Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Organizing a Local Initiative

Who Gave You Permission to Do that?

Someone asked me something like that once. We were trying to find rides for seniors and people with disabilities who can't drive so they can get to the doctor, to the grocery store and to church. He was a development director for one of the largest charities in town. What he really wanted to know was whether we had the okay of the local good old boy network BEFORE we started looking into the problem.

"Who gave you permission to start a transportation initiative?" he asked.

The answer: Nobody did!

So, without permission, in 7 years we tripled the funding for rural transportation for seniors. We forced the rural transit provider to drop discriminative practices. We engaged private sector transportation providers to help get folks with disabilities get to and from jobs. We stopped predatory "coyote" drivers from exploiting the families of farm workers in small rural colonia's and helped the women get an affordable ride to town to buy groceries. We did so without raising taxes by so much as a nickel.

For our troubles, I got a nasty letter from the executive director of the local Council of Governments. The director of the state Transit Association called me "anti-transit".

A friend warned me to check under my truck for funny wires before I started it. She'd done the same thing in Missouri as a young lawyer when she did an audit of the local Council of Governments. They were, at first, very cooperative - told her to feel free to inspect everything except, the transit program. It, he assured her, was in fine shape. So, being my ind of troublemaker, the first thing she looked at was the transit program and discovered vast amounts of graft and embezzling. I made it a practice of checking under the truck.

I figure we must have done something right if we upset so many good old boys!

There has been a lot of rhetoric in recent years about an old African proverb. "It takes a village to raise a child." Somehow, folks of a certain political persuasion have come to believe that Washington, DC is just the village to do that. I'm not sure on what planet the federal government is considered a village, but it is surely not in this solar system. The proverb is dead on, though. I know from experience. I grew up in such a village. Back when I was 12, If I had been seen throwing rocks at a street light in Keene, Texas by any one of the town's mothers or grandmothers, word would have reached my Mom before I could have made it home at a dead run. Mom would have met me on the porch, her arms crossed and tapping her foot in a way that boded no good for me.

There is no power on Earth for getting things done effectively and humanely like that of a small community. That's the village those old Africans were talking about. Local communities, united together to fix their own problems - that's what the proverb means. They aren't talking about vast unwieldy social programs.

Individuals, political figures, and people working in small to mid-sized nonprofits in rural and small towns, local neighborhoods and communities can do a lot of good if they don't mind sticking their necks out a bit. There's nothing at all like a stubborn, righteous person for getting things done in smaller towns. Sometimes, all it takes to get the ball rolling is for someone to tell the truth publicly. You'd be surprised how many people are afraid to say that something is terribly wrong in their community, even when everyone knows it. Often the brave soul asking foolish questions in front of God and everybody is all a community needs to get up on its hind legs and take care of business. Local initiatives usually start this way.

A good local initiative's leaders need to help inexperienced, but passionate local stakeholders to successfully network, write grants, create new programs and solve problems in their own communities. These stakeholder groups don't need a mandate from Washington. They don't need the okay of whatever good old boy political network runs things in their state. What they need is help figuring out how to do what needs doing.

We call it "doing good without permission". You'd be surprised how many government bureaucrats you will manage to aggravate by doing that.  I was driving through the country yesterday and saw a crude sign in front of a tiny country church advertising a "Soup Kitchen". It wasn't sophisticated. It wasn't politically correct. Yet struggling rural seniors were getting a hot meal. The church started the soup kitchen because Meals on Wheels and food bank programs have been having getting food out into the rural areas and there were a lot of older people out here in the sticks that need a hot meal every day. So neighbors pitched in and are helping their grandmas and grandpas and struggling families that have been laid off, have lost jobs or businesses or who have had the family wage-earner die suddenly. By the time a government program could have been put together, isolated seniors could have been starving. They didn't because their neighbors acted quickly and solved a problem with the resources they had.

Another local church found that our rural transit district didn't provide service for shopping trips to Walmart. One of the church deacons convinced the congregation to buy a school bus and once a month on the day seniors received their Social Security checks, the church sent the bus around to pick up everybody and take them to Walmart. Walmart and the McDonald's in the store set up morning breakfast and bingo for the group at 6:30 AM on the day. On Sunday's the church picked up transportation challenged folk and took them to the church of their choice - a service the Council of Government's federally-funded Rural Transit Program claimed that there was no demand for such things and refused to provide those sorts of transportation services.   

Groups like this would like to keep their programs going permanently, but they don't know how.  The trouble is that the folks running things on the government side see these kinds of local efforts as encroaching on their territory. The Food Stamp folks in our part of the woods started complaining when East Texas church's food pantry programs began cutting into their business. At one point, they actually started a marketing campaign to bring people back to the Food Stamp program that were forgoing the miserable application process for Food Stamps and being fed instead by little church food pantries. Now, the Food Banks that supply those church based pantry programs suddenly found it harder and harder to get the food supplies they once did as the federal government tried to centralize all anti-hunger programs under government control.

