. In terms of funding what I have in mind for us for the next 3-4 months, I also realized through my conversations with the folks at the school that we can do a great event for less money that I’d thought. What I learned:I need to chillax and focus on one step at a time. Being on top of fundraising is important and something I need to continue to work on while trusting that God knows what I need right now.

This has been a long post, so I’ll end here with one other learning that was kind of funny. I went into my meeting with the school social worker thinking that I needed to persuade her to give me a mailing list so we could send out invitations to the park event. She gently but clearly told me that we could mail invites if we really wanted to, but the best way to invite the housing project residents to an event was to put up flyers, hang a hand-painted sign on the school fence, and communicate it through the community partners. It was an amusing moment for me in realizing that my white/middle-class ideas about how to invite someone to something needed to shift.

Freaking Out About Fundraising

February 15, 2010

In my past three posts I described my efforts on forming the legal non-profit corporation, engaging volunteers, and program development. I continue to press on with each of these areas and am making decent progress. I’ll be ready to file my incorporation documents once I get a yes from the third person I’ve asked to be on the board of directors. My Compassion by Command class launched yesterday morning with about 20 people participating. I have a meeting next week to firm up a partnership with the school where we’re hoping to do our class project. If all goes well, that partnership will provide a focus for our programming.

The result of the progress on all of these fronts is that the reality of what we’re doing is sinking in–it’s not just a concept, a cool idea, or even a vision. Things are taking shape and I can see the things we’ll need to do several steps down the line with greater clarity. At some point yesterday it hit me that I really didn’t know how we’re going to fund those steps, or what they will lead to. I have some funding requests out on a church and denominational network level, but so far haven’t received any checks in the mail.

Just doing enough programming to build relationships in our focus area and lay the groundwork for a program in the fall will probably cost around $5000 (not including my time, just program costs for food, supplies, invitations, etc.). I haven’t ballparked the program costs of delivering a literacy program because I’m a little too freaked out right now about how to raise the funds to get started. It doesn’t help that everywhere I turn people in the non-profit sector are talking about the decrease in available donor funding.

Thankfully, my Compassion by Design coaching call today was focused on fundraising strategies. Talking through the process of developing a stream of ongoing support definitely helped. The concept is to have an annual campaign that involves everyone associated with the nonprofit in bringing in a handful of small donors who’ll make a monthly commitment to support the organization ($25-100/month).

If we can get 100 people to give $25/month each, that would provide $30,000 in income over the course of a year. That would be a huge help in getting us started. If anyone out there wants to sign on as a monthly partner, you can have the distinction of being among our first donors!

Three Fronts: Part III

February 9, 2010

In previous weeks I’ve described my progress on two of the three fronts I’m presently trying to advance: the legalities of forming the non-profit corporation and volunteer engagement. The third front I’ve been working on is program development (what we’re going to do and with whom). I’m pretty certain that our program will relate to literacy. Beyond that, I’m not sure who exactly we’ll serve or where we’ll locate the program. To make progress on those aspects of the program, I felt I needed to find partners in the Austin community who we might work with to engage with people in need and  (eventually) deliver early literacy programming to under-resourced children.

One of the challenges here has been figuring out where to start. Austin is home to a plethora of nonprofits, some who are faith-based, many who are not. Most serve children in some area of their programming. After getting somewhat overwhelmed surfing websites, I decided to start by arranging a meeting with a woman I met at a conference of Austin nonprofits last fall. I’d taken her card at a round-table discussion with funders when I learned that she directed a preschool that served low-income families.

I met with her and two others on her staff about a month ago. They do incredible work with about 60 children ages 0-5 to prepare them to succeed in kindergarten and beyond. Preschool preparation is critical to the school success of children from low-income families. Their program is an exemplar in the field of early childhood education. I learned in the course of the meeting that they have a lengthy waiting list of children who need their services but that they can’t accommodate. I asked where these children go for childcare while they wait. The answer was stark and disturbing–most end up in unlicensed childcare watching TV all day.

