soy milkWhen I realized that my daughter was lactose intolerant, I looked into buying a soy milk maker.  But thebeer-mugy’re almost $200…  But, our neighbor has one. We brew our own beer, which is a something she doesn’t make, nor does she want to invest in the equipment.  So we built an exchange. 

 So every monday evening, we exchange a bottle of beer for a quart of soy milk.  Everyone says that she’s getting the better end of this deal, but I need the soy milk!  I’ve always liked the sweet soy milk that you buy at the store, but I wasn’t fond of the unsweetened variety.  But now, my husband and I often look forward to the warm, fresh soy milk to make hot chocolate. (OK, it’s still sweet, but fresh soy milk is good!)

Nonprofits have been good at coming up with creative solutions to difficult problems for a long time. Several nonprofits went in together to share an HR staff member–something none of them could afford by themselves.  POWER, Bethlehem Haven and the Center for Victims of Violent Crime created this joint position to handle the increasingly difficult HR issues that arise.

After I pick up my soy milk, (this time on a Monday morning) I’m headed for my volunteer shift at the Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library–a cooperative started over 34 years ago for families to have a safe place to play with developmentally appropriate toys for children ages 6 and under.  It is open six days a week and has no paid staff.  Because of its proximity to Oakland, there is an incredibly internationally diverse group of families who frequent the “Library”.  Long term friendships are developed between parents.  Babysitting leads are shared, playdates are arranged, parenting advice is easily discussed.  It is one of the unsung gems in Pittsburgh.  It is a major parental stress reliever.  But it is an incredibly creative solution to a lack of funding for staff–and a way to make all families invest because it is THEIR center.

Let’s keep thinking creatively.  Now my neighbor and I are considering bees & chickens… honey and eggs.  Yummmm.

There are many ideas coming out of the nonprofit sector in Pittsburgh–I’d love to hear some more stories!


This week, the House and Senate sent a law to President Obama reauthorizing the Corporation for National and Community Service and its programs through 2014.  They expanded the national and state support for volunteers and the nonprofit sector’s use of volunteers.  Here are a few Highlights of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act passed into law this week.

  • A dramatic expansion of service opportunities for Americans of all ages, setting a path for increasing the number of AmeriCorps members to 250,000 by 2017.
  • Puts young people onto a path of national service by establishing a Summer of Service program to provide $500 education awards for rising 6th-12th graders, a Semester of Service program for high school students to engage in service-learning, and Youth Empowerment Zones for secondary students and out-of-school youth.
  • Invests in the nonprofit sector’s capacity to recruit and manage volunteers.
  • A Social Innovation Fund pilot program to provide seed money and scale up innovative and evidence-based programs that leverage private and foundation capital to meet major social challenges.
  • Expanding eligibility for the Senior Companion and Foster Grandparent programs, and allows Senior Corps education awards to be transferred to children or grandchildren.
  • Simplifying AmeriCorps program management, including through the availability of fixed amount grants.
  • Increasing the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award.
  • Strengthening agency management to support expansion.
  • Authorizes Nboard volunteersonprofit Capacity Building grants to provide organizational development assistance to small and mid-size nonprofit organizations.
  • Authorizes a Civic Health Assessment comprised of indicators relating to volunteering, voting, charitable giving, and interest in public service in order to evaluate and compare the civic health of communities.

 These changes will be very important in starting the spirit of service at an early age, using the opportunity of young adults to both develop their skills while serving their communities, and by tapping the knowledge and skills of older adults in creative ways.  There is also a recognition that nonprofits need to use volunteers more effectively.  There are some fabulous examples of volunteer management in our community– the North Hills Community Outreachthe Pennsylvania Trolley Museum, and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank are just a few  of the local examples of great volunteer management.   There are many others. 

Volunteers are important to the vitality of our schools, communities, the arts, our environment, our health and human services.  We need to celebrate and support with action (as this law does) the contribution that volunteers make. 

Since the early 1980s when Ronald Reagan was elected and the devolutionary efforts to move the care of people off the government’s To Do list and on to those of community nonprofits, the explosion of new nonprofits began. Wise heads have been sure that there are TOO MANY NONPROFITS! And it is true that the number of NPOs has more than tripled in that time…I keep a work journal and have pages of notes from Austin, Texas where in 1986, the primary funders of human services declared the above and tried to force mergers. Most of the energy generated from that activity was put into covert resistance. Mergers aren’t easy…especially not in an industry where passion and identity rule.

This reductive sentiment roils through the sector periodically and we have learned much about what is effective and what is not in merger and consolidation. In Pittsburgh, we have some mergers that have truly worked. They’ve worked for the people served (more and better!). They’ve worked for the staff of the organizations (better benefits, better IT, more career advancement). They’ve worked to better build community. Wesley Spectrum is a role model for productive merging. Here at the Bayer Center, we believe the community benefited from our merger with the Executive Service Corps. ESC volunteers brought expertise and experience that BCNM staff lacked. We can now help with HR, facility, and legal challenges.

If a true fit of mission and culture can be found, many nonprofits would benefit from being a little bigger. But finding the right partner is not an effort of desperation or at least, not solely…

However, in the latest Utne Reader (if you don’t know the Utne, I encourage you to check it out…it’s the Reader Digest for Progressives), I found the hairs on the back of my neck going up when I read Bob Eggers’ casual statement of his belief that over the next year, 25% of NPOs would disappear – and that we would have a “more dynamic and robust” sector if that happened. It is not the first time I have read such statements since the economy tanked.

It must be nice to sit where the gods sit and make such sweeping judgments! Who should go, Bob? I fear some we will really miss. Will it be a more robust, survival of the fittest culture or will the culture be robbed of the very things that are most important for healthy nonprofits? Nonprofits are not meant to be bad businesses, but engines of advocacy for those they serve, think tanks for social solutions and providers of loving, knowledgeable care. Those factors say robust and dynamic to me…and fragile. These qualities are difficult to fund in good times and likely to get lost in the drive for survival. I’d like to hear from you about how we can avert this potential loss of talent, skill and heart.