Thursday, December 3, 2009

Gift Giving: There IS a Better Way!

When something comes across your path often enough, it is a good idea to pay attention.  Over the past week, three different people have drawn my attention to alternative giving ideas for the holidays.  (Special thanks to @JoanneFritz @TheRoyalOrder and @OKL on twitter who inspired this blog posting.)  This has been on my mind this year for a number of reasons.  First, my children are older teens so they don’t expect a deluge of gifts. Second, I am not earning an income, so I knew I had to be creative. And third, the amount of garbage our household could potentially generate from holiday gift giving was starting to give me an anxiety attack!  So I have embraced these nudges to do things differently this year.  Here are many discoveries either sent to me or found via a quick google search:

Joanne’s Nonprofits Blog, included a terrific list of alternative gifts.  My favorite idea from Network for Good is The Good Card:   The Good Card allows you to purchase a gift card to give to someone that will become a donation to a nonprofit organization.  You purchase The Good Card for whatever amount you want and the recipient chooses where the money is donated.  I just purchased 3 of them!  FYI, they charge a $5.00 fee per card, which is also tax deductable, to cover the processing costs.

For those of you on Twitter, check out @okl ‘s #igivetwice.  This campaign was set up as a searchable item to encourage the sharing of information on gifts that give back.  The website explaining this to Tweeters in more detail is:

Here are some great sites for alternative gift giving: (The name says it all-terrific list!)

(Although some of these are actual gifts, it is an incredibly creative list with very different ideas.  I especially loved the first one on the list-seed wrapping paper that can be planted instead of thrown away!)

(List of nine categories that include projects you can donate to in someone’s honor.  Great list!)

(Homemade gifts-even choices like local and recycled)

(Fair trade gifts from Africa, Asia and Latin America)

(Conscious Consuming’s ecologically friendly and very creative gift ideas)

Please add to this list in the comments section.  It is by no means exhaustive.  And have a very happy alternative, sustainable, give back holiday season!

One more thing.  Do NOT miss out on my twitter buddy @amycarolwolff 's wonderful and inspiring video of a song she wrote.  I cry every time I watch it!   And send it to every idealist you know!!!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tutor/Mentor Programs: The Key to End the Cycle of Poverty

Tutor/Mentor Connection                 
800 West Huron
Chicago, IL  60642
Founder Daniel Bassill                 

When I first began networking to learn more about Chicago nonprofit organizations, I frequently came across Tutor Mentor Connection (T/MC) and founder Daniel Bassill.  T/MC was involved in some exciting work so I decided to reach out to Daniel to learn more about the organization.  Daniel’s circuitous route to his current position began when he was asked to participate as a volunteer in what was then called the Cabrini Green Tutoring Project while a marketing/communications employee at Montgomery Wards.  (For those too young to remember, Montgomery Wards was a department store, not unlike Sears or J.C. Penney.)  This involvement as a volunteer eventually led to Daniel leaving Montgomery Wards to create T/MC. 

The organization serves as an umbrella for a large number of more localized volunteer tutoring and mentoring programs throughout the Greater Chicago area.  As described on its website:

“The Tutor/Mentor Connection (T/MC) is dedicated to improving the availability and quality of comprehensive, long-term, volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs in high-poverty areas of the Chicago region and other large US cities through an ongoing, dynamic exchange of ideas.”

Cabrini Connections, the program for the local neighborhood is run out of the same building.  There are programs throughout Chicago that are associated with T/MC.  The goal of T/MC is to help students in low-income communities navigate from birth through high school and college and into successful careers.  T/MC works to get business leaders involved, and owning, the question of, “What are all the things we need to do to assure that every youth born in poverty today is starting a job/career by age 25?"  According to Daniel, “The student and mentor are the CEO’s of their relationship.  They decide what will happen.”  In other words, the organizations are there to support the relationship, but each relationship is different and allowed to grow and develop in its own direction. 

