One of the most powerful tools to cut through the clutter in advocacy is to use personal stories to highlight an issue. Not only do stories "bring home" complex issues, they also paint a human picture of the impact of policy decisions.
You only need to read recent blogs by members of the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington to see examples of how stories can elevate the conversation around particular issues. ("Education Trust: Closing the Achievement Gap" and "Numbers Are Not the Whole Story" are two wonderful, recent examples.) By talking about their own experiences, the bloggers are able to step back from a policy or numbers-based discussion. As a result, the reader is left with a moving, memorable example of the issue at hand. Let's face it, most of us aren't going to remember the intricate details of a policy decision, but we will remember a story about how that policy or program affected someone.
At Families USA, we use stories in much of our advocacy and communications work because we have seen firsthand the impact they can have. Rather than finding a new story for every need, we have spent the past two decades developing a story bank—a collection of stories that are ready to go at a moment's notice.
Our story bank is filled with a variety of consumer experiences with the health care system, providing us not just with real-life examples, but also with people willing to share their experiences. We have staff dedicated to collecting story leads, interviewing consumers, and placing the stories in a variety of settings. Our consumers have appeared in traditional earned media, social media, blogs, events, and more.
Most recently, Families USA has embarked on campaigns to collect stories around particular issues ranging from the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to the Affordable Care Act. Our current campaign, My Coverage Story, is a robust, multi-faceted effort designed to highlight stories about successful enrollment in the health coverage new options. After stories have been submitted, they undergo an internal review process and are highlighted on the campaign's website.
My Coverage Story uses best practices that we have learned in our years of story collection. Not every tactic may be appropriate for your story collection efforts; we have found it helpful to tailor activities to particular needs and the target population. The My Coverage Story effort includes the following strategies:
- Using a fresh, modern website dedicated to collecting stories
- Sending regular emails to supporters asking them to share their experiences
- Maintaining a drumbeat on social media channels, including Facebook and Twitter
- Advertising on Google and Facebook
- Working with key national and state partners to identify opportunities for collaboration in story collection and distribution
- Helping bolster the efforts of organizations already doing this work Aiding organizations that are just beginning to story bank by helping them build infrastructure
- Collecting stories at in-person events focused on enrollment
- Training our staff on how they can help us identify and collect new stories
While not every organization has the need to develop a full program around story banking, it is something that can also be implemented in smaller, more concentrated efforts or campaigns. If you are interested in building a story bank of your own, we have developed two pieces that provide more information on the how and why of story banking:
We are always looking for new organizations to work with on the My Coverage Story campaign and other story banking efforts. If you or your organization is interested, please send us an email at
This post was contributed by Cate Bonacini, Families USA's Story Bank Coordinator.
The Frank Karel Fellowship in Public Interest Communications is a program that trains and inspires undergraduate students to become leaders in the field of public communications. Fellows gain hands-on experience through working on social justice issues under the guidance of a communications mentor at leading nonprofits in the Greater Washington, DC area.
Mina Radman, from The University of Florida, spent the summer with Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids under the guidance of Catherine Butsch. Here are Mina's reflections at the beginning of her experience and her concluding take-aways as her Fellowship comes to a close.
I always planned to spend the summer before my senior year of college in New York City or Washington, D.C. To my delight, I was selected to participate in the Frank Karel Fellowship in Public Interest Communications, located in Washington, D.C. I first heard about the fellowship during a conference at the University of Florida, where the inaugural class of fellows spoke about their experiences. They all had such positive experiences, and I hoped my fellowship would be comparable.
The field of public interest communications interests me because it’s the perfect blend of advocacy, journalism and public relations. I’ve always wanted to work for the greater good and create positive change in the world. However, I don’t want to write about other people’s work; I want to help create the work that others will write about.
Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
CTFK has everything I hoped for: communications, advocacy, interaction with teens and kids, and a national and international audience.
It’s the halfway point of my fellowship, and I look forward to waking up every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to head over to the office at McPherson Square. The best part of my experience so far is that each day has been different, and I’m never sure what to expect when I walk into the office.
I could write pages on my experience at CTFK, but I’ll keep it simple and divide it into four categories: domestic communications, international communications, advocacy and research.
I assist in media monitoring, create tweets and Facebook posts, and track tobacco advertising campaigns.
