Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

One Hundred and Counting!

Periodically I review the Letters from the CEO archive to make sure that I don’t repeat myself (too much), and to monitor how many months in a row I’ve written one of these articles. We have published the newsletter since 2004 and it became a monthly service in 2006. In July we marked the 100th publication!

The original intent of our newsletter was to share useful information from national publications and to report on important Alaska events like the Leadership Summits and Pick.Click.Give., etc. For the last six years we have worked to present provocative and original insights from our experience and research.

In 2006 we had many talented writers on staff – I was not one of them. That said, Foraker staff felt strongly that I should write. To be honest, I was reluctant. I worried if I could find enough to say, that I could find the time to write, but mainly I worried about my writing. Still, I finally decided to try and now ten years later, and with 102 articles online, I am happy to report that I survived. But the process was not easy.

When we began, I struggled through eight to ten edits before turning the drafts over to Suzanne Lagoni and Laurie Wolf, both much more competent writers, to edit and complete. They were kind, but I knew that it was a challenge to fix my attempts. It took significant time just to get the articles to a third grade level.

But whoever said practice makes perfect was partially right. While still far from being a good writer, I became more disciplined. I made time to complete 15 to 20 edits, mostly on the too many hours spent with Alaska Airlines. Now Suzanne and Laurie report that the time required to clean up the drafts has significantly decreased. Except when my schedule does not permit multiple re-writes, what you see is what I did. And as you know, at this point we have not only written over a hundred articles, we published a book.

In September Mike Walsh and I attended the Alliance for Nonprofit Management conference in Austin, Texas. There were many great sessions. We presented our book, Focus on Sustainability: A Nonprofit’s Journey to a full room. Some of the most noted nonprofit consultants in the country were sitting in the room – the people who have written THE books on nonprofit management, the ones who have done the most research to validate best practices, and the people that Foraker quotes in trainings. Like my reluctance to write, when I saw who was in the crowd, I froze. I wanted to leave. Frankly, I again feared complete humiliation.

But walking away was not an option, so I tried to stay focused on the fact that other competent people had actually liked the book and, after all, we had sold many copies and received good feedback from all over the country. I stood my ground and 90 minutes later we not only were not embarrassed, comments ranged from, “the best session at the conference,” to “while you didn’t present anything I didn’t know, you did it in unique way. Can I use some of your quotes?” It felt great!

I share these examples, exposing my fears and shortcomings and the journey to overcome them, to encourage you to do the same. I prefer to be quiet because often I think I have nothing to say. I am still aware of my limited ability to express my thoughts in writing. But ultimately, to accomplish mission, nonprofit leaders are compelled to communicate, to document insights and stories, and to share. While many of us would prefer to let our actions communicate our worth, to be the best advocates for those we serve, we must communicate, and we must overcome our fears and misperceptions. Ultimately, we must tell our stories. And there was another lesson learned from our trip to Austin.

Diana Aviv, CEO of Independent Sector, spoke at the opening plenary. She challenged the crowd to think big. “It’s not enough to think out three-to-five years. If we are going to change the world, we must look much farther. We need a 25-year goal – and we need to make it happen.”

Our last Leadership Summit focused on telling stories. We can write or speak and those with the talent can use video, music, art, drama – so many ways exist to ensure that our communities know who we are, know why we matter, and how they can engage with us to change the world. After all, regardless of our discreet missions, we do what we do because we care. And the more citizens we engage, the greater the impact.

Imagine that Alaska’s nonprofit sector adopted a big goal and did what was needed, even if it took 10, 20, even 30 years to complete. We could make anything happen. But first we would need to think big, and then we have to effectively tell our stories. We have examples of how the nonprofits in our state had such impact.