The T/MC website is overwhelming at first glance.  There is so much information it is difficult to know where to look first.  But in the “About” section, there is a detailed guide that helps navigate the site.  There is information about tutoring programs, what has worked, what has not, philosophy about tutoring and working in low-income communities, and an ongoing commentary about the lack of commitment from many of our community leaders to take real steps to combat poverty in the United States.  There is even a special section on the steps to take to attract diverse volunteers to organizations.  This is one of the greatest challenges on the horizon for nonprofit organizations and has been tackled effectively by T/MC.  The site is an invaluable resource for anyone involved in education and/or youth in any kind of community, but is particularly useful for those who work with our neediest populations.  There are also countless links to other programs and resources and users can uploaded as well.  Daniel frequently expressed to me that he didn’t want to run everything.  He just wanted to provide a platform and the resources for the entire community to work together to help disadvantaged youth.

Daniel is a prolific writer, posting on the T/MC blog as often as three or four times a week.  Anyone who writes a blog knows just how difficult that can be.  He frequently incorporates current events into his commentary, particularly when there is some sort of youth involvement.  After working in Chicago with low-income youth for so many years, you can almost feel his outrage as the local media reports on yet another act of violence involving those under 18 years of age.  His extensive mapping of where programs exist and of where violence occurs and his references to studies that show education to be the best route out of poverty convey his frustration.  Financial support is inconsistent so he is required to spend valuable time fundraising.  However, despite feeling discouraged by feelings that he is only heard by a small minority, Daniel continues to be vigilant in is work.  He believes that by promoting these programs and recruiting a strong volunteer force, we truly can have a profound impact on poverty by ending the cycle. 

If you are interested in volunteering for a tutor/mentor program, you can find many opportunities on the T/MC website.  Additionally, for a more in-depth look at the issues related to poverty and youth, you can attend T/MC’s extraordinary bi-yearly conference this Thursday and Friday, November 19-20, 2009 at Northwestern University.  The conference is aimed at anyone interested in at-risk children and provides a wonderful opportunity to network.  Here is the link for the conference:  Excellent presenters are lined up for the event.  I will be presenting on Twitter and other social media for nonprofit professionals.  For a complete list of presenters: 

I encourage you to visit the T/MC website and find a location that would welcome your service.  It is truly an opportunity to have a profound impact on someone who needs help.  And be prepared to be surprised about how much you actually gain by giving to someone else! 

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

City Year Chicago: Not Your Mother's Volunteer Program

City Year Chicago

36 South Wabash, Suite 1500
Chicago, IL 60603
312-464-9899 and

The first thing I saw as I walked into the City Year Chicago office was a sign that welcomed me personally. What a great way to start! I was greeted by Joe Choinski, a second year City Year corps member, who is a leader of one of the City Year Chicago teams. Joe began by giving me a tour of the City Year Chicago office. He proudly showed me a photograph of then Senator Barack Obama beaming while wearing a bright red City Year Chicago jacket. Joe also allowed me to observe an energetic and enthusiastic group of corps members planning upcoming events and activities. I later learned this group was one of 13 different City Year Chicago teams. City Year is a national AmeriCorps program that began in Boston in 1988 and Chicago in 1994. The program is open to 17-24 year olds. Those chosen commit to ten months of service while receiving a stipend as well as scholarship money for college. City Year Chicago works to create teams that are diverse. The corps members on these diverse teams are then able to act as role models by working together successfully with those who are different. This year, (2009-2010) City Year Chicago has 125 corps members.

After the tour, Joe and I were joined by Johnny Barr, Director of External Relations for City Year Chicago. During our conversation we covered everything from specific details about the program to relationships between the corps members to concerns about the safety of corps members. Johnny and Joe were incredibly engaging, their passion for the organization clearly fueling their enthusiasm. By the end of our conversation, I was truly sorry that I had long passed the age where I could sign up to be a corps member.

