Goblins, ghouls, and mission drift: What’s scary about haunted house fundraisers?

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 Halloween week, we present: fear.

To make their “extreme haunt” trail extra creepy, Acres of Darkness plays up local legends and natural spooks like wolves, Bigfoot, and scary old men with chainsaws. (photo courtesy Kyle Simpson)

Your pulse is racing. Your palms are sweating. You’re paralyzed with metallic fear.

You totally went over-budget on fake blood. Welcome to the charitable haunt director’s worst nightmare.

Actually, if you’re one of the many directors or volunteer leaders who run haunted events for charity this time of year, you’re probably too preoccupied on Halloween to be spooked by much.

And you’re certainly not alone on your busy day: The Haunted House Association (yes, that’s a real thing) estimates that 80% of haunted houses in the U.S. are run by or for mission-driven organizations.

Despite the ubiquity of the “scare because we care” fundraising model, haunts are a huge challenge to plan, staff, and execute.

The money and volunteer hours it takes to set up a haunted site—not to mention moving potentially thousands of guests through the site or grounds—is enough to strike terror in the heart of even the most experienced project manager.

We asked two nonprofit leaders who rely on haunts as an important source of revenue to tell us what freaks them out about haunts and how they deal with their concerns.

Kyle Simpson is the sanctuary manager of the Chattanooga Audubon Society, Tennessee’s oldest wildlife preserve. Since 2010, they’ve been putting on a spooky fundraiser called Acres of Darkness, which sends people out into the dark woods to be chased by chainsaw-wielding forest monsters.

Sean Kelley is Director of Public Programming at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site (ESPHS) outside of Philadelphia, which hosts Terror Behind the Walls. The event is one of the largest haunts in the country and features night tours through the abandoned prison, complete with creepy zombie inmates.

Terror Behind the Walls in the historic Eastern State Penitentiary lives up to its namesake.

Terror Behind the Walls in the historic Eastern State Penitentiary lives up to its name.
(photo by Andrew Garn)

Fear #1: Staying on mission

Since so much energy goes into preparing and executing this one event, both Kyle and Sean have concerns about spending a ton of time on something that isn’t necessarily a perfect fit with their mission.

“Sure we’re getting kids out in nature, but that’s kind of a stretch. We want to encourage people to be out in nature, not make them terrified of it,” says Kyle.

At the Eastern Penitentiary Historic Site, Sean and the staff work hard to differentiate the content and focus of the historical tours from the haunted tours to make sure their visitors don’t get the wrong idea.

“We have a strict ‘no discussion of real or implied history’ at the haunted house. This forces the content to be a lot of startles, large props, special effects, and actors dressed as zombie guards and inmates with vague and ambiguous lines,” he says. “We never imply that a visit to our haunted house is either educational or an accurate depiction of this or any other prison. It’s a distraction from the mission, no question.”

Fear #2: Safety

When the point of your event is to scare your audience, it’s really important to make certain that nothing bad actually happens to them. Sean stresses safety above everything.

“Startling people in the dark, many of whom have been drinking, is more risky than walking them through during the day,” he says.

To stay safe, Terror Behind the Walls has security and an EMT on site at all hours. They also do extensive emergency training with every employee.

Fear #3: Keeping volunteers happy

The spookiness of Chattanooga’s haunted woods comes mostly from the efforts of the Audubon society’s many dedicated volunteers. For Kyle, making sure his volunteers are having fun is just as important as getting people out to the event.

Last year, Kyle says, one of his volunteer actors had an issue with some older kids who were walking through the haunt and wanted to cause trouble. They laughed and made fun of him for not being scary.

“He wasn’t even really supposed to be scary. He was dressed as a gatekeeper and it was his job to direct people down the path,” he says. “They were really mean to him.”

The volunteer got his feelings hurt and ended up working in the coat trailer for the rest of the season.

“That’s really disheartening to see. Here we have folks coming out to volunteer with us and they’re doing it for the right reasons. We just want them to feel appreciated and have a good time.”

To keep everybody energized and happy, Kyle says he matches his volunteers with the jobs that excite them the most. He also makes sure they feel really appreciated by providing a warm dinner for his actors each night and hosting a volunteer appreciation event later in December.

