IDEAS: Georgia Nonprofit Innovation at Work, Part 4
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Marketing research puts more Hands On Atlanta
When going through a SWOT analysis in their latest round of strategic planning, volunteer-centric nonprofit Hands On Atlanta realized they were missing several key volunteer demographics, including families and Millennials. After raising funds for research, they called on marketing professionals Ken Bernhardt and Debra Semans to find out, from the target demographics themselves, which of eight volunteer engagement ideas would most likely be a success. The resulting concept test, conducted in five metro Atlanta counties, pointed them in the direction of their next big volunteer push.
“The concept test took the form of a virtual stock market,” said President and CEO Gina Simpson. Survey respondents were given virtual dollars to invest in any of eight innovative engagement concepts, from flash mobs to a career day to volunteer leadership celebrations. The concepts with the highest value at the end of the survey made it to the next round of research, where personal interviews with donors and volunteers helped refine the ideas.
“For a while, we were trying to be all things to all people,” said Simpson, reporting that they started their strategic planning with 50 priorities that, through the concept test and other surveys, were narrowed down to five. “Part of our ‘reset,’ as we’re coming up on our 25th anniversary, was finding out what our volunteers really wanted. We had all these different opportunities and ideas, but we wanted to make sure we had a deep impact, and were taking advantage of everything our community has to offer.”
Giving teens a hand in everything
“When teens lead, teens succeed,” said Susan Landrum, manager of development and outreach at VOX Teen Communications, summing up their approach to youth development through writing and publishing programs. To capitalize on that approach, VOX seeks ”authentic participation” from teens at all levels of the organization, not just in the programs designed for them. “Teen leadership began at the editorial table, but it became clear to us that VOX would only live up to its mission if teens worked in tandem with adults in all aspects of programming,” said Landrum. “They now serve on the board of directors, facilitate workshops, help hire adult VOX staff members, and even help shape the look and feel of the work space.”
Teens have even served on the strategic planning committee, giving adult colleagues “invaluable input on the future direction of VOX.” Teens also lead programs, from writing workshops and member training to creating and administering their own initiatives—like VOX’s Art Club, started by teen member Mac Rowe, which recently held a curated show at the High Museum of Art.
Scaling a sustainable back-to-work model
When it won a Nonprofit Revolutions Award from GCN in 2011, First Step Staffing (FSS) had already pioneered a novel way to secure sustainable income for people who were homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless: growing a successful business to provide employment opportunities for their service population. Now in its eighth year, FSS is a refined, tested, and proven model providing 100 jobs a day in Atlanta. President and CEO Barbara Peters says their latest idea is set to increase that impact 14-fold.
“After applying a multi-year method of testing, learning and refining, we’re ready to scale,” said Peters. Their big idea: using a business acquisition approach to bypass the years-long process of growing a business on their own. They’ve begun the acquisition process in Atlanta, and are working to engage “social investors” in Georgia, New York, Massachusetts, and California. As of July, they’ve secured more than $1.4 million of their $2 million target.
The goal is to buy successful businesses in 13 more cities, and use them to replicate the FSS model employing homeless men and women, those at risk for homelessness, and unemployed veterans. “Florida is a likely site: it has a strong business need for good workers, and a large proportion of veterans,” said Peters. “We are currently working closely with the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness to determine how we can help them implement our model.”
Turning artists into leaders
Zoetic Dance Ensemble uses dance to celebrate women, explore history, embrace diverse cultures, and examine societal attitudes. Their new idea: using dance to find new organizational leaders. “Our collaborative culture led to an inventive succession plan, giving artists the chance to pursue leadership positions within the company,” said founder and Creative Director Melanie Blanchard. That’s how they hired new Artistic Director Mallory Baxley, a dancer and filmmaker who began with the company in high school, and stuck with them through college at UGA and beyond. “Many of our dancers have invested years of their careers in Zoetic,” said Blanchard. “We wanted to offer them a significant return by recruiting a new Artistic Director from within.”
In 10 years of operation, Zoetic has developed a rich legacy of dancers and choreographers, many of whom have gone on to work in places like New York City. “We want artists to understand that Zoetic is a place where they can experiment, produce, learn, and lead without having to find a bigger pond, or creating another nonprofit,” said Blanchard. Over the years, Blanchard and company looked at “what would be required for these artists to live and work in Atlanta.” The answer was a more robust staff development plan that, Blanchard reports, has been richly rewarded with more energy and renewed commitment from their on-staff artists.
