Posted onMarch 14, 2018byNina Stack, President of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers
This week hundreds of representatives from private foundations are converging on Capitol Hill to share stories of impact and ask policymakers to consider the implications of tax and policy changes on the essential work of our social sector. Foundations on the Hill brings together grantmakers from across the nation, some representing large billion dollar philanthropies, others small family foundations.
This year Council of New Jersey Grantmakers members from independent, family, and corporate foundations expect to meet with each of New Jersey’s 12 Congressional offices and two Senators. Joining us will be our colleague Linda Czipo, president of the Center for Non-Profits, New Jersey’s leading voice for our state’s charitable organizations.
We have a number of important topics to cover in these meetings.
We want to encourage our representatives to support legislation for a Universal Charitable Deduction, which would expand the tax incentive to everyone one that files a tax return, not just those who are wealthy enough to itemize. With the passage of last year’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act far fewer Americans will itemize, and therefore claim the charitable tax deduction. This puts at risk billions of dollars in donations needed to ensure thriving communities. The proposed Universal Charitable Deduction would put the deduction “above-the-line,” opening up this incentive to everyone. Think of it as democratizing charitable giving.
We will let them know that we oppose any repeal or changes to the Johnson Amendment, an essential regulation that has successfully kept electioneering OUT of charitable work. For decades, this amendment has protected charities from having to wade into partisan politics. Some claim that not being able to endorse a candidate from the pulpit infringes on free speech. This is not a free speech issue.
Consider, for example, the local Boys and Girls club not endorsing a candidate for reelection to town council, and that candidate then withholding town funding. Or a church that doesn’t want to take a side on a partisan issue. What punishment might the zoning board or tax appraiser be pressured to inflict? This is an important issue that both my organization and the Center for Non-Profits have spoken up about on numerous occasions.
We also expect to speak in support of a fair and accurate 2020 US Census. Because the federal government uses the census information to allocate funding that helps underwrite so many vital social services the philanthropic community cares deeply about this. Most believe the Census is primarily about elected representation in Washington. But its impact and value goes far beyond how many seats in Congress a state receives. It is a critical component of a functioning democracy and a just society. Local and state governments, businesses, nonprofits and, yes, foundations, rely on data to allocate funding, define where services are delivered, and promote economic development. This informs decisions about schools, seniors, veterans, and a host of other community needs. Businesses use the census data to make critical choices about their investments and growth.
When populations are undercounted – as is always the case in hard-to-count communities, including people of color, immigrants, young children, urban and rural low-income – it means less government funding, representation, and private sector investment in those communities. And do you realize that undertaking a census every 10 years is actually one of the very few tasks specifically called for in the US Constitution – it is an important civic obligation. One last thought on the census…if you’ve used Ancestry.com or one of those other online family tree services…you’ve relied on census data.
Philanthropy touches every New Jersey resident every day. We will be sharing stories of philanthropy’s impact and how foundations can be a resource for expertise, best practice and model programs. We will talk about how the nonprofit sector is a job creator, responsible for 10% of the American workforce, making it is the 3rd largest sector in the US behind retail and manufacturing. And we will make sure our policymakers realize that even with all its assets, philanthropy cannot come close to filling gaps when government steps back. The numbers just don’t add up.
These are among the issues and ideas that we’ll be talking about this week during Foundations on the Hill. Wish us luck.
Thirty-nine works by 39 women artists, all from New Jersey, are on display as part of approaching VIBRANCY, the Gallery at 14 Maple’s newest exhibit in Morristown.
Morris Arts hosts a free opening reception from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, March 15 on the third floor of 14 Maple Avenue featuring the guest curators, Mary Birmingham and Sarah Walko, both of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, and many of the artists behind the work, which was culled from more than 1,000 submissions. All are welcome.
Focused on presenting the diversity of women artists working in this region, the exhibit includes work across many mediums.
“In curating this show, we looked for art that conveyed the idea of vibrancy — a state of being that is filled with energy and life unhindered by internal or external barriers,” according to a statement from Birminham and Walko. “We were rewarded with works by a diverse group of women artists from across the state that pulsates with dynamic energy. The show includes vivid portraits of women and girls, work exploring the beauty and vulnerability of nature and more. The exhibition shows the diverse ways women artists are working now, from textile and fiber to painting, collage, photography, and various forms of sculpture. approachingVIBRANCY is an aspiration toward dynamism, action, passion, energy, ebullience, and vitality.”
It features work from the following artists:
Olga Alexander (Glen Ridge); Caren King Choi (Secaucus); Andrea Brooke D’alessandro (Toms River); Kate Dodd; Shari Epstein (Long Branch); Lisa Ficarelli-Halpern (Shrewsbury); Asha Ganpat (Montclair); Suzan Globus (Fair Haven); Marsha Goldberg (Highland Park); Ellen Hanauer: Susan Hockaday (Hopewell); Suzan Laura Kammin; Jill Kerwick (Fair Haven); Donna Conklin King (Roseland); Michelle Knox; Parvathi Kumar (Bridgewater); Pat Lay; Jean LeBlanc; Wendy Letven (Clifton); Sue Ellen Leys (Maplewood); Betty McGeehan (Morristown); Anne Q. McKeown; Deborah Guzmán Meyer (Montclair); Perri Neri (Highland Park); Katie Niewodowski (Jersey City); Carol Nussbaum (Short Hills); Erin O’Brien-Kenna; Laurie Riccadonna (Jersey City); Sherry Beth Sacks; Lisa Sanders (Newark); Theda Sandiford; Fran Shalom; Jessica Skultety (Phillipsburg); Amanda Thackray; Marianne Trent (Bedminster); Claudia Waters (Montclair); Lisa Westheimer (West Orange); Gail Winbury (Westfield) and Barbara Wisoff (Summit).
