Archives

January, 2012

Postmortem: The Closing of Hull House

Like most people, I was hit with a wave of ‘say it ain’t so’ when I read about Hull House closing last week. The iconic mother of the settlement house concept, the model that Milwaukee organizations like Silver Spring Neighborhood Center and Journey House use in their family and neighborhood development efforts, Hull House was closing due to massive financial problems, one article stating that the organization owed millions of dollars to creditors.

That Hull House collapsed because of the poor economy is the no-brainer and maybe no-brain analysis.  Blaming the economy gives us permission to tsk tsk about how the funding world doesn’t appreciate the iconic, how donors let Jane Addams’ dream disintegrate; the economic downturn and all the excessive belt-tightening are to blame for ending Hull House’s remarkable 123-year run.

All of that may be true.  I don’t know.  All I know about Hull House is what I read in the paper.  But as a long-time observer of nonprofit organizations, I am betting that there is a lot more to the story.  Maybe some of these factors had a role in Hull House’s demise.

  • There may have been a failure to establish and maintain sufficient reserves to help the organization navigate through the economic mess.
  • The board may not have been sufficiently developed, trained, or supported to function as a good steward of Hull House resources.
  • No one may have been able to make hard decisions when they would have saved the agency, e.g. cutting programs/sites/staff.
  • Strategic alliances which might have preserved the Hull House mission and name while providing access to new resources may have been avoided.
  • The organization may have focused exclusively on its service delivery and not been involved in policy-making at the state and federal level that could have influenced program resources.
  • Maybe there was no decent grantwriting shop.
  • Maybe they couldn’t figure out how to diversify their funding (that is, after all, what saved many of us when the stock market tanked).
  • Maybe they assumed the public and the funding world knew all about the good work they were doing so they didn’t need to upgrade the outreach and communication.
  • Maybe they thought it could never happen to them.

 What I’m getting at is this:  The economic downturn reached into every berg in the country.  Strong nonprofits stayed afloat.  Weak ones went under.  And like I said, I don’t know the details of Hull House’s situation.  But I do know this.  Nonprofit organizations can protect themselves – there are life jackets and life boats and survival training aplenty.  Our very own Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee is a good place to start to sharpen your organization’s skills on a lot of fronts. 

The Hull House closing left us with a lesson — If it could happen to Hull House, it could happen to any organization. Be smart.  Take stock.  And protect your organization.

Getting Rid of Grantwriter Stress: What Did We Learn?

A few days ago, I posted about grantwriter stress, sharing my own shameful stories about licorice and gum overdosing.  The goal of the post, so to speak, was to generate some interest in the Planners and Grantwriters Roundtable held January 25th at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and sponsored by the Nonprofit Center.  I’m co-facilitator of the group along with Janet Peshek from Cathedral Center and Rochelle Dukes Fritsch from IMPACT.

It was a terrific roundtable.  Two great presenters: Sue Beck-Riekkoff from IMPACT Workplace Services and Ann Laatsch, Managing Attorney of Disability Services at Community Advocates.  Plus a group of initially kind of weary-looking but, by the end of the session, pretty upbeat group of about 15 grantwriters.

What did I learn?

  • Unrelieved stress is like those aging leftovers in the little Tupperware container in the back of your refrigerator.  The longer it’s there, the worse it’ll be when you finally take off the lid.
  • Standing on your head gives you new perspective and that can reduce your stress.  Well, not literally standing on your head but doing something that changes up your environment.  Or, if you’re a yoga-ette like Ann, actually being upside down.  You decide.
  • Another good one from Ann:  in times of stress or discomfort, curl up the sides of your mouth.  I’ve tried this occasionally when I’m in an aggravating conversation with a colleague.  It doesn’t always reduce my stress but it does make the other person wonder what you’re thinking.
  • Words matter.  And here, we’re talking mostly about self-talk.  If you know you’re going to have a crummy day, you probably will.  But if you rattle around in that top drawer to find your happy sweater, you can put your day in another direction.
  • You control you. Don’t give other people the power to control your mood or add to your stress.
  • And of course, BREATHE.  This was interesting.  Research shows that women, in particular, tend to breathe very shallowly – not good when it’s deep breathing (so you feel your midsection rise when you exhale (or was it inhale?).  Anyway, you know what I mean.  Breathe deep!

A great session.  A lot of laughs – a big stress reducer right there.  Grantwriters have a lot of stress — getting together every now and then can really help. 

Our next roundtable is April 18th (also the birthday of one of the fabulous facilitators).  Deborah Fugenschuh from the Donors Forum of Wisconsin will be our guest.

More info to follow.  But in the meantime, stand on your head and crack a few jokes.  You’ll feel a lot better!

Stress: Let’s Put It Out!

I once was so stressed out working on a proposal that while I had a lit cigarette in the ashtray on my desk, I put a pencil in my mouth and flicked my Bic.  Since I quit smoking, I’ve been known to eat a) whole packages of black licorice (that is A LOT of black licorice, my friends!); b) whole bags of pretzels; and c) whole packages of Trident Peppermint and/or Tropical Fruit gum in the course of a proposal-writing day. 

There is gum stuck to my office floor.  Not everywhere like in a crummy theatre, but enough to raise eyebrows.  What the heck has been going on in this office? a casual observer might ask.

A deadline staring me in the face.

People who promised me essential data for a proposal suddenly getting sick.

Realizing I was following the wrong guidelines.

Knowing that I don’t know enough about the proposal topic.

Getting feedback from colleagues that is stupid and unhelpful.

Being completely and totally overwhelmed.

Knowing I will eventually do a great job but having no idea in the world how.

Always having my professional credibility on the line.

When you write a proposal, especially for something that actually matters – like places for homeless people to live or ways for parents to regain custody of their children, you tend to feel a lot of PRESSURE.  No matter how good the idea is, if it isn’t commissioned on paper as a winning proposal, it won’t be implemented.  Homeless people.  Orphaned kids.  Yipes!

By now, you might be thinking I have the answer for this.  I don’t.  But, I’m part of a small band of colleagues – the Planners and Grantwriters Roundtable at the Nonprofit Center – that gets together to talk about things like this and hear from people who have great ideas and some darn solutions.  We have a session on Grantwriter Stress coming up on Wednesday, January 25, 2012, from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m. at the Milwaukee Foundation.  The cost is a cheap $20 (about the price of 10 bags of pretzels).  Call the Nonprofit Center at 414-344-3933 to sign up.