A pretty good trick for getting treats

Though it can be scary to put on a capital-intense fundraiser, the payoff is good for most organizations. In its third year, Kyle says Acres of Darkness already brings in more than 10% of the Chattanooga Audubon Society’s annual operating revenue. For Sean and the more established haunt at ESPHS, it’s 60%.

It also brings in new audiences and donors by inviting people who might not otherwise know much about the site to come for a fun, seasonal event.

Sean likes to think of the haunted tours as a kind of spooky disguise for the organization as a whole.

“The Penitentiary puts on a costume, throws a big party, and we get a chance to meet broad new audiences.”

Have you hosted or attended a haunt for charity this year? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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What Humans of New York can teach us about not caring what people think

 

There’s been a lot press a lately about Brandon Stanton, founder of the Humans of New York photojournalism project.

If you’ve been following the HONY story as religiously as I have, you’ll know that last week Brandon released a book of his 400 best portraits since beginning the project in 2010.

I love HONY for a myriad of reasons. I love how he captures beauty in all its diverse forms amidst the chaos and congestion of the city. I love how his subjects are so unbelievably raw and wise. I love how he connects me to a place where I once lived.

And finally I love Brandon’s chutzpah, not least because he approaches random strangers all the time, but because he took a chance on his passion. Before millions of people started following his blog, Brandon was a bond trader in Chicago. Then he quit his job, picked up, and moved to NYC with a camera in hand to try and make it.

People thought he was crazy.

This is a common fear that we hear from you, our Idealist community. Brandon’s story is a great example of preserving, despite the people around you thinking you’re cuckoo.

Here’s a snippet from Huffington Post on how HONY came to be:

My initial plan was to take 10,000 street portraits to plot on an interactive map, creating a photographic census of the city.

But I was completely broke. My friends and family thought I was crazy. I’d only had six months of photography experience, yet I was moving across the country to be a photographer. Despite the absurdity of the decision, I felt confident. I knew that my photography skills left a lot to be desired. But I also knew that I had the best idea of my life, and that everything else could be figured out as I went along.

I made that move about 2.5 years ago. There were a lot of lonely times. That first year was tough. I knew nobody in New York. I never knew where rent was coming from. All I did was take photographs. I never took a day off. I worked every single holiday. I took thousands of portraits before anyone paid attention. But even though I didn’t have much to show for it, I knew that I was getting better, and I knew the photographs were special.

Have you ever taken a chance on a seemingly crazy idea, only to have it be more successful than you ever could’ve imagined?

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Old school postcards bring new connections to communities

Do you remember the last time you got a postcard from a friend? Or the last time you sent one?

For many of us, Facebook status updates and Instagram snaps have supplanted the old fashioned postcard as means of choice to drop a line describing where we are and what we’re up to.

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Remember these little guys? Postcards are coming back.
(photo courtesy Arlette, Flickr Creative Commons)

But a few enterprising souls are bringing the postcard back to life, with a twist—lots of the postcard projects currently trending offer ways to connect with people we don’t yet know, not just friends and family. Here’s a roundup:

  • The Neighborhood Postcard Project (an international offshoot of the SF Postcard Project) “fosters community connection through the exchange of positive personal stories from people in marginalized communities. Residents fill out a postcard with a story from their community; that postcard is then mailed to a random person in that city to create a stronger connection between people and communities.”
  • Postcrossing “allows anyone to receive postcards (real ones, not electronic) from random places in the world. Why? Because, like the founder, there are lots of people who like to receive real mail.”
  • The Postcard Collective is “motivated by an intrinsic human desire to share experience. Our mission is to build and maintain a network of individuals who seek to share their art with each other in the form of postcards, to open up a direct line of communication between artists, and to promote a sense of camaraderie and connectedness.”

There are actually tons more, too! Get Googling to check them out, then get your stamp wetter ready. (Oh wait, people really don’t use those anymore.)

Have you made an interesting new connection through a postcard interaction? Tell us about it!

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Epic Playgrounds: How one dad is reinventing where America plays

Do you remember the playground you used to go to as a kid?

