Posts by Celeste Hamilton Dennis


Field Report! Team meeting in Silver Spring, Maryland

Last Wednesday, four Connectors met in Silver Spring, Maryland at Ginny’s house for homemade pizza.

The Team included a fiction writer, a PhD student in nonprofit leadership, a former journalist, and a social good consultant.

“It was actually really nice to start with a smaller group and get to know them really well,” says Janice Hepburn, the consultant on the Team. “I think I probably feel better connected to them than I would have if it had been a larger group. We ended up talking for hours and by the end of the night, we were telling jokes and much better connected personally.”

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Connector selfie! From left to right: Drena, Ginny, Janice, and Michael.
(photo courtesy Janice Hepburn.)

By the time the last slice of pizza was finished, the Team had tons of ideas about how to encourage more connections in their community. Here are some of them:

  1. Develop a way for people with new ideas to connect with people who’ve tried similar things before.
  2. Use Idealist as a platform to share knowledge about local resources, funding, people, connections, etc.
  3. Talk with corporations about a potential “Adopt a Nonprofit” program.
  4. Host service fairs at schools so youth can get connected to more volunteer opportunities.

The ideas may be big but their next steps are very doable: figure out whether or not to combine with other Teams in the same county, and get clarity around the upcoming Groups feature and their role in them. (Stay tuned for updates from us in the next few weeks. Here’s our FAQ in the meantime.)

There’s lots more discussion to be had, but for Janice and others, the potential for Silver Spring is limitless.

“Even with just our small group, we were already learning from each other,” Janice says. “Building a network of people to share knowledge, experiences, and tools could be incredibly powerful.”

Interested in what else the Silver Spring Team came up with or want to learn more? Feel free to reach out to Janice. Have ideas of your own to share? Let us know in the comments!

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Meet a Connector: Adam in Bozeman, Montana

Adam Poeschl is a middle child. It’s partly the reason he signed up to be a Connector.

“I’m pretty good at staying neutral about things,” the Bozeman, Montana local says. “I grew up having to be the diplomat between us [brothers].”

The other reason is that he’s already helping plug people in to the resources in their community as an Americorps VISTA volunteer at the Human Resource Development Council of District IX. With the Idealist Network, he’ll be taking those skills one step further.

“There are a lot of people who lie in bed at night thinking about how to make the world a better place. But they have no idea how to take action,” he says. “What I’m really excited about is facilitating an easy way for people to start.”

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Gallatin Valley in Bozeman, Montana—known for Montana State University,
world-class skiing, and the great outdoors.
(photo courtesy Adam Poeschl.)

Adam’s experienced this firsthand: when he became interested in nonprofits, he had no idea where to begin to look for ways to get involved. Bozeman has an active volunteer community, but many of the more visible opportunities with food banks and mentoring organizations quickly get snapped up. It took him six months to get a volunteer gig shelving books at the library.

“I think a network like Idealist can help lay out all the other agencies and opportunities in town that people didn’t even know existed,” he says.

Now, as a Connector, he’ll start by calling nonprofits in Bozeman to suggest they create a profile on Idealist. He’ll also be thinking about how else he can pass on good information.

“I’m easy to talk to. I don’t get overly worked up over things. I’m a good co-conspirator,” he says. “And I’m good at getting things moving, but I don’t like to steal people’s thunder.”

Do you live in the Bozeman area? Join Adam. Not in Bozeman? Look for a Connector Team near you.

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Maryland’s Connector Team: ‘Party at Ginny’s house!’

Connectors in Silver Spring, Maryland are meeting at Ginny Hillhouse’s home this Wednesday to eat homemade pizza and talk about how they can better their city and surrounding areas.

They’ll be doing so around Ginny’s dining room table, which she expanded from five to seven feet a couple of years ago so it could fit up to 16 people.

There’s hardly room to walk around it but Ginny doesn’t care. “I just really love to get people around the table,” she says. “There’s something about sharing food and drinks that helps people to be relaxed and open with each other.”