Media Monitoring: My day starts with Google News. I search for articles about tobacco use, smoke-free policies and e-cigarettes. I look for mentions of CTFK or quotes from someone at the office, usually Danny McGoldrick, the vice president of research, or Matt Myers, the president. I send articles of interest to Catherine, my mentor, who tells me to what team I should forward the article: the accountability team, federal team, international team or state actions task force. The articles keep us up-to-date on tobacco use or the tobacco industry’s actions. Some of the articles are tweeted from the organization’s account.
Mina shaking hands with Florida's 1st District representative Jeff Miller.
She met him during the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids'
10th Youth Symposium Capitol Hill visits.
Create Tweets and Facebook Posts: If you’re interested in following us, the account is @tobaccofreekids. This week, I created a series of tweets about the webinar that CTFK and partner organization American Legacy Foundation are hosting next week. People outside of communications may think that social media management is easy, but they’re wrong. Each tweet from the CTFK account is read and edited by multiple people, and the tweet can be altered or changed several times before publication. Words speak loudly, so each phrase is chosen carefully to make sure the organization is not misrepresented. As a participant in the process, I’ve begun to carefully analyze tweets that come from my favorite companies or organizations and consider the work that goes on behind the 140 characters that I see.
Tracking tobacco advertisements: As an ongoing project, I monitor national magazines for tobacco advertising. It’s Christmas every morning when I see what magazines are in the mailbox or sitting on my desk. These magazines include Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Entertainment Weekly, US Weekly, People, TIME magazine, Marie Claire, Car and Driver and InStyle.
We monitor the magazines because they’re popular with teenagers and kids. Tobacco companies spend a lot of money to advertise with the hope that they’ll attract the attention of the reader, and we want to see what they are advertising. Last week, I discovered a brand-new ad campaign that R.J. Reynolds, the company behind Camel Cigarettes, launched to celebrate their 100th anniversary. There are three specific ad campaigns, and each one is altered to target the audience that reads the magazine. For example, in Car and Driver, the images used were grungy and more man-friendly. However, in Vanity Fair, the images were glamorous (lanterns in the sky and women wearing feather masks) to attract a woman’s attention.
Prior to this fellowship, I never noticed how often tobacco companies advertise, especially in magazines that I grew up reading. This week, I created a spreadsheet that documented tobacco advertising for the first half of 2013, and there have been a lot of ads published.
I spend most of my time with the domestic communications team, but I have assisted the international communications team with several projects.
First, imagine communicating information on tobacco issues to people in 7 languages, tailoring that information to each country or region. That’s what the international team at CTFK does on a daily basis. The international communications team works with local advocates in 15 priority countries (countries with a high tobacco use or targets of tobacco industry advertising and influence) to advance policies and educate people.
My assignment for the international communications team was to create a master list of international health reporters at each of the major news outlets. It was a tedious assignment, but I loved breaking through the language barriers. Want a challenge? Try finding out who is the primary health reporter for a Chinese outlet that doesn’t have a well-translated English website.
I never realized how challenging international communications could be. Caroline, a communications associate on the international team, told me that she often arrives at the office around 6 a.m. to talk to people in China before they leave for the day. She showed me the media reports she develops and the press releases she writes. I love that the team works with people who live thousands of miles away in different time zones.
Although I’m a communications intern, I get to spend time assisting the other departments, including advocacy and research.
Next week, CTFK will host its 10th Youth Advocacy Symposium, a 5-day camp for young advocates. Forty-four teens from across the country will fly into D.C. on Sunday and spend the week learning about tobacco prevention, the tobacco industry’s antics and media training. On Tuesday, they’ll spend the day on Capitol Hill, speaking to their representatives about the importance of tobacco prevention.
I’ll spend Tuesday on Capitol Hill, too, and I’ll be able to sit in on the meetings. I’m not incredibly interested in politics, but I’m excited to see these kids in action. On Wednesday, Catherine will present a media-training workshop to the teens, and we’ll go to the National Press Club for a webinar about the future of tobacco control.
I’ve spent most of this week helping the advocacy team prepare for the symposium. I created the agenda, the evaluation forms and the name badges that will be worn next week. I also created a personalized Google map for the symposium. I didn’t know that tool exists.
I am so grateful to be part of this fellowship. I’m learning more about the emerging field of public interest communications than I ever thought possible, and I’m discovering a passion for advocacy communications that I hoped I would have. I can’t believe the fellowship is already halfway over, but I look forward to what the next five weeks will bring.
CTFK has Been a Blessing to My Career
I have spent the past 10 weeks in Washington, D.C., working and learning through the Frank Karel Fellowship in Public Interest Communications. As the summer ends, I reflect on how brilliant it has been to live in this city and work for my host organization, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is a leader in the fight against tobacco use, advocating for public policies that reduce smoking and protect people from tobacco and secondhand smoke.
