Legal Cuts: Law office + barbershop = community

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Barbers on the job at Legal Cuts.
Not pictured: the lawyer working in the back.
(Photo via Legal Cuts on Facebook)

“Traditional law offices can be intimidating, but folks are comfortable sharing their problems with a barber,” says Donald Howard, the 32-year-old attorney-coiffeur who opened a combination barber shop and law office in New Britain, Connecticut this past spring.

“I thought it was the perfect marriage,” he continues. “People could feel comfortable in this environment and feel they can trust the lawyer. I want to make sure legal services are available to these people,” who he believes may be intimidated by walking into a traditional law office.

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Legal Cuts price list
(Photo via Legal Cuts on Facebook)

The tough job market many recent law school grads are facing prompted Howard to think outside the norm and become the entrepreneur of a “hybrid business.” (Legal Grind, a combo law office and coffee house in Santa Monica, was considered the first when it opened in 2009.)

In Howard’s case, the impetus to start was two-fold: he needed a job, and he wanted to help his neighbors.

“I believe the barbershop is the epicenter of the community,” he says. “People can come in here and play checkers or chess and get to know their surroundings. … It’s gimmicky, but I want people to know that it’s a gimmicky thing that could work and it can help them out.”

Read more about the events that inspired Howard to open Legal Cuts in this Connecticut Law Tribune story.

Do you know of other hybrid businesses that are creating jobs while aiming to better serve a community? Educate us in the comments below.

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The secret to surviving a financial apocalypse? Community trust

Jason Lee is no stranger to the ups and downs of financial instability. In Detroit—a city left financially and physically vacant following the 2008 economic downturn—it’s impossible for Lee to be anything but.

“I became director right before the economy changed, so I got to experience it all first-hand,” says Lee, who runs the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program (DAPCEP).  “It wasn’t easy. People sometimes forget that nonprofits are businesses, too.”

Nonetheless, DAPCEP—a local mainstay offering free pre-college science and mathematics programs to minority youth—has seemed to rise above the bankrupt-triggering recession. From summer computer camps getting prospective college students up to speed on cutting-edge technology to basic pre-engineering classes for Kindergarteners and their parents, DAPCEP’s breadth of classes rope in a wide reach of support.

DAPCEP students having

Students learning about molecules in DAPCEP classroom

Its secret? Community trust.

Now at 37 years old, DAPCEP has successfully led students from the first day of elementary school to the first day of college. Growing from a small idea to a family name over the decades, the program has now reached a point where its community is returning the effort.

From public schools and local universities regularly encouraging parents to enroll their kids in DAPCEP to second-generation DAPCEP graduates donating money and time to keep the program on its feet, Lee says he’s has seen an uptick in local support since the city hit financial bottom.

“A lot of credit goes to schools and universities when it comes to encouraging people to get involved in the program,” says Lee. “They see students interested in becoming doctors or scientists in the classroom and can send them directly to us.”

Local and national grants, issued through a variety of foundations, have also kept DAPCEP above water over the years.

But this support didn’t come without work. The program’s pre-recession roots in the community certainly added to its neighbors’ backing.

DAPCEP offered its first classes 37 years ago with a small population of 245 middle school and high school-aged students (now, Lee says, they’ve had up to 10,000 at a time) with the simple goal of breaking outdated career stereotypes. At the time, it was uncommon to see students of African-American, Hispanic, or Native-American heritage choose a career path in science, engineering and other technical fields. DAPCEP wanted to change that.

Now, based on a 2010 survey, 94 percent of all students enrolled in DAPCEP plan to attend college and pursue a technical degree. Additionally, more than 90 percent of Detroit Public School entries in the 2011 Metropolitan Detroit Science Fair originated in DAPCEP classrooms.

Soon, DAPCEP college graduates will likely return to the city to add to its regrowth. Lee himself went through a similar program as a child in Massachusetts, a move that, after leading him through graduate school to an engineering job at Ford Motors, inspired him to take the reins at DAPCEP.

The community has clearly recognized the impact.

For the first time in the program’s history, DAPCEP will be charging for its younger age bracket classes this summer. The price? $100, a steep jump from a long-time free program. But instead of grimacing at the change in policy, applicants’ parents appear eager to pitch in to DAPCEP’s grant-funded pot.

“Many parents were amazed that DAPCEP has survived so long without having to charge,” says Lee.

With the community-based support giving the program the boost to continue growing, Lee has fielded many requests from people across the country wanting insight on the program’s successful model. While he’s hesitant to expand DAPCEP itself to other metropolitan areas, Lee fully supports other programs starting up their own similar platform, as he’s seen such success in Detroit.