Additionally, at the opening reception, the winners of the Ehlers and Coladarci Arts Scholarships (pianist John Duc-Tuan Nguyen and actress Nicole Giordano, respectively) will be introduced and recognized for their achievements.
The exhibit runs through August 24, 2018. The distinctive space of the Gallery at 14 Maple, is located on the 3rd floor of the LEED-certified “green” building at 14 Maple Avenue in Morristown, NJ. Morris Arts gratefully acknowledges sponsorship for this exhibit by NJ.com and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.
If you loved the first two videos in the series, you won’t want to miss our upcoming in-person event, Whose Body? Celebration and Reclamation on March 24th , 10 a.m. — 3:00 p.m. in Princeton, NJ.
We have a lineup of fantastic poets (two of whom have also contributed videos to the Whose Body Project!) who will be reading and performing as well as leading small group conversations and writing activities throughout the day. The featured performers are:
Whose Body? is a question that can act as an entryway to conversations about a multitude of issues, ranging from body image and body trauma to the incarcerated body and environment and the body.
The Whose Body? Celebration and Reclamation event, and these conversations, are not just for poets and writers. Anyone who is interested in diving deeper into what it means to live embodied in this world can use poetry as springboard.
Whose Body? Celebration and Reclamation is open to the public, and any teachers in attendance are eligible to receive PDH. We are collecting a $15 meal fee to covering catering costs for lunch.
Posted onMarch 6, 2018byChris Daggett, Dodge Foundation President and CEO
An update on our strategic planning process
Equity is one of the most important issues facing society today.
As we witness the unrelenting march of current events — whether through personal experience or through our screens — it has become increasingly difficult to ignore that many of our systems are not designed to incorporate the voices and needs of all people. We’ve reached a very troubling point in our country where the tenor of conversations in kitchens, boardrooms, and the halls of government have become increasingly polarized. At times, it feels as though our democracy as we know it is slipping from our grasp, as the trust we feel toward the pillars of our society — government, business, media, and religion — erodes faster than most of us ever could have imagined.
These are indeed challenging times.
The philanthropic sector focuses on tackling difficult problems facing our society, often by working together and across sectors to find solutions. Foundations across the country are raising and wrestling with the questions and challenges of increasing equity in the communities they serve, each bringing their unique perspective and strengths to this important work.
Today, I share questions we at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation have been asking ourselves as part of this discussion and as we imagine the next 40 years of our foundation through our strategic review:
What might an equitable New Jersey look like? What might be our role in achieving equity in our state?
In beginning to explore the answer to these questions and others, we quickly realized that a deeper understanding of equity must begin with a deeper exploration of our own personal cultural histories, attitudes, and assumptions.
Over the past nine months, we’ve been working with a consultant to gauge the intercultural development of our board and staff, both as individuals and as an organization, and to determine how best to advance our skills in this regard. We are learning we each have a different perspective and awareness of our own identities and those of others. To become more culturally aware takes time, concerted effort, and a willingness to be uncomfortable at times.
We also embarked on an Equity Listening Tour, beginning with conversations with other foundations engaged in this work. We are learning that equity work is, in all aspects of the word, a journey. It begins in the slow, long-term work of building shared meaning, understanding the impacts — intended and unintended — inequity has had on communities, listening to the diversity of voices in communities, and examining power structures.
The work ahead is to explore how we might build more inclusive internal and external policies and practices, how to bring our partners along on this journey, and how we might amplify equity conversations in communities across New Jersey.
We do not yet have answers to these questions — and many more surely will come up along the way.
What we do know, as I shared in my strategic planning update in October, is that Dodge remains committed over the next three to five years to the areas of our current work — supporting initiatives and nonprofit organizations in the arts, education, environment, informed communities, and poetry that are innovative and promote collaboration and community-driven decision-making.
We are committed to inviting you to the conversation, and over the next several months will continue to share insights into our process and the questions we’re asking ourselves. We’ll communicate any changes to our policies or processes originating from our equity work as they arise.
In the meantime, here is a sampling of some of the articles, videos, and reports we have found helpful to better understand the historical, institutional, and structural impediments and inequalities in our society.
We invite you to read them, to think about them, and to consider the same questions we’re exploring — what might an equitable New Jersey look like, and what might be your role in achieving equity in our state?
The Dodge Q&A series is designed to introduce you to Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation staff as they share what they’re learning and thinking about as they visit with nonprofits around the state. They’ll also reveal a few things about themselves you might not have known.
Last fall, Dodge welcomed Marisa Benson as our new grants manager. In a recent conversation, Marisa shares her interest in systems management, how she nurtures creativity, and what she tells people about New Jersey when she’s on international arts trips.
Can you tell me a little about your background?
I am passionate about making transformative experiences happen, whether that be through program management, systems management/design, or community engagement. I started with an interest in the arts and over time transitioned to program and systems management. My career has been at the crossroads of the arts and diplomacy. It is exciting to see the impact of funding and capacity-building initiatives and to learn about the networks/systems which support them in both local and international communities.
How do you nurture creativity in your job and in your life?
