Action Groups are coming soon

We talked about Action Groups with the Connectors who attended the NYC Team meeting on Saturday, April 5th, and found people were happy to hear that these Groups will give us the best of both worlds: you’ll be able to start an Action Group for your neighborhood, school or workplace, OR one for an issue you care about—like education, homelessness, or human rights. (In the latter case you’d still be acting as a neutral facilitator/moderator, but within the issue that moves you most.)

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Yesterday morning I flew to our Portland office, which is where we do all of our web development. I hadn’t been here for three weeks, and when I walked in I felt wonderfully superfluous. Everyone was out getting lunch, but the walls were covered with charts and notes reflecting all the feedback we’ve received from all of you over the last four weeks, and it was clear that things are moving in the right direction.

Later in the afternoon we had a good meeting all about Action Groups. We’re itching to share them with you and see what you think!

More soon…

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Stumble on a bed in a public place, settle in for storytime

On Tuesday, March 11, Idealist will launch a new network to help practical dreamers all over the world connect and take action on the issues that concern them. Preparing for the debut of this imaginative new effort has gotten us exploring the many facets of dreams: what are their purposes, their powers, their opposites?

Welcome to Dreams Week on Idealists in Action.

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Erica Thomas reads to strangers in the park as part of Dreamland.
(image courtesy Dreamland)

What would you think if you were walking through a park and happened upon a bed, a rocking chair, a lamp, and someone reading stories? Would you think you were dreaming? Would you think your dreams had come true?

Welcome to Dreamland.

read more »

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VIDEO: Portland rocks the MLK Day of Service

This past January 20th, the Idealist video team traversed the neighborhoods of Portland, Oregon to visit some awesome service activities happening as part of the MLK Day of Service. The thousands of volunteers they encountered clearly did a lot of good for the organizations they were helping, but they also told us it wasn’t just about giving back—it was also a fun, easy, rewarding endorphin rush.

 

 

It’s always great to serve on MLK Day, but remember that orgs need help all year long. You can search for thousands of ways to give back in your community, while getting some ‘good’ yourself—just visit Idealist.org/act.

How did you serve on MLK Day this year? Would you describe it as easy and fun?

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Join Idealist on March 11 as we launch a new global movement for action and change!

 

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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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Uplifting billboard says don’t cry, pout, tells you why

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The Joy Team put up this billboard at NE Glisan and 27th in Portland, Oregon to spread acceptance and hope during the holidays.
(photo courtesy The Joy Team)

The holidays are a time to be grateful for the good things in our lives, but for a lot of people this season of celebration can also stir up feelings of loneliness and sadness.

To combat these winter blues, The Joy Team out of Vancouver, Washington has created a new billboard campaign to spread messages of acceptance and hope.

Here’s a sample:

  • You are so freaking awesome.
  • We believe in you.
  • Celebrate.
  • Cultivate your awesomeness.
  • Something wonderful is about to happen.

Nice work, Joy Team! I feel better already.

What encouraging message would you put on a billboard?

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How a female-focused bike shop is shifting gears

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Leah Benson behind the counter at her new shop.

In the new Gladys Bikes shop on North Williams Avenue in Portland, Oregon, there’s a sign on the mirror next to the rain gear and helmets. It says “you look perfect.”

Owner Leah Benson opened the shop last month with the intention of starting a bike repair and fit studio specifically catering to women and women-identified individuals. The name come from famous women’s suffragist Frances Willard who called her beloved bicycle “Gladys.”

“Everybody deserves to feel comfortable on their bike and welcomed in a bike shop, and unfortunately that’s not the case for a lot of people,” Leah says.

She knew she wanted to offer an alternative to the intimidating and exclusive vibe of many bike shops, so she left her job at a local nonprofit a year ago and dedicated herself full-time to setting up the business. To help her get started, she tapped into some micro-enterprise development classes offered through Mercy Corps and talked to a lot of shop owners in the Portland bike community.

Part of the reason Leah opted to start a small business instead of a nonprofit or bike coop was the frustration she’d felt with the constraints of grant cycles and funders at her nonprofit job.

“You can do a lot of good work in the nonprofit sector, but you’re always going to be beholden to other people’s deliverables,” she says. “I wanted to step out of that.”

Before she started setting up Gladys Bikes, Leah was pretty dismissive and negative about the for-profit world.

Gladys Bikes' saddle library. (photo via Gladys Bikes Face Book)

There’s a saddle for every body.
(photo via Gladys Bikes Instagram)

“I used to think that if you’re making money, you must be doing something wrong,” she says. “And then I was like, no, small businesses are usually just trying to make enough to get by while providing a valuable service.”

An experienced fundraiser from her nonprofit days, Leah raised a fair amount of the capital she needed to start her business from private donors. She also worked a handful of odd jobs over the past year to make extra money: juice truck cashier, nonprofit consultant, assistant stylist for a Nike photo shoot.