Each week, I spent Monday to Thursday at the CTFK offices in McPherson Square, and Fridays at DC Appleseed, a legal advocacy organization that works to solve District problems. This arrangement occurred because the fellowship requires a full 35- to 40-hour workweek, and CTFK can only have interns work up to 30 hours.
My experience with the fellowship is best explained through the work I did for CTFK.
Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
CTFK has been a blessing to my career. The organization, a wonderful mix of advocacy, strategic communications and policy work, has given me a clearer direction of the path I'd like my career to follow. Not only did I enjoy waking up for work in the mornings (I'm not a morning person), I learned about messaging, public policy and Big Tobacco's tactics that keep consumers interested.
My 10 weeks at CTFK were spent primarily working with the domestic communications team, but I also worked on projects for the advocacy, research and international communications teams.
In the past 10 weeks, I:
- Met with senators and representatives on Capitol Hill during the 10th Youth Advocacy Symposium. Each year, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids hosts a workshop in D.C. for youth advocates from across the nation to learn about tobacco issues and prevention. One day of the symposium was spent on Capitol Hill, where the advocates got to meet with their local representatives and state senators to talk about tobacco prevention. I sat in on several meetings. I got to meet a famous congressman from Georgia, Rep. John Lewis, and a Florida congressman, Jeff Miller, who is an alumnus of the same university that I attend and holds the degree that I will receive next year.
- Wrote posts for the "Tobacco Unfiltered" and "Kick Butts Day" blogs. One blog post was about tobacco advertisements in an issue of Glamour magazine with One Direction on the cover. The other was about smoke-free policies that recently went into effect. The second blog post will be published in late August or early September.
- Created a Storify blog post for the 10th Youth Advocacy Symposium. The communications team had not used Storify before, so I was able to give them a new way to share information about the organization.
- Attended policy, communications, editorial and accountability meetings. I witnessed how the different departments within CTFK work together to produce change.
- Created a fact sheet on hookah use and trends for the research department.
- Created a list of e-cigarette companies' Twitter handles for the @tobaccofreekids Twitter account.
- Continued to monitor tobacco advertisements in national magazines. I discovered new ads for Camel Cigarettes that I was able to share with our accountability team.
- Continued to monitor news about the tobacco industry. I spent about half an hour each morning on Google News, searching for articles about tobacco use, smoking, e-cigarettes and smoke-free policies.
- Attended a Warner Series lecture at the Legacy Foundation, one of CTFK's partner organizations, on health disparities and tobacco use.
- My internship at CTFK made me realize that I enjoy working for an organization that has a good cause and mission. I learned how to effectively use social media to enhance an organization's message, write a clear and concise blog post and work with people from different backgrounds or languages. I believe that CTFK is an amazing placement for a Karel Fellow because the organization wants to help people learn and discover a passion for its cause.
- My mentor, Catherine, was incredibly helpful and willing to teach me whatever she could, and the rest of the communications team (Ashley, Vince, and Peter) welcomed me into their offices to talk about the function of their jobs, careers or whatever was on my mind. I leave CTFK with more knowledge about the field of public interest communications and connections to people who I can call for further advice or guidance. I am more confident about obtaining a job after college now than I was 10 weeks ago.
I am grateful to the Karel fellowship and its sponsors for making this summer possible. I learned more about the field of public interest communications than I thought possible and found that I enjoy working in cause communications. When I graduate next spring, I will look for jobs in health communications, whether it be at a non-profit organization, foundation or medical center.
Outside of the office, the Karel fellowship provided me with a reason to live in D.C. Prior to this summer, I had never visited D.C. or lived outside of the state of Florida, and I thoroughly enjoyed the change of scenery, the weather and the abundance of cultural activities and events that this city has to offer. I hope to someday relocate to D.C.
We live in a very special time full of possibilities. Of course, there is still great need, but I truly believe that we have the people and resources required to connect those in need to the help they deserve. I believe this because I have had the privilege
Malcolm on our trip to Alice Ferguson Foundation
|Malcolm volunteering at DC Central Kitchen
and good fortune to work closely with the nonprofit community in Greater Washington over the last decade.
It is because of these experiences that I feel ready to take on a new challenge and take on the position of Director of Community Impact of United Way of Frederick County. But I promise, you are all coming with me in some way. Beginning with serving on the board of directors of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of DC I have been overwhelmed by the constant commitment of the people in this region to work themselves out of a job.