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Ginny’s table, which she admits looks smaller in the photo than it actually is.
(photo courtesy Ginny Hillhouse)

Recently, her table has been the gathering spot for neighbors during a particularly bad snowstorm and a local group working on reducing highway noise. And now, she’s adding Connectors to that list.

“I don’t want to be by myself doing good work. I want to be with everyone else doing good work,” she says.

For Ginny, who opened up her home without hesitation, creating a Team seemed like a no-brainer.

A former journalist and current marketing specialist who’s involved in a range of community work—from taking care of sick neighbors, to working for decades with her PTA, to organizing an arts and crafts festival every winter—connecting is just what she does now. Though it hasn’t always been this way.

“Although I started out as an aggressive seeker of truth and action, I’ve evolved into a continuous nurturer and facilitator. I’m so thankful for this new Idealist Network because Ami’s philosophy seems so similar to mine,” she says.

Good luck with the meeting, Ginny! We look forward to hearing more!

Interested in hosting a Team meeting in your area? Sign up as a Connector here.

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When there’s a need, there’s a resource

Standing in line for the bathroom at a house party, a friend of mine met a woman who recognized her from a volunteering event a few days before. My friend mentioned she was having trouble moving some leftover boxes from the event to a different location.

The woman had a truck and offered it to her. Just like that, a need was fulfilled.

This sort of connection happens all the time, but often quite randomly. The network we’re building will help make these connections intentionally and more frequently.

Silvana from the Portland Team recently posted a proposal on how to do this:

Since we are in the business of making connection between the community and its resources, I propose we create here a needs and resources forum. The idea is that for many of the needs we see in our communities today, there are also resources already available to meet them.

Now, how can we do this?

Just a few suggestions of what we could do to gather the information needed:

1. We could use what each of us already know of community needs and resources;

2. We could assign different people to go out into neighborhood association meetings, public forums, etc. to observe and take note of what challenges the community is facing;

3. We could create public forums and invite people to talk about what the challenges are in their communities.

This plan is the essence of what Connectors can do: take a look at what’s around and find ways to fill in the gaps between intentions and actions.

Thanks for the great idea, Silvana!

To learn more, check out the discussion about Silvana’s proposal to see where it’s headed.

What conversations are you having on your local Connector Team page?

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Indian designer sees the dreamer in everyone

As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this week and people across the U.S. come together to help each other and work toward solving our common problems, we’d like to pose the question: what exactly is social good?

Sonia Manchanda and the DREAM:IN project started with a simple idea: instead of asking people about their needs, find out their dreams.

As a co-founder of Idiom Design and Consulting in Bangalore, Sonia thought the design thinking approach, where solutions arise from human needs, was too simplistic and too top-down to create new value and meaning, especially in emerging nations.

People are more complicated than a list of needs, after all. And for the complex nation that is India, with its great divides between rich and poor, marginalized voices often go unheard. Empowering people to dream reveals what is truly meaningful in their lives.

“If you can hold a mirror up to people and ask them about their tomorrow and understand the future they’re imagining, then you’re actually doing a good job already,” Sonia says.

In 2011, in collaboration with Carlos Teixeira of Parsons The New School for Design in New York City, the team trained 101 youth from all over India to go to its smallest towns and ask people what they want for themselves, for their communities, for the world.

They traveled 15,000 miles by road and rail and filmed thousands of conversations with people from all walks of life. The DREAM:IN “imagination network” was thus born.

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Sonia holding “dreamcatching” conversation cards
(photo via yourstory.com)

The “dreamcatching” methodology seamlessly combines ethnography, design research, and filmmaking. It goes like this: a facilitator holds up a series of conversation cards that feature images from advertisements: a date with a Bollywood starlet, driving a fancy car, etc.

Once people can laugh about the things society wants them to dream about, they’re encouraged to let their imaginations loose and get to the heart of what they really want. The ultimate goal is to move past the fears that so often freeze us.