Small to mid-sized charities also face stiff competition for increasingly limited Foundation grants. Big charities with fat development budgets and marketing resources dominate the competition for what grants and other funding remains out there, especially over the past 8 years as the economy went into a long slump. Local charities are having to do more, with less money and they're doing it with organizations that don't have the aggressive development resources they need to find funding to keep their doors open.

That's where local heroes like you can help address the needs in your towns and neighborhoods that were not anticipated up in Washington's central planners. Local charities and churches need smart community leaders and volunteers to help the people who create and run local charities and work to create programs that address local needs.

Technology can be a real friend to communities if we let it be. We have the technological tools and resources to reduce the cost of creating local solutions to local problems. Technology can reduce travel costs, improve access to information critical to problem solving and help to build collaborative networks using 21st century telecommunications and Internet based tools. In every community there are wise and wonderful people with the skills and smarts to solve a myriad of problems that exist in our home towns - problems that nobody in Washington has ever thought of, much less designed a "program" that will fix it.

These are tough times.

Small charities can't afford expensive development officers, much less afford an extensive development and fund-raising program. Yet, foundations and government funding sources increasingly require more and more networking, inter agency cooperation and program coordination before they'll give money to local charities. This is an expensive and time consuming task, something most nonprofits can't afford.You can help the little nonprofits and faith-based ministries survive in this era of crumbling economies.

Helping the little guys trying to do good in your home town maximizes the amount of good you can do. First off, you don't have the federal government taking 40 to 60 percent off the top for admin costs and to pay overweight bureaucrats sitting in cubicle warrens in local, regional, state federal office buildings, and in Washington DC to generate paperwork for each other. Local nonprofits, church-based and community-based organizations operate for a lot less money. To even get grant funding, these guys can't show more than a 7 to 15% admin costs.
  • They aren't making government salaries.
  • They don't have government health benefits.
  • They spend on average less than 8% of their entire budgets on admin costs.
  • Many go without pay altogether.
  • Millions of volunteers work with them.
  • Tens of millions are given a hand up.
  • Tens of millions of lives are changed.
  • We can help them do even better by providing badly needed expertise.
These are amazing people. They don't have to ask the government for permission to help the homeless, to shelter a battered wife and her kids, to feed an elderly person or to help someone who's fallen on hard times to get back on his feet. Why should a community have to ask someone in Washington whether the widow next door deserves to have a couple of neighbors mow her grass or paint her porch for her? Why should our neighbor have to file stacks of humiliating paperwork when all he needs is a couple of bags of groceries and a ride to work for a few weeks till he gets on his feet?

You can help your community do-gooders to, well, to do good! Here are a few things you can do to get involved.

  1. Volunteer - Find some event or fund-raiser that needs help and sign on. It's a good way to get in touch with what the good-guys are up to in your community.
  2. Join a nonprofit board - It's a great way to get your feet wet and it's not terribly hard to get an invitation. Find a board member and get to know him or her. It's not hard to wangle an invitation.
  3. Help raise a little money - Board members are expected to do that.
  4. Go to speeches and workshops - Meet people and hear people talk about community issues. Talk. Get to know the players and the issues.
  5. Keep up with the news - Ask yourself as you are reading, is there something here that we need to fix. Have you got a homeless problem people are talking about? Did you spot a news story about an elderly couple that died because people didn't check up on them? Is there something an existing group or agency could have done to prevent it?  It's that sort of thing that helps you identify things your community needs to have addressed.
  6. Build a network - The more people in key positions you know, the more community leaders you touch base with, the better you'll understand how to go about problem solving and who to talk to that can help you.
  7. Don't be afraid to speak up - There are no stupid questions. Ask them at community meetings, city council meetings, county commissioner's meetings, public comment meetings, issues review boards, etc.. You'll find out who and what is important as you go along.
  8. Offer to sit on committees or to organize stakeholder groups around a specific issue. You'll know you're headed the right direction when somebody asks who told you that you could do what you are doing.
Every community has it's good old boy network. Sometimes they can be engaged to help and sometimes they can't.  I've worked with groups that came up with great ideas only to see them go nowhere because they depended on the powers that be to make them happy. I sat on a Disabilities Issues Review Board for the city once and we came up with a simple and inexpensive solution to a problem our people were having.  One of the more experienced members of the board piped up.

 "It'll never work," he said.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because it makes too much sense," he explained.

Being a local hero is not without its risk. You have to learn a lot about schmoozing and a good bit about politics, but you'll be surprised at what a difference you can make in the world.

© 2017 by Tom King

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