And it is about the people, all of you who recognize that there is no choice but to be out in our communities responding to the issues that confront us. There is DC SCORES tackling the need for physical fitness, self expression and a sense of community in our young children. Impact Silver Spring in Montgomery County, Maryland who recognize that everyone, truly everyone, in our neighborhoods needs to work together to make where we live great. And HomeAid Northern Virginia who work tirelessly to help shelter organizations provide temporary housing to the most vulnerable.
What we should be proud of is that these groups represent only a small but mighty part of our alliance of nonprofit and community leaders. What they have taught me is that it is worth pursuing what may seem impossible and that starts by focusing on where we live.
That is why I have decided to accept the position at the United Way of Frederick County, so I can contribute to this essential work as my wife and I begin our lives together in our home in downtown Frederick, Maryland.
Thank you for everything, and please don't hesitate to be in touch over LinkedIn or Twitter if there is anything I can do to help.
On October 9 the Nonprofit Roundtable and the United Way of the National Capital Area partnered on presenting a Nonprofit CEO/Board Summit for our Member CEOs and board members. The event was a great success, and many commented that it seemed like this was an annual tradition for the two organizations.
However, this was not the case. The outcomes realized in October were the result of almost a year of conversations between the two organizations. Though we can not offer a precise formula for creating such a partnership we do want to share the following guidelines with the nonprofit community.
- Spend time getting to know each other before getting into the details.This establishes trust and allows everyone to direct their work towards accomplishing the same goals.
- Successful partnerships take time and that's OK. Without getting to know who else is working in our environment, many opportunities are missed and many problems are needlessly aggravated.
- Do not go into conversations with another group with a predetermined agenda. It is important to start with an open mind with the goal of listening to each other's perspectives and priorities first.
- Ask yourself does creating this partnership enhance the profile of the work or does it create more barriers than solutions?
- When is working on a project as partners the right choice? For the Nonprofit Roundtable and the United Way of the National Capital Area it came down to identifying that we had many constituents in common who had identified similar issues as priorities in their day to day work. In other words all sides need to be in agreement on the question of why partner.
- Set goals at the beginning of the planning process to ensure all parties are on the same page and hoping to achieve the same outcomes (budget, number of attendees, lessons learned, intended audience and more). One way to establish agreement on this is to create and sign a Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU).
- Keep organizational leadership informed of plans and intentions – top leadership may not always be involved in all planning stages and commitments made, and assumptions can lead to internal and external misunderstandings.
- It helps to keep your planning team no larger than absolutely necessary (for the Roundtable and United Way that meant 4 people consisting of leadership team members and implementation staff).
- Keep communications open at all times by designating points of contact. This allows you to continuously improve the partnership by collecting information and evaluating the process as you work towards goals and objectives. It also allows you to deal with conflict and/or challenges as they arise before a small problem becomes a big problem. Compliment this by meeting on a regular basis to gauge progress (every two weeks or so, in-person or over the phone).
- Be cautious about timelines – don't make assumptions that the working committee's timeline is the timeline for the respective organizations involved in the partnership..
- Have a communication/marketing plan in place with enough resources to support it and inform one another of marketing schedules to ensure proper outreach occurs without too much redundancy.
- Take advantage of technology tools like cloud services to track your progress, i.e. Doodle for scheduling large meetings, Google Docs to track progress, registration lists, to-do lists and more.
- Have an evaluation of the program planned in advance so once the project is done you will know if you have accomplished your goals and will collect feedback towards improving your work in the future.
- Stay in touch! These relationships are valuable and provide a great opportunity to broaden your reach in the community.
Have a story about partnerships that you'd like to share? Leave a comment below or contact us on Twitter: @NonprofitRT, @UWNCA.
Questions about the above can be directed to Caroline at
and Malcolm at
Caroline is the Member Services Engagement Manager at the United Way of the National Capital Area.
Malcolm is Membership & Information Manager at the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington.
Little known fact: I am not simply the Roundtable’s strategic communications manager. In addition to my communications responsibilities (like posting all our members' events, media hits, and jobs) I am also co-chair of the Roundtable’s Fun Committee.
The staff on a tractor pull at Alice Ferguson Foundation
Diana Leon-Taylor and Lori Aguelles
“Fun Committee, you say?” What’s that?
Well. Let me tell you.
Amy Kurz and I are the current co-chairs, and we come up with things for the staff to do together that is not work. A few weeks ago we went bowling, and last week we went to the Alice Ferguson Foundation (AFF) in Prince George’s County.