Alaska Federation of Natives, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, was founded in 1966 to give voice to Alaska Native priorities. The enlightened leaders who started AFN envisioned a place at the table. They wanted vibrant, sustainable communities and cultures. They had ambitions for healthy citizens. They demanded recognition by the state and federal government. Today we see the result of their big goals. Soon after AFN’s incorporation, as a result of the discovery of oil on the North Slope and the need to get that resource to market, a movement was initiated that eventually resulted in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. That act created the corporations that are major economic engines for the state. But the vision to create AFN didn’t just set the stage for the Native corporations, it also set in motion the creation of The Alaska Native Health Board. That entity led to the creation of Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. Today ANTHC, along with the regional health corporations, is making major strides on improving the collective health of Alaska Native people. Thinking big works, especially when we effectively tell our stories. While those leaders in the late 1960s thought big, the results today are likely greater than they could have dreamed. Alaska Natives are master storytellers after all. Big dreams and good communication is a winning pair. Sometimes we are too timid to think so big, or to blow our own horn.

There is another example of a group that had great impact – The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority. The state was required to create a method to care for some of its most vulnerable citizens who were not provided adequate support prior to statehood – those with developmental disabilities, substance abuse issues, mental illness, or dementia. While the Trust was established at statehood, it took the dedicated effort of citizens and advocates 40 years to finally monetize that obligation and increase services directed at improving the lives of those beneficiaries. Foraker board member Jeff Jessee, now the CEO of the Trust, was one of those advocates. He is a master storyteller. He and many others were on message for years to ensure that officials didn’t forget their obligation. Finally their efforts paid off for the people in their trust. It took more than five years to make that big goal a reality. They thought big – they told their stories – they persevered to make it happen.

And another example of an Alaskan big goal is Pick.Click.Give. When that effort began less than ten years ago, individual giving in Alaska was far below the national averages. The goal was to move Alaska to the top of the philanthropic lists, away from the bottom. Those involved knew it might take 15, 20, even 30 years to realize that vision. It still may. But in six short years, Pick.Click.Give. is raising $2.8 million. And 4.8% of Alaskans filing electronically for a Permanent Fund Dividend chose to participate – a percentage much higher than comparable efforts. Data from the latest Foraker Report on the Alaska Nonprofit Economy shows that for the first time since we have monitored giving by Alaskans, individuals in Alaska now give at the national average! That result is, in large part, a result of Pick.Click.Give. Diane Kaplan has been the master communicator for that effort with many others working as cheerleaders. Pick.Click.Give., along with other efforts like fundraising training provided by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and The Foraker Group, and the ongoing efforts of the Alaska Community Foundation and the community foundation network, have forever increased Alaska’s philanthropic capacity.

These examples prove that when people in Alaska take risks, expose themselves to failure, and think big, they succeed. And there are more similar efforts beginning to bear fruit.

A collaboration of for-profit, nonprofit, and governmental entities envisions that Anchorage will have a 90% graduation rate by 2020. Another called Recover Alaska seeks to redefine how policy makers and citizens have a healthier attitude toward the use of alcohol. Here are a few more challenges to contemplate that may benefit from such effort.

Our state continues to be overly dependent on one source of revenue – oil production. Over 90% of our state’s budget is funded by oil, and we are far beyond the time of insisting that elected officials develop a comprehensive, big goal on how we can pay for needed state services. We know that oil production will inevitably decrease.

Or maybe we decide that we want to have the most educated population in the country…in the world. Or that we want to become the world leader in renewable energy, or, you decide. The point is that if we want to make big things happen, we have to think big – and we must tell the story.

The Foraker Group, as the state’s nonprofit association, is dedicated to identifying the big goals that we could address as a sector and then engage Partners, you, to ensure that we achieve those goals. Through our membership with the National Council of Nonprofits (the leading public policy think tank for America’s charitable sector) and Foraker’s public policy committee, we are committed to move the dial on our sector’s biggest issues.

And we will continue to build the capacity of sector leaders to tell their stories. On October 23, Thaler Pekar, nationally recognized expert on story telling and a featured speaker at our last Leadership Summit, will again be in Anchorage for an encore performance. Participation is limited, so sign up as soon as you read this if you want to attend. Click here for more information and to register.

We must become fearless. We must become informed. We must think big. We must tell our story.