Companis: Inspiring Model of Generosity, Compassion, and Community

I must admit that I’ve been feeling down in the dumps lately… but spending the afternoon with the wonderful community of Companis workers cured me quickly!

You haven’t heard of Companis in Seattle? You need to!

Companis is an organization that matches professionals in the Puget Sound community with struggling nonprofits who need social workers, accountants, program managers, directors, development professionals… but cannot afford the staffing costs. Companis workers commit to year-long terms of service to their matched organizations. Yes, a year. Think of it as the Peace Corps for Seattle. And Companis doesn’t just make the volunteer match and move on. Workers gather together every few weeks for support and workshops, have annual retreats, and other community building opportunities. This model means that the experience is as enriching and transformative for the workers as it is for the organizations with which they volunteer.

I feel so lucky — blessed, really — to have learned of Companis last summer. Even though I myself have not had the opportunity to become a year-long Companis worker (hopefully in the future when the circumstances are right), I realized today at the Companis picnic how important and inspiring this organization has been to me — personally and professionally.

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Yes, Virginia, there is real interagency collaboration! It exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist…

… and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no collaboration.

Interagency collaboration. Organizations with different boards, budgets, and slightly different mission statements — working together on a common problem and collaborating on a fundraising project. Everyone wins. The organizations achieve their fundraising, outreach, and constituent engagement goals. No one gets hurt.

Is this a fantasy… or a state worth working towards?

Poster for Seattle AIDS walk 2012If you believe in the isolationist model of development (“Are you an isolationist or relationship builder?”), then you would answer that this type of interagency collaboration is just not possible, nor a good idea.

But have you heard about the Seattle AIDS Walk and 5K run, scheduled for Saturday, September 22? Even though the walk is sponsored and organized by Lifelong AIDS Alliance, they have partnered with a number of other local organizations whose missions also focus on serving those in the community affected by HIV and AIDS, including Gay City Health Project, Bailey-Boushay House, and my good friends Rosehedge/Multifaith Works. According to Rosehedge Development Director Elizabeth, there have been arrangements of this sort in the past, too.

Everyone shares the ultimate goals of stopping HIV infection, helping those who are infected/ill, and finding a cure. It really is that simple, and it makes sense for them to work together. Doesn’t it?

It’s inspiring to me — though this type of arrangement may make the isolationist development person experience an anxiety attack.

And speaking of Rosehedge/Multifaith Works, they put together this little recruitment video for their team. This is proof that one does not need the expensive video production company to create a one-minute viral piece. This video reveals that they are trying to be careful with how they spend money and are trying to put together communication tools using the resources they have available. It’s engaging. And it’s fun! And cute! And CJ gets to push his boss-lady Elizabeth to the ground and beat her to the finish line!

Collaboration lives! And it lives forever!

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Relationships give, not relationships take

“Some of the biggest challenges in relationships come from the fact that most people enter a relationship in order to get something. They’re trying to find someone who’s going to make them feel good. In reality, the only way a relationship will last is if you see your relationship as a place that you go to give, and not a place that you go to take.” — Tony Robbins

A high school friend posted this quote on Facebook yesterday — and it stuck with me all day. It stuck with me all weekend, really. Robbins was referring to intimate/romantic relationships, I assume, but this can be true of all types of relationships: teacher/student, customer/vendor, parent/child, and even donor/organization.

There are some development people out there who believe that donors are to give; that’s their “job” as defined by the very word that marks them (the etymology is the Latin word donare, which means to give as a gift). But surely there must be more to it. When someone makes a gift of time, talent, and resources to an organization, it is because they have formed a bond — a relationship — with the organization’s mission, services, role in the community, staff, and board. The organization is giving to the donor through this relationship in some profound way (and there are many different ways, depending on the circumstances). The donors trust that the organization will work to fulfill its mission with the support. The donors feel satisfaction that the gifts will make some difference in the community. The donors feel connected on a personal level with a cause or issue important to them.