To keep her budget on track for the coming year, she’s also in the process of setting up an Independent Development Account (IDA) with Mercy Corps, a special type of savings account that helps small business owners build assets with a 4-to-1 matching program.

The people have spoken

One of the most useful things Leah did to make sure Gladys Bikes was on target with its services was to ask people directly what they wanted from the shop. She ran focus groups made up of people she knew, people she respected, and people that were referred to her to find out what they asked for most.

“It was one of the most fun and productive things I’ve ever done,” she says. “It was a great way for us to air our frustrations about bike shops that aren’t set up with women in mind while brainstorming some wildly great ideas.”

One of the awesome ideas inspired by the focus groups is Gladys Bikes’ one-of-a-kind saddle library.

“A comfortable saddle [the part of the bike seat you sit on] can be really body-specific in some pretty personal ways,” Leah says. “And a lot of the time, when there’s a piece of bike gear made for an ‘average person’ or ‘unisex,’ that usually just means ‘man.’”

To help achieve a more comfortable ride, customers can check out different saddle shapes and sizes from the library, try them out on their bikes for a full week, and bring them back later.

“Feeling good when you’re on your bike is really important,” she says. “It’s all about getting it set up in the way that’s most comfortable for you.”

What are some of your favorite socially-conscious small businesses?

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The world is a blank page. What will you write?

Today’s inspiration: author, professor, and filmmaker MK Asante.

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photo via facebook.com/asantemk

I recently saw MK Asante speak at Wordstock, a writing festival here in Portland, OR. He was reading from his memoir Buck, which tells the tale of a Philly kid gone wild only to get back on track when he picks up a pen to write.

He’s got a ferocious energy and spitfire charm that’s irresistible, and lots of great things to say about making things happen the way you want them to. Take this excerpt from Buck:

The entrepreneur sees the world as the writer sees the blank page—as a chance. The game changes, but the hustle stays the same.

When you look at your blank page, what do you see?

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Put a bid on it: How a Portland, OR auctioneer is keeping the city’s nonprofits afloat

Johnna Wells BGF photo

Johnna at the 3rd Annual Shake It Til We Make It fundraising auction and event for The Brian Grant Foundation,
held last year at the iconic International Rose Test Garden. (Photo credit: www.iamatrailblazersfan.com)

Every weekend for nine months out of the year, auctioneer Johnna Wells stands up in the center of a room filled with hundreds of people, sometimes thousands, and tries to raise the most money possible for that night’s nonprofit.

Her auction chant is automatic at this point; the mental juggling is all about reading the body language of the bidders at key tables, making sure she gets the minimum amount for the donated goods, and sustaining the energy of the crowd.

It’s become second nature for Johnna, who is admittedly shy otherwise.

“I’m more uncomfortable in a room of ten people than a thousand,” she says. “But once I get up there and get a microphone in my hand, it’s almost like my superhero cloak. I feel at home, and less exposed in that way.”

From artist to auctioneer

Johnna’s been around the rapid-fire auction environment her whole life. Her mom and dad owned and operated auction houses in Coeur D’Alene and Post Falls, Idaho, which specialized in antiques and collectibles.

As kids, every day after school, she and her brother would help their parents get read for the weekly Friday night auction, and every Friday night, they would listen to the patter of their dad’s bid call, rolling out their sleeping bags in the clerking room while buyers checked out with their treasured wares.

“It seems nerdy, but it’s an interesting and cool community of little vignettes of stories and lives,” she says.

But Johnna outgrew the family business as she got older. After studying art at the University of Idaho, she moved to Portland and began a series of art-related jobs ranging from window dressing to jewelry design. During this time, she started to question whether or not she could continue to pay the bills as an artist—and if it was fulfilling her desire to do good in the world.

Then her dog died back home. On a whim, she quit her jewelry store job, got on a plane, and chose a seat that happened to put her next to two old-timers who’d known her grandparents and told her tales of days long ago.

“Sometimes it feels like once an action is put in motion, you know you’re on the right track when the rest of those pieces start to fall into place and remind you that you made the right decision,” she says.

She ended up staying in Idaho for the summer. Coincidentally, her father’s health took a bad turn and she further learned the ins and outs of the auction method when her parents opted to leave the family farm and move into a condo. It was during that summer that she decided to go to auction school and, afterward, apprentice at a local fundraising auction company back in Portland before starting her own business.

Portland’s powerhouse fundraiser

Now Johnna is one of the seven percent of women auctioneers around the world, and a 2005 International Auctioneer Champion.

Her company, Benefit Auctions 360, works with a variety of Portland nonprofits including Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, Cascade AIDS Project, and the homeless youth organization p:ear.