At work, I try to apply different perspectives when approaching an issue and seek input when needed. I would love to learn how to take graphic notes, I think it is an inspiring way to keep a record of events. In my life, I immerse myself in arts, through creating, performing and participating. I think it is important to experience diverse offerings of art, meet new people, and go outside one’s comfort zone often.
Do you have a favorite book, movie, or exhibit you’ve seen so far in 2018? Tell us a little about it.
My favorite films so far have been Human Flow, Ai Wei Wei’s film on the refugee crisis and Paddington 2. Human Flow speaks to the gravity of the refugee situation. If there is one film for people to see in their lifetime, I would say Human Flow is that film. Paddington 2 is a great film on admirable, peaceful interaction and it stars a cute bear!
We hear you prioritize travel in your life, and have visited Kenya, Hungary, Oman, and the Philippines for arts-centered learning trips recently. When abroad, what do you tell people about New Jersey?
New Jersey is a place where there are systems and resources in place to foster community engagement. There are diverse landscapes throughout the state. The state includes a good balance of city, suburban and rural areas and opportunity for most to receive a quality education. In New Jersey, there is funding support available for nonprofit organizations to apply to and most organizations tend to diversify their revenue streams. I also mention that there are organizations/people here that might be willing to collaborate on projects and note the importance of building bridges between communities.
Do you have a question for Dodge staff? Send it to Meghan Jambor at email@example.com and it may appear here in a future Dodge Q&A.
Sustainable Jersey Gold Star in Energy provides pathway to goal
Franklin Township Mayor Phil Kramer was distraught when it was announced the United States was pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords.
“I actually said to myself, someone should do something about this and then I looked down at my business card and saw the word mayor and said ok,” Kramer told a sold-out New Jersey Mayors’ Climate Summit, at which over 175 mayors, officials, and leaders from municipalities large and small attended.
“This is a proud moment for New Jersey and I’m happy to be here to show leadership on this issue,” said Mayor Ravinder Bhalla of Hoboken.
The Mayor of Princeton Liz Lempert agreed. “Although this is a bipartisan issue, we have a lack of leadership from Washington D.C. and the fact is a lot of the efforts that are going to go into helping our country do its part with the worldwide effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is going to come at the local level,” Lempert said. “It is really important that as mayors, we step up. I’m proud to be a Climate Mayor and to be a part of this effort.”
Mayors from across New Jersey agreed to take a leadership role on climate change. By the time of the event, the first twelve mayors formally pledged to work with Sustainable Jersey to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their towns. The list will be updated as the additional mayors officially sign-on. See the list and read the pledge here.
Mayor Bruce Packer of Glen Rock added, “For my part, I’m happy to be a Climate Mayor, I hope every mayor will sign up. This is a bipartisan issue; this is not political.” Mayor Vic DeLuca of Maplewood said, “It is very important as elected officials that we speak up and speak out about our commitment to climate action.”
Sustainable Jersey’s Gold Star in Energy
Mayor John C. McCormac of Woodbridge Township noted, “There are a couple thousand athletes in South Korea doing what we are doing right now — going for the gold. They are looking for gold medals in the Olympics and we’re going for the gold in energy with Sustainable Jersey.”
Woodbridge Township is well poised to achieve gold as it has, under Mayor McCormac’s leadership, received our Sustainability Champion award eight times in the large population category. Woodbridge has achieved the highest point totals in the state for each year it participated so far.
Twelve New Jersey mayors publicly pledged to collaborate with Sustainable Jersey and make a significant effort to achieve Sustainable Jersey’s Gold Star Standard in Energy. It’s one thing to sign a pledge, it is another to have an action plan to achieve it and a way to track progress. By working toward the Gold Star Standard in Energy, these municipalities will be implementing proven strategies that will make a major contribution to our statewide effort to reduce greenhouse gasses.
Nine of the 12 towns have achieved silver-level certification with Sustainable Jersey. Bruce A. Harris, the mayor of Chatham Borough, said, “We are committed to being a sustainable community. When we think about going for the gold, we say we have no choice because that is what we have been doing. We are a small community of 9,000 people and are dependent on the work of volunteers. We have a core group of very committed volunteers to work on this.”
Any municipality that achieves the Gold Star in Energy can say with confidence — backed up with rigorous documentary evidence — that they are on a clear trajectory to solving the climate crisis. Mayor Phil Kramer agreed, saying, “It’s a high hurdle to get that gold and it should be a high hurdle. We should all strive for it.”
Sustainable Jersey staff will work with municipalities moving forward on the energy actions.
Many of the municipal leaders gave a brief review of what they are working on and their plans for the future.
“Hoboken is an urban laboratory and a national model for climate adaptation with more than $90 million dollars invested in resilient stormwater management by the city and local partners, as well as almost a quarter of a billion dollars in state and federal funding through our Rebuilt By Design program, which protects us from the coastal flooding we saw with Super Storm Sandy and about three million invested in energy security through PSEG,” Mayor Ravinder Bhalla of Hoboken said. “We continue to be a leader in climate mitigation as well as part of that effort working on our Master Plan. We incorporated a green building and environmental sustainability element in the Master Plan that includes a goal to exceed the carbon reduction goals established by the Paris Climate Accord and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles by increasing walking, biking, and mass transit use. As we work to undertake these goals in 2018, we will be doing a feasibility study for a city-wide microgrid.”
The primary goal is reducing greenhouse gas emissions. New Jersey’s Global Warming Response Act calls for an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 2006 levels by the year 2050. To meet this target, New Jersey will have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a rate of 3.6 percent a year, every year.