City Year is in 20 U.S. communities, including newly added Milwaukee, which will be fully functional for the 2010-2011 school year. City Year is also in Johannesburg, South Africa. City Year is an organization that provides public schools with an ongoing presence of near peer role models-service providers who are near in age to the students. They are eager to create a presence in a community so that City Year Chicago corps members become established as good and important figures in the community. (That certainly explains the red jackets. They are VERY easy to spot in the community.) Corps members establish meaningful relationships with members of a community, particularly youth, and are then able to be role models of positive behavior. Programs are currently aimed at students in elementary school through high school, and include one on one literacy tutoring, after school/spring break programs, youth leadership and community transformation. Their new initiative, “In School and On Track” is aimed at critical ages in students’ academic lives, to help lessen the drop out rate. Programs are during the school day, after school and on weekends, depending on the age of the students and which program.

City Year Chicago is currently partnered with 12 schools in Chicago, including seven that are part of the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL.) These AUSL schools are called schools of excellence and are showing great promise for turning around the Chicago Public School system. The City Year program is holistic, utilizing The Whole School, Whole Child service model created by City Year in collaboration with education leaders. This means they deal with the whole child, working on attendance, behavior and academics.

Corps members engage in significant training before beginning their time in the community. They are even taught how to stay safe in the neighborhoods they serve. There are frequent opportunities to connect with other corps members and staff throughout the day. And as a testament to the impact of participation on corps members, there is a very active City Year alumni group

Like every other person and organization, City Year Chicago has been affected by the economy. Fundraising and attracting corporate and foundation sponsors is certainly more challenging in this financial climate. However, a positive effect of this economic downturn has been a dramatic increase in the number of applicants to the program. Jobs are scarce and so AmeriCorps programs provide wonderful opportunities for younger job hunters. Before the economy plunged, City Year Chicago received twice as many applicants as they accepted. This past year they received 5 times as many applicants as they accepted. That may be one of the few silver linings to this economic cloud.

Fun facts about City Year Chicago: (Actually, this stuff is pretty extraordinary for a bunch of 17-24 year olds to accomplish.)

• 876 corps members have graduated from the program, providing 1.5 million hours of service to Chicago. (WOW!!!)

• Literacy tutoring has been provided for 2,856 students, with average students in 2009 advancing their reading skills by a complete grade level.

• 77.3% of teachers in 2009 stated that corps members increased their students’ time spent learning.

• 95% of 2009 Young Heroes (leadership and service program for 6th-8th graders) say they made friends with people from different backgrounds.

City Year Chicago is truly in the trenches making the world a better place for large numbers of Chicago’s children. The work they do is making a measurable difference for so many.

President Barack Obama described City Year this way:

“Who’s the next generation that is going to lead us and inspire us and build an America we can all be proud of? When I look out at all of the City Year corps members who have been giving so much of themselves for a cause that is so much larger than themselves, I think I have an answer to that question.”

If you are interested in volunteering with City Year Chicago, check out their events calendar:

If you are interested in supporting the work of City Year Chicago, check out their ways to give:

And if you know anyone young enough to participate in this extraordinary experience, tell them to apply right away. And if they hesitate, tell them they are doing it for entire generations that were born a few years too early to participate. Although unfortunately, I cannot speak from experience, I am sure they will never regret their decision to participate!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Better Information Produces Better Decisions-So Contact MCIC!

Metro Chicago Information Center (MCIC)

17 North State Street Suite 1600
Chicago, IL 60602-3294

Several months ago I was exploring the internet for organizations in the nonprofit world when I came across the site for the Metro Chicago Information Center (MCIC.) Although I was a strong math student as a kid, I was never one for the structure of statistics and processing different kinds of data. But as I read the description of MCIC, I did a little happy dance. (Well, not really-figuratively!) Here was an organization that gathered data, analyzed that data and provided all kinds of useful information and it was a nonprofit organization. At this point, I began to understand just how expansive the world of nonprofit organizations had become.

As I began to explore the website I developed a profound appreciation for MCIC and their value as an extraordinary resource. The website includes information that is difficult to find anyplace else without great effort. Additionally, I would have a deep concern about the accuracy of what I might find through other sources. On the home page of the site, there are links to maps, strategic planning resources, data on topics such as population, models on topics such as economic change in neighborhoods and a long list of publications and reports on a variety of topics. Much of the information requires membership but there is no charge to be a member.