Mine was at Abbey Lane elementary school in Levittown, New York. It was a massive wooden castle, complete with tiny hidden rooms throughout, a tire moat you could crawl through, and all sorts of twisty slides and bouncing bridges.

I loved that playground. I wanted my parents to take me there all the time.

Evergreenslide

A modern-day adventure playground in Hackney, London
(photo courtesy apesatplay.com)

Now I take my daughter to banal plastic structures that pale in comparison. So what happened in the years it took me to become an adult?

Billy Jensen has a theory: we got scared. Back in the 60s, our playground crafters took a cue from Europe’s and designed spaces unafraid to venture beyond the traditional four S’s: slide, seesaw, swing, and sandbox. We had giant rocket ships, hinged robots, fabulous circus wagons, and more—with all sorts of frills and thrills.

But they were too high. And too rough. Kids fell and broke bones. And got splinters. So we sued. Downsized. And in the process, Billy argues, stunted kids’ imaginations and contributed to the nation’s growing childhood obesity problem.

“What costs more at the end of the day?” he asks. “A broken arm, or diabetes?”

Billy, a digital media strategist, writer, and father of two teens, thinks it’s time we stop being so overprotective and return to the heyday of adventure playgrounds.

“When you have a playground, you’re really hitting everything you want to do with children: you’re engaging their imagination, having them work well with others, and they’re running around and exercising. There’s really nothing else that does that,” he says.

In December last year, Billy launched Epic Playgrounds, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that will aim to get kids ages eight through twelve excited about being outside again before they start doing all those things you see on after school specials.

Inspired by Walt Disney, Billy’s nonprofit wants to construct signature playgrounds that encourage imaginative, open-ended play. And they wouldn’t be just for kids.

“They key is to create something really cool to look at that adults would want to play on as much as children,” he says. “And at the end of the day, a community can be proud of it and say, ‘This is one of the great things we have here. And it’s like no other playground in the world.’ ”

The playgrounds can also act as alternative classrooms by telling stories about the town’s heroes, like Boulder’s Scott Carpenter Park, a tribute to the local astronaut.

In short: bigger, better, and more fun.

BillyJensen2

Billy Jensen

To realize his dream of building the most inventive theme playgrounds you’ve ever seen all across America, Billy needs three things: artists to design, engineers to build, and most importantly, municipalities and other donors to pay. The project is entirely self-funded so far.

While he’s just starting out, what Billy does have are lots of excited responses from parents, along with a few designs, which he plans to get more of and curate in an art show. Afterward he’ll present them to local governments and encourage communities everywhere to clamor for an epic playground of their own.

“What we have right now are a lot of little hunks of plastic burning in the sun that nobody really wants to go on,” he says. “This really is a matter of: if you build something really cool, they will come. And play on it.”

If you’re an artist, builder, community developer, or philanthropist and Epic Playgrounds has captured your imagination, Billy would love to talk with you. Get in touch by emailing bill@billyjensen.com.

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From shambles to storytelling: Redefining repair in Greensboro, NC

A series where we highlight people using their passions to make a difference in their communities.

"Nothing is ever level. Nothing is ever plumb. Nothing is ever square. Everything is dirty." —Paul Howe, on the realistic challenges of his work.  Photo credit: goelsewhere.org

“Nothing is ever level. Nothing is ever plumb. Nothing is ever square. Everything is dirty.” —Paul Howe, on the realistic challenges of his work.
Photo credit: goelsewhere.org

For months, Paul Howe would walk by the same orange cone guarding the same precarious hole in a brick sidewalk near his Greensboro, North Carolina home.

“The sidewalk belonged to a university, and the damage to it was done by city linesmen who installed a new telephone pole in it. Bricks were missing, bare sand exposed, the hole about half the width of the sidewalk,” says Paul, a quintessential jack-of-all-trades. “Nobody was taking responsibility for it.”

So, he decided to take the matter into his own hands.

Using his welding skills, Paul crafted a steel plate to fill the perilous gap and secured it into the hole without any objection (see the finished product). Only after bolting it down, he realized that he had created something more than just a harm-reducing fix.

“I realized that by using a material other than brick to patch a brick sidewalk, I had revealed a story about the sidewalk, and also added a new one,” says Paul.” I did not erase all of the evidence of the damage. I left a clue to it, revealed it, while letting it still function, as it should.”