During the visit, we got to meet Annie the Dairy Cow, who will, no joke, cover you in cow snot. We also met two massive turkeys and one very argumentative goose. And the best part was that we were fed an amazing homemade meal of curry squash soup, pasta salad, and fresh fruit by the amazing staff at AFF.
Lori Aguelles gave us a grand tour of her amazing farm. We rode on a tractor pull, walked on a beautiful river-front boardwalk, and saw the foundation being laid for their state-of-the-art Potomac Watershed Study Center that is set to be done in 2014.
See, the Fun Committee serves many purposes. It gets our staff out and about, whether that be volunteering at DC Central Kitchen or bowling really, really badly. It’s also a way for our staff to come up with ideas of how we can be a better team in and out of the office. And finally, it helps us deal with the daily stresses of the office.
So last Friday, we spent the afternoon learning how cheese really comes from rocks (ask Lori), getting cow snot on us, and seeing the foundation for the newest “living building” in Maryland.
Pretty fun, I’d say.
Developing human capital in the Washington region is a key element of the Region Forward vision for a prosperous and livable greater Washington.
The Region Forward Coalition is acutely aware that the success of their broad regional plan cannot focus only on accessible transportation systems and clustering development around activity centers. Educating current residents to participate in the region's growing workforce, and ensuring that all communities foster wellness and access to quality healthcare, are just as important. To focus on these concerns, the Council of Governments and the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington convened regional nonprofit leaders on Monday, November 4th at the George Mason University campus in Arlington for Region Forward: Moving the Needle on Health, Education, and Workforce Development. The meeting sought to engage area nonprofits in the Region Forward vision and enlist their help in identifying assets and opportunities to advance public health, education, and workforce development in the region. Nonprofit Roundtable President and CEO Diana Léon-Taylor, Arlington County Board Member Mary Hynes, and COG Executive Director Chuck Bean led the discussion of approximately 45 nonprofit leaders, including representatives from philanthropy, community development, research, and human service agencies.
Using the Region Forward goals, targets, and baseline analysis in the health, education, and economic sectors as a starting point for discussion, the conversation focused on the challenges of making and measuring progress on these issues. Key themes included:
The need to clarify which principles are most important with regard to health, education, and workforce development. Participants commented that the health target, "The majority of the Healthy People Goals are met by greater than half of the region's population," is mainly focused on diseases, but should also consider access to health care and social determinants of health.
The need to look at subgroups and variability within the region when measuring the targets in order to get a more comprehensive understanding of how the region is performing. For example, responding to the education targets for high school graduation and attainment of Bachelor's and advanced degrees, participants emphasized the importance of understanding which groups of students may have barriers to meeting the targets, and recommended working with the institutional effectiveness offices of area colleges and universities to better understand such barriers.
The need to focus on the bigger picture that the goals and targets seek to address. When discussing the economic targets for job creation and wage growth, participants wanted to understand how newly-created jobs were affecting the region's unemployment rate, and whether increases in median income were actually contributing to sustainable wages and affordability for working families.
The challenges of advancing regional solutions across jurisdictions. Credentialing requirements that differ from county to county and state to state were highlighted as a major barrier to workforce development efforts in the region.
While the conversation illuminated many challenges to achieving ambitious regional targets, it also highlighted areas in which the Region Forward Coalition and COG could collaborate and align with efforts and initiatives already underway to advance Region Forward goals. This meeting marked an important step toward broader collaboration and partnership with the region's vibrant nonprofit sector.
Click here to access illustrations from the event's discussions.
This post was contributed by Sophie Mintier, AICP, LEED AP, Regional Planner for Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
It was sometime between 1962 and 1971, and Mr P. was serving in Vietnam. He was part of “Operation Ranch Hand,” and was exposed to a chemical herbicide. This chemical, best known as “Agent Orange,” did so much damage to his body that he had to have both legs amputated.
Mr. P is now 65-year-old retired carpenter and native Alexandrian who relies on his prosthetic legs to move around. I’ve had the opportunity to sit with him on his front porch, one of his favorite things to do, and listen to him talk about his experiences as a victim of Agent Orange, without bitterness towards the country he bravely served. Instead, Mr. P lives life as best he can, and Rebuilding Together Alexandria was happy to lend him a helping hand.
Rebuilding Together Alexandria’s first priority is to ensure that homeowners are safe, warm, and dry. Mr. P has spent his entire life in his home, and neither he nor RTA had any intention of trying to move him somewhere else; we all wanted to find a way for Mr. P to safely access and navigate his home so he could remain there for as many years as he wanted.
