Friday, July 24, 2009

Quitting Is Not An Option: Mentoring at IPS

The following post was written as an article for Urban Times, a community newspaper serving downtown Indianapolis.

Quitting is not an option.

That was the slogan on the t-shirts worn by hundreds of Marion County high school students and scores of adults spread across several sections of Conseco Fieldhouse at the final Pacers home game this year. It is also a tagline for Common Goal, a broad-based community initiative led by the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce to help improve high school graduation rates in Marion County. The Pacers Foundation is a primary sponsor of one of Common Goal’s core strategies – mentoring programs for students, beginning in their freshman year. The game – featuring the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James no less – was a reward for participating students and their volunteer mentors. Including me.

I signed up for Common Goal last August, after reading about it all summer in the newsletters of just about every organization in town, from the state and local Chambers to Techpoint to Junior Achievement. I was aware of the shockingly high drop-out rates, particularly in some IPS schools where less than 40% of freshmen graduate in four years; and it looked like this was a program that all “the players” had coalesced behind. And for me, the whole point of being self-employed is to have the flexibility to do some things that matter. I figured, if I couldn’t find two or three hours a month to be a foot soldier in a community-wide campaign to combat a significant problem, who would? So, even though working with teenagers isn’t my favorite way to spend my time, I volunteered. And I’m glad I did.

“Marion County’s graduation rate is 70%,” says Eric Bedel, Common Goal Director for
the Chamber. “Our goal is to increase that to 80% by 2011.”

To that end, the Common Goal program is raising money to sponsor several different intervention strategies, from which each individual high school in the county selects one or more programs that meet its needs. These range from internships to schools hiring full-time “Graduation Coaches.” “In many cases,” Bedel acknowledges, “we don’t DO the program, we just FUND it.”

In the case of the “mentoring” option, however, Common Goal is taking a more hands-on approach, about which, more later. Also, the program is county-wide, despite the fact that the issue is most problematic in the inner city.

“We are interested in every student who is at risk to fail to graduate,” Bedel points out. “So when we bring together educators across the county, whether their school is concerned with 3 students or 330, we are still affecting lives.”

But I live and own property within the IPS District, and I have a vested interest in that school district being viable, so when I was given a choice of schools to work at, I chose the New Tech High magnet program at Arsenal Tech, right in the heart of Urban Times country.

For New Tech Academic Dean Scott DeFreese, the “intervention” that works is mentoring. “My students lack access to professionals,” DeFreese says. “The thing I see kids lacking most is not skills, but an understanding of what the business world expects of you when you step out of school.”

Mentoring through Common Goal at New Tech is a regular, but not overwhelming, commitment. I went to a two-hour orientation session last August where I received a three-ring binder with several weeks’ worth of activities and discussion starters. In September I had a ninety-minute orientation to New Tech High and its specific academic approach, which focuses on teaching students 21st Century workplace skills by having them work in teams to produce the equivalent of commercial products, while still studying a mainstream curriculum. For instance, when I first met my students, they were reading The Odyssey like any other high school freshmen. But instead of writing a paper or taking a test on it, they were producing a brochure and other marketing materials for an imaginary travel agency that was selling Mediterranean cruises retracing Ulysses’ trip.

And then I met my five students for an hour every other Wednesday morning for the rest of the school year. Combined with travel time and maybe twenty minutes in reviewing the “curriculum” before each session, the time commitment still came to less than four hours per month (not counting Pacers games and a couple of “brown bag lunch” sessions, where I took my turn dragooning professionals from the community, such as UT’s Bill Brooks, to come talk to the students about career options over the lunch hour.)

My biggest concern going in to the experience was that engaging fifteen-year-olds from any background would be like pulling teeth – I envisioned sitting across from bored, sullen, skeptical kids slouching behind crossed arms, getting one-word answers to the suggested questions in my handbook. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

My five freshmen were diverse in personality as well as ethnicity, engaged, curious – and liked each other. Now, New Tech is a magnet program, but only one of my five came from a family that had made the conscious decision to choose this school over closer ones. The other four all lived in the same near-eastside neighborhoods that Arsenal Tech itself serves, surrounded by all the challenges and economic circumstances with which those communities struggle.