I definitely wanted to learn more about MCIC. I contacted the organization and soon met with Joan Frankel, MCIC’s Senior Consultant for Health and Human Services. Joan told me that MCIC has 15 full time staff, but depending on the number of projects they are working on, their numbers can grow to 20-22 staff with the addition of consultants. MCIC generally works on projects that are either very quickly completed or span 18-24 months. They work with 75-80 organizations each year. Although the economic downturn has had some impact, many nonprofits are now applying for foundation and grant money to pay for MCIC services. The organization does no advertising and has survived for 20 years through word of mouth.

Whether looking at the website, their printed materials or speaking to Joan, the message comes through that MCIC is working to help organizations collect and utilize information to optimize their work. The organization was created in 1990 from a nucleus of an idea at the Commercial Club of Chicago. This statement on the MCIC website briefly summarizes the mission of the organization, “…MCIC works from a fundamental philosophy that better information produces better decisions.”  In other words, MCIC is able to collect and analyze information that provides a clearer picture of what is actually occurring. How often do nonprofit organizations make decisions based on what they think is probably happening or create strategies based on conventional wisdom, which may or may not be correct? Through data collection (qualitative and quantitative) and analysis, focus groups and creating maps, MCIC is able to create a complete picture of what is happening in the field, within a topic or neighborhood. MCIC staff are also skilled at taking that information and creating a strategic plan for the future.

MCIC works with organizations and institutions that primarily focus on the following five areas:

1. Arts, Culture and Tourism

2. Community and Economic Development

3. Financial Institutions

4. Government and Education

5. Health and Human Services

I found the list on their website labeled “Custom Research and Consulting Services” particularly helpful. Below is that list, some of which are commonly understood.  I have provided examples for any that are not:

Policy Analysis/Quality of Life Studies
From the website, “…to benchmark, track, and evaluate the effect of existing services and/or recently implemented social policy.”

Community and Regional Studies
To learn about the external market at the neighborhood, regional or national level

Organizational Studies
To strengthen organizations

Database Development
Identifying, compiling and analyzing

Key Informant Interviews
People with special knowledge in the area of interest

Face-to-Face Interviews


Focus Groups

Community Building Forums

MCIC is one of those community treasures that doesn’t sit in the spotlight of nonprofit innovation. But they are clearly a resource that is of extraordinary value to people working to make our community better. They are doing the work that allows the rest of us to be even more successful at what we do, whether we are at a nonprofit organization, a governmental agency or affiliate, or an individual trying to do our part. Their skills at data collection and analysis in a variety of forms and their ability to help an organization utilize strategic planning certainly
strengthen any organization’s impact. And their website is a tool that is an invaluable resource. I strongly encourage you to pass their information on to anyone who might have need for MCIC’s services.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Used Books, Innovation and Some Passion: A Model of Success

Open Books
Stacy Ratner, Founder and Executive Director
Becca Keaty, Director of Marketing and PR
213 West Institute Place
Chicago, IL 60610

Three years ago, Stacy Ratner and Becca Keaty met at Starbucks to discuss opening a used book store in Chicago. As they wrote down their ideas on paper napkins, they began outlining what would later become Open Books. This innovative and exciting nonprofit social venture utilizes proceeds from the sales of used books to fund engaging and compelling literacy programs for children and adults. And in the three short years since the organization was created, Open Books has collected 250,000 books, 2400 volunteers and donors, over 40 pages of testimonials on their website from schools, partners, volunteers and participants and is about to open a one-of-a-kind two story used book store. (Tentative Grand Opening events November 21-22, 2009.)