The fundraising auctions, which Johnna likens to “original crowdfunding,” are anything but small affairs. Throughout the course of the year, her team works with each nonprofit to strategically plan and promote each auction and event. Venues range from art museums to the Veterans Memorial Coliseum; performers have included local and famous musicians alike, from Julianne Johnson to KISS; and donated goods run the gamut from an original Gus Van Sant photograph to being a roadie for the band Rush.

This spring alone, Benefit Auctions 360 has raised a total of $14 million—and they’ve made their own donation to every organization they’ve worked with. For many of city’s nonprofits, the money they raise in one night is what keeps their doors open throughout the year.

“Years ago, I had my very first auction with p:ear. Seconds before I took the stage, Executive Director Beth Burns came over to me. She put her hand on shoulder, squeezed it firmly, and said, ‘We’ve barely got any money in the bank. So don’t mess this up,’ ” Johnna says. “I was shocked, but it really set the tone early on for how important this work is.”

Johnna is successful any way you look at it, but she doesn’t let it get to her head. In fact, she’s anything but comfortable.

“There’s always the potential to make whatever you’re doing bigger and better. And there’s also the potential for it to unravel at the seams. It all depends on you,” Johnna says. “I’m scared every day that I’m not doing the right thing, that I’m not doing my best. I think that’s a good thing. It keeps you on your toes and makes you work that much harder.”

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Check out the Benefit Auctions 360 blog for tips on fundraising, auction planning, and more.

Follow them on Pinterest for auction and event ideas.

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Help Bethany start an art bus for homeless youth

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

Meet Bethany

In between sludging through snow banks to bring supplies to homeless camps in Utah and working at a homeless women’s shelter in Portland, Oregon, Bethany Haug took some time off to get her MFA in creative writing.

She spent two years writing poems about love, transportation, and motor homes. She also started teaching developmental writing and creative writing to young people. Put all of that together, and you can see where she might have gotten the idea for the art bus.

“Kids who are homeless and aren’t in school or have large obstacles in their lives could definitely use a creative outlet. They need to be encouraged to read and write and create. And even if you take self-expression out of it, being creative is just something positive to do with your time while you’re trying to survive,” she says.

Bethany Haug

Bethany in Portland’s International Rose Test Garden

The intention

Bethany wants to build a traveling arts education center and zine-making bus to give homeless youth the chance to express themselves.

She understands that drop-in centers don’t always work for homeless teens and runaways, but hopes a mobile center could bring arts programming and non-traditional educational resources directly to them.

“The advantage of mobile outreach is that even though you might be affiliated with a drop-in center that has rules and obvious hours, you’re outside of that. You are stepping into their space as opposed to asking them to step into yours,” she says. “Because of that, mobile outreach has been particularly effective in reaching people who live in camps or who might be for whatever reason uncomfortable in social service buildings—especially with homeless youth who might be runaways or have come from foster care and don’t want to share their identity with authorities.”

And while the opportunity to be creative is important, the secondary purpose of the art bus would be to team up with existing homeless service organizations to connect the kids who come to her bus with other essential services and survival resources.

“Only after those needs are taken care of can someone start to think about self-expression,” she says.

She envisions the bus working in one of two ways—either as a center that moves across the country teaming up with many organizations that might not have the resources to offer arts programming, or as the mobile branch of one drop-in center in a city where there’s a lot of need.

“I live in Portland right now, and we’re lucky to have some of the best homeless youth services in the country,” she says. “But I wonder what other communities could really benefit from this.”

Obstacles

Bethany has researched some existing creative mentoring services but hasn’t reached out to any organizations just yet. While she feels confident that this is a great idea, she’s never done anything like it before and feels pretty overwhelmed.

“I don’t even know if existing agencies would take me seriously. Like, do they even care?” she says.

Some of her biggest obstacles so far include:

1. Funding. Bethany currently works full-time as a caretaker for disabled adults, but she would rather be working on the art bus. She wants to know if there’s enough money out there that she could make this her primary job, or if any existing social service or community arts organizations would hire her to run this kind of program for them.

“I’m preoccupied with having to survive right now. I have student debt and I don’t have any savings—it’s just not financially feasible for me to think about doing this full-time right now,” she says.

2. Lack of business development and budget management experience. “I don’t have any knowledge or training in this. I have nothing to compare to and no experience, so where do I start?”

3. Building partnerships. Bethany wants to run this program in tandem with other organizations but isn’t sure how to start the conversation.

“I want to approach organizations that work with homeless youth but don’t have any creative writing programming, or with literary arts or community service organizations that don’t reach out to homeless youth but would like to,” she says. “But what do I say to them? And why would they work with me if I’m basically on my own and have no experience or money?”