I learned quickly, along with my frequent mentoring partners Marti and Leilani, to use the curriculum as a guideline and not a script. We found that letting the kids talk for fifteen minutes about whatever was on their minds, then drawing in one or two key points from each “lesson plan” (on budgeting time, asking for help, etc.) as the opportunity arose, was a much better way to build rapport than covering the entire set of recommended activities.

And what is on their minds is pretty normal stuff. They want to talk about cars and music and video games. They want to acquire stuff and most of them have part-time jobs to get the money to do that. They think that some teachers talk too much and listen too little; they think some of their assignments are a waste of time. So did I at their age. They all have aspirations for the future that involve college or at least learning a trade, not just graduating from high school. None of them are biding their time to age 16 so they can drop out and sell drugs and make babies.

Maybe I got amazingly lucky with my blind draw of five students – whose names I’m dying to share with you, but can’t, for privacy reasons. I find it hard to believe that, statistically speaking, three out of the five of “my kids” won’t graduate. But maybe that’s the point. Sixty percent of IPS freshmen are not “lost causes”; but historically, for the past several years, 60% of them have become lost, and you’ve got to assume that that will continue to be the case if we don’t do some things differently. Common Goal, and New Tech High and its primary sponsor, Techpoint Foundation, are banking that developing long-term relationships with mentors from the “real world” is a big part of doing things differently.

“With Scott’s leadership, New Tech is focusing on expectations,” says Laura Dodds, the program director for Techpoint Foundation assigned to New Tech High. “Expectations of respect for teachers and for each other. Our kids are used to having professionals walk into the classroom. They’re used to talking to adults.”

Still, “it takes time to build trust with teens,” Dodds admits. Time, I think, and flexibility. At a mid-year debriefing with other mentors, most of the frustration and dissatisfaction was voiced by mentors who had stuck too rigorously to the “curriculum.”

So this summer, Common Goal has hired Ginny Babbitt as a Program Coordinator to conduct focus groups with current mentors and rework the curriculum and the orientation and training process to encourage more of the open-ended mentoring that worked for my colleagues and me. One goal for the coming year is to recruit sufficient mentors to have two mentors for every six kids.

“It’s going to take a few months to warm up to these kids and for them to warm up to you,” Babbitt says. But the point is not to convey a curriculum; rather, “It’s a chance for a student to see a professional, and say, ‘I could become that person.’”

If I have a frustration from my experience with Common Goal in general and mentoring at New Tech in particular, it is a sense that its goals are too modest. If we are successful at increasing Marion County’s graduation rate from 70% to 80% by 2011, how many kids are still going to drop out in the next two years? If mentoring is one of the answers, why aren’t we recruiting ten thousand mentors, out of the six hundred thousand adults in Marion County, so that every group of six high school students in the county has two professionals with whom to build a relationship?

But I can’t mentor thirty thousand kids. What I can do is be there in the fall when my five kids show up to start their sophomore year, and again the year after that, and again the year after that. Meanwhile, sixty new freshman will start at New Tech in late August, and they’ll need twenty new mentors, since Leilani and Marti and our colleagues and I will be moving up to work with our sophomores. If you’re able to help, please contact Common Goal at or Laura Dodds at

I plan to be there, at least for another three years, hopefully until my kids all graduate. Because quitting is not an option.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Rethinking Endowment

Do you think it’s possible to have an endowment that is too big?

I’ve watched with sadness and morbid curiosity as many of central Indiana’s great cultural institutions have announced budget cuts and layoffs in recent months, as a means of dealing with 30 and 40 percent drops in the value of endowments that last year generated over half of their operating revenue.

For most of my career, the eight- and then nine-figure endowments accumulated by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, The Children’s Museum, and the Indiana Historical Society, among others, were things to be envied. This year, they became traps.

No matter how many lines they add to the Form 990, I really think there are only four main categories of revenue for non-profits: earned income, contributed income from private sources, endowment interest, and government grants and contracts.