“We’ve been around long enough to engage a population that’s had parents and grandparents in DAPCEP,” says Lee. “And now we have their children telling them ‘Mommy, I want to be a scientist!’ on their own. It’s come full circle.”

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Interested in learning more about the importance of community trust in sustaining a nonprofit? Talk to Jason Lee at jdlee@dapcep.org.

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Nonprofit Finance Fund survey deadline: Feb 15

Another day, another dollar, another survey

imageEach year, the Nonprofit Finance Fund surveys U.S. nonprofits. The goals are to document the issues being faced by community-serving organizations and to identify ways the fund itself, and other supporters of the work of nonprofits, can be most useful.

It takes maybe 15 minutes to complete the survey, which requires a pretty broad knowledge of an organization’s activities – from the state of the finances to relationships with funders to the board of directors.

Do you have that knowledge? Take the survey today! And if that’s not you, consider passing the request along to someone who has a good handle on how things are going. The survey closes on February 15.

Why take the survey?
Accurate information about what nonprofits can and can’t do is really important now as governments at every level struggle to meet community needs. Many foundations are cutting back on grants; others are shifting their priorities to meet new challenges; and individuals—whether donors, patrons, visitors, or clients—are feeling the pinch and watching their wallets with new caution. Accurate and up-to-date information about the state of nonprofits and their finances will help policy-makers, philanthropists, and program managers avoid mistakes that could make a bad situation worse.

Want to learn more about nonprofit finances?

Here are more resources:

  • The Urban Institute’s annual fundraising survey, conducted with the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and other collaborators.
  • From the IRS, a new search tool that allows you to check on the exempt status of an organization directly on the web.
  • The final version of the Form 990 for 2011 (the one larger organizations will need to file by May 15, 2012) is now available for download (PDF). The form 990-EZ will be published soon. There is no change in the Form 990-N (“e-postcard”) used by small organizations to maintain exempt status.

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A happy Happy New Year

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Is your community's "happiness flag" showing signs of wear and tear? (Photo: Rachel Kramer, Flickr/Creative Commons)

How happy are we?

Most everyone would agree that being happy is a good thing—along with the coming of spring, a robust economy, and clean air to breathe. For most nations, there are detailed, current statistics about the weather, the state of the economy, and the atmosphere (not to mention many other things). Statistics about happiness are a little harder to come by.

The government of the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan has made it a priority to measure “Gross National Happiness” as a summary of national wellbeing. Since 2005 a national effort has been underway to assess not just economic activity in the nation (“Gross National Product” in economist-speak), but to attend to data from eight other “domains” that impact people’s lives, such as health, education, community vitality, and cultural resilience. The website GrossNationalHappiness.com provides the official explanation of the project and reports on the results of the calculation of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index for 2010.

There is no such national index for the USA so far. In my hometown, Sustainable Seattle is using the concept to develop a happiness index for communities. The idea is to supplement its other initiatives and build a long-term future of health and well-being. The project has two components: a set of objective statistics that create a profile of a region’s progress toward meeting goals related to sustainability, and a personal happiness survey that anyone can take. At the end of the survey, each respondent’s answers are compared to the overall response from all survey-takers. Food for thought as a new year begins.

No such thing as personal happiness?

For his 2008 book The Geography of Bliss, reporter Eric Weiner visited nine varied countries, looking for the happiest place on earth. He found some very disappointing spots, including one place where people “derive more pleasure from their neighbor’s failure than their own success. I can’t imagine anything less happy.”

In contrast, when he talked with Bhutanese scholar Karma Ura, he heard “There is no such thing as personal happiness. Happiness is one hundred percent relational.” Weiner reflected: “At the time I didn’t take him literally. I thought he was exaggerating to make his point…But now I realize Karma meant exactly what he said. Our happiness is completely and utterly intertwined with other people: family and friends and neighbors and…people you hardly notice. Happiness is not a noun or verb. It’s a conjunction. Connective tissue.”

This general point is repeated over and over again in the literature. Arthur Brooks, President of the Heritage Foundation, concludes his book “Gross National Happiness” with a quick review of social scientists’ results demonstrating that all sorts of activities that benefit others—from the most direct sorts of help to family and friends to the abstractions of making donations to help people in far-away lands—are closely related to general feelings of happiness and well-being.

Five steps to happiness

In the UK, a study for the National Health Service called Five Ways to Well-Being concluded that these simple steps would improve people’s lives in measurable ways (and sharply reduce the risks of mental illness too!):

  • Connect with the people around you
  • Be active
  • Take notice of what’s around you
  • Keep learning
  • Give

How will you do these things in the coming year?