This idea—storytelling through repair—drove Paul to join Elsewhere, Greensboro’s thrift-store-turned-cultural-center, to renovate its run-down workshop. But, instead of overhauling the entire building with modern fixtures and like mediums, Paul used a mosaic of building materials to smartly patch up the place (check out some of the end results).

“It doesn’t try to hide itself as a repair, it screams at you as being a repair,” he says of the space. “It’s one of the first things people notice when they come up to the shop now, and it speaks simultaneously to the history of the place, and to its current use.”

Now that the workshop’s in working condition, Paul spends his time keeping Elsewhere in tip-top shape and promoting his concept of repair throughout the community by chipping away on realistic tasks with the tools at hand.

“There is a focus on so called ‘big problems,’ and people make livings coming up with ‘big solutions.’ The thing is, so called ‘big problems’ are so poorly understood that they remain, in spite of our best efforts,” says Paul. “I find it more productive to work on so called ‘small problems’ since one can understand enough of a ‘small problem’ that one might actually be able to do something about it.”

Interested in starting your own small repair projects around your community? Shoot Paul an email at sherlocke9@gmail.com or get in touch with him via Elsewhere. 

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Stitching art, community, and conversation

A 9-year-old Durhamite picks her favorite words from Stitch's list at an event. (Photo credit: Alex Maness  www.alexmaness.com)


A 9-year-old Durhamite picks her favorite words from Stitch’s list at an event. (Photo credit: Alex Maness www.alexmaness.com)

The idea

Last November — at the tail end of a year devoted to hosting 40 conversation-focused events across the country — designers Dipika Kolhli and Akira Morita were left with a seemingly simple question: Can community-driven discussions translate visually?

With a goal to gather insights about the city’s future from the couple’s own community of Durham, NC, Dipika and Akira answered this question with a unique community-saturated project, Stitch.

“One night, while I was brainstorming, I found myself staring at a bunch of sticky notes, all with just a word or two on them—my notes,” says Akira. “And then it came to me. What if we collected just one word from people across Durham about where they wanted the city to go, and then had local artists bring them to life?”

Soon the pair were stopping folks on the street, at farmers market’s, and at local events to jot down local’s single-word hope for the future. From “durable” to “doggy,” “walkable” to “weird,” they quickly gathered a healthy heap of 276 inspiring words from across the city.

“Once people heard what we were doing, they came to us to share their word,” says Akira. “It was great to see the community’s enthusiasm.”

Then, they pinned down local artists to use their craft (whether it be song, photography, poetry or jewelry) to embody select words to share with the community and sell to supporters.

But the next steps, they found, wouldn’t be as easy.

3 things they wish they did differently 

1.  Had a more specific agenda.
“A lot of artists dropped out of the project once they found out there was no specific end goal,” says Akira. “We just wanted to start a tangible discussion and let others take it elsewhere. I learned that even artists are scared of the unfamiliar.”

After losing a third of the originally committed artists, Akira realized that he needed to be more cautious and clear in his approach.

“I have to take baby steps,” he says. “Not everyone can be on the same page as me right off the bat. It’s important to be clear from the start.”

2. Networked more with supporters, artists, and the community in general.

Time, of course, plays a big role in gathering cemented support. Akira admits that he and Dipika needed a stronger initial network of interested people to get their project off the ground. After the fact, however, it brought a spotlight on the small design team and helped usher them into new innovative and creative circles in the community.

3. Was more realistic about funding, the ever-predictable (and frustrating) roadblock for new projects.

Akira and Dipika used Kickstarter to fuel their project and sell the artists’ final pieces, but didn’t reach the hefty $12,000 goal by April 29. However, the $6,799 they did raise was enough to help many artists turn their word-inspired idea into reality.

Again, Akira says that having a stronger network of support from the beginning would help solidify funding down the road. But the pair still remain positive about the funds that did give Stitch the push it needed.

“No, we didn’t quite reach the target,” Akira writes on a recent update on Stitch’s Kickstarter. “And while I can’t say I’m not disappointed, I am more in awe of the support we did get from you.”