The Gold Star in Energy identifies the specific actions and levels of performance that municipalities can, and must, achieve for us to reach our goals for a sustainable New Jersey.
“This year we plan to work with Sustainable Lawrence and our local business community to get more people involved in the Direct Install Program. It’s a win-win for everyone,” Mayor Christopher Bobbitt of Lawrence Township said.
NJ First Lady Tammy Snyder Murphy made a surprise appearance at the Summit and addressed the group. She said, “It is especially nice to be here when it is to bring leaders together to discuss climate change and the steps we can take together to protect our residents and communities. After eight years of standing still, New Jersey is ready to lead again. Thankfully even when there was not much to cheer about at the state level, you and your fellow mayors stood up to do what was right by your communities. Unfortunately, you largely had to do this on your own. I think that is changing. I cannot wait to do things together.”
Mayor Victor Sordillo of Warren Township concluded, “This is the start of something great. We all see the effects of climate change in the floods and storms we have; we feel the impacts of climate change in the extreme cold days and extreme warm summer days and now we must act or else our grandchildren, and I have seven grandchildren, will not have as good a world to live in as we do now.”
For those who missed the event, view a highlight reel of First Lady Tammy Snyder Murphy’s speech and post-event mayors’ news conference here.
A recording of the full event will be available shortly. Sustainable Jersey, the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters Education Fund and Rutgers University Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy hosted the NJ Mayors’ Climate Summit.
Posted onFebruary 26, 2018byLinda Hardy, former Disaster Resiliency Coordinator with NJVOAD
We recently spoke with our colleagues at New Jersey Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NJVOAD) after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria devastated Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, respectively.
NJVOAD recognized the lessons from New Jersey’s experience with Hurricane Sandy were essential to future disaster response and relief efforts, and brought together their members for a day of reflection, learning, and to start the process of ensuring that those lessons would be implemented in future disaster responses. Linda Hardy shares the work that came out of NJVOAD’s Call to Collaboration and how their system improvements are benefitting communities thousands of miles from New Jersey.
There’s a proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” In the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, all anyone knew for sure when looking at the depth and extent of need, was that those looking to help needed to go — now. Survivors needed immediate help, and time to plan out the entire recovery process wasn’t an option.
But as it goes with all recoveries, there are lessons to be learned about what went well and what didn’t, and questions raised about what could be done in the future to try and remedy some of those setbacks. Those were exactly the conversations New Jersey Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NJVOAD) sought to have at their Call to Collaboration conference held in October of 2015.
The conference brought together stakeholders from various organizations that helped, and in some cases, were still helping with recovery three years after Sandy. The goal was to have conversations that would seek to find these “lessons learned” and brainstorm ways to help improve future disaster response and recovery.
Discussions addressed topics such as funding advocacy, continuity of survivor services, communication dissemination, feeding and sheltering. From this event, several working groups were formed to continue those conversations and create potential solutions to the discovered pitfalls.
One such working group focused on donations and volunteer management. The group knew that after disasters there is an outpouring of help being offered by people, but there are some serious gaps in how to best capture and direct this goodwill in a positive and productive way.
Instead of receiving material donations that sometimes couldn’t be used or distributed, what was the best way to collect and organize those donations, or better yet, educate the public on the benefits of giving financial donations?
Continued discussions by this group led to NJVOAD’s inclusion in the State’s Donations Management Annex. Because of this partnership, official messaging from the State during the recent 2017 hurricanes directed the public to HELPNJNOW.ORG — a website developed and maintained by NJVOAD, in partnership with the NJ Office of Emergency Management and the Governor’s Office of Volunteerism — which educates people on disaster preparedness and the best ways to help after a disaster.
A disaster case management working group was also formed. Many different organizations helped with the working group after Sandy, and the collective learning and wisdom of those organizations resulted in the building of two key resources.
First, the group created a Disaster Recovery Resource guide to inform and improve the recovery planning efforts of future disaster survivors. This resource has been utilized in multiple disasters and became the foundation of Texas’s Hurricane Harvey Recovery Guide.
Second, with the goal of minimizing the abundance of paperwork survivors are required to fill out to receive services after a disaster, a common screening form was created to be shared with the numerous organizations responding to meet the immediate needs of survivors and improve the likelihood of an informed placement with the most appropriate provider. This form was recently used in Texas and Florida by one of the partnering organizations during their response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Deliverables such as these are just the beginning of what can be done with the collective knowledge and experience of veteran disaster organizations, and the conversation is just beginning. The hope is that with every effort to work together, communities affected by future disasters will see smoother, shorter and more effective overall recoveries.
To find out more about NJVOAD and how your organization can get involved, visit njvoad.org.
Linda Hardy is a former Disaster Resiliency Coordinator with NJVOAD. In her three years with NJVOAD, she has supported long-term recovery groups and regional VOADs and COADs (Community Organizations Active in Disaster) as they sought to help NJ residents recover from Hurricane Sandy and prepare for future disasters.
Whose Body? is a question that arose time and again as we considered the theme of Poetry & the Body. It’s a question that emerges when we consider many different issues, including body image, body trauma, environment & the body, the marginalized body, the incarcerated body, body politics, healing & the body, the gendered body, the non-gendered body, and senses & the body.
