Try This! Host a birthday conference for good

We’ve heard about the trend of “donating your birthday” to a specific cause, but what about going one step further with an all-out conference? Read how Emily Pearl Goodstein hosted one in Washington, DC this year—and how you can do the same where you live. (Warning: may not suitable for introverts.)

Emily!

The birthday keynote, Emily Pearl Goodstein
(photo via Tosha Francis)

Emily Pearl Goodstein is an unabashed birthday enthusiast. Her recent celebrations have included 80s prom fundraisers, potluck picnics in DuPont Circle, a crafternoon featuring decoupage picture frames and cupcakes, and a Jewish Soul Food dinner with the pop-up restaurant service Feastly.

And for her 30th? She hosted a conference.

Yes, a conference. Now, some of you who aren’t particularly keen on wearing lanyards and attending panels might be wondering: why on earth?

It started as a joke. But it turned into so much more.

Emily, a self-professed “sweatpants enthusiast, reproductive justice activist, photographer, online organizer, and rabble-rouser” wanted to do something big, fun, and with a nonprofit feel.

Seeking inspiration, she thought back to her enjoyment of Learn-a-Palooza, a daylong skill-sharing event, and a summer camp she went to as a kid where she got to be crafty all day long. When she put the two together, what did she get? A birthday conference.

So this past May, over 100 of Emily’s friends and family came from down the block and out of town to spend a day at the George Washington Hillel experiencing her favorite things.

Her cohort hosted sessions that ran the gamut: cookie decorating, sailing, yoga, tips for keeping email under control, competitive Cranium, massage, flower arranging, a paid sick days for restaurant workers campaign, and the Minnesota State Fair (think giant cookie tubs, unlimited milk, and a personal message from State Senator Al Franken himself).

Emily spent ten minutes at each session—including belting Kool & The Gang’s “Celebrate” at the top of her lungs as part of the Fair’s Giant Sing Along.

But it wasn’t just about Emily. She charged attendees a $30 registration fee, with all the money after costs going to Planned Parenthood and Gift of Life, the latter in honor of her good friend and activist Elissa Froman who sadly passed away during the planning process. Both nonprofits had tables at the conference where people could learn more, and Gift of Life even gave cheek swabs to add to their public bone marrow registry.

Combining social justice with life’s pleasures: the day couldn’t have made Emily happier.

“The whole time I was planning it, I knew it was a super weird idea and people had trouble visualizing how it would all shake down,” she says. “For me, I imagined us all eating cookies and empanadas and singing songs. Then the day arrived, and people literally had notepads. I was surprised at how seriously they took it.”

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(Photo credit: Tosha Francis)

Do you want to host your own birthday conference?

Here are Emily’s top four tips:

1. If you’re jazzed about it, others will be too.

After Emily had the idea, she posted it on Facebook and within minutes had dozens of likes, enthusiastic comments, and her first confirmed speaker. She then asked a friend (the owner of Mr. Yogato, a local frozen yogurt shop) to be the first corporate sponsor; that move brought even more attention (one great example: Phickles Pickles, a small pickle company located in Athens, Georgia, found out about Emily’s birthday on Twitter and sent her a few cases of personally branded pickle jars!). Day by day, people started to realize she wasn’t kidding.

2. It’s your party and you can choose what you want to.

It’s the one day of the year when you can be selfish and unapologetic about it. Craft the sessions to your liking. If someone wants to present a sesh on zombies and The Walking Dead isn’t your thing, just say no. Everyone will understand.

3. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Emily wanted to have a balloon arch. Really badly. In the end, though, it just turned out to be too complicated and she had to forgo it. Nobody noticed (not really even her).

4. Ask.

Don’t be afraid to ask your friends who have skills and talents to get up in front of a room full of people. Ask nicely, personalize your request (no mass emails!), and try to provide publicity in exchange for sponsorship. People will want to help. Really.

At the end of the birthday conference, Emily was starting her new decade with deeper knowledge and a stronger community.