Moving forward

Despite the challenges, both financial and social, faced by the duo behind Stitch, Akira and Dipika are anything but discouraged for the future of the project and their further conversation-sparked pursuits.

Now, leaving the tools in the hands of the Durham artists, the pair and their three-year-old son are leaving for a 24-month stint across Asia, in hopes of bringing similar word-based projects to other villages and cities

“Our aim remains the same: create spaces for conversations to happen. Everywhere, with everyone,” says Akira.

But, he remains humble in their efforts, calling the idea more of an “open sourced idea” that can be replicated by other communities with ease.

“The role dialogue plays in our communities is key to where we are going and how we can advance civilization,” says Akira. “We just want to help it get there.”

Want to bring Stitch’s idea to your community and get advice from Akira and Dipika? Send them a message at hello@orangutanswing.com.

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Staff Spotlight: Claire Hansen, graphic design, and Guyana

In this series, we’re highlighting Idealist staff members who’ve made their ideas happen. Today’s spotlight is on Claire Hansen, our New York-based graphic designer who knows a thing or two about sisterly collaboration, working long distance, and navigating a culture outside your own. 

IMG_0361

Tessa and Claire in Guyana in 2007.

In 2007, Claire took a two-week trip to Guyana to visit her sister Tessa, who at the time was a Peace Corps Volunteer with the Red Cross in the capital city of Georgetown.

Tessa wanted to revamp an educational children’s coloring book about inappropriate touching titled “Your Body is Yours!” which was being used in the Red Cross’s “Be Safe! Guyana” program. The content was basically good, but the images looked outdated and didn’t reflect Guyanese people or landscapes. For kids to get the most out of the book, Tessa reasoned that the design and illustrations needed to be redone.

“The original coloring books were actual books,” Claire further explains. “We wanted to redesign them to be easily photocopied so each kid could have their own. And since a lot of the child abuse issues the country was struggling with were family-related, we wanted kids to be able to take the books home, so their parents and siblings might also see.”

Claire set to work researching the fashions, pastimes, and terrain of Guyana and re-illustrating and designing the book, also tweaking some of the language along the way.

“It was an interesting road to walk—between being representative and stereotypical,” says Claire. “As an illustrator, I wanted readers to feel familiar with the images but not appear to be reducing their culture to its symbols, or seem racist.”

When she finished all 24 pages, she made about 40 copies of the book back home in New York and sent them to Guyana to be distributed. The Guyana Red Cross then solicited donations and had more than a thousand copies of the book produced and distributed through their branches in coastal towns and more remote, indigenous areas. From beginning to end, the process took about six months.

Advice

cover

Claire’s redesigned cover.

1. Know your expectations.
“I don’t know if it bothers me that I wasn’t around to see the books in use, or that I’ll never really know the impact they’re having—though of course I hope it’s good,” says Claire. “Mostly, I was just happy to attempt the project. But if the outcome of your work is a bigger concern to you, you need to consider how you’ll be able to track the results: is the org you’re working with organized enough to really give your project legs, for example? Will you be able to track the results of your efforts over time?”

2. Seek professional help.
“If I did it over again,” she says, “I’d try to get advice from a publisher, or someone else who’d done this same thing. If you don’t have all the skills or knowledge you need for your project, find someone who does, rather than trying to learn everything on your own. If you do that, you’ll only wind up with ten percent of what you need to know.”

3. See what technology can do for you.
“Now there are all sorts of great online print-on-demand options for books, and ways to track how many you publish and distribute,” says Claire. “If I were doing it again, I’d look into using tools like that.”

4. Keep calm and carry on.
“I got so caught up in being excited to do it that I didn’t spend much time dwelling on the negatives,” says Claire. “If you know it’s going to be a long, slow road, just reconcile yourself to that fact and try not to get upset about it.”

Have you been involved with a project like Claire and Tessa’s? Have insights for others? Share your experience with our readers below. Or feel free to reach out to Claire through Idealist if you’d like to ask her advice.

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Are you your biggest obstacle? How an Idealist got over her fear of blogging for social change

Guest blogger Stefanie Muldrow shares her journey of overcoming fear to begin blogging for social good.

“Just do it.”