The Whose Body? Project will feature several components during the month of March, which you can read about in more detail here, including
Videos of eight poets reading work that speaks to the question Whose Body? from different points of view. A new video will be posted to our Tumblr page twice a week throughout March
A #WhoseBody social media takeover day in mid-March, designed to help us speak back to the photoshopped, filtered and unrealistic images of bodies that fill our screens every day
Today, we’re opening registration for a special event at the end of March, Whose Body? Celebration & Reclamation. This event will feature
a dozen poets
performances and readings
small group conversations, and
…all approaching the question Whose Body? from many points of view.
The Celebration, open to the public, will be held on Saturday, March 24, 2018 in Princeton, NJ from 10 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. Registration required.
Many of you may not know that Dodge Poetry is only one of five major programs at the Foundation; the others are Arts, Education, Environment and Informed Communities. Although we are the only Dodge program that functions as an operating organization and not as a grantmaking institution, all of our work is designed to align with and support the other programming areas and the Foundation’s mission and values.
In 2017 the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation launched a strategic refresh, reviewing its vision, values, mission, and exploring what it might do differently to better meet challenges facing our communities.
Back in October, Dodge Foundation President and CEO Christopher Daggett posted a blog to keep Dodge grantees informed about this process. He wrote:
It’s been a disruptive year. We’ve all had to adjust as the ground shifts beneath our feet — in business, technology, government, our personal lives — and even literally, in hurricanes and earthquakes.
Every day seems to bring new challenges around what we thought we knew about our society and our democracy. It has led all of us to ask many questions about the future and our roles in it.
At the Dodge Foundation, we’ve been taking in these questions as we look ahead and think about the long-term impact we want to have in New Jersey, our cherished home.
Most of what Chris goes on to write addresses Dodge’s grant-making, which accounts for the majority of the foundation’s funding.
Dodge Poetry, as part of this ongoing foundation-wide strategic refresh, is taking some time to review its own activities, procedures, practices and offerings. Part of this process involves taking a close look at how we are serving New Jersey teachers.
Dodge’s Education Program and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts recently co-sponsored “Meet Teachers Where They Are,” which took a deep look at the kind of personal and professional development experiences New Jersey teachers desire, and the obstacles they face in search of them. Using what we’ve learned from this study, and from our own teacher surveys and conversations with target groups of educators and poets, we’re using the months ahead to take a close look at Clearing the Spring, Tending the Fountain, and how it supports our evolving mission, vision and goals.
Because it would be impossible to do this kind of thoughtful review while producing the full series of Spring & Fountain groups across the state, we’re modifying our offerings this season. Two state-wide, day-long poetry gatherings will be planned for mid- and late spring. The first is scheduled for March 24th; the second will be toward the end of the school year. Once again, teachers will be able to sign up for our on-line Spring & Fountain activities. Of course, those of you who’ve been in these sessions over the years can gather your own informal groups and share poems on your own.
We will be sending details on these offerings in the weeks and months ahead. Be sure to visit DodgePoetry.org to stay up-to-date with news on the upcoming Festival, and subscribe to our Poetry Fridays blog if you haven’t already. You can also follow along with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
As always, we thank you for all you do to bring poetry into your students’ lives.
Posted onJanuary 24, 2018byRandall Solomon, Executive Director, Sustainable Jersey
Funding now available for municipal and school sustainability projects
Do you have a wild idea or project with potential that needs funding? Sustainable Jersey’s grant program funds sustainability initiatives in New Jersey—projects like the wind turbine at Cape May City Elementary School, the plastic bag reduction campaign in Highland Park and the creative assets inventory in Jersey City.
Nearly 700 grants, across every New Jersey county, have been distributed since the program began in 2009. Sustainable Jersey grants are awarded to projects that cover the spectrum of our sustainability actions, so think arts, diversity and equity, and health and wellness in addition to the more commonly thought of environmental categories.
Currently, the Sustainable Jersey Grants Program has $300,000 in grant money available. The PSEG Foundation is contributing $200,000 to support this grants program cycle for municipalities and $100,000 to support a grants program cycle for schools.
The municipal cycle will award four (4) $20,000, eight (8) $10,000 and twenty (20) $2,000 grants to support efforts related to Sustainable Jersey actions. For more information, click HERE. The application deadline is Wednesday, February 28, 2018 at 11:59 PM.
The schools cycle will award four (4) $10,000 grants to school districts or schools, and thirty (30) $2,000 grants to support efforts related to Sustainable Jersey for Schools actions. For more information, click HERE. The application deadline is Friday, February 9, 2018 at 11:59 PM.
Projects funded in past years include electric vehicle charging stations, an organic curbside waste program, wind turbines, an energy efficiency education program for low-income residents, school food composting centers and community gardens. Here are two examples of grant projects that were funded recently.
Water Street Park: Wildlife Habitat Development, Hunterdon County
Clinton Town has a new reason to look forward to spring this year. In 2017, Clinton Town was awarded a $10,000 Sustainable Jersey grant funded by the PSEG Foundation to expand and improve the natural ecosystems and sustainability of Water Street Park. This spring, the park will be in full bloom after last year’s hard work to create a wildlife sanctuary for birds, bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
The Clinton Conservancy and more than one hundred volunteers worked tirelessly on completing the gardens at Water Street Park by planting 20 trees and shrubs, 29 wildflower plants, over 270 grasses, ferns and perennials and over 1,400 flower bulbs.
