Thursday, July 30, 2009

News You Can Use

A Roadmap to Inspiration

The Sunday New York Times on July 26, 2009 ran a great op-ed piece from Nicholas Kristol. Kristol, a columnist since 2001, has shown himself to be a true humanitarian, traveling personally to Darfur and writing tremendously gritty pieces to shed light on the deplorable situation there.

In another tour de force he describe the improbable and inspiring story of Scott Harrison. A successful club promoter in New York, Harrison had a moment of insight and inspiration at 33 when he took stock of his decadent lifestyle and reinvented himself.

A stint of volunteer service with Mercy Ships, a charity that performs free surgical proceedures for impoverished people in developing countries left him changed. In Kristol's words:

“The first person I [Harrison] photographed was a 14-year-old boy named Alfred, choking on a four-pound benign tumor in his mouth, filling up his whole mouth,” Mr. Harrison recalled. “He was suffocating on his own face. I just went into the corner and sobbed.”

A few weeks later, Mr. Harrison took Alfred — with the tumor now removed — back to his village in the West African country of Benin. “I saw everybody celebrating, because a few doctors had given up their vacation time,” he said.
Harrison was filled with passion. As a result he founded charity:water to bring potable to world's poorest people. The program has been successful, with $10,000,000 being raised in just its first 3 years. Kristol outlines his steps to success:

First, ensure that every penny from new donors will go to projects in the field. He accomplishes this by cajoling his 500 most committed donors to cover all administrative costs.

Second, show donors the specific impact of their contributions. Mr. Harrison grants naming rights to wells. He posts photos and G.P.S. coordinates so donors can look up their wells on Google Earth. And in September, Mr. Harrison is going to roll out a new Web site that will match even the smallest donation to a particular project that can be tracked online.

Third, leap into new media and social networks. This spring, charity: water raised $250,000 through a "Twestival" — a series of meetings among followers on Twitter. Last year, it raised $965,000 by asking people with September birthdays to forgo presents and instead solicit cash to build wells in Ethiopia. The campaign went viral on the Web, partly because Mr. Harrison invests in clever, often sassy videos.

I urge you to read the entire op-ed.

So what can we take away from this inspiring story? First, never underestimate the power of a compelling story. As Alfred's story so inspired Harrison, so too can the stories of the children in our program. Second, in many ways the charity:water program is set up like our Learning Centers. In our case the overhead is covered by the Supreme Council Benevolent Foundation and sponsor Valleys. We should communicate that more. Third, personalization of the donation forges strong ties with our donors. That is the benefit of Sponsor a Child. Finally communication is a must. The more and more we reach out person to person, the more successful we become.

Check back here next week for an important contest post inspired by this article.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


"In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded"
-Alexis de Tocqueville

July 29 marks the anniversary of the birth of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805), French political writer, statesman and aristocrat.

Tocqueville had a long and vigorous political life in France, serving as a visible force during one of France's most tumultuous periods of history. For a very good thumbnail of his life and times, visit the entry about him in Wikipedia.

In this country, however, Tocqueville is know best for his keen observations of the American mindset, which he published between 1835 and 1840 as Democracy in America. Tocqueville particularly described as noted in our inspiration associationism, which describes our culture's willingness to come together to address issues or needs.

This quote, often paraphrased to describe American philanthropy, is a reflection of the leaders of our Learning Centers. As a board, you have the ablity to ultimately have the Learning Center you desire. There is power in your numbers and your passion can win the day. Just as it impressed our young French Count in the 1800's our unique national sense of empowerment and self-determination exists today.

As a bonus, I'll leave you with one of my favorite Tocqueville quotes. I feel a swelling of pride and responsibility whenever I read or hear this:

"America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great. "

Let's do good!!

Ideas that work

idea icon Join the Club!!

Sometimes the culmination of small actions can produce great results. This is one such story…

The West Michigan Children’s Learning Center is located in the Valley of Grand Rapids. Speaking to the Valley’s Secretary, Gerry Millar, 33, the Center is a point of Valley pride. “The Valley is very proud of the Learning Center, “ says Ill. Bro. Millar. “Whenever we bring potential new members into the building we always show them the Center and tell them about the great work we’re doing.”

As proud as the members of the Valley are, it took the quiet ingenuity of its treasurer to establish a rallying point for the members. “Tom (Ill. Thomas W. Cardwell, 33) really came up with the idea of a Sponsor a Child Club,” relates Gerry. “In 2003, he came up with an idea so that everyone who wanted to support the Learning Center, regardless of the amount, could help.”

Cardwell, after finding out about the Learning Center program that sponsors a year of a child’s tutoring in return for a $5,000 donation, came up with an idea to make it more accessible. “I thought that there are a lot of members that would love to support the West Michigan Learning Center, but might not be able to give $5,000, so why not accumulate a number of smaller donations to add up to $5,000?” In his capacity as treasurer for the bodies of the Valley, Tom was in a unique position to do this, while still not attracting any personal attention. “This wasn’t about me, it was a program for the children in the Learning Center.”