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Being good stewards of the gifts entrusted to us

We all know how vitally important stewardship is in development programs, and we know the golden rules of properly acknowledging gifts and support:

Cheerful letter/message

  1. Send a thank you letter signed by a meaningful person from the organization within 48 hours.
  2. Address the letter to the donor by name.
  3. Include a handwritten personalized note, if possible.
  4. And so on…

Here are some great posts by others on the topic of stewardship:

The bottom line is that stewardship should not be seen as just writing good thank you letters. Stewardship is the act of honoring and respecting the gifts of the donor, and helping the donor engage with the organization at a higher lever. What steps do you take to engage your donors and respect their desires and intentions?

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Outreach and trusting in good touches

Traffic for my post last weekend about the pineapple upside-down cupcakes went through the roof. And I mean through the roof! I was so excited, I shared the news with my husband Sunday night:

Me: “Traffic for my cupcake parable post is through the roof!”

Al: “That’s because everyone is searching for pineapple upside-down cupcake recipes and landing on your site.”

And he’s right. Even my own friends — people who know that this blog specifically focuses on NPOs — sent me feedback about the cupcakes themselves:English: A tin with large divets in it, for ma...

  • “Photos look yummy!”
  • “Sorry your first batch didn’t turn out.”
  • “You’re so brave to make a new recipe the night before a party.” (or dumb, in my opinion)

But I also heard back from friends and colleagues who said the story made them think and reflect on their own processes, perseverance, and reactions to roadblocks and perceived short-comings. Some of these comments came from development professionals with whom I then had great conversations about annual giving and letter campaign procedures (which is what I had in mind when writing it). Some are not in development… and the post started great conversations with them about their own work, their parenting struggles, and so on.

But that’s the great thing about this cupcake story: the lessons are transferable and fairly universal.

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Pineapple upside-down cupcake REDUX

I was reminded by a friend this morning that there is a part two to the cupcake parable:

Everyone loved both versions of the cupcakes, some even saying that the first super-messy, hard-to-eat batch tasted better than the second, prettier batch.

What to take out of this, besides the reminder to research, contemplate, come up with work-arounds, deal with issues as they come up, consider earlier attempts and improve upon them, go back to the books and incorporate “classic” strategies, and don’t give up and opt for letting someone else do your job for you? The new lesson is that maybe the first attempt was not the failure you think it was, no matter how frustrated you were with the process or how you personally saw the resulting product.

In other news, I’m enjoying reading Tom Ahern’s newsletter/blog Ahern Communications, Ink, especially this post and this one. Tom specializes in cupcakes.

Pineapple upside-down cupcakes: a parable

We threw a birthday luau for a close friend today, and one of my responsibilities was to make pineapple upside-down cupcakes — her favorite Hawaiian dessert. I was happy to oblige.

I spent at least a week thinking about pineapple upside-down cupcakes. I had never made them before. In fact, I’m pretty sure I had never eaten one before (the big version, either). So I poked around in the world’s largest cookbook (Google) and found two recipes that were popular in the blogosphere: one from scratch and one using a box of cake mix as the base. Naturally, because I am an aspiring foodie, I chose to make the scratch recipe.

I swear, those cupcakes were cursed. First, a giant jar of maraschino cherries jumped to its death in the parking lot right outside the doors of Cash ‘n Carry. Then, it was discovered that I bought a can of pineapple chunks and not the crushed pineapple called for in the recipe. No big deal, except that my husband was standing next to me when I made the discovery, grabbed them from me, and pureed the heck out of them with our hand mixer before I could stop him. It was sweet of him to try to help, but he turned the pineapple chunks into pineapple baby food (try draining that!). Can you believe that after the pineapple baby food incident, I then discovered that our teenager went through a dozen eggs in less than 24 hours… and I didn’t have the six eggs I needed? So the score thus far is: one jar of dead cherries (but kindly replaced by the store), 16 ounces of pineapple baby food, and a midnight run to Safeway for eggs. Once the eggs are mixed into the batter, these cupcakes should be smooth sailing…


These cupcakes were an absolute mess! They rose too far above the pan and melded together, they were stuck to the inside of the pan, and they seemed to look much more “cakey” than the photo in the recipe looked. It was already after 1:00 am at this point, so I decided to throw in the towel and go to bed. I would have to buy a store-made cake on the way to the party, and chances are the cake would NOT be pineapple (we are in Seattle, after all).