“As artists, we crave change and actively seek opportunities to improve,” said Blanchard. “So the challenging nature of a succession effort is exciting for us.”
Cutting the strings
When the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, whose support has helped fund Buckhead Christian Ministry (BCM) since 2001, announced new funding rules to take effect in 2014, it was clear BCM would face new restrictions regarding their housing program for homeless families. “To continue, BCM would have had to significantly change our program goals, focus, and methodology,” said BCM’s ED Helen Cunningham, “all of which we feel would negatively impact our successful outcomes.”
That’s why, after research and discussion, the BCM board decided to act on a long-considered strategic idea to significantly reduce their government funding. The bold move, though losing them money, releases BCM from “government rules and restrictions,” and gives them “the flexibility to build on our strengths.”
Reaching out to their loyal supporters for help replacing that funding stream—representing a third of their housing program budget—Director of Development Dudley Franklin said the reaction has been heartening: “The refrain has been, ‘I am so glad you are staying true to BCM’s mission. What can I do to help?’” As it turns out, their base had been waiting a long time for this move.
“Our donors and volunteers are truly rising to the challenge,” said Franklin. “It is very encouraging.”
One new brand for two nonprofits
As Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services of Atlanta (RRISA) and Refugee Family Services have been preparing for their Oct. 1st merger, they’ve also undergone an in-depth rebranding exercise. Unveiled at their Red, White and NEW fundraising event on Aug. 1, the new organization’s name and brand identity reflects an evolved vision: “New American Pathways will help refugees from the moment of their arrival in Georgia through their journey to citizenship,” said RRISA ED Paedia Mixon, who will oversee the organization following the merger. “Beginning with resettlement services, and by keeping a strong focus on jobs, education, cultural integration, individual and female empowerment, and building strong families, our specially designed programs will provide proven pathways to self-sufficiency and success.”
Sandy Springs’ big day
On April 26, more than 500 Sandy Springs residents volunteered at 18 different nonprofits, including GCN members Mary Hall Freedom House, Community Assistance Center, and Heritage Sandy Springs, in the 12th annual Volunteer for a Better Sandy Springs Day. The day of service began as a Leadership Sandy Springs class project in 2002, with 3 on-site projects and 50 volunteers, and has grown steadily since.
Joining forces to form a top nonprofit
Effective July 1, Literacy Action merged with Literacy Volunteers of Atlanta. “By bringing together the two largest literacy organizations in the Southeast, we’re becoming one of the top adult literacy nonprofits in the U.S.,” said Literacy Action ED Austin Dickson.
According to Dickson, the merger idea was tossed between the two well-established organizations for “at least 15 years.” Finally, “both boards felt the time was right: the resources were there, the leadership was there, the momentum and rationale were strong.”
Merging has allowed the organizations to provide clients with “a more comprehensive set of offerings that serve many learning styles,” said Dickson. That includes a strong, tailored classroom-based experience supported by one-on-one tutoring, expanded family literacy and English as a Second Language programs, and opportunities for new programs. The new organization also serves volunteers with greater access to professional development, reduces costs while improving efficiency, and maybe more: “Through the recruiting, training, monitoring, and encouraging of hundreds of volunteers, we believe we’ll have a scalable model to address adult low literacy in the region.”
On-boarding young voices
The idea for the Junior Board of Directors at Hemophilia of Georgia (HoG) arose in a strategic planning meeting just two years ago. Today, its seven members are working hard to raise awareness of the disorder and support HoG’s work by planning fundraisers, recruiting volunteers, working at events, and representing HoG in their communities.
Made up of HoG volunteers, those affected by a bleeding disorder, and former participants in HoG’s Leaders in Training program, the Junior Board meets regularly and embarks on an annual retreat to plan their support activities. To gain a deeper understanding of HoG’s inner workings and full impact, they also joined in on the (senior) board’s annual Governance Board Training Retreat. “These seven young people have supported HoG with 2,500 volunteer hours, implementing two fundraising campaigns, recruiting and working as counselors for our camps, and shining a bright light on our mission,” said Deniece Chevannes, HoG's health educator. “The results they’ve produced have been amazing.”
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