► Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Literacy

Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

► Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Literacy

by Nancy Glen
Business Ambassador, ardentCause L3C

It may be appropriate to revisit the well-known phrase in the Declaration of Independence giving all people the “inherent and inalienable right” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

I’m all about happiness (and consider myself a positive person by nature), and supporting each of our efforts to determine how to achieve that state of contentment, fulfillment, and satisfaction over time. We need more people to be happy.  However, I would propose that a critical reality of feeling confident about our choices and our efforts has a basis in being able to read. Reading and understanding words is and should be one of our guiding happiness principles.

A Detroit-based literacy collective impact project, Reading Works (RW), has directly tackled this issue in southeast Michigan. Recognizing the challenges facing 1 out of 3 people who cannot read or understand, RW embarked on an ambitious project to provide resources and support to existing agencies to assess, address and move forward on goals to raise literacy levels high enough to gain employment.  Reading Works enlisted ardentCause L3C to provide the technology (platform) for tracking and reporting key indicators to provide the relevant information

As a result of Reading Works’ commitment to the collaboration, ardentcause developed LiteracyPath, an online data management system.  It’s a powerful online tool for gathering timely information for the collaborative while protecting the privacy of learners.   As a result, a picture emerges of the progress being made by collaboration members toward achieving positive community outcomes as well as individual organizational goals — directing potential next steps to move the needle forward…. always forward!

ardentCause is committed, locally and nationally,  to helping forge new happiness by providing an array of tools and services to those dedicated to literacy improvement work.   It’s imperative that learners continue to be engaged to read and further their involvement in creating more dynamic and happy communities!

Nancy Glen (a/k/a “Happy Nancy”)

► MLK Day 2015

by Rosemary Bayer
Chief Inspiration Officer, ardentCause L3C

There is an article in the Sunday New York Times on the difference between protests in Martin Luther King Jr.’s time and those that are happening now (Protesters Out to Reclaim King’s Legacy, but in Era that Defies Comparison, T. Vega).  It provokes a crucial question:  why is it that we don’t seem to be able to spark a movement that lasts, that drives lasting social change, like the movement MLK Jr. led?

Vega’s article points out that in King’s time, there were specific tactics and objectives, such as sitting at the diner counter or in front of the bus. They were things that were visible and easy to rally around. The protests, today, are about big topics with broad goals that are much harder to see, describe, and can support an extensive rally to make change happen.

Despite many widely dispersed protests around racial inequality and gross economic disparity, currently, we don’t seem to be able to get a lasting movement underway. “Occupy Wall Street” had national old school press for a while and great new media coverage for more than six months. Yet, it failed to move the needle forward – and is now gone. The movement disappeared leaving no lasting traces, except that the huge problems are still there.

In our work at ardentCause with nonprofits and community collectives that are trying to achieve big outcomes, one major challenge is taking those goals that take years to show progress, and breaking them into smaller short term measurables that demonstrate real accomplishments. This is critically important for Funders and the outside world. It is even more crucial for the people who are doing the work, the people who break their backs and sometimes their souls, working for social change against lifetimes of despair and disparity, so they don’t have to wait 10 or 20 years for the change to show.

Everyone needs to know what they are striving for. They need to see that they are making a difference. They need  to see their own contribution and accomplishment move the cause forward.

When the goal is something big and complex like eliminating economic disparity, individual protestors  may not know what the end goal is.  Even if they do, it’s probably so far in the future that they cannot see how they have accomplished anything that moves the cause forward. It’s so hard to keep fighting when you don’t see progress!

So many good people are out there now, protesting and speaking their passion. We are ready for some bright, strong leadership to define the specifics that people can rally around, drive forward and make step by step wins in the big battles that we are facing today!

► Nonprofit Alliances and Collaboratives – Are There Common Determinants for “Success?”

by Kathleen Norton-Schock
Chief Connections Officer, ardentCause L3C

The old adage that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” seems particularly relevant to the nonprofit field.

Social issues abound. Homelessness, high school drop-out rates and truancy, criminal recidivism, widespread hunger, mental health problems, illiteracy, proliferating challenges faced by seniors, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, unemployment, are just some of the pressing things negatively affecting people in our imperfect world.

Large and small individual nonprofits continually address the issues —- often in very creative and compassionate ways. But because of constrained resources, and a host of other challenges, even the best NPOs can’t meet all the needs, and often do so, only in a fragmented fashion. Massive social ills always seem greater than any one nonprofit’s ability to address them, no matter how robust the NPO’s capacity, how talented their people, and how resilient and passionate their spirit. That is one reason why a new kind of nonprofit collaborative (one that aspires to achieve broader, significant, community-wide progress by allying key NPO’s focusing on uniform problems) has emerged in the last decade.

Much has been written about these successful alliances from California to Kentucky, from Wisconsin to New York, and even offshore. Taking a look at them, there seems to be at least six 6 common characteristics:
1. They commit to long-term involvement. Rather than loosely confederating for short periods to address a single issue, or because of a short-term funding opportunity, those who are achieving long-term success are doing it because they have committed to do it, in a long-lasting way, together.

2. Collaboration leaders have a shared vision and resulting agenda. They reiterate the vision publicly and privately in as many ways as possible. They revisit the agenda, to ensure its relevance, often.

3. Alliance members communicate, a lot. Leadership meets formally multiple times a year, and everyone shares progress, informally, as often as possible. Their dialogue is frequent.