Sponsored by The Safeway Foundation, we were able to dedicate an entire day to Mr. P and his home. 20 volunteers renovated his home with a wheelchair ramp, energy efficient upgrades and renovations like cleaning the coils under the refrigerator, sealing outlets, and weatherizing windows and doors. While Mr. P does many things on his own, he struggles with getting groceries from his car into his home, so volunteers installed a gate on his porch closest to where he parks. Now, all Mr. P has to do is open the back door of his car, open the gate on the side of his porch, and set the bags on the porch.
Mr. P is overjoyed with his renovations. The energy efficiency upgrade significantly lower his bills, and he is elated by how much easier he can move around his home. He has a set of wicker chairs on his new front porch where he sits and waves to his neighbors, greeting anyone who might stop by. He may even tell you a story, with a quiet kind of pride, of that time, somewhere between 1962 and 1971, when he was fortunate enough to serve his country in the most controversial war in history; a story about how he lost his legs but regained his life because of his persistence and 20 people who wanted to help someone in need.
Ali Feudo is the AmeriCorps Community Outreach Coordinator for Rebuilding Together Alexandria. Follow them on Twitter and like them on Facebook.
The Frank Karel Fellowship in Public Interest Communications is a program that trains and inspires undergraduate students to become leaders in the field of public communications. Fellows gain hands-on experience through working on social justice issues under the guidance of a communications mentor at leading nonprofits in the Greater Washington, DC area.
Alvin Kim, from Macalester College, spent the summer with YWCA National Capital Area under the guidance of Shana Heilbron. Here are Alvins's reflections at the beginning of his experience and his concluding take-aways as his Fellowship comes to a close.
Telling the Story
As a humanities major at a small liberal arts school, I often hear about the ways in which parts of my education and classes are "impractical" or "idealistic." Throughout my time at Macalester College, I've striven to connect my professional work in nonprofits with the often verbose concepts of inequality and struggle that I study in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Many students—at times including myself—express frustration and anger at an inability to connect what we learn in class with "the real world." Three weeks ago, I realized just how inaccurate this disconnect was. These same progressive talks were happening all around me, and they were undoubtedly a part of whatever it is we've deemed "the real world."
This summer, I have the incredible opportunity to work as a Frank Karel Fellow at the YWCA of the National Capital Area. There I work more specifically in the Development and Communications Department under my brilliant mentor, Shana Heilbron, Chief Development and Communications Officer at the YWCA NCA. My job involves a number of tasks from running Google Adwords campaigns to creating whitepages on social issues and from advocacy blogging to program development for grants and corporate entities. I can honestly say I'm not doing what I expected I would be this summer, and to my surprise, I'm actually very grateful.
For grants, donors, boards, and outside organizations, it's essential to present a nonprofit's programming in the best light possible. At a place where staff members demonstrate incredible commitment and genuine compassion for the clients we serve, that job couldn't be any easier. That's not to say I don't have struggles or stress out, because I do, and sometimes I find myself barely making a deadline or wanting more time to look over drafts that I send out. But in the end, I'm lucky enough to work at a place that works tirelessly to serve those in our community and focuses on people as whole individuals, not as mere numbers or statistics. My job is to tell the story, to pull people into our organization through the people we serve and to let the narrative do the talking.
The YWCA of the National Capital Area uses two headers in their motto, logo, and general branding: "eliminating racism" and "empowering women." They're lofty goals, but in the end, that's what we're trying to do. The clients at the YWCA NCA are diverse: they're young and old, white and black, American-born and immigrant. All of them work incredibly hard and have undergone significant hardship. Writing about my work or the work of the YWCA is simple in the sense that there's plenty of inspiration to go around. For me, the summer has been about how best to present these specific people's lives and struggles and ultimately, the best version of the truth I can find.
Three weeks ago, I had the privilege of sitting in on the Strategic Planning Committee's first meeting at the YWCA of the National Capital Area. The Committee is a combination of some full time staff and various Board members, all of whom are powerful and successful women from the DC area (the YWCA NCA's bylaws state that all Board members must be women). Over the course of five hours, this group of incredible leaders came together to discuss, brainstorm, and manage the future of the YWCA NCA. They talked broadly about gender, inequality, race, empowerment, and struggle. They acknowledged the odds that some of our clients are up against, but they never once questioned a person's potential or general desire to succeed. In general, they discussed the things I care most about and strive to study at a place like Macalester.