Most organizations I’ve worked with were aware of the need to achieve greater balance between the two, three, or four streams on which they were dependent. I think in most cases, a 50-50, or 33-33-33, or 25-25-25-25 split would be the ideal.

I’ve known of social service agencies so dependent on government contracts that they changed their missions and names. We’ve all seen performing arts organizations and cultural attractions so dependent on earned income that they invest in marketing and delivering programs unrelated to their mission. Even within the categories, things can get out of balance to the detriment of the organization: development departments that rely too heavily on grants from a few large foundations that give 12% of the charitable “pie” instead of cultivating the individuals who give 83%; institutions where facility rentals become such a big part of earned income that program spaces are converted to banquet halls.

But has anyone ever said, “Wait … our endowment has grown to the point that we’re too reliant on it”?

When a generation of good stewardship generates so many bequests that your endowment grows to more than ten times your operating budget; and the interest that it produces grows from 20% to 35% to 55% of your total income – how do you achieve balance?

How does a museum or symphony with a $20 million budget that (in a normal year) gets half of its income from earnings on a $200 million endowment, achieve greater balance? Does it have to become a $30 million organization, doubling its earned and contributed income to keep up with interest earnings?

It almost sounds like sarcasm or a parody, but I don’t mean it that way. I do think this economic environment is going to cause us, as an industry and a society, to reassess some very basic premises about wealth and income; maybe, in many cases, for the better.

I attend a church that is, in my opinion, out of balance in its reliance on an endowment (or benefaction, as we call it), and is therefore now facing the same kinds of challenges about dealing with a sudden decline in revenue. It has been very interesting to see how this congregation is responding – and the number of individuals who are suggesting, and volunteering, increased giving rather than scaling back on the church’s mission.

Maybe it won’t be an entirely bad outcome if, for the rest of our careers at least, it no longer is seen as desirable to have an endowment so large that we don’t have to sweat so much over our annual fund donors, members, subscribers, customers, and clients …

Monday, April 20, 2009

Indiana "Star" Libraries

I’m a big fan of Indiana’s public libraries. My work has taken me to several dozen of them, and I’m always impressed with how busy and vibrant they all are, whether at 11 o’clock on a Saturday morning or 3 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon. The museum guy in me is jealous of their traffic flow.

Two months ago, the professional publication Library Journal released the results of a year-long national study in which it identified “America’s Star Libraries.” Right off the top, I want to say congratulations to the eleven Indiana libraries that ranked among the top 30, top 20, or even top ten in the nation among libraries of similar size.

Library Journal based their rankings on four fairly straightforward criteria – all measures of per capita usage. Other ranking systems measure a combination of “inputs” as well as “outputs” – budget, depth of collection, etc. This ranking measured only visits, circulation, computer log-ons, and program attendance, divided by the number of residents in the district.

Library Journal analyzed the federal- and state-collected data for some 7100 libraries nationwide, and identified the top thirty libraries, according to these criteria, in each of nine different groups according to budget. Eleven of the top 256 libraries in the nation are in Indiana – more than all but four states, three of which (New York, California, and Ohio) have many, many more libraries in the “competition.”

So, the Indiana libraries that are most “relevant” to their audience, by these criteria, compared to all other libraries of similar size in the country, are as follows:

Spencer County Public Library, which serves 9300 people through a main library in Rockport and three branches, is a “five star library” – one of the top ten in the nation with budgets between $400K and $1M.

Bell Memorial Library in Mentone and Waterloo-Grant Township Library are in the top ten among libraries operating on budgets between $200K and $399K.

Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library ranked as a 4-star library among libraries in the $30M plus category – but that’s because there are so few libraries of that size, LJ only gave “five-star” ratings to the top five instead of top ten. So even though it only got four stars, IMCPL is still one of the top ten "really big" libraries in the nation, by these criteria.

Among the other “four star” libraries – in the top 20 in the nation among some 800 in their category – are Orleans Town and Township ($100-$199K), Butler ($200-$499K), St. Joseph County ($10-29 M), and Allen County Public Library ($10-29 M).

