Open question: How can we get others to self-identify as Connectors?

A few weeks ago, Denver Connectors met to get to know each other and talk about how their collective skills could help the city.

Nate Savery brought up this question that we imagine has been on your mind, too:

“How can we find the individuals out there who already have connecting roles in the community? They may not be affiliated with Idealist. They may not even recognize themselves as facilitators. So how do we reach them and get them to self identify?”

Nate suggested a video that would show how the often-invisible actions of Connectors are crucial in making social change happen.

We think that’s a stellar idea. But we’d also love to hear from you. What ideas do you have for drawing Connectors out of the woodwork?

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Planting the seeds of change: How Veterans to Farmers helps vets turn over a new leaf

This week’s spotlight: all things food.

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Veterans to Farmers provides job opportunities for veterans and fresh, locally-produced food for communities.
(photo via modernfarmer.com)

Buck Adams started hiring veterans to work in his greenhouses because it just made so much sense. For veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, a greenhouse is a natural decompression chamber.

“There’s daylight, natural life, no hustle and bustle besides the hum of fans and water flowing so it’s tranquil and peaceful. The natural process of seeing life and nurturing life and growing something that feeds others—I think that helps the brain heal itself,” he says.

A former U.S. Marine Corps Security Forces NCO who’s been around agriculture his whole life—his parents raised chickens on contract for Tyson in Arkansas—Buck describes seeing the effects of the greenhouse on vets as an “a-ha!” moment. He knew he had to share the stability and security he found in sustainable agriculture with others, so he founded the Denver-area nonprofit Veterans to Farmers in 2012. 

The journey to get there was winding. After returning from the service, Buck bounced around for a few years before learning about the growing importance of localized food systems and energy conservation—and how the U.S. lags behind in using new technology to grow food in clean, efficient ways (for example, Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA)—the method his greenhouses use, wherein plants are grown aeroponically and hydroponically in a highly controlled greenhouse environment, maximizing output and resources while minimizing waste, pests, and diseases).

Buck used this knowledge to found Circle Fresh Farms in 2009, which is now Colorado’s largest hydro-organic greenhouse grower. If you’ve bought organic tomatoes from Whole Foods, there’s a good chance they came from the Circle Fresh network.

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Buck Adams in one of his greenhouses.
(photo courtesy of VTF)

To share the opportunities he found in farming with his fellow veterans, Buck made it part of his company’s policy to hire vets in 2011.

VTF grew from this decision; today they work to train vets in horticulture and business management to provide communities with fresh, healthy food and veterans with a chance to gain the skills they need to start or manage greenhouse businesses of their own. At least three graduates of the VTF program have gone on to start (or are in the process of starting) their own farms. 

It’s a perfect match, as there’s a lot of overlap between the skills and training gained in the military and those it takes to monitor a CEA greenhouse.

“The controlled environment runs on highly regimented standard operating procedures which vets are used to,” Buck says. “They’re paying close attention to their work, and their military training overlaps very well with this kind of growing… It’s a natural transition.”

VTF is now working on building a national agricultural and business management training center for vets in downtown Denver. This facility will also serve as the site of a vet-owned farming co-op which will provide fresh, organic vegetables to the surrounding community through CSA memberships.

It might sound simple, but starting his own greenhouse business and nonprofit wasn’t easy, and Buck faces funding challenges as this major commercial project develops in the coming year. They’re launching a Kickstarter campaign this Veterans Day to help bring the project to fruition.

Despite the busy year ahead, he keeps at it. He attributes his success to combining good ideas, good timing, and a lot of hard work.

From there, “It’s just grown organically,” he jokes.

In the past, we’ve blogged about an all-volunteer veteran disaster relief organization, a veteran who volunteers with a blind baseball team, and a veteran healing project.

What other organizations, companies, or individuals are working to help veterans readjust to civilian life?

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How to build a collaborative (and happy!) shared nonprofit space

In November last year, five Colorado nonprofits moved into a free-flowing, bright office as part of the Denver Shared Spaces Project. Think the nonprofit version of The Real World: five (somewhat) strangers, picked to work in an office together, to find out what happens when people work side-by-side towards the greater good.

Unlike the drama-laden show, these “roommates” in the Colorado Collaborative for Nonprofits get along famously. (No pulling hair or name calling here.) If your organization is thinking about doing something similar, here are their tips on how to make the most of it:

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The colorful hallway of 789 Sherman. (Photo credit: Alyssa Kopf.)

1. Plan. Thoroughly. 

Sally Hallingstad, Director of Events & Marketing for Metro Volunteers: Define expectations ahead of time. What’s the purpose of the partnership? What are the potential ways to collaborate, beyond space, and how far will it go?

Alyssa Kopf, CEO of Community Shares of Colorado:  Bring in an organizational anthropologist to learn what kinds of organizations will be in the space and what they value. And try to gauge ahead of time as best you can if you’ll all play nicely together.

Renny Fagan, President and CEO of the Colorado Nonprofit Association: Staff participation at all levels is key, and the long process of inclusion and communication is well worth it. “When you include people in change, they want to make it work.”

Dace West, Director of Denver Office of Strategic Partnerships: Be aware that collaboration is a tricky thing, and that you’ll most likely be looking at a “marriage of organizations with very different needs.” There’s also the complexity of real estate, timing, and priorities to consider, which makes it especially important for partners to be thoughtful about how they’ll work together, and what their shared vision will be. After all, it’s more than just a space and a place to be.

2. Be patient, and adjust accordingly.

Melinda Higgs, President/CEO of the Colorado Nonprofit Development Center: Even when you plan, you may need to plan (again) – especially when you don’t get your first choice of space. “We ended up focusing on the space planning and then, once the space planning was essentially complete, we moved onto the program planning.” In other words: be flexible!

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Besides this map in the breakroom of who’s who, other ways members of the Collaborative are getting to better know each other include bbqs, brown bag lunches, and more. (Photo credit: Alyssa Kopf.)

Sally:  From kitchen duties to shared printers, it takes time to figure out what works. The domesticity of a shared office space – like, what to do with six microwaves? – can make for an adjustment period.

3. Imagine working beyond desks.

Sally: A shared space is designed to promote collaboration, and it helps to keep that in mind. At the Collaborative, for example, some organizations have their staffs spread out, sitting side-by-side with other organizations. The eventual hope is that the first floor training center will someday host programming they can work on together.

4. Think toward the future.

Alyssa: A process like this demands long-term thinking. “Going through shared space planning is a great opportunity to broaden your thinking about your mission, the lifecycle of your organization, and how you want to contribute to collective impact.”
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Have a question for a member of the Collaborative? Feel free to contact an organization via their Idealist page, or leave a comment here.

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Idealist Grad Fairs coming to Denver, West Coast, South!

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See you Thursday, Denver. (Photo: Larry Johnson, Flickr/Creative Commons)

Thinking about going to graduate school to further your career and make a social impact?

We’re bringing Idealist Grad Fairs to 18 cities this fall. Here are the next six. Click on a city name for details and to RSVP:

All of the fairs are free, open to the public, and feature a free Q&A panel about admissions and financial aid from 6:00-7:00pm. See the rest of the season lineup at idealist.org/gradfairs.

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