Clinton Presbyterian Church volunteers removed a years’ worth of branches, trash and mountains of leaves. The Boy Scouts planted the river’s edge with grasses and perennials while Clinton Green Team, Country Garden Club and Conservancy members planted trees, shrubs, ferns and wildflowers. Clinton Fire Department watered the park and the Girl Scouts planted most of the bulbs with the help of the Conservancy and Country Garden Club members. The Sierra Club, Clinton Presbyterian Church volunteers, Country Garden Club, and Conservancy members planted a large monarch waystation/butterfly garden at the far end of Water Street Park.
The long-term goal is for the area to serve as an official site for collecting and reporting data on bird and butterfly counts and migration. The green team also hopes to increase local awareness and appreciation for critical habitats. We look forward to seeing the photos this spring.
Toms River High School South to Discover the Microbes Within
Did you know that humans consist of approximately 10 percent human cells and 90 percent prokaryotic cells, yet the idea of studying the relationships between eukaryotic hosts and prokaryotic symbionts is largely ignored in introductory biology classes? Well, we’re glad that the teachers at Toms River High School South have a firm grasp of this concept.
To support their work, Sustainable Jersey for Schools awarded Toms River High School South a $10,000 grant funded by the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). The school will partner with the Bordenstein Lab at Vanderbilt University to provide a team of rising 11th and 12th grade Authentic Science Research (ASR) students the opportunity to participate in the Wolbachia Summer Research Project. This project is a local and international initiative to contribute to the national Wolbachia database. It will teach high school students about managing mosquito populations using techniques that use molecular/microbiology.
The Bordenstein Lab will provide online technical assistance and research materials to the school. This research could provide a sustainable means of managing mosquito population through biological pest control that could eventually contribute to a decline in New Jersey mosquito populations and the spread of Dengue and Zika viruses.
Principal James Ricotta Jr. explained, “The Toms River Regional School Authentic Science Research (ASR) program encourages the spirit of discovery through hands-on learning using the scientific method, and the Sustainable Jersey for Schools grant will provide teacher training, equipment purchasing and allow the underclassmen in ASR to collect and analyze data from the Wolbachia Summer Research Project. The Wolbachia Summer Research Project will help students begin to establish the local frequency of the parasitic bacteria Wolbachia in our insect population, and increase career readiness in a lab setting.”
Good Grant Proposals
The Sustainable Jersey grant proposals are judged by an independent Blue-Ribbon Selection Committee. The grant proposals that score the highest strongly reflect the evaluation criteria. Two informational webinars were held to review the online application process, requirements and tips for successful applications.
Sustainable Jersey Municipal Grants Webinar: View the recording and presentation HERE
Sustainable Jersey for Schools Grants Webinar: View the recording and presentation HERE
Sustainable Jersey Grant Tips Presentation: View the presentation HERE
We look forward to the completion of these projects and the ongoing efforts of these municipalities and schools in making a more sustainable New Jersey.
The word “philanthropy” usually brings to mind the act of giving in support of a worthy cause. And this description is, of course, true.
At its core, however, philanthropy is much more. As entrepreneur and philanthropist Eli Broad famously said, “Charity is just writing checks and not being engaged. Philanthropy, to me, is being engaged….”
Once upon a time, check-writing was the hallmark of charitable giving, and conversations about giving revolved around doing good by selecting worthy causes. Nothing is wrong with this approach, and few can deny the world-changing impact it’s had over the years—from transforming local communities to changing the global landscape.
Indeed, the Community Foundation of New Jersey (CFNJ) has long incorporated this philanthropic approach in its mission, helping donors give more than $50 million annually from donor advised funds to charitable organizations. CFNJ also offers individuals multiple in-house investment options to help them grow their donor advised fund balances and expand their ability to have an impact on the communities and causes closest to their hearts.
But as individuals increasingly seek to engage more not only in the product of their giving but also in its process, traditional approaches to philanthropy are changing.
Responsible Investing Gaining Popularity
CFNJ has long thought creatively about the ways donors may deploy their assets – from an online giving portal to venture philanthropic opportunities – and now offers a socially responsible investment option as a further extension of the meaningful ways to give and invest.
The Parnassus portfolio allows individuals to “do good” with their investments even before they “do good” with their charitable giving and grantmaking by investing in companies whose business models advance a culture of social responsibility. It empowers individuals to make a positive difference through how their dollars are invested even before these dollars are issued as grants to worthy causes.
And, importantly, the portfolio responds to fund-holder demand. According to Parnassus Investments, “[in] the mutual fund business, 2016 saw record net flows to ESG (environmental, social, and governance) funds, with more than double the gains of the two prior years—and 2017 is on track to surpass the assets gathered last year.”
The Parnassus portfolio invests with low turnover and high conviction in approximately 40 holdings that meet rigorous environmental, social, and governance criteria (click for more on ESG criteria). Companies included in this portfolio have demonstrated records of excellence in corporate governance and business ethics; corporate culture and employee benefits; stakeholder relations; environmental impact; and products, customers, and supply chain.
For example, these companies place high value on natural resources and care deeply for energy efficiency and waste and pollution control. They also prioritize people—from employees and customers to community neighbors and stakeholders. Additionally, these companies are committed to organizational integrity, which encompasses areas including executive pay, leadership responsibilities, and financial accountability and transparency.
These ESG criteria have already transformed the corporate landscape—and philanthropists have a role to play in continuing this transformation.
Individuals who choose to invest in the Parnassus portfolio reap the benefits of growing their funds and grantmaking capacity—all while supporting socially responsible companies.