Not to toot our own horn too loudly, it still bears saying that Idealist.org offers lots of opportunities for doing all five. Just a few minutes clicking through listings in your community, or in your area of interest, or for the sorts of things you want to do will turn up things to do and places to go.

With your personal profile from Sustainable Seattle’s survey in front of you, and some reflection about the Five Ways to Well-Being, Idealist’s listings are one way to make sure you have a happy Happy New Year.

Best wishes for 2012 from all of us!

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Candy, ghosts…and year-end donations?

It’s that time of year! While many of us have been gathering treats for the goblins and ghouls who will appear at our doors tonight, fundraising and communications professionals at nonprofits across the country have been anxiously preparing their year-end fundraising appeals.

Why “anxiously”? Because the year-end appeal often makes the difference between a strong program next year and a struggle to achieve the mission. And because the sorry state and uncertain future of the economy is having an effect on public support for the work of nonprofits.

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Freaky: the fact that every store is about to begin blaring holiday tunes. Not freaky: deciding which organizations to support with any year-end donations you make! (Photo: Micah Sittig, Flickr/Creative Commons)

Year-end giving is a tradition that brings satisfaction to many families year after year. But sometimes the number of requests can be overwhelming. If you receive envelopes or emails day after day, you might wonder, “Is this much fundraising really necessary?” or “How could this possibly be efficient?”

It is necessary. Donations are an important way for organizations to get the money they need for all the things that contribute to valuable programs – from the vegetables at the soup kitchen to research on the root causes of problems.

But it’s true that fundraising could be a lot more efficient. And often, attentive donors can help on that front. If you’re planning to donate this year, here are some tips to help make sure your year-end contributions do the most good.

  • Have a plan. Decide in advance how much you can afford to give this year and what causes or groups you want to help.
  • Take the initiative. If you already know the groups you want to support, make your gifts without waiting to be asked. You can send along a request that the groups you support not solicit you further; that’s a good idea at any time of year. But if you do get a year-end appeal anyway you can recycle it with a clear conscience…or pass it along to a friend who might share your interest.
  • Be clear. If you get a year-end appeal from an organization that’s not in your plan, let them know and ask that they not send you fundraising appeals. When you do send a gift, suggest that the recipient limit any future appeals to you. Helping an organization avoid the costs of making a pointless request is a small but real contribution to their work.
  • Consider volunteering. Many organizations offer special, expanded services at this time of year. Joining such a project adds a new dimension to the celebrations of the season.
  • And this year, if you can, maybe stretch a little. Nonprofits in every community are helping people cope with the effects of the bad economy. If you’re doing ok, do a little bit more so they can do their jobs better.

Let us know if you have tips to add – either from the nonprofit fundraising perspective, or the individual donor point of view (maybe both!). And happy Halloween!

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Our 2011 survey: Is the sector bouncing back?

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Click here to read the report at idealisthr.org.

This past spring, we reached out to the organizations on Idealist to learn how you had been impacted by the financial crisis of 2008, and how you were feeling about the future.

More than 3,000 of you responded: human resources professionals, executive directors, fundraising managers, volunteer coordinators – and often, all of the above. You work for small nonprofits and large ones. And as of June 2011, your mood overall seemed to be one of cautious optimism. Click here for the survey results.

Of course, this offers just one snapshot. Do the survey results ring true for what’s happening at your organization? Did things change this summer?

Sound off in the comments below, or join the conversation at idealisthr.org, our new space for nonprofit HR professionals.

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Nonprofits, government, and a financially sustainable future

The weak financial condition of many cities, most states, and the U.S. government is pretty generally recognized.  The quarrels over how to respond may be making the basic problem a little harder to see.

It is simply not possible to shift to a financially sustainable future without painful changes. No matter what paths are chosen to find a way out of this mess, familiar patterns are going to be disrupted and risky choices will have to be made.

As we take part in the national conversation around this challenge, here are some things people in the nonprofit sector need to be prepared to talk about.

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Divide/Wisdom sign (photo: Julia Smith)

First, it is simply impossible for nonprofits to “take up the slack.”

Nonprofit organizations can and should do more to protect the vulnerable, tend to the sick, enhance the quality of life, and contribute to the debates about big issues.  But it’s a mistake to think that the nonprofits that serve America’s communities can somehow replace the critical services that governments provide.  When that suggestion is made, it needs to be firmly, politely, and publicly challenged as simply beyond any possibility.

Second, tax exemptions are a bargain for communities.