“Three star” libraries – in the top 30, nationwide – include Walton/Tipton Twp ($100-$199K), and Evansville-Vanderburgh County and Monroe County, both in the $5-$9.9 M category.

So – before any analysis or commentary – congratulations to the staffs and boards of these libraries. They’re doing something right.

But, I have to wonder – what does it say that Indiana’s highest ranking libraries – by these criteria, compared to their peers nationwide – include five of Indiana’s very largest libraries, and five of our smallest?

I’ve spent a lot of time preparing for and delivering programs in mid-sized libraries in LaPorte, Rochester, Warsaw, Columbia City, Bluffton, West Lafayette, Crawfordsville, Carmel, Greenfield, Batesville, Seymour, and Vincennes, among others, and I can say, those places rock. I don’t understand how none of them are in the top 30 among libraries of similar size.

So, part of it may be the methodology. This study measures quantity (divided by population), not quality. There’s no equation for the number, let alone the accuracy, of answers provided at reference desks; or whether the items in circulation include any literature, science, or classical music CDs in the mix along with best-sellers and DVDs.

I also suspect that part of what is coming into play is that the largest and smallest libraries are in communities with higher concentrations of people whose economic circumstances drive them to these free sources of enlightenment and entertainment.

And it may be a matter of proximity. The Marion County system has 22 branches, in addition to the Central Library. Bell Memorial, in my hometown of Mentone, serves 3600 people, none of whom live more than 5 miles away. In these communities, no one is more than a five-minute drive (or even walk) from a library.

Indiana’s librarians and their advocates have their hands full these days, dealing not only with recession-related budget cuts, but also changes from property tax restructuring and possible local government re-organization.

I wouldn’t suggest making policy around the results of one imperfect study. I would take a minute (okay, an hour or so!) to say congratulations to some libraries that, without question, are excelling at certain standards. And I would pose to everyone who is looking into library restructuring – whether voluntary or mandatory – that whatever solutions are considered, from consolidation to confederation to simple increased resource-sharing – it appears that there are certainly benefits to being physically close to your audience.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter

Speaking as someone who comes from a Methodist tradition and who recently became active in an Episcopal congregation -- you've not seen an Easter service until you've seen an Episcopalian Easter service!

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Spring Break Bellwether

Three weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak to Liz Kryder-Reid’s IUPUI graduate class in museum administration, and one of her students who works at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis informed us that they had just broken their all-time February attendance record. Since we were in the midst of discussing the effects of the economy, I expressed surprise. “We all hate the term ‘stay-cation,’” she said, “But that’s what appears to be happening – we have local families coming to the museum instead of traveling.”

I’ve been hearing museum people discuss this (phantom?) phenomenon every time the price of gas has risen for the last 25 years, but I wonder if this year it might be bearing fruit. I’m going to have to start asking people what their spring break experience has been this year – starting with the manager of the hotel I’m staying at today in Newport, Kentucky, on my family’s short spring break trip.

Yesterday, at 2 PM on a perfect spring Thursday afternoon, we arrived at the Cincinnati Zoo and found the parking lot full of idling cars waiting for departing families to create one open parking space. The zoo was uncomfortably crowded until after 4 PM.

Today at noon, on a blustery Friday, the serpentine outside the Newport Aquarium was hundreds of people long. (We opted to spend a day swimming, window-shopping, and playing arcade games, and try to beat the crowd tomorrow by being there when the gates open.)

Last weekend, I had promised my son a trip to our Children’s Museum in Indianapolis. We got a late start on Saturday, though, and so we opted for a quick visit to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. (I love it that my eight-year-old loves art museums. At one point he gestured at a painting and asked, “Is that Jackson Pollack?” I told him no, but it was done in a similar style. “Yep, expressionism,” he confirmed me. Are his teachers at St. Richard’s School doing a great job or what?) But my overwhelming impression of our visit on an overcast-but-not-unpleasant March Saturday afternoon was that the IMA had a very impressive crowd -- not enough to make one feel rushed or crowded, but enough to generate a pleasant buzz, a sense of “happening.”