4. Collaboration leaders hold each other accountable, and commit to each other’s success. Their action plans are created in concert; and each organization in the collaboration is held responsible for achieving both the collective goals, and individual organizational goals that match the collective plan.

5. Alliance stakeholders and advisors are diverse. They come from within a sector (like mental health agencies as an example) but also from outside the sector (educational institutions, foundations, other funders, government agencies, and the business world).

6. Finally, successful collaborations use, measure and share individual and collective data. They make decisions about what to measure, and then they measure it, uniformly over time to ascertain if they are making real progress, and what they need to adjust to achieve positive impact. They use that data to align their resources, and determine what works. Then they do what works.

Among ardentCause clients, there are a number of innovative alliances with whom we are working. From them, we have been learning much about the awesome power of collective action. Most of the time, we specifically focus on helping with item #6, on the list above, since our strength is applying technology to ease the burden of data collection, making it more consistent, easy, and effective. We are very honored to engage in this work, and be a small part of each “whole that is greater than its parts” to achieve powerful positive and collaborative community impact now, and in the future.

► Tell Better Stories with Data ………

by Rosemary Bayer
Chief Inspiration Officer, ardentCause L3C

If I ask you to donate $1,000 to help an underprivileged boy named Jayson graduate from high school, would you donate?  On the other hand, if I tell you that our country would save $18.5 billion if we increase the graduation rate of boys by just 5%¹, and my organization has  increased the graduation rate of boys in our community by 10% in just 5 years, would you now donate?

I was recently invited to talk with the Greater Detroit Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals about analytics for nonprofits – what it is, why do we want it, and how do we do it. We discussed fundraising and the kinds of information needed to best support nonprofit organizations.

The business of fundraising revolves around donors, and telling stories about the people served, the lives saved, the land/animals/children/water/communities protected. Most of the successful fund development people I know are great at telling a story. Usually, they talk about a child, maybe with photos.  When asked about using data, the people at the AFP meeting were all confident about their use of donor systems to track fund development and donors. One was justifiably proud in leading the pack by sending donor data out for analysis. (There is a lot of very helpful knowledge to be gained by analyzing your donor data – worth a try if you can do it!). None, though,  were able to say that they had sufficient information about the services their organizations provide, let alone anything they could use to tell their story — to achieve a real impact.

Setting aside today’s problem that many nonprofits have in answering simple questions like “How many families do we serve?” it is challenging to find organizations that can offer quantitative impact information. When you are telling a story, to really grab and keep someone’s attention, you need more than just explaining “how you helped Jayson graduate.”   You need to describe the lasting change you are making— for instance, how the entire school district has, over 5 years, moved from having only 55% of 3rd graders at reading level, to nearly 85%, and is still improving! Or you could illustrate how recycling volume has increased 11% and trash volume has decreased 8% over the past 3 years, and is steadily improving. (“Your donations have enabled us to reduce our community’s trash volume by 11% so far. More work is needed to reduce it by 50% in 10 years, and eliminate the need for the new landfill!”).

Here’s another example: “The Perry Preschool Project showed that children who attend preschool have a 44% higher high school graduation rate (65% vs. 45%)². Our work here is increasing the percentage of 4 year old children in the city attending preschool by 3-5% per year since we began, meaning more than 300 children already have a 44% higher likelihood of high school graduation”.

Tell your story in a truer, stronger, more compelling way by adding real data. Use information to boost your impact message. To do that, of course, you need access to your own data, perhaps supplemented by outside data and research.  So, what should you do? Start with your story — what is the message you want to convey?  What data do you need to amplify or authenticate it? Try to find it among the data your organization is already collecting, leverage good research and then push toward collecting more outcomes and impact metrics.

All your stories will be stronger and your message irresistible!


¹ Alliance for Excellent Education, 2013
² Significant Benefits: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 27, 1993.

► Happy Birthday to

by Rosemary Bayer
Chief Inspiration Officer, ardentCause L3C

Happy Birthday to ardentCause — five years old! As it turns out, it’s not just nostalgia that makes us want to look back over those five years at this time — we are embarking on a new phase in the life of the company and have the opportunity to make some impactful decisions.

I say opportunity because over those first years, many of our decisions were critical to survival, or simply not choices at all. We are excited to be looking to the future now with some choices about what to do next.

Hopefully we are wise enough to think about what we’ve learned so far as we make those decisions!

What we’ve learned so far:

Everytime I get to visit a customer or prospective customer, I get re-energized – jazzed about our work and ways to make things better!

Every time a customer visits us, everyone in the office gets re-energized and jazzed about who we get to help.
We need to visit customers as often as possible!

We thought we talked to enough people before we took the big leap – but we didn’t have enough focus on nonprofits. So very different from funders…

How things work: it works because there are these people at the tips of the nonprofits who determinedly provide services to people who desperately need help – and they get paid next to nothing and work in some rough conditions – but keep on ticking.

Everything takes longer than you think it will.

We have been so fortunate to have the support of early customers with patience as we figured out how to move forward, and of those people at ardentCause (and surrounding us) who have been working so hard for nothing or close to it, as we move from what felt like quicksand to something more like a mattress – or at least pretty firm jello.

We are genuinely grateful to our customers, who are our reason for being and our daily delight – and we can’t wait to start the next 5 years!