I stared at my wedding photographer from across our sticky cafe table. She repeated herself: “Just–,” she paused, “do it.” A quick meeting to discuss contract details had become a heart-to-heart as Emily described using her savings after college graduation to pursue her dream and start a photography business.

I admired her for this boldness and confessed that since college I’d been dreaming of starting a blog that promotes social good and community engagement but I had never managed to begin. Her response of “Just do it” addressed the fears I’d been grappling with in three quick, convicted words. That evening, I signed up for a website and began—finally.

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Adapted from a photo by Flickr user Divine Harvester (Creative Commons).

I have always loved to volunteer but it was not until after a service trip to rural Honduras my senior year that I decided to make a bigger commitment to the greater good. Volunteering at a school and an orphanage there, I came face-to-face with poverty and tragedy. But I was also surrounded by hope from the community in spite of it all. Our final day as I departed down the dusty, dirt road to the airport I knew I wanted to be part of that hope somehow.

That feeling only intensified after I graduated a few months later. I searched for a way to use my skill—writing—to inspire hope. I settled on a blog as the medium for this. By writing I felt I could raise awareness about the causes I felt strongly about—education, poverty, and youth issues—and also give visibility to those who are doing things, big and small, to improve the world.

But as I developed the idea in my head, I began to doubt myself: When would I find time? Am I qualified? What if it’s terrible and I fail miserably? Would I even make a difference? It took three bold words from a near stranger two years after the trip to silence my fears. Now that my blog is up and running, I find it so fulfilling and I wish I’d began much earlier.

What I’ve learned along the way

1. The closest thing to the “perfect time” to start is now.
You will make time if it’s something you feel strongly about. One of my largest obstacles was waiting for the “right time” to begin. “Summer break” became “after I graduate from college” which became “when I find a job.” Soon I realized that if I wanted to start before I retired it was now or never. When I finally began blogging I could not wait to get home from work and start on material for the next post.

2. Passion will fill in gaps in expertise.
I wanted my blog to address a variety of issues but I was not an expert; all I had was volunteer experience and a fire for a number of causes. However, when research for a post would lead me to an interesting and unfamiliar concept or movement, I would fervently investigate it. I believe that my passion to make a difference was (and still is) the force behind my thirst for knowledge.

3. Take yourself seriously (and others will too).
The first few months of setting up my blog I kept it a secret. I worked hard on posts that no one even read. It took time for me to realize that if I wanted to make a difference I was the first one that needed to believe that my efforts to make a difference were worth supporting. I started letting my friends, family and coworkers know about what I was trying to achieve. Now they are my best scouts for new post ideas.

4. You are not alone.
After creating a Twitter account for my blog, I learned that there were many others like me who were using similar websites to make a difference. I have had more success networking on Twitter than I have had at all of my college’s career center networking events combined. As soon as you can, find and connect with people who share a common goal. Their support will help you remember that your efforts are part of something bigger and will give you vitality when the going gets tough.

So you have an idea? Great! Don’t let your fear control you for another second. Just do it.

stefanie bio pic resizedStefanie is a Washington, D.C. -based writer passionate about encouraging others to start making a difference. At her blog, The Silver Lining Chronicles, she writes about community engagement, social good and philanthropy. When she’s not writing, she enjoys volunteering, gardening, and photography. Follow Stefanie on Twitter @_BeyondtheCloud.

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Try This! Team up with other literary organizations to pack a real punch

The idea

What do you do when you have an awesome literary nonprofit organization that happens to have a very similar mission to other groups your area?

Well, instead of competing for resources by throwing down in a bookish rumble for supporters and donors, some of the leading literary organizations and independent presses of the Twin Cities decided to join forces. The love child of their cooperation is LitPunch, an outreach initiative with a shared community-building goal.

Originally designed to draw in a new audience, LitPunch is a series of social networking events hosted by the editors, book reviewers, directors, and volunteer coordinators of the five participating literary organizations. Chris Jones, Marketing Director at The Loft Literary Center, explains that sharing responsibilities between the organizations has worked well for LitPunch because of good communication and mutual respect between the partnering groups. “We have a great working relationship because we’re all open and flexible,” he says.

punch cardEver-evolving, LitPunch offers community members a chance to chat with the minds behind some of the most prominent literary organizations and presses in the country. Back when LitPunch got its start in 2011, the gem of the program was an actual punch card that participants could get stamped at “punch worthy” readings and lit events around the cities. After filling a card by attending 12 events (a “knock-out”), the card could be used as a $15 gift certificate at a participating indie bookstore.