An Opportunity to Amplify Impact
This type of responsible investing enables philanthropists to amplify their total impact. So often, individuals desiring to have a transformative impact in a certain area or leave a legacy that will last long into the future spend significant time focusing on the “visible” product of grantmaking—or the small tip of the iceberg—but far less time considering how funds are invested before they are given away as grants—the much larger portion of the iceberg that remains largely unseen.
The Parnassus portfolio gets below the surface and infuses the spirit of philanthropy into the rest of the iceberg.
For our organization, the Community Foundation of New Jersey, offering the ESG investment opportunity is a straightforward way to better serve our fundholders. Our Investment Committee studied the different options to invest responsibly, and we’re proud of this expanded offering.
While the Parnassus portfolio represents an addition to CFNJ’s existing in-house investment options, it’s a further realization of CFNJ’s mission: to support charitable giving that is inspired by its donors, targeted at making communities stronger, driven by creative solutions, and effective in achieving lasting change.
Hans Dekker is the President of the Community Foundation of New Jersey (CFNJ). CFNJ educates and engages the people of New Jersey on the power of charitable giving to effect positive change in our communities. Since its founding in 1979, the Community Foundation has counseled New Jersey families and businesses on how to use philanthropic funds to target and increase the impact of their giving in the areas that matter most to them. These more than 1,100 Legacy Funds and Donor Advised Funds grant tens of millions of dollars each year, and have enabled the Community Foundation to launch its own Changemaker Projects that are improving New Jersey and its dynamic communities. The Community Foundation’s funds currently hold over $400 million in charitable assets and made over 5,000 grants last year to charitable work in New Jersey and around the world. CFNJ is a member of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, the center for private philanthropy in New Jersey
Posted onDecember 20, 2017byRandall Solomon, Executive Director, Sustainable Jersey and Woodbridge Mayor John E. McCormac
Woodbridge Mayor John E. McCormac explains Sustainable Jersey to mayors in Connecticut
On November 26, 2017 at the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities’ annual convention, Sustainable Connecticut (CT) was launched. It is modeled on Sustainable Jersey. More than 200 municipal, business and nonprofit leaders partnered with Eastern Connecticut State University, the Connecticut Economic Resource Center and Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) over the last year to create Sustainable CT.
I am proud to have had the opportunity to support the transfer of what we consider a cutting-edge system based approach for municipal sustainable development to our colleagues in Connecticut.
Mayor John E. McCormac of Woodbridge Township, travelled to the conference to give a straight talk speech-mayor to mayor-to explain how Sustainable Jersey has worked for his township. Under Mayor McCormac’s leadership, Woodbridge Township received our Sustainability Champion award eight times in the large population category. Woodbridge achieves the highest point totals in the state for each year it participates. Mayor McCormac gave a tremendous speech in Connecticut that left a lasting impression. With his permission, we would like to share it with you. – Randy Solomon
Woodbridge Mayor John E. McCormac’s Speech at the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (Excerpts)
“I just completed my eleventh year as mayor of Woodbridge Township. Sustainable Jersey was just a concept back when I was first sworn in; it took three years to bring Sustainable Jersey to fruition in 2009. Sustainable Jersey was a creation of our fantastic New Jersey State League of Municipalities which is our advocacy group in Trenton for each of our 565 governmental entities.
I am here because of the work done by the great staff of the Township of Woodbridge who have made us the most sustainable town in New Jersey for eight of the last nine years. Our involvement began rather innocently when Woodbridge Chief of Staff Caroline Ehrlich came across a League magazine article describing this new program which was actually a competition among towns to see which town was the most sustainable. Not having a clue about what it involved, or how it would work, I had just one demand– if we are going to get in it, we better win it.
If the competition was handicapped like a horse race, we probably would have been a long shot behind towns like Princeton, Highland Park and Maplewood which we knew were doing great things for the environment. What we did not realize, however, is how much we were already doing within the Sustainable Jersey model as part of our basic governmental operations. We were just as progressive and aggressive as others – we just did not realize it. Many of you will have the same experience.
We went through the requirements for Sustainable Jersey and realized immediately that we had enough points to be qualified – points from things like solar panels, biodiesel fuels, a Farmer’s Market, an Environmental Commission, a recycling center, an anti-idling program and an environmental resource inventory. We started putting our programs and services into the required Sustainable Jersey format and realized we were pretty good at this environmental thing. Many of our peers quickly realized the same thing.
What makes Sustainable Jersey so great is that the program provided hundreds of other ideas as to what we could do to become greener–or in my case, what we had to do to win. They set out the points involved in each action item so towns could decide which additional steps to take that made the most sense for them. They prepared the framework for success and then each town could decide just how much effort they wanted to put into being certified or go further to place at the top of the competition. Sustainable Jersey even has a category for “Innovative Ideas” or actions that they did not yet think of, that we and others could use to get credit. Sustainable Jersey laid out ideas and resources so that we could learn more about the options which is why Carol frequently, respectfully and affectionately calls their model: “Sustainability for Dummies.”
We started involving our residents in the program. We added a special green edition of our quarterly newsletter, added a Greenable Woodbridge link to our web site, held workshops, developed green educational materials, started a Buy Local campaign and wrote a Sustainable Community Plan. Carol hosts a Sustainable TV show every quarter with business leaders, industry experts and local residents doing remarkable things to highlight our accomplishments and challenge and encourage our residents and businesses to follow suit.
Recognizing that competition is what got us interested in the program to begin with, we started competitions among others in our town. Apartment complexes, office buildings, businesses, schools and residents competed to see who was the most sustainable. Government is one leg of the three-legged stool that helps our environment. Our businesses and residents were incredibly happy to participate with us in the challenge. All three need to be involved to make the effort truly successful and government is the only entity that can put everyone together on the same page.