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Writing for print newsletters vs. online

Someone wrote to me privately and asked about the practicality of writing for print newsletters and then e-mailing copies. Personally, I believe writing for e-news should be approached differently, with the assumption that most readers will not read the all of the stories, and may not reach the end of any of them. Front load your most important information in the first paragraph in e-news… your readers may not make it past that first paragraph (especially since open rates are much higher than click rates).

Here is an interesting comparison for you — a pdf of a print newsletter and the online version of the same text. This is English Matters, the University of Washington English Department’s alumni news of which I was the editor for three years.

English Matters 2010 (pdf)

English Matters 2010 (online)

What do you think?

E-newsletters: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

E-newsletters: Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

As budgets are squeezed and people become more aware of our carbon footprint and ecological impact, nonprofits are turning more and more to converting all communications to online and email. Plus, online makes sense since it seems people are abandoning paper versions of most other forms of written communications (such as newspapers … and am I the only person left in Seattle who hasn’t purchased an e-reader?). E-newsletters: we love them! e-newsletters come with their own set of problems: a drastic reduction in the distribution list due to difficulties moving print subscribers over to e-news, difficulties collecting good email addresses, spam programs blocking delivery, formatting issues when considering all of the different browsers available, and very low open rates. E-newsletters: who needs them?

And then there is this interesting article about the poor ROIs of e-newsletters, promptly followed up with a swift rebuttal (from Ahern Communications, Ink)

Bottom line, though, is that the average metrics for nonprofit e-newsletters in 2011 were 13% open rate, 1.6% click-through rate, and 0.17% unsubscribe rate, according to the eNonprofit Benchmarks Study (as cited on FrogLoop). I have a hard time wrapping my brain around creating a content-rich, carefully researched, lovingly crafted communications gift to the world when only 13% of those who receive it will even open it. That hurts the hidden tortured writer in me.

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About building those new doors for opportunity…

My original intention  was to follow up yesterday’s post about (re)engaging your community, key stakeholders, prospective donors, and constituents with a list of suggestions to help as you Uncle Miltie, standing in front of what may be a door.brainstorm what (re)engagement means for your organization. I realize now the folly of trying to create such a list, honestly, in direct violation of advice I myself gave — every organization is different and there is no one-size-fits-all strategy. So why would I then come up with a list of suggestions that may have absolutely no value to your particular org, culture, or situation? So let me take a step back and discuss some of the overall concepts of engagement, and then it would be great to hear your ideas and what has worked for you. For the most part, these are common axioms in the development community, but they are worth repeating (and to cut down on the wordiness and need for inclusiveness, I will use “constituents” to mean your target audience, donors or otherwise):

  • Have a plan. I cannot stress this enough. Make. A. Plan. It can fit on a single sheet. It can be scribbled on a cocktail napkin and held together with tape. But write down your strategy and refer to it often. What happens if things change and you must deviate from your plan? Don’t throw it away! Remember that this is how life works: reassess the situation and revise the plan accordingly. In some ways, the plan will not only help you see where you are going, but it will help you track where you have been. What happens if you don’t have any written plan? (Re)engagement strategies as an ad hoc venture sounds about as efficient as running a development program with no strategic development plan. Here are some basic parts to your (re)engagement plan (and these could be categorized by activity/effort):

Who are your major players and what are their duties?
Who is your target audience?
How are you keeping track of contact reports?
What are your goals and objectives? Continue reading