“A lot of people may think, ‘I may hate this job that I am doing, but if I don’t go outside and carry bricks on my head and help build this house and get my daily amount, then I’m not going to survive. I don’t have the time or the right to dream. I shouldn’t be dreaming,’ ” Sonia says. “So there are all these fears and anxieties, and there’s nothing worse than the death of dreams.”

DREAM:IN shows that dreams are alive and already inside of people—you just have to want to discover them. What the group has found is a beautiful array of humanity at its most hopeful, with dreams ranging from opening a museum to creating a newspaper for rural communities to seeing a tobacco-free India—and much more.

And the team doesn’t hit the snooze button there. Once dreams are collected, they share the data with design scholars, business leaders, change agents, thought leaders, bureaucrats, venture capitalists, and others to inform future development in the country.

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Dreamcatching boards. To date, 1901 dreams have been captured.
(photo via DREAM:IN on Flickr)

Since its founding, DREAM:IN has morphed from a project on the fringes of Idiom into an independent venture centered around open innovation. The ultimate goal? A dynamic database of dreams and a global network to help bring those dreams to life.

One of the ways DREAM:IN is getting there is by putting select dreamers and seasoned entrepreneurs in the same room for a series of Dream Camps—where things like start-up advice, ideas for funding, encouragement, and connections are shared—to help transform dreams into reality.

“Start early, prototype fast” is the guiding principle. Young entrepreneurs are trained in Dreamscaping, a scenario methodology, and the Dreamplan, a business plan tool.

“It’s good to have your head in the clouds and be imaginative, but also have your feet planted firmly and moving steadily on the ground,” Sonia says.

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Dream Camp 3 held last April to help people “dream, believe, and realise.”
(photo via DREAM:IN Facebook page)

Despite societal challenges—older generations conditioned to rigid ideas regarding jobs and social mobility, for example—many dreams have already taken flight thanks to DREAM:IN. Youth, especially, are inspired to see local problems as opportunities.

One young boy invented a machine to incinerate sanitary napkins that often get clogged in toilets, which is starting to be installed in colleges. A law student who had long dreamed of becoming a small business owner changed his professional course and opened a canteen. Another duo created a reusable water bottle for attendees of rock shows.

DREAM:IN has already been replicated in six universities in Brazil and three in China. And this year, they’re launching a product brand with farmers in Tumkur and creating a groundswell of entrepreneurship across South India with over 100 academic institutions. They also plan to create tools and educational materials based on their methodology for people to copy and encourage more dreamers in communities around the world.

This openness, Sonia believes, is ultimately at the heart of good, lasting, and scalable innovation.

“At the same time you have a dream, it’s already somewhere out there in the universe,” says Sonia. “It’s a shared thought. So it’s better you go do it, do it openly, and include all the others who may think similarly to what you’re thinking and make it a big shared dream.”

We hear you, Sonia! On March 11, Idealist will be launching a new network that will help dreamers worldwide take their next steps. To learn more and get in on our launch event, sign up here.

Share your own dream and help others by joining DREAM:IN. What are you waiting for?

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T-Rex doesn’t give up. Neither should you.

Happy Friday! Whatever dream or project you’re working on this weekend, make like T-Rex and keep at it.

Lollipop

 

 

[image via T-Rex Trying]

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Alex’s collaborative movement for fair taxes in Oregon

Welcome to Ideal-to-Real Updates, a series where we check in with idealists taking action on their good ideas to see what they’ve been up to and what gems of wisdom they’ve learned along the way.

A little over a year ago we wrote about Alex Linsker, an Oregonian who was undertaking the ginormous task of overhauling the state’s tax system through his initiative, Tax and Conversation.

It’s a big project to lead, but Alex has been taking small steps forward. Since we last spoke, he’s talked with thousands of people—friends, influential people in the state, tax experts, people affected by underfunded state and local services—to learn more and get buy-in for the project.