With all due respect to Sesame Street, Dora, Blue’s Clues, and the like, I found the thought of the fertile mind of a three-year-old wasting away in front of the tube deeply disturbing. I asked the women I was meeting with if they’d ever considered opening the school on Saturdays to provide a program for their waiting list kids. In short, they’d love to do it, it’s just a matter of resources. I wasn’t near ready to say that our NPO could create such a program, but knowing they would welcome it was pretty thrilling. I left the meeting excited about the possibilities and with a sense of what kind of program we could provide if we were to partner with this school. The director also gave me a list of other organizations to look into as potential partners or resources for what we want to do.

I have a meeting this week with the director of a faith-based NPO that is serving elementary and middle-school kids with an after-school tutoring and mentoring program. They serve a different area of Austin than the preschool. My main interest in meeting with him is to learn about his process in developing his NPO out of a local church and how they’ve worked out their partnership with the school district and others who they work with to serve their neighborhood.

In the meantime, I’ve read an excellent book that I’d highly recommend to anyone interested in issues around breaking the cycle of poverty. It’s called Whatever It Takes, by Paul Tough. It chronicles the work of the Harlem Children’s Zone to develop a “conveyor belt” of services to move low income children from birth to college and change the culture of poverty in Harlem. The research described in the book on the importance of early childhood services is compelling evidence for the need to start engaging with low-income families as early as possible.

Three Fronts: Part II

January 25, 2010

Last week I wrote about tackling my corporation document, the first of three fronts that I am trying to advance simultaneously at the moment. The second, and far more fun, front I’m working on is volunteer development.

Being relatively new to Christ Church, I needed to find a way to discover who is interested in investing their time, energy, and other resources in the work our nonprofit will be doing. I want to build a team, and it’s important to me that the team has regularly scheduled time together. I also want to be sure that we all share an understanding of why we are doing what we’re doing, and that this understanding is grounded in a solid grasp of God’s heart for the poor as revealed to us in Scripture.

In doing my own study in this area, I came across a great resource from Here’s Life Inner City (which is a part of Campus Crusade for Christ) called Compassion by Command. It’s a 6-week study on God’s heart for the poor, a Christian response to issues of poverty and justice, and the responsibility that Christians have for helping those in need. I discovered this resource through Woodland Hills Church in the Minneapolis area. They did a sermon series and small groups around a modified version of it. They have some great resources on their website that you can download for free.

I’ll be teaching a Sunday morning class at Christ Church using this curriculum starting February 14 at 9am. If you’re in the Austin area and want to be a part of it, you can sign up online and come to the class whether or not Christ Church is where you worship on Sundays. I’m praying that through this class God will bring a team together to help pioneer the NPO and that we’ll be able to plan a simple project together that will be a way of starting our service to those in need in Austin.

More next week on the third front: program development.

Three Fronts: Part I

January 18, 2010

At this point in the formation of the nonprofit, there are three fronts that I need to be advancing simultaneously: the incorporation process (involving all the fun legal stuff), program development (i.e. what are we going to do, with who, and where?), and gathering those interested in getting involved in the work we will do. This past week saw a good deal of forward progress on all three.

I finally managed to force myself to engage with the corporation documents, which first involved figuring out what we need to file with the state and the IRS and in what order. In Texas, forming a nonprofit corporation is fairly simple. You just file a certificate of formation, pay a small fee, and in a week or so the state will approve everything and you can begin operating. The certificate of formation is another name for articles of incorporation. It requires that you describe the purpose of the organization, list the names of three people who’ve agreed to serve on the board of directors, and provide a few other minor details about how the organization will operate. It’s best to describe your purpose as broadly as possible so that you don’t have to amend your certificate of formation later on if you decide to engage in additional areas of service that you aren’t thinking of right now. The certificate of formation also is a public document, so potential funders can get a copy if they want–another reason to keep the purpose broad. My certificate is just about done, pending two conversations with potential board members to see if they’d be willing to serve.