While this was a fun idea at first, about a year into the program, participants started complaining about losing or forgetting to bring their punch cards and the program started to lose steam. Rather than giving up on the idea, the organizers decided to tweak their approach and transformed the program into a series of social networking events (from punch cards to punch bowls, some would say).

Why you might like to try this

  • Distributes your marketing efforts. With literary events like readings, there is sometimes a burnout effect that comes from inviting the same core group of followers again and again. Pooling your lists and inviting a bigger number of folks to begin with can help avoid this. Teaming up also lends a razzle dazzle effect to events and makes them really special—people love knowing that this is the literary event to go to.
  • Lightens logistical responsibilities. Nonprofits and small presses are usually strapped for staff time and have a lot to do besides organizing community events. By sharing the responsibilities of who does what, you can lessen the burden on all of the groups.
  • Increases fans and supporters. One of the big questions the members of LitPunch had in the beginning was if they were already sharing the same core group of supporters. They each sent out a survey to try and figure this out, and what they found was encouraging. “Most people were at least aware of the other organizations, but they definitely became more aware after we teamed up. It seems like most felt connected to one or two of the organizations, but few were circled into all five very strongly,” Chris says. He considers this one of the biggest successes of their coalition—that LitPunch really has exposed people in the community to new opportunities.

How you can replicate it

Creating new coalitions can be a challenge, but Chris has some advice for nonprofits looking to team up, whether for a literary endeavor like LitPunch or otherwise.

litpunchmixer

Guests mingling at January’s LitPunch mixer.

1.Pick your collaborators wisely.
There comes to a certain point where without a central leader, trading off on responsibilities just isn’t efficient anymore. For the folks at LitPunch, five organizations is just right: “Any more and I think it would become a little unwieldy.” The most important trick to forming a strong coalition is to make sure that your missions are really on point. You want to be able to focus your efforts in the same direction when it comes to the consistency and style of your events, including collaborative efforts in grant proposals and reports, and reaching out to the right potential audience members.

2.Stay flexible.
Community projects need to be focused enough to have a clear goal that fits into what your organization does, but—especially when you’re working with other organizations—coalitions need to be able to change and grow with time. As Chris says, “If you’re too rigid, it’s just not going to work.” LitPunch has changed dramatically since its start in 2011, and its constant evolution has been a big part of its longevity.

3. Ask for feedback.
As LitPunch has grown up, the participating organizations have been very committed to seeking out and responding to feedback from their attendees. When people reported they were losing their punch cards too often to make it worthwhile, LitPunch did away with the cards. When people said they wanted to meet with more editors and talk books with the best of ‘em, LitPunch delivered. Give people what they want, and your program will be successful.

4. Make it fun.
The spirit of LitPunch comes from that nostalgic drive for racking up points and winning awesome prizes that many folks have carried with them since childhood. This fun energy has electrified all of the events and marketing efforts of LitPunch, even after the end of “knock-outs.” At the next LitPunch mixer in June, for example, attendees will be able to win prizes from their favorite presses and bookstores by playing literary signature bingo which rewards them for mingling with the editors and organizers of the participating LitPunch groups.

This consistent effort of LitPunch to give “normal” readings and literary events extra flare has certainly attracted a great deal of attention for the program and for the participating organizations.

“The turnout was overwhelming,” Chris says about the 2013 LitPunch kick-off this past January. “It was so cool to see a bar packed with people who were all there because they love books as much as we do.”


Interested in forming a similar coalition? Have questions about the upcoming LitPunch mixer in the Twin Cities on June 19? Contact Chris Jones at cjones@loft.org.

Rebecca Olson

 

Rebecca Olson is a writer and arts advocate living in Portland, Oregon.

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When the gate swings open: An Idealist’s reflection on love, hip-hop, and Brazil

 

As a child I played with National Geographic magazines. I cut the photos carefully from their binding and positioned them on my bedroom floor. I stood in the center of each photo and communed with the imagined essence of another world. For as long as I can remember, the power and mystery of place captivated my spirit and shook my bones with a voracious sense of wonder.