Quickly the program gained momentum. Many donations, big and small, streamed in as the program’s reputation grew. As of today, this good idea, started so humbly, has provided 27 sponsorships. The director of the West Michigan Learning Center, Nina Gorak, is very appreciative. “Our local Masons have provided financial support for a great number of children - and the number is growing every day! This has been our most successful fundraising strategy to date. Thanks to all the West Michigan Masons who have contributed to this effort.”

As a result of this success, I was privileged to attend the Valley’s recent reunion in order to present the Valley with a special award. In front of the attendant members, their ladies and guests, I presented Ill. Bro. Caldwell a Bronze Teddy Bear award, acknowledging that the Valley of Grand Rapids Sponsor a Child Club had raised more than $100,000 for the Western Michigan Learning Center.

This idea takes advantage of our powerful Sponsor a Child program and lets more people participate. It is an idea worthy of consideration.

(This post is abbreviated from my recent article in Northern Light.)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

News You Can Use

Let's Talk honestly about Honesty

This post is inspired by the Freakonomics opinion-site of the NYT and recent events close to home.

A few weeks ago a woman who is a former colleague of a friend of mine was indicted for reportedly embezzling $1.3million from a Massachusetts museum where she served as the longtime CFO.

You can read about the alleged crime here.

Whether or not the woman is guilty is not relevant here (I'll assume as Americans are supposed to that she is innocent until proven guilty). If she did take all that money, it simply punctuates a epidemic that corrodes the effectiveness and credibility of charitable work.

The Freakonomics article is based on a story in the NYT that cites a study published in the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly titled, An Investigation of Fraud in Nonprofit Organizations: Occurrences and Deterrents. The Times writer inflated the findings somewhat, but the study sounded an alarm to say that lax oversight in voluntary organization may lead to heightened opportunities for financial malfeasance.

When drawing on study data the authors extrapolate this to suggest that $40billion is lost in nonprofits because of fraud. This amount, which equates to 13% of the money donated during the study year is twice the average in the business community.

I take serious issue with the size of this problem - I think the extrapolation was very inaccurate. However, I entirely agree with the position that nonprofits are ripe prospects for fraud. And we uniquely must combat it.

We are vulnerable for three reasons, poverty, apathy and trust. First poverty. The majority of nonprofits are not multimillion dollar efforts. Most are small budget efforts. A lot, particularly congregations, handle a lot of cash. Many rely on volunteer bookkeeping or do not pay for a professional audit. Thus the checks and balances are weak.

Secondly, apathy is the lack of energy or numbers of volunteers willing to ensure honesty of the numbers. I am aware of a recent case where one man defrauded several organizations. He simply volunteered to take the bookkeeping off the hands of the others in the organization. They were happy to have someone doing the hard work and accepted at face the numbers he provided them. There was no one who wanted to double check the numbers, no audit committee.

Finally trust is the con-man's friend. In the story above the man assured members of the several organizations he "helped" that they didn't need to undertake the expense of audits. Each board agreed. Whom but good people would be volunteers for their organizations, they thought. Eventually they found out that hundreds of thousands of dollars were gone taken by this man they trusted.

While similar crimes occur in the private sector, their impact may be much less severe to the company than the nonprofit. That is because donations are different than most purchases. If I buy a coffee from a company that is being embezzled, I still have the coffee, so the crime means little to me. If I donate to a charity and find that the funds have been similarly mishandled, I might not give to that charity again. They have compromised my faith in them. Furthermore, research suggests I might be less likely to contribute to anything.

That is why we must remain absolutely circumspect in our accounting of funds raised, because of our geographically spread out nature and volunteer driven staffing, we need to remain vigilant. This is why we centralize our receipting, why we use a bonded gift processing agent and an independent auditor. It is vitally important that the donations you work so hard to attain are cared for until we apply them to the care of your community's children with dyslexia.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


"A bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives roses."
-Chinese Proverb

More often than any comment I receive from volunteers is concern about asking one's friends for a donation. Often the concern falls into one of two catagories:
  • "I am afraid I will insult the person by asking for a large donation."
  • "This is a lot of money to ask for considering the person doesn't get much."
Handling the first point, it is so important to remember that asking for a donation is not insulting if done thoughtfully. An thoughtful request is one that is:
  • Reasonably researched. As best it can be determined, the request should be optimistic, but reasonable - that is within a realm of possible success.
  • Respectfully requested. A proper request for support does not demand, it asks a person to consider a thoughtful gift - a specific amount requested. Asking one to, "consider a gift of xxx to our Learning Center," is never insulting.

As for the second, please consider the truth in today's quote. Indeed, philanthropy is about giving money away, generally without expectation of any tangible benefit. However, most generous donors do report a significant benefit - one of deep satisfaction. This is the "fragrance" of giving.

It is critical for any volunteer to remember that giving does provide a benefit to our Learning Centers and our donors. This necessary aspect of our responsibilities can be a wonderful experience if you keep these points in mind.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ideas that work

idea iconGrant Proposal Database

One of the most challenging aspects of grant writing is the myriad of ways foundations want you to present your information. One place may ask you for a 500 word mission statement, while another may want you to give your mission in 100 words or less. Writing new text for each new proposal you submit takes time, something that few active volunteers have. And if you’re new to writing grants, an involved application process can be overwhelming.