“Sometimes the work gets tiring but then I talk with someone who is affected by tax and who cares about people, and that inspires me and shows me the way forward,” he says.

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Alex taking notes at a City Club of Portland meeting.
(photo courtesy Rachel Loskill, Program & Communications Director, City Club of Portland)

Most of the people he’s met with have been referrals. Others have been chance encounters with everyday Oregonians.

Once, when Alex was biking home from an event, a guy walking on the sidewalk stopped him while he was at a stoplight. He was a farmer and former Marine from Eastern Oregon, and started telling Alex about his son and grandson, and a motorcycle they all rode over the years. He talked about limits and rules, and Alex saw the connection to Tax and Conversation, which on a fundamental level, is about the same thing.

“He leads an agricultural co-op and he sends out two trucks each day: one sells milk to Idaho, and the other gives cream, cheese, and gas to Oregonians who can’t afford it. He wanted the tax system to change so the people around him can buy those things,” Alex says. “Even though he doesn’t speak the same words I do, we realized we share a lot of the same values. We talked about tax, food, medical care, government, courts, schools. I listened, he listened, we learned and agreed.”

The idea is that this farmer’s voice and thousands of others are informing the rewrite of the current policy, which in a nutshell is this: people and companies who have the most money pay less tax.

Alex wants to flip this system by refunding all payroll tax to residents, ending Oregon income and property taxes, and progressively taxing net assets. This will simplify tax law so that people can better understand where their money’s going, and create more jobs, especially for teachers.

Of course, it takes time to build momentum. As the co-founder of The Collective Agency, a democratically-run shared workplace, Alex knows one thing for sure: only move forward if the majority agrees to move forward.

“There was one week last year where I had an idea, and asked people about it. They all said it was terrible. If I think something is good, and everyone else says it’s terrible, then it’s not worth pursuing,” he says. “So there are a lot of checks and balances.”

The project has had its ups and downs and there’s a lot of work ahead—like raising $15 million (!) for a statewide campaign—but for Alex, the sometimes taxing nature of it is anything but an obstacle.

“This project is a mix of statistics and empathy. It’s similar to how I started Collective Agency, but a lot harder,” Alex says. “I’m constantly choosing to work on this. It’s challenging, but I’m meeting amazing people and it’s fun.”

Want to help? From referring to writing to donating, there are many ways you can support Tax and Conversation.

If you’re looking to start a similar initiative where you live but don’t know how to begin, feel free to get in touch with Alex for tips and advice: Council@TaxAndConversation.com.

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These laundromats take your quarters AND your good ideas

Happy January! Welcome to Clean Start week.

One of the beauties of going to your local laundromat is the downtime you have as your clothes are tumbling in the washer and dryer. Sure, you could read a book, check email on your phone, flirt with that cute guy or girl folding their pants, or watch the news. But here’s a thought: what if you could spend that time making art?

That’s the idea behind The Laundromat Project, a New York City-based nonprofit that brings arts programs and education to, you guessed it, laundromats.

“If you have 15 minutes and are in the laundromat, or passing by, here’s something you can do. It’s untapped time and space,” says Executive Director Kemi llesanmi, who after four years of board service, officially joined the team about a year ago.

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Field Day in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn
(photo by Ed Marshall)

The organization started in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in 2005. Since then, through their Create Change Public Artists Residency, they’ve commissioned artists to mount socially-engaged public art projects in laundromats across the greater NYC area. And through their arts education program Works in Progress, they’ve offered free drop-in summer workshops at the Laundry Room in Harlem.

Recently, they’ve expanded their arts education to Bed-Stuy and another modest-income NYC neighborhood, the Bronx’s Hunts Point, to anchor Works in Progress there each summer. Much like in Harlem, the idea is that The Laundromat Project will be a well-known staple in these neighborhoods for a long time to come.

“People want to do more than survive. They want to thrive,” Kemi says. “We’re helping people nurture their creative selves, which is part of helping them become their whole being. We want to appreciate that creativity, amplify it, connect it, ignite it, acknowledge it, value it, affirm it—all of those things.”