In 2005, when I was 22-years-old, I landed in Rio de Janeiro with a large university grant. I carried addresses and phone numbers for various nonprofits where I’d been contracted to teach hip-hop and English to Brazilian youth. In my mind, I had plans to study dance all around the country. As a taxi drove me at a furious pace through Rio’s tangled maze of steep hillside cobblestone, one clear thought rang out.

“I’m too sensitive for a city like this.“

I was right, but I’d soon learn I didn’t care. I cared about discovering how my sensitivity interacted with this new world. I wanted to see where the path of contradiction would lead me.

It first led me to a brown-eyed man who stalled my heart when his smile carved two dimples beside the corner of his mouth. The enchantment I felt on the nights I walked arm and arm beside him wasn’t simply the magic of being young and falling in love in a foreign country. It was the sensation of being in the presence of a gatekeeper. The one who stands on the threshold of where you’ve been and where you are going. The one who beckons you in such an alluring way you have no choice but to cross over, regardless of whether or not they follow behind you.

At 22-years-old, travel shattered my compass and my direction became suddenly, terrifyingly fluid. That transformative year, finding love and discovering my calling happened in tandem.

On one typically sweltering Rio afternoon, my Brazilian boyfriend invited me to meet him at a beach side park where his dance company rehearsed every day. The company consisted of a dedicated crew of teenagers with a shocking well of talent and a profound enthusiasm for hip-hop dance.

For the first month I sat mesmerized and watched them rehearse. They trained and created movement, yelled out to keep going when they were exhausted, and celebrated each other’s growth. For the second month I stood in the back row of their concrete stage, dancing alongside them. The third month my Brazilian boyfriend broke my heart. I debated ever returning to that park where I had spent the last 60 days humming with a familiar sense of wonder shaking in my bones.

“I’m too sensitive to handle this,” I thought.

Yet I found myself back at their concrete stage, terrified and uncertain. The community of dancers I’d been spending everyday with didn’t care where I’d been or who I’d dated. They only cared that when we danced we sought entry into the same unspeakable passion. Echoing every day around the park was the soundtrack of their excitement and it created a new compass within me. My brown-eyed ex ignored me, but one day it finally stopped mattering.

On the other side of the threshold the view was different. The narrative had changed. It was no longer about falling in love with a man. It was about falling in love with the story of a group of people. I began coming to practice with a camcorder in my hand. The first time I pressed record my breath stalled and my heartbeat quickened. The earth pressed into my feet. I felt certain I was exactly where I needed to be.

Since that initial discovery I’ve been growing into the craft of filmmaking, following this community of dancers around Brazil and other parts of the world as their story widens. I’ve made a hundred amateur mistakes and another hundred skillful, intuitive choices. I’ve kept myself in the center of my sensitivity even when the pressure mounted because that sensitivity is ultimately what makes me an alert storyteller. I have cherished every moment with the community I’ve filmed. I’ve fallen in love over and over and over again.

My editor and I recently put the finishing touches on Believe The Beat, the feature length documentary that began eight years ago, when a sweet boy asked me my name after a dance class on a clear night in a loud city. There is sometimes a voice inside me that yearns to omit this piece of the story.

“I went to Brazil to make a film,” I hear myself think. “I researched and I planned my strategy. I was intentional and grounded and focused from the start.”

Then the rest of me rushes in. I am reminded of the little girl who stood on photos of foreign lands with the unknown looming. Who closed her eyes and said yes to a million possible truths.

This is what the world asks us to do. Follow the winding, complicated path toward voracious wonder. Say yes to the moments that enchant and challenge and surprise us. Walk across the threshold when the gate swings open and keep moving forward as it shuts.

DSCF0706Jocelyn Edelstein is a Portland filmmaker, writer, choreographer, and founder of the Urban Body Project, a multimedia collective that explores the relationship between dance, culture, and community. Her writing has been previously published in Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011, Volume 8, and will be upcoming in Volume 9. When she is not making films or writing stories she is performing and teaching dance at Polaris Contemporary Dance Center.

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