When I work on a grant application, I pull the information from past proposals I’ve done in addition to using the GrantAid templates. This allows me to copy and paste most of my information without writing new text for each new proposal. If I come across a question I’ve never seen before, it’s still easier to pull the information than to write from a blank slate.

To help you with the grant process, I’ll be posting to the forum some of my recent successful proposals. My goal is to provide you with examples of the different ways grants can be written. Check out the proposals I’ve posted on the Idea Hub Forum. I’ll continue to post example proposals in the months to come, but if you have questions or need help, please do not hesitate to contact me. I’m here to help!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

News You Can Use

The Rich Keep Giving

Here is a very encouraging article from "across the pond."

This tidbit comes from the Telegraph in the UK. The article cites research from Barklays Wealth, which surveyed 500 affluent people in the UK and the USA.

Even in this economy, a remarkable 75% reported that their giving has not abated. In fact 1 in 4 increased their giving over the past 18 months.

Emma Turner of Barclays Wealth said: "In some ways, the recession and its knock-on effects have galvanized the attitudes and approaches taken by wealthy donors, who are in a bullish mood to not only carry on giving, but make an even bigger impact in the future."

You can read the full article here.

This has strong implications for your fund-raising activities. It is typical in hard times to want to pull back on your requests for support. Now however is when the need is greatest and those with the means can best appreciate that their support is needed most. Take some time to identify those who have capacity and with whom you might have contact and reach out with a Sponsor a Child request. The results may please you.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Inspiration... Branding-style

I think [the renaming] is a step in the right direction -- but for heaven's sake, do something with that stupid caricature of a child in the logo. It looks like a deranged elf or worse... Sorry I'm so subtle in my comments.

Well! I appreciate the candor and passion of our Learning Center leadership. Rest assured that the logo is only a rough idea of what might be, simply a basic, cheap placeholder for comments. Please keep your thoughts coming.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Rebranding Update!!!

Results from the recent board meeting

On July 2 the parent board of the 32nd Degree Masonic Learning Centers for Children met in Lexington. On the agenda was a presentation by Marcia Morgan, a branding consultant who has worked with us for the past six months to consider a change in name to the Learning Centers. To many, the current name is unwieldy and not easily communicated to the non-Masonic universe. The board in January agreed to look at the issue and hear recommendations.

The result of Ms. Morgan's work with a number of focus groups is a proposed name change. What she found best met our needs is:
This name appealed both to Masons and non-Masons. It also passed many usage requirements (for example a local place would be called Cornerstone Tutoring for Chidren with Dyslexia of Waterbury or Cornerstone Tutoring of Waterbury, for short).

The image change reflects the clear message Ms. Morgan received that it should reflect the typical age range of our students.

"Tutoring" was chosen over "Learning" because we tutor, our children learn.

We are also looking at branding our certifcation program to further the image of our program (more on that later, but you can read about it in the presentation).

To understand more fully the results of this effort, log on to the forum, and you can download Morgan's full presentation as well as the decision criteria for the naming process which is located here (you must be a registered user to download the documents).

The parent board unanimously supported this renaming process and gave it a green light to move further ahead. This includes sharing the name with you and asking for your feedback. Please use the poll located in the right-hand column to express your opinion on the name. I've opened a topic in the Rebranding section of Forum for your comments.

We look forward to your input.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

News You Can Use

Living (forever) on Purpose

This may be great news for every committed volunteer to our Learning Centers who happens to be an "older American."

The online news site Healthday recently heralded a study destined to make you feel good.

The article by Kathleen Doheny covered an ongoing study conducted through Rush Medical Center in Chicago. The study followed more than 1,300 senior participants and their sense of purpose.

The results of the study show a significant relationship between a sense of purpose and living longer. In fact the difference in survival between high and low senses of purpose was a 50% greater survival rate over the study's three year length.

The finding follows another recent study, done by others, in which the researchers found that retirees older than 65 who volunteered had less than half the risk of dying during about a four-year follow-up period as did their peers who did not volunteer their time, Doheny writes.

You can read the entire article on the Healthday site.

Our conclusion - the Learning Centers are doing more than helping kids and training tutors. Because we need committed volunteers, we are helping them to live long and purposeful lives!

(The Idea Hub will take a short break. Our next post will be July 14.)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


We must expect reverses, even defeats. They are sent to teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth greater energies, and to prevent our falling into greater disasters.
- Robert E. Lee

Today, July 1, marks the anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg (1863). Known as the high water mark of the Confederacy during the American Civil War, it was the ultimately the greatest defeat for General Lee. Lee was a talented officer, once offered command of the Northern forces before his decision to cast his allegience to the side of his native Virginia. This quote serves as a reminder that we can learn from hard lessons perhaps even better than from easy times.

For more information on the life of Robert E. Lee, read this site.