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Hunts Point Field Day participant
(photo by Arleen Santana)

While the sun is shining, the drop-in workshops give residents something tangible to bring home and instructions for how to do it again. Classes have ranged from making totebags to painting planter pots to constructing terrariums to creating jewelry with charms inspired by photographs of murals in Brooklyn.

The artists who run Works in Progress come from all walks of life and mediums. They’re painters, performers, dancers, writers, muralists, and more. All live in or nearby the neighborhoods where they teach.

Most of the art explores what it means to live in the community, and the hopes people have for it. “Hunts Point is_____,” for example, is a prompt from their tote bag workshop.

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Aisha asked Bed-Stuy residents one question: “If you could name a street after an important historical figure from your culture, who would you choose?” (photo by Aisha Cousins)

A select few artists each year are also chosen to be part of The Laundromat Project’s flagship program, the Create Change Residency, to bring bigger-scale public art projects to their neighborhoods. The Laundromat Project doesn’t just take anyone who can glue googly eyes—only serious artists who are serious about community building are invited to apply.

Once accepted, artists undergo a six-month training program where principles of art and social change are woven together. The idea is that the artists are embedded in the community they serve, asking and listening to what people want, and bringing fresh ideas to the drawing board.

“People like the idea of having building blocks in their neighborhood, like a policeman, or a teacher. We think of artists as one of those building blocks,” Kemi says. “They’re community assets and resourceful problem-solvers who come with questions and concerns from a left-of-center space, opening up possibilities for new ways of thinking. Why wouldn’t that be needed in a community?”

Last year’s projects included remixes of Aisha Cousin’s Mapping Soulville, a make-your-own-street-sign project; Art Jones’ Portrait of a Community as a Block, a multimedia installation focused on stores where people work and shop in Hunts Point; and Shani Peters’ The People’s Laundromat Theatre in Harlem.

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The Laundromat Project capitalizes on the abundant creativity already happening in neighborhoods.This mural in Hunts Point was created by THE POINT Community Development Corporation. (photo by Arleen Santana )

And the laundry list of offerings continues to grow. Last fall, The Laundromat Project hosted their first Field Day festival simultaneously in the three neighborhoods—themed around the issues of home, food, and history—with all sorts of free workshops, walking tours, poetry, dance, mini-film festivals, etc.

This year, they’re looking to do even more: in-school and after-school programs, a parent and community circle to help develop programming, commissioning 30 artists for more projects, and starting to put together a toolkit so that anyone anywhere can take their knowledge  to do something similar where they live.

The Laundromat Project’s goal with all of this is lasting change—not only a piece of art people can take home with them, but a memory that connects them with their community in a meaningful way.

“We ask our teaching artists to let us know what they hear on the street,” Kemi says. “There were some teenagers walking by this past summer in Harlem and one of our artists overheard them saying, ‘Remember when we used to do The Laundromat Project?’ So it sticks.”

To stay up to date with the latest Laundromat Project happenings, sign up for their mailing list and check out their blog.

From a button-maker to a Mac computer, you can help grant a wish by giving an in-kind donation. Peep their wish list here.

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This new year, shake the world with a new dream

Today’s inspiration: activist, author, and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs.

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The fierce and graceful Grace Lee Boggs.
(photo courtesy boggsblog.org)

Civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs is still at it. At 98 years old, she continues to be an impassioned voice for blighted urban communities, empowering them to rise up.

How? By “putting the neighbor back in the ‘hood.”

In this video, Grace is with her neighbors in her hometown of Detroit. What I love about this footage is how unassuming Grace is. She’s a legend — and the subject of the upcoming documentary American Revolutionary — yet here she is, wearing a sweatshirt and having a low-key chat about bettering the community. This is grassroots activism at its core.

I could listen to her talk all day. She says:

“Whatever your walk of life, race, or class, you have the right and duty to shake this world with a new dream. Because the world is waiting for a new dream.”