One Board member articulated an important point about our mentoring, education, and work readiness programs. In conjunction with some of the new workforce programs we had been discussing, she said, "There are a lot of different kinds of success in the world. Success is more than just a woman as CEO of a company. I want our women to be successful in everything and anything they want to do. Whether that's construction, a cupcake business, or reaching a high point in corporate America, I want our women to find support and success in everything they do." The YWCA NCA engages in empowerment and breaks convention. The organization and its entire staff are committed to making changes in the DC area, and though it may be a long time before we've empowered all women or eliminated all racism, when I look at the people around me, it really feels possible.
At the end of the Strategic Planning meeting, I was asked to summarize in one word how I felt about the day's session. I looked around the room thoughtfully before I responded: "Impressed" I said. "I'm very very impressed."
Numbers Are Not the Whole Story
In most industries—and this includes the nonprofit sector—organizations and individuals alike use numbers to clarify complex issues, questions, or even solutions. In my work at the YWCA, people always wanted to know what our numbers were. How many people are we serving? How many of them are people of color? What’s our success rate with obtaining GEDs? Does that figure hold its own in the District of Columbia? All day, I found myself inundated with these facts and figures, either from people looking to understand the individuals we serve or looking to us for solutions.
And yet, even with all this demand for different statistics and simple or efficient presentations, I refuse to rely on numbers alone. While I get that 140 characters for a tweet isn’t much space or that people simply don’t have the time to read a 5000 word blog post, I just can’t get myself to feel satisfied with a mere statistic.
I’ll admit, this summer, I was lucky. The numbers I had to work with at the YWCA NCA were fantastic. When comparing our success rates to others, the quality was high. And with each passing year, the organization manages to take on a bigger and bigger population of students in a city where the high school graduation rate is the worst in the country.
But regardless of whether a percentage sounds great or looks horrible, numbers can never really tell a story. A number could never tell you about Sarah, a 16-year old girl who started one of our programs at age 13.
See, when Sarah came in, she was angry. She fought other kids at school and consistently got into trouble with teachers. As a result, she struggled in school and was failing most of her classes. But after receiving one on one tutoring, touring college campuses and sorority chapters, and trying a bunch of hands on STEM experiments, Sarah began to turn her life around. She stopped fighting other kids at school and drastically improved her grades. She took on leadership roles at the YWCA and took it upon herself to make sure that others in the program felt supported.
But what was most important about Sarah was that she wasn’t angry anymore. She talked about wanting to work for the secret service after finishing college. She wanted to go to Howard University so that she could stay near the YWCA and mentor another, young Sarah.
The YWCA’s core mission is a story like Sarah’s. We aim to empower women, to eliminate racism, and to promote peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all.
In an organization that is largely—not completely—but largely supported by women and for women, I stick out. During my time there, people outside of the organization asked me how or why I ended up at a place that focused on lower income women and women of color.
There are two responses I can give: if a person wants numbers, 91,000 is the number of total Asians and Pacific Islanders that my mother is a part of in the state of Tennessee. Put another way, that’s only 1.6% of the state population with even less that speak her first language. 100 is the number of calories she consumed each day for three whole months when she could only afford 1 apple and the free cups of coffee she could get at work each day. 49 cents is the amount burgers cost us at McDonalds on Monday nights when my brother, mom, and I used spare change to pay for dinner. 2 is the number of physically and emotionally abusive men that have posed as my mother’s husband in the last 20 years, and 81 percent is the estimated percentage of Asian women in this country who experience at least one form of intimate partner violence each year.
But if you go by my account, I can tell you a story. A story about a mother so dedicated to her children that she literally starved herself to get her two children music lessons in high school. That same mother who went from food stamps and no health insurance to one of the most successful Nashville businesswomen today. I can tell you about a young kid who grew up thinking that the biggest hero in the universe was his mom, a woman who showed more strength and perseverance than he thought was ever possible for one single person.
Numbers can’t tell you about women like my mom or Sarah. They’re just too simple.
Every week this summer, I’ve explained to countless friends and strangers why it is that I work at a place like the YWCA. It’s because in an organization like ours, we refuse to end the story with a number. Making life changes is never as simple as obtaining a GED or changing the percentages of domestic abuse for women of color. It’s more than that. And it takes time.
So in reality, I don’t think it’s that I hate numbers. What I do hate, is simplicity. Part of my job this summer was finding a way to let women like my mom and Sarah speak for themselves. And when you find a way to present the story—regardless of how long or short—it’s impossible to see either Sarah or my mom as another statistic in the system.