Because they can attract donors, volunteers, and other support, nonprofits deliver value to their communities that neither governments nor businesses can. Encouraging nonprofits by exempting them from some kinds of taxes means there are more resources available for their work.

Of course, the ways public services are financed vary widely. There may be some places where nonprofit organizations should, in fact, help to assure that the government has the resources required to protect the community’s health and safety. Negotiating agreements to recognize that will be tough…but it can be done.

Third, the bills have to be paid.

Sometimes governments respond to fiscal crises by changing the arrangements they have made with nonprofit providers abruptly, and for the worse. A recent study by the Urban Institute documents the ways this has been happening state by state.

Tim Delaney, President of the National Council of Nonprofits, urges the correct response is to point out how this hurts the entire community.

Fourth, let’s not knock each other.

Some nonprofits exist (at least in part) to challenge the ideas and goals of other nonprofits. And it’s natural—even necessary—to believe passionately in the specific missions of the organizations we work for or support. But it won’t help the U.S. deal with the financial crisis if people who love one nonprofit point to others as somehow “expendable.”

The country’s nonprofits deliver countless valuable services to people and communities every day. Beyond that, though, they also demonstrate the great range of deep and passionate commitments we have to finding solutions, helping people, and pursuing the good life. Each of us can play a part in preserving that diversity and creativity – even, or perhaps especially, when we disagree.

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Survey says: What's the state of the nonprofit sector today?

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Screen shot from the Nonprofit Finance Fund website

Do you have a few minutes to fill out a survey? If so, you can help the Nonprofit Finance Fund understand what’s happening now, in order to better advocate on behalf of the sector’s needs. The survey gets a good deal of attention from funders, media, and nonprofits themselves, so it’s up to all of us* to make it strong and accurate.

Watch the “awesome video” about why the Nonprofit Finance Fund is conducting its State of the Nonprofit Sector survey for the third year in a row. (If you prefer, there’s the “moving drama” version or the “terrifying horror” version to watch instead; to tell the truth, all three are pretty much the same, but the different soundtracks are good for a smile.) The videos give a glimpse of the results from the 2010 survey and look ahead to what can be learned from people who complete the 2011 survey between now and February 15th.

You can take the survey at http://nonprofitfinancefund.org/2011-nonprofit-sector-survey.

Want to view the results from 2010? The full results from last year are in this file (pdf).

*If you’re not the right person to be taking this survey, you might pass along the link to someone at a nonprofit you care about who can answer the questions. The more data from the real world the survey collects, the better the information the Nonprofit Finance Fund can offer to funders, policy makers, and anyone else who cares about this work.

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New GuideStar Report: The Effect of The Economy on the Nonprofit Sector

Almost everyone has felt the effects of the less than stellar economic performance in the first half of this year. This is no less true for the majority of nonprofit organizations as seen in GuideStar’s report on The Effect of The Economy on the Nonprofit Sector for the first half of 2010 released last week.

Nonprofit organizations have been particularly affected this year on two fronts. With unemployment rates barely moving and the number of people coming off of jobless benefits rising, folks have increasingly turned to local community organizations to help fill the gap in services that they can no longer afford. Sixty-three percent of surveyed organizations reported an increase in demand for their services between January 1, 2010 and May 31, 2010. At the same time, more than 40% of organizations reported a decrease in donations and other funding streams. The strain on nonprofits has been so high that 17% of organizations had to cut programs and services and 8% said they were in imminent danger of closing.

From flickr user jasoon (Creative Commons)

If you’ve been considering donating to an organization whose work you support, you might want to consider donating now. You can find financial information on the nonprofit of your choice at GuideStar.org.

If you’re worried about the nonprofits in your community but not currently in a position to donate, there are other ways to help. About a third of organizations reported that they have increased their reliance on volunteers as a way to support their programmatic work and not cut services. You can search for a local volunteer opportunity here — and remember, volunteering is a great asset in career development if you find yourself temporarily out of work.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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Great News! Increase in Job Postings

By Flickr user Nic McPhee (Creative Commons)

News reports have been pointing to signs that we are finally coming out of this recession, and the numbers on Idealist seem to agree.

In the beginning of 2008, before the economic crisis hit, an average of about 5,000 jobs were posted to Idealist every month. The number of job listings on our site started to drop off in the fall of 2008, and hit a low point in February 2009, when only 2,811 jobs were posted.

But the numbers have been increasing again lately, and in June 2010, our site had 4,659 job listings — almost back to our pre-recession rate. We’re not qualified to draw any broad conclusions about the economy or the nonprofit sector, but this news is definitely encouraging.

Click here to search for nonprofit and government job listings, and check out our other free resources for job seekers. Good luck!

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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