I met with Becca, currently Director of Marketing and PR, in the Open Books loft office space at 213 West Institute Place, just down the street from their soon to open new location. As I exited the elevator on the third floor, I immediately saw a rack of books and the instantly recognizable Open Books logo on the opposite wall. Although the office was around the corner, this display made it clear that I was on the right floor. As Becca greeted me, I noticed the entire space was overflowing with books, people, colorful and enticing furniture, and what I later learned was disarray from the morning’s 8th grade field trip. Becca spent the next few minutes providing me with a tour in which she pointed out the wall of floor to ceiling boxes of books headed for storage and the large bins of books yet to be sorted. Open Books will take virtually any used book as long as it is not in complete disrepair. (Please refrain from donating books that are moldy or have been urinated on or received other “gifts” from your children and pets as the odor remains long afterwards. I include this caveat because, difficult as it may be to believe, some folks have donated books in extremely questionable condition.)

We then walked to the back of the loft, where the architectural plans for the new location were proudly posted for everyone to see. Becca explained that the plans included two floors. The first floor would be a used book store with special children’s areas, a stage and lots of cozy reading spots for children and adults. The second floor was called The Literacy Center and would contain offices, space for programming with intriguing names such as “The Room of a Thousand Words” and “Slam Studio” as well as mobile computers, a publishing center and a large area for interns. This last area is clearly a wise investment as they currently have 10 interns on staff. Although Open Books has been selling used books through its website, the opening of the store will provide a new avenue for sales with a display of 40,000 books. Additionally, the expanded space will allow for concurrent classes, activities or community events throughout the day. Shoppers in the store will be connected to the mission of the organization by reading signs throughout the store that describe how proceeds from sales will benefit programming.

During the next 45 minutes of our conversation, I was inspired as I learned about the visionary choices the young entrepreneurs made as they created Open Books. These choices early on, led to the organization’s quick and ongoing success. Utilizing skills from business, marketing and web design backgrounds as well as skills learned while in the for profit world, team members built a solid foundation for Open Books from the very beginning. Many nonprofit social ventures are created by people without the requisite skills and the organizations do not last very long. However, Open Books continues to experience exponential growth and expansion.

Open Books has four pilot programs, each of which is dependent upon volunteers. Before signing up to as a volunteer, participation in a one hour training session is required. These training sessions are offered on the first and third Wednesdays of every month, some from 12:00-1:00 pm and others from 6:00 – 7:00 pm. RSVP in advance is required.

1. Open Books Buddies pairs adult volunteers with Chicagoland elementary school students for once a week reading. According to the website, “Adults listen enthusiastically as students read aloud, take turns reading when a child has her heart set on a tough book, show ways to figure out unknown words, and model expressive reading. (Silly or dramatic voices are highly encouraged!)”

2. Adventures in Creative Writing are two hour field trips to Open Books as stated on the website, “…designed to help young people develop their writing skills in meaningful and creative ways…students write and read as a whole group, in small groups, and as individuals, working with our friendly, supportive writing coaches. They read sample work aloud, discuss it as a group, and write their own prose or poetry.”

3. VWrite is described on the website as an “…8-week program that matches teens with caring, professional adult mentors who coach students, one-on-one, in college and career communication. The V in VWrite stands for ‘virtual,’ so mentors and students primarily communicate via phone and e-mail…Topics include resume, cover letter, goal-setting, e-mail and phone etiquette, job shadowing, interviews, the college search and application process, and more.”

4. WeWrite is a series of evening writing workshops for adults. The website describes the program by stating, “One set of sessions will focus on creative writing topics such as memoir, poetry, and journaling.” The website adds that, “Other sessions will focus on career-related writing skills such as resumes, cover letters, and filling out online job applications, and will include writing, editing, and computer work.”

Additionally, the organization occasionally needs volunteers to help with Open Books events, office tasks, and book pick up and sorting.

Open Books is writing its own story of success in the world of nonprofit social ventures. The organization is run by imaginative and creative staff who understand how to set goals and achieve them and how to build an organization with the ability to easily grow and expand. They have an extraordinarily large group of interns and volunteers who are thrilled to be a part of the organization and have created a model of collaboration in the nonprofit world. I have already committed to volunteering for the organization on a regular basis and hope that I have inspired you to do the same.