How you can help

  • Does this project already exist somewhere else?
  • Can you think of an organization that might benefit from a partnership with the art bus?
  • Can you connect Bethany to other organizations or programs that work in creative mentoring for homeless youth?
  • Can you offer any advice about organizational structure or funding options for a program like this?
  • Do you know of any other mobile programs Bethany could look at as a model, whether for social good or otherwise?
  • Do you have any tips for how to approach a homeless youth organization?

If you have any bright ideas for Bethany, 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 a part of this series, or know someone else who would be a good fit, email celeste@idealist.org.

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Looking back at the nonprofit pub in Portland, OR

Here’s an oldie but goodie: We profiled this innovative pub last year to spark discussion about the different ways people are leveraging their passions to give back. We’re reposting this story in the spirit of summer.

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The idea

Photo of Ryan from ©Neighborhood Notes in Portland, Oregon: www.neighborhoodnotes.com.

Ryan Saari, an Oregon native, knows that Portlanders love their beer as much as they love helping others. But given the amount of nonprofits that already exist in the city, Ryan realized that another nonprofit, while wonderful, may not be needed. “Instead we thought, what can we do to partner with the existing nonprofits?” he says.

Three years ago what started off as a discussion between Ryan and his friends about what good they could do in their communities turned into something bigger: The Oregon Public House—a soon-to-open nonprofit pub that will serve local beer and seasonal, locally sourced food, pay employees fair wages, and donate all its profit to charities.

Ryan foresees The Oregon Public House growing and hopes after a year or two of running successfully they can open another in Portland, eventually with plans to brew their own beer and sell six packs in stores where 100% of the money goes to a charity.

Obstacles

Ryan’s first step was to bring a team on board and find a building to set up the brew pub. To buy an already existing business, the team would need a minimum of $200,000. Instead, they found a fix it up rental attached to a ballroom that was still used as an event space.

Now that they had the building, they took the next steps toward owning the first brew pub of it’s kind. Here are some of the many obstacles they encountered over the past few years to get this unique nonprofit up and running:

Obstacle: Community push back
Solution: Worried about bringing a bar into a community, Ryan didn’t want to contribute to the already existing problem of people abusing alcohol. “At first people questioned what we were doing. People wanted to change the idea into a coffee shop, or take the idea and brew craft root beer instead,” he says. He knew it was important to establish the nonprofit as a public house and not a bar, a place where friends and family can come together to enjoy a beer and food in a friendly environment.

Obstacle: Never been done before
Solution: Without a model to learn from, Ryan knew trust was key when opening a nonprofit like this, which is the first of its kind in the country. “Customers need to know where the money is going,” Ryan says. Their books are public so customers can see where the profits go to help combat any skepticism. With the idea to one day expand and turn the pub into a brewery, The Oregon Public House is continually aware of maintaining the balance between giving to local charities and the operational costs for the pub.

The ballroom. (Photo from ©Neighborhood Notes.)

Obstacle: Opening without debt
Solution: With the largest donation only being $2,500, there needed to be other ways to raise funds. One way was to start a ‘Founders’ program, where people give to the nonprofit and in return receive a free beer each day, or week, depending on their contribution level.

Another way they stayed debt-free was not building until the money was available, a strategy they plan on continuing. While they received a grant from the city of Portland for the store front, they also didn’t take out any loans.

They likewise relied on volunteers to help reconstruct the building: pour the cement, paint the walls, and do whatever they could to help. Opening with zero debt will allow them to immediately begin donating the profits to worthwhile charities and to positively influence the community around them.

Obstacle: Staying profitable
Solution: Ryan says there are lots of questions about how to make a public house a viable business while giving away most of the earnings. He and his team pay rent by renting out the event space attached to their brew pub location for weddings, movie screenings, and more. “An event space is extremely profitable,” he says. They also plan on having the leadership all-volunteer run, with paid staff to cut down costs.

Advice

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Future home of The Oregon Public House. (Photo from ©Neighborhood Notes.)

After two years of countless hours from 100 volunteers, The Oregon Public House is in the final stages of officially opening it’s doors to the community.

“We’ve received emails from people all over the country saying they’ve had the same idea, and asking how they can do this where they are to help their own city,” says Ryan. “We want people to steal this idea.”

Whether or not you plan on opening your own brew pub for charity, here’s how Ryan thinks you can move forward on your idea:

  • Don’t be afraid to share your ideas, even if they seem silly.
  • Take it one step-by-step, and don’t worry about the time it takes you. People will still be invested in your idea.
  • Be cautious with money. Debt-free is the way to be.
  • Take initiative. Helping the community you live in isn’t as hard as you think.

“Make a living,” Ryan finally says. “But instead of pocketing the extra cash, why not give back to your city?”

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Want to steal this idea? Feel free to reach out to Ryan at ryan@oregonpublichouse.com.

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