“The spirit of coming together and taking a chance on a crazy idea was very impactful for me,” she says. “I’m having trouble even now figuring out how to thank the people who made the day possible. People really brought it.”

Now that the candles are blown out, how will she ever top the big 3-0?

“Maybe for my 31st birthday, I’ll do an unconference,” she says.

Want to host your own birthday conference? Feel free to reach out to Emily for advice on the best free online tools to use, further insights on the art of asking, or any other questions: emily.goodstein@gmail.com.

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Help Kirsten start a nonprofit incubator

An ongoing experiment: Can our community’s collective brainpower help an idea become reality?

Kirsten Doherty can’t say enough good things about Lowell, Massachusetts. As the birthplace of the industrial revolution in the U.S, home to numerous public institutions and a diverse immigrant population, the city has a rising creative economy with new projects and initiatives springing up all the time. Many are calling it a renaissance.

Kirsten LinkedIn

“We also have very smart people with brilliant ideas to make Lowell a better place to live,” she says. “What we are missing, I believe, is a physical space—like a resource center or incubator—for people who want to be creative and do good.”

Kirsten knows a thing or two about the situation, having spent 15 years working in fundraising and lived in the city of 100,000 for six years. She’s also currently interning with Lowell’s Department of Planning and Development.

“But there are some gaps in my training. I want to see this happen, but need help.”

The intention

Kirsten says she often notices artists and others active in the community having meetings at Starbucks because they don’t have a place to do business. She sees a need: these people should have a space to work.

“A lot of the people starting things here have great ideas,” she says, “but they’re often on these tiny staffs where they’re experts in their program, but need back-office support and help with the other stuff—graphic design, accounting, grantwriting—so they can focus on their missions. I want this place to provide one-stop shopping for those services.”

Obstacles

Kirsten says she’s very well connected in Lowell, but admittedly, she doesn’t know everything. So far she’s planned meetings with Third Sector New England and Space With a Soul, two nonprofit spaces in nearby Boston, to learn more about how they got started and get a sense of how they operate.

She also recently submitted an application to the UMass Lowell Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s Merrimack Valley Sandbox project, which gives annual seed money awards to local aspiring entrepreneurs. But the more ideas she can collect and connections she can make, the better.

Kirsten is most concerned with getting advice to help shape the following three aspects of her idea:

Lowell MA Front_of_boott_mill

Boott Cotton Mills Museum, Lowell, MA. (Photo via Kirsten Doherty.)

1. Spatial and organizational layout. “I’d like to get different ideas, especially about how organizational membership could work—like, would you need to have a 501(c)(3) to join, or maybe just a fiscal sponsor? How would we handle groups with controversial missions?—and the physical layout of the space. What are some different models for those things?”

2. Funding. “I’m particularly interested in ideas for funding and governing/leadership models,” Kirsten says. “I sort of picture a place with reasonable rental fees that the participating nonprofits would pay for—and maybe they could get some help from government grants or private philanthropy?”

3. Staffing and maintenance. “I want to see this happen, and am up for helping to launch it—maybe be on the advisory board?” says Kirsten. “But ultimately, I don’t think I would be the best ED or manager, so would need options for that. And for staffing, I’m not sure if full-time people or consultants would be the way to go… Or what!”

How you can help

  • Do you know any nonprofit spaces like the one Kirsten envisions?

  • Do you have advice to share about organizational structure, membership, fundraising, governing, or staffing options for a center like this?

  • If you’re part of an organization that belongs to this type of nonprofit space, or would like to, share notes on your experience or needs with Kirsten.

  • Do you live in the Lowell or Boston area and want to help turn this intention from ideal to real, or know anyone else who might?

  • Can you think of another way to address the community issues Kirsten’s identified, besides opening this type of nonprofit space?

If you have any bright ideas for Kirsten, leave them in the comments below, or send her a message through Idealist. If the project progresses, we’ll keep you posted!

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Are you a practical dreamer with an idea that’s just starting to take shape? If you’d like to be part of this series, or know someone who would be a good fit, email celeste@idealist.org.

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