Please note:
If you are interested in potential sponsorship opportunities, beginning at $50.00, (including major sponsorship of portions of the soon to open new facility) please look on the website in the donations section.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Dreams for Kids: Changing Lives...One Kid at a Time

Dreams for Kids, Inc.
Tom Tuohy, President and Founder
155 North Michigan Avenue, Suite 700
Chicago, IL 60601

Dreams for Kids was started in 1989 in response to Patricia Tuohy’s comment to her son, “Now that you’ve achieved your dreams, it’s time to help other kids achieve theirs.” Although Tom Tuohy had always known that he wanted to do something to make a difference, this comment from his mother was the moment he began to understand specifically what that meant for him.

It is difficult to briefly summarize the work of the organization because, like its founder, Dreams for Kids is involved in such a broad scope of continually evolving programs and people. Although the website describes the organization in great detail, there is so much more that Tom described to me in his office the day we met. I was struck by his willingness to travel down unexplored paths in the hopes of finding new opportunities for growth. Ultimately, Dreams for Kids strives to eliminate the isolation felt by children with disabilities and children from low income homes. Through different and unexpected experiences, the organization helps children to believe in themselves and realize their full potential. The mission of Dreams for Kids, as stated on the website is, “…to empower young people of all abilities through dynamic leadership programs and life-changing activities that inspire them to fearlessly pursue their dreams and compassionately change the world.” They achieve this mission through four main programming areas as described on the website:

1. Dream Leaders is a student leadership program that provides opportunities for service while working alongside students of diverse backgrounds and abilities.

2. Extreme Recess gives children with physical and developmental challenges the opportunity to participate in sports, often for the very first time.

3. Holiday for Hope has grown from a holiday party in a small homeless shelter in Chicago to the largest holiday event of its kind in the world. Similar celebrations now take place in 30 countries throughout the world. Holiday for Hope takes place every December, providing a celebration of the season for homeless and underprivileged children and a reason to hope for a brighter future.

4. Global Projects will enable our Dream Leaders and any adults who are interested to connect with youth all over the world to bring shelter, clean drinking water, education, and sustainable income to those who need it most.

I encourage you to learn more about Dreams for Kids by going to their website. If you are inspired to volunteer, please call Dreams for Kids directly. Here are just some of the opportunities to help:
· Assist at an Extreme Recess event
· Become a facilitator at a Dream Leaders conference
· Participate in a Holiday for Hope event
· If you are outside of the Chicago area, bring an event to your town

I also encourage you to read about Tom Tuohy’s extraordinary journey and the history behind the creation of Dreams for Kids in Kiss of a Dolphin, an exceptional book available through the organization’s website and on Amazon. All profits benefit Dreams for Kids projects. And if you volunteer, I bet Tom will sign your book personally, just like he did mine!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Interesting Nonprofits? Funny You Should Ask...

I have spent my entire career working in nonprofit organizations (NPO’s) in the Jewish community. However, as a volunteer with the Obama for America campaign, I was inspired to learn more about the broader world of NPO’s. I began an online search for organizations that interested me. Through that search, I have learned about organizations I never dreamed existed. I have also learned that the nonprofit world is an overwhelming and complex web that is difficult at best to navigate. A simple search for an organization dealing with a particular issue leads to huge lists.

Early in my search, I came across If you have any interest in NPO’s, Idealist is a website that should not be missed. It provides a listing and description of an astounding number of nonprofit organizations around the world, has an extraordinarily large job search data base and has resource sections dedicated to nonprofit professionals, job seekers and volunteers. My one caveat is that the search functions for jobs, organizations or volunteer opportunities is not user friendly. It is easy to eliminate or include too many choices with minor search changes.

Now that I have at least an intermediate understanding of the NPO landscape, I am eager to share what I have learned with others. Therefore, I will devote each of my future posts to highlighting one NPO in the Chicago area. I will meet with staff at each organization to learn about the agency’s mission, goals, history and accomplishments as well as any other useful information. I am hoping that, in the process, readers will be inspired to learn more about these and other NPO’s, volunteer time or even transition into a career in the nonprofit world. If you have any thoughts about types of organizations you would like me to highlight, please send them my way at

Thanks for reading!