Of course, you can’t incorporate without naming the corporation. We wanted a name that would be broad enough to provide an umbrella for the NPO to do different types of work. We also wanted it to have a Christian connotation without being too overtly religious. I had some trepidation in choosing a name. This isn’t something you can change later on very easily, so if the name I pick  doesn’t make sense or means something horrible in a foreign language, that would be bad. I’ve tried out the name on a few friends and so far it seems like a good one. I also searched the state’s database and it isn’t already taken, and I was able to secure the URL.

So what’s the name? I’m not able to post it until the state paperwork is filed (so someone else doesn’t get to it first). Those of you who know, please don’t share it just yet. I’ll post the “birth” announcement when the state approves us.

I’m also going to leave you hanging for now on the progress on the other two fronts. More on those next week.

Back at It

January 11, 2010

I took a Thanksgiving-Epiphany hiatus from blogging to focus on some other things, but clearly it is time to get back at it. During that time I did more thinking and praying about the nonprofit than task-type work. Much of that thinking and praying was informed by two great resources.

The first is the Compassion by Command curriculum published by Here’s Life Inner City. I came across the curriculum while listening to one of my favorite sermon podcasts, Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota. The message series preached by Greg Boyd and others is the best teaching I’ve ever heard on the topic of God’s heart for the poor. They thread the needle beatuifully between confronting you with truth (3000 verses of Scripture in 400 passages address caring for the poor) and not creating overwhelming guilt about your relative wealth compared to the vast majority of the world’s population. I felt convicted yet blanketed in grace. The message series and related materials are available on the Woodland Hills website, I highly recommend giving it a look. I’m exploring how I might share the Compassion by Command materials with those at Christ Church who are interested in learning about this topic and getting involved in the work of the nonprofit.

The other resource is the book Churches That Make a Difference, by Ron Sider, Philip Olsen, and Heidi Unruh. I’m still working my way through the book, but the biggest insight that has informed my thinking so far is the importance of doing wholistic ministry to the poor. I’ve been challenged in my initial conceptualization of how we might do a rapid reading intervention that would involve just a couple of months of work with any particular child. Instead, I’ve been thinking/researching how we might partner with some other NPOs in Austin who are providing broader services to children and families and have a deeper and longer-term engagement with the kids we are helping. I have some meetings scheduled with potential partners this week, so more on this later.

Forming Partnerships

November 15, 2009

I’ve often heard it said that ministry flows from relationships. I’ve experienced this to be true in church world, and believe it is equally true in nonprofit world. I could define my progress up to this point almost exclusively in terms of forming partnerships through which the work of the nonprofit will flow. The foundational partnership was with Christ Church–finding a church and a senior pastor with a complementary vision for launching a nonprofit as the service arm of the church. Around the same time, I formed a coaching partnership with Compassion by Design, which has provided a wealth of wisdom and resources on the process of launching the nonprofit.

More recently, I met with the director of a reading research center who I worked for a couple years ago. Securing their partnership with the nonprofit would bring a host of benefits, including access to materials to use in providing educational interventions and assistance with providing training to volunteers on how to deliver the interventions. It also would provide huge credibility with funders–the center produces some of the best research-based interventions in the nation and is in the top 3 nationally in the field.

In the formative needs assessment process, the director also could provide me with a critical take on the concept of a community-based nonprofit providing educational interventions to at-risk students. The project made sense to me and I thought it would be doable and effective, but I needed to run the concept by someone else in the field to see if it made sense to him.

Our meeting was a huge success on every level. In addition to giving me his very positive take on the idea, he offered the center’s help with materials and training. It was a tremendous morale boost for me to gain his support and hear his excitement about what I had in mind.

One aspect of the NPO startup process that I am not excited about is all of the legal documents and paperwork required to create the corporate structure. Compassion by Design has provided many great resources that model what I need to create–a tremendous help. But even better, a friend stepped forward this week and offered to handle the legal work for the incorporation pro bono.

There are many more partnerships yet to be explored that will be critical to the success of the NPO. We need to find schools, funders, and other NPOs who want to join with us in the initial launch stage. With each person who comes on board, the NPO gains strength and credibility. Even more, I increasingly feel the support of a wider community who wants to see us accomplish our mission. That encouragement is invaluable.