Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"It's True Anyhow"!


Years ago I was at a church - can't remember if I was the preacher on this occasion or not - and I heard someone say something that has stuck with me ever since. If you know anything about the black church, you know about what is referred to as the 'call and response' nature of worship. As the preacher - whomever it was - was preaching, someone in the congregation shouted out...'It's true anyhow!'. What that worshiper meant, was whether you agreed or not, whether what the preacher was saying comforted you or made you uncomfortable or whether or not you participated in the 'call and response', the words of the minister were 'true anyhow'!

Dan Pollotta's TED talk, regarding how we think about charity and how we fund them is wrong...dead wrong. 

Over the past several years, we have steadily, and somewhat successfully, tried to impose a 'business' paradigm on non-profits. In doing so we set most of them up for failure. 

A young man came to me to talk about starting a non-profit. When I began to tell him about the challenges of raising money and of how funders, many funders, looked for non-profits to be frugal and even show a 'profit' at the end of the year in order to show their 'stewardship'. He was non-plused. 

At the end of the day, Pallotta is right. After nearly 10 years working at CitySquare, I have come to realize the tremendous creativity and innovation within this sector, which is rarely allowed to flourish because of the difficulty of bringing solutions to education, hunger, housing, homelessness and healthcare to scale. The limiter is almost always a lack of money. The failure to fund big dreams and to pay more attention to whether or not overhead is kept low, means the inability to retain talent as it looks to the private sector to actually make a living, simply because they pay more, or to operate in substandard buildings with used furniture in order to give evidence of their 'no frills approach to service, deprives all of us. It also applies to programming itself. The type of scrounging that many program operators are forced to do because 'stewardship' can at times get to be so granular a philosophy that it means scrimping on paper, pencils and paper clips, is, in the end 'unprofitable'. 

One of the reasons I love CitySquare is that we persist in trying to do big things. We can set, as I once heard, BHAGs - Big Hairy Audacious Goals - sometimes in spite of our financial reality. 

In public policy for instance, we have managed to get local ordinances and state laws passed. We were able to get our city's Farmer's Market to accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). We have been able to use documentary screenings to increase public awareness about education, hunger, poverty, nutrition, health and immigration, to name a few - and we've leveraged that awareness into public action. 
We have partnered with leaders in low income communities to advocate with local political leaders for neighborhood redevelopment in our lowest income communities and tied that advocacy into opportunities related to human capital development. And we are currently developing a strategy which will organize low income communities as a constituency for their neighborhood public school 'feeder pattern' - the elementary, middle and high school in that community. We work with interns, volunteers and allies locally, statewide and, sometimes nationally. We work with academic institutions, like Southern Methodist University, University of North Texas in Dallas and Paul Quinn College. 

CitySquare's downtown 'vertical community', CityWalk@Akard, is a microcosm of the traditional neighborhood. It is a mixed income, mixed use development, in the heart of downtown Dallas - combining housing, retail and office space. That office space will, this year, become a veritable satellite campus for Abilene Christian University which will partner with our organization to provide academic depth, analysis and evaluation to our work, while at the same time training the next generations of social entrepreneurs. 

Our new 53,000 square foot Opportunity Center, (which should come online before the end of this summer) will become a campus in which job training, wellness, food distribution will take place on a larger scale, working with other non-profits, as well as WorkSource Dallas County. 

Yep, we set Big Hairy Audacious Goals at CitySquare. Like any number of other non-profits we can do more. But it takes staff, materials, equipment to plan and to implement. All of that calls for money. And, the fact is, if we were able to operate like a business, vs. only being held 'accountable' by business standards, we could set and achieve Bigger, Hairier, more Audacious Goals. 

What Dan Pollatta says in this video, may turn what you think about charities on its head. But, it's true anyhow!


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