I also couldn’t help but notice that this crowd skewed heavily toward the twenty-somethings. We only encountered a couple of other children; and probably 20% of the audience was my age or older. But there were hundreds of young adults, mostly couples. I had to wonder whether IMA’s emphasis on “Web 2.0” social media programming as well as marketing is paying off.

The downside of spending Saturday at IMA was that I still had to fulfill my promise to go to Children’s – and the only option was a miserable, sleeting Sunday, the kind of day in which no one opts for the park or the zoo. So I wasn’t surprised to find TCM packed to the rafters with multi-generational families, a third of which were pushing multi-child strollers. It was the kind of day that made my son say – as his sisters did at about the same age – “Okay, I’m ready to go home,” and begin to make noises that, at age eight, he’s outgrown The Children’s Museum.

He hasn’t really outgrown that museum; the staff there does a good job of creating age-appropriate experiences for juveniles, tweens, and teens; it’s just hard to tell when there are five thousand toddlers in the building, and adults directing their families away from the The Power of Children exhibit with “Oh, that there’s just educational stuff. There’s nothing to see in there.” (That’s an exact quote, because it was “seared, seared into my memory.” It’s also Children’s unique challenge; but that’s another blog.)

The real point of this blog is that, within seven days in peak “spring break” season, I visited four Midwestern cultural institutions/tourist attractions and encountered crowds ranging from impressive to oppressive. (But with attractions looking for earned income to replace dwindling endowment income and flat-at-best contributions, I doubt any of them were complaining!)

We probably don’t know yet how many families in the Indianapolis/Cincinnati region stayed at home this spring instead of traveling to Florida. Thousands? Tens of thousands?

Will a similar dynamic define this summer? And if so, how can Midwest museums (and zoos and science centers) take advantage? Can smaller institutions get their share of whatever surge there is, or will all the benefits accrue to The Usual Suspects? It will be interesting to see – who guesses right, and who waits for the data …

Monday, March 23, 2009

Non-profits and Starbucks

It's an interesting time to be working for or with non-profit organizations.

In our households and our for-profit workplaces, the decision-makers are conferring daily on the new realities of the current economy. A non-profit board, however, might have only met three or four times since last fall's events with the banking industry and the stock market; since we started changing the way we talk about our economy, from using terms like "slowdown," to using terms like "crisis" and "Depression." Many non-profits have gone from "uncertainty" to "losing a third of the value of our endowment" between two board meetings.

One anecdote that I've shared with the executives and the boards that I've been able to address in recent months, is to remind them that Starbucks Coffee -- which had 165 stores at the time -- had its initial public offering in 1991, early in the previous worst recession. I would argue that their success came not only in spite of, but partly as a result of, the economic climate of the day. They were offering an inexpensive luxury to a huge market that was cutting back but not destitute.

There are always opportunities to be had in environments where people are changing their habits. How can non-profits take advantage of that fact without changing their mission?

From a fund-raising standpoint, two organizations that I work with have postponed major campaigns that I had hoped would be underway by now. As much as I would like the revenue, though, I agree with their decisions. But, I have urged them both, don't simply withdraw into a bunker and try to ride this out. Take the effort and energy that would have gone into major gift cultivation this year, and redeploy it into more aggressive efforts to build your base and improve the results of your annual fund.

Other organizations are deferring major capital and endowment campaigns as well. Some of the charitable dollars in your community that would have been earmarked for major gifts just may be available in smaller amounts for operating and special project support. At any rate, the key is to be in regular communication with board members, donors, and constituents.

It works in business as well. When my salaried friends ask me if I'm keeping busy, I have to laugh. In climates like this, I'm busier than ever. Prospecting is being busy, right? And one of the reasons I'm able to sleep at night is because I look forward to next days when I'm going to be touching base with five or ten prospective customers or partners. That's my advice to everyone else as well.

In fact ... we ought to have the affordable luxury of a cup of coffee together!