It’s 2014. What’s your new dream?

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Fiscal sponsorship might be the richest thing you can do

Stuck? Feeling hopeless? Unsure of your next step? For the almost two decades Idealist has been around, we’ve been asking you—our community—to tell us about the obstacles you face when trying to turn your good intentions into action. We’ve compiled a short list of the top-reported obstacles, and now we’re blogging about them one by one.

This week we present: money.

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Mason and his crew on location in Georgetown, Guyana. The entire film was shot with locals who’d never acted. (photo courtesy of Jeremy Habig.)

Mason Richards left his homeland of Guyana when he was seven years old.

He grew up in New York, but memories of the Caribbean nation lingered in his mind as an adult. He could taste the abundant and diverse fresh fruit like mangoes and gunips. He could hear the coconut man come down the street with fresh coconuts to sell. He could recall the Sunday lime at the seawall in Georgetown, where he’d people-watch and relax with family and friends as the Atlantic Ocean hummed nearby.

The nostalgia never left him. In 2010, for his Cal Arts thesis, Mason made a nine-minute film that was his tribute to the place he couldn’t forget. The Seawall follows the story of Marjorie and her ten-year-old grandson Malachi, and the emotions they wrestle with as he prepares to move to America.

“There are more Guyanese living outside of the country than in it. I wanted to made a film for them, for all us, who’ve moved,” Mason says. “The film is about immigration, abandonment both personally and nationally, and going home. I hope that at the end of the feature, Guyanese in Toronto, London, and New York are going to feel something about giving back to this place that we all come from.”

The film made it as far as Cannes, but Mason wants to extend The Seawall‘s impact beyond the exclusive film festival. He’s now working on making it into a feature-length to further showcase the beauty of Guyana’s landscape and people, which he ultimately hopes will lead to more development in the country.

“I want to change the world. And I believe I can change the world by connecting to the things that affect me, and finding other people who feel the same way,” he says.

Money, money, money

But as we all know, changing the world takes time, hard work, and money. And for an independent filmmaker, finding funds can pose an extra challenge—some might even say a nightmare.

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The amount of support Mason has received has kept him going. Mason is a Sony Pictures grant recipient and is currently working on a series of public service announcements in Guyana. (photo courtesy Hal Horowitz.)

Fiscal sponsorship—where a nonprofit lends you their tax-exempt status so you can apply for grants and accept donations without hassle—is one way to go. Mason wanted to find a fiscal sponsor whose passions aligned with his, and ideally also use the relationship as a means of connecting with prominent Guyanese both at home and abroad.

He searched the Internet for days until he finally found Friends & RPCVs of Guyana (FROG), a D.C.-based nonprofit founded by former Peace Corps volunteers.

He was swayed by its mission of continuing to support his homeland, and got in touch. Scott Stadum, then president, wrote him back immediately.

“Scott, a non-Guyanese American, really loved the place. It was almost like he loved it more than I did, because I was so disconnected from it. It really inspired me,” Mason says. “FROG is promoting Guyana in a way I respect.”

FROG became Mason’s fiscal sponsor, and together they hosted fundraising events in both N.Y. and D.C. so he could go back to Guyana and shoot the film.

More than that, though, they formed a relationship that has only gotten stronger since they met five years ago. (Scott is now one of the feature film’s producers.)

So fiscal sponsorship can be more than a dry task—it can be a source of new connections and supporters.

Mason’s biggest piece of advice? Make it personal.

There are probably a lot of organizations out there that share your philosophy and whose help you can apply for with the click of a button. But it’s when you connect on a deeper level with its members that you’ll have the most success.

“I think a mistake people make is thinking that you need money right away to make everything happen. I disagree,” Mason says. “I think that if you have a strong alliance of the right people who are passionate about what you’re doing and who believe in your goal, then money will come.”

Have you ever had a fiscal sponsor? How did it go?

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