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Friends of the Children-King County (FOC), which matches at-risk children from first grade through high school graduation with long-term individual mentors, saw budget-savvy possibilities in taking advantage of what other nonprofits offer gratis. “We aligned our milestones for youth with best practices from nonprofits working more in youth development,” said executive director Kelly Stockman Reid, thereby strengthening FOC's program without straining its finances. Her organization also partners with Youth in Focus, which offers photography classes that FOC youth can attend. With this partnership “Youth in Focus reaches a population they wouldn’t necessarily reach, and we offer our kids a way to develop artistic self-expression” through photography, “where we’re not going to be experts,” said Reid. “We’re coming together to make this happen.”
“Flexibility about how they realize their mission” is the fourth Allen Foundation principle. Creative leaders “don’t have any 'sacred cows' in their program,” said Coliton. Clearly, for example, SAM's Jackson-Dumont and Delta School’s Holmberg had set aside any rigid, reverential definitions they might have held, respectively, of art museums and schools as being mainly conservatories for masterpieces and traditional knowledge.
The very name of another Northwest organization suggests that no "sacred cow” can get in the way of fulfilling its mission. Building Changes has left behind its former incarnation as AIDS Housing of Washington. Instead of developing housing and providing technical assistance for people with AIDS, Building Changes has taken on the role of intermediary to bring different large systems together — government entities, private philanthropy, schools, child welfare, workforce development, human services, advocates — so that they can work together toward community solutions to homelessness that no single organization or partnership can provide alone. (Disclosure: I wrote a report for this organization about part of its work to end homelessness.)
A "sacred cow” commonly encountered in social service organizations is the belief that management is secondary to direct services, but inflexible adherence to this notion can impede progress. “It’s easier to make the case that we need more services to families than we need more brainpower in the executive suite,” said Solid Ground communications director Mike Buchman. But every organization today needs the capacity to support, guide, and articulate its work into the future, he said. So Solid Ground has hired new leadership talent: a CEO who can make the changes the world requires of the organization, and a chief operations and strategy officer to do the strategic analysis and organization-building that change requires. “We have a good idea that we’re helping a lot of people. Now we’re asking, ‘Where’s the world going? Where are the interventions that are best practices?’ Most nonprofits are under-resourced in terms of management and analytical capacity because the focus is on providing direct services,” Buchman said.
Accordingly, flexibility that can provide smaller nonprofits with management advice and analytical help has become important to United Way of King County in recent years. “Back in the old days, United Way was looked at as an umbrella agency with entitled partners funded every year,” said Jared Erlandson, UWKC public relations manager. “About 10 years ago we started asking ourselves, ‘What are the holes in services where our dollars can have an impact? How can we prove that we are actually moving the needle?’” So when the Great Recession hit, United Way was in a position to offer analytical tools, which generated this kind of knowledge, to nonprofits in the region that were delivering the services but struggling to survive, Erlandson said. “It is our responsibility that they be aware of what’s coming down the road. We go out and help agencies that don’t have staffers possessing this expertise to learn how they can be efficient, create the efficiencies they need.”
“Transparent leadership in their organization” is the foundation’s fifth principle for leaders. Those honored with CLA recognition this year are strong leaders in the nonprofits they head, Coliton said, but “everybody understands how decisions are made, and decision-making is horizontal.”
The Allen Foundation established the annual Creative Leadership Awards after the happy experience of celebrating and rewarding a number of nonprofit leaders in the region as part of its recent 20th-anniversary celebration, said Coliton. Those anniversary awards coincided with the completion of a report, Bright Spots Leadership in the Pacific Northwest, which grew out of the foundation’s effort to promote wider understanding of how successful nonprofit cultural organizations can adapt to changing social and economic conditions. The foundation hopes that Bright Spots principles and examples can both inspire and guide nonprofits of all kinds in the region.
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