The reason I worked for the YWCA is because I believe in the power of stories. I know first hand what it means to have someone in your life that overcomes all obstacles no matter how dire the figures or statistics. I love the organization because Sarahs and moms like mine are all over the place. You just have to look past the data and numbers.
To any math majors, statisticians, or brilliant data analysts, I apologize. I don’t mean to give a bad rap to all numbers in general. What I am trying to do, however, is criticize complacency and celebrate the stories of people who might seem down and out. Whether it’s 140 characters or a 50 page report, I’ve learned to find the person embedded in the numbers. I strongly believe in looking for the details, because it is those details that make all the difference.
The Washington Post recently published a story titled, “Inside the hidden world of thefts, scams and phantom purchases at the nation’s nonprofits.” The article was front page news, but I was more concerned about the untold story, the story of our sector’s successes and critical value to our communities.
This article seems to intimate that theft is a problem with nonprofits sector wide. There are almost 1.5 million nonprofits in the US ranging in size and service area from an all volunteer staff firehouse, to a homeless shelter, to Harvard University. According to Guidestar, only 0.2% of nonprofits who filed 990s in 2009, 2010, and 2011 reported a material diversion of assets in the previous year. That’s one fifth of one percent.
And yet, these are the nonprofits profiled in one of our nation’s leading newspapers and dubbed “the nation’s nonprofits” on the front page.
There are solutions to the challenges of nonprofit financial management all around us. In Montgomery County, the county government and local philanthropy partnered with the Roundtable to launch FIRM, a nonprofit financial leadership training program. FIRM has seen great success, and the nonprofits that complete the program report that they are more confident in the financial leadership of their organizations. Our partners The Center for Nonprofit Advancement, The Foundation Center, Maryland Nonprofits, and many more are also doing great work to improve financial management for the sector.
It's important to continually improve financial oversight and governance, but it's also important to recognize the major impact we have on our communities. Nonprofits provide 9.2% of all wages in the US, have 2.87 trillion in total assets and have 5.5% of the GDP. Our members alone account for $1.2 billion in annual operating budgets, employ 14,000 people, and serve 10.5 million clients a year. We, as nonprofits, are a powerful force and a huge player in our nation's economy.
It’s time people hear the full story.
When I started at the Roundtable, I had a vision for our future, one that put advocacy and leadership cultivation at the forefront of what we do. Once I settled in, I was able to distinguish what changes were necessary to move that vision forward.
I believe that our staffing structure is one of these necessary changes, and I am writing to inform you of the first steps we are taking toward reaching our vision.
Audrey R. Alvarado will no longer be working with the Roundtable as our Vice President. Audrey has been indispensable to this organization by leading us through our transition and working tirelessly on our strategic priorities and plan. I would like to personally thank Audrey for the work she has done to strengthen our organization and our alliance, and I look forward to seeing her at our events in the future. We are certain that she will continue doing great work with nonprofits, and we wish her the best of luck in her future endeavors.
Amy Fishman Kurz will be assuming Audrey's responsibilities as the Roundtable's Deputy Director. Amy has been working with us at the Roundtable since 2009 and in our local nonprofit sector for almost 9 years. Her breadth and depth of experience continues to be an asset to the Roundtable and our members. If you have any questions about the transition, please do not hesitate to contact me or Amy.
We have also expanded our communications department. Madeline Harrington has joined us as our Communications Intern, and is responsible for posting jobs, events, and blog posts to our website. Please also join me in congratulating Allison Carney on her promotion to Strategic Communications Manager. In her new role, Allison will be focused on directing our communications as well as working with a firm to hone our brand and messaging. We are thrilled to have Allison on our team as we continue to narrow our focus on leadership development and advocacy, and communicating clearly about our value as an alliance.
The Roundtable also wants to warmly welcome Jon Squicciarini to our team as our new Membership & Information Associate. Jon comes to the Roundtable from MAG America where he was a Development & Administrative assistant. He has a passion for data and will be a huge asset to our team. He will be working under Malcolm Furgol, Membership and Information Manager, to work directly with you, our members.
We also want to welcome our new intern, Whitnee Dillard. Whitnee has experience in program management, fundraising, and customer service. She will be working on a variety of projects at the Roundtable but will be mainly focused on adding capacity to our internal organizational systems.
Please don't hesitate to reach out to me with any questions.
Want to reach out to any of the above staff members?
Amy Fishman Kurz:
Or meet the rest of the team here.