We applied for grants, including ones from Sustainable Jersey, and we strategically use tax incentives primarily on contaminated brownfields sites to encourage the highest level of cleanups possible. We used a vacant store in Woodbridge Center to open a green museum of the future, started a microgrid plan (I still don’t know exactly what a microgrid is), encouraged restaurants to recycle food waste separately and of course we implemented social media to reach a segment of the population we otherwise would not have reached.
Many of those things we would have done anyway, but many we would never have thought about without the help of Sustainable Jersey. We challenged our residents to take the Green Challenge. We challenged them to Buy Local. We challenged them to have a home energy audit done and to come out on one of two weeks per year to help clean our public spaces. We implemented a new garbage and recycling pickup plan with automated trucks that enabled us to substantially reduce our work force through attrition and reassignments without layoffs. Our residents were so impressed with the new service that we turned a five-year implementation plan into two years to meet the demand from our residents whose only complaint was “When am I going to get the new cans?” Our recycling percentages went up dramatically.
We solicited proposals for an energy aggregation plan that overcame a rough start but that now just went through its first renewal process, nearly seamlessly. Opt-ins now outnumber opt-outs and every single resident that joined saved money in the first year. A new option was selected that used mostly renewable energy sources to make us the first in New Jersey to offer this strategy to our residents.
We did not do everything on the list of items that could have gotten us points. We picked what we wanted. We could have passed an ordinance limiting times for residents to water their lawns but thought this was overreaching. We did not adopt an extreme temperature event plan or a community wildfire protection plan or various other suggestions that just did not fit the character of our municipality – although if we were ten points short of first place, we might have reconsidered.
There is a huge benefit to our Township from Sustainable Jersey that is tough to measure. We have quite simply become branded as the top environmentally friendly town in New Jersey. That matters to people. It matters to our residents, many of whom will randomly thank me for the effort. They will congratulate me on doing things that I did not know we did or that I do not understand but what is important is that they know we did something that they understood and liked.
It matters to our businesses who are proud to be in Woodbridge. It matters to businesses who are looking for a place to locate and choose Woodbridge. Prospective businesses will come to meet with us and brag about their LEED certifications before we even ask them because they know our reputation and they feel they will be right at home in Woodbridge.
We are not shy about touting our first-place finish and we brag in every publication, every media page and website and every piece of information we put out anywhere about the Township of Woodbridge. Everyone in town knows we are number one when it comes to the environment, if they pay even a little bit of attention to what is in front of them.
We engaged our municipal staff quite easily – the Mayor said to do it so they did it. But as I said earlier, we already had a huge head start because of the work they did and continue to do every single day. Our directors and our employees understand what it means to us because they go to conferences and conventions and talk to their peers and they talk to our residents every day. They truly know what it means to have Woodbridge as the most sustainable town in New Jersey. It has given us a level of prestige that is actually indescribable and because it is objective and not subjective, like most things in our political lives, that objectivity gives an extra layer of respectability.
And of course, I am exaggerating when I say the staff just followed orders. We have always preferred an approach of buy-in, not push-back. The best lines I hear in various staff meetings to discuss the Sustainable Jersey tasks that we will undertake are “that makes sense” or “sure we can do that” or the best one “what if we try this?” And we truly ask opinions rather than just give direction. Nobody knows better how to save on energy than the head of our Buildings and Grounds Division. Nobody knows better how to save on fuel than our Public Works Director. Our upper and mid-level managers became our partners since the very beginning and many of the ideas we have implemented have come directly from them.
We have also involved our outside entities that are unofficially connected to Woodbridge. Our schools are obviously separate from our town but our school children are a natural ally to bring their parents around to a more environmentally friendly life style. The Board of Education consulted with us before putting solar panels on 23 of their buildings. Our library system is somewhat independent, but they use their vast resources to help us in any way they can. Our Housing Authority mimics every energy program we start and our Wellness Committee understands that a healthy lifestyle is a sustainable lifestyle.
Participating in Sustainable Jersey is not hard, and it is not easy. It all depends on how far a town wants to go with it. We are fortunate to have a large and dedicated staff in Woodbridge and we can afford to let our employees take the time to document all of our efforts and fill out paperwork to participate in the program. Not all towns are as lucky. That is why the spread between small, medium and large towns is important. Other than an allocation of time, the Sustainable Jersey effort did not require a budget allocation or a specific dedication of resources that would have been noticeable to our taxpayers.
In fact, not only has the program not cost us any money, but we have achieved budgetary savings as a result of many of the actions. Every energy-efficient action like an energy audit and new light fixtures and weatherproofing of windows or a more efficient fuel source goes right to the bottom line. We spend less on energy now than when I became Mayor eleven years ago and it is not just because of price fluctuations – our energy usage is down overall because of Sustainable Jersey.
We have always had the policy of marrying the two greens – green for the environment and green for the taxpayer dollar. I would freely admit that we probably would not have implemented solar panels on our municipal buildings but for a $2 million plus State grant. The annual budgetary savings from less electricity has a payback of over 20 years that was reduced to less than five because of the grant. Sustainable Jersey has allowed us to access other grants from public and private sources that we otherwise would not have known about.
Connecticut has a terrific opportunity now to implement your own program and I strongly encourage you to do so. Starting one up is not easy just as joining the program as a town is not necessarily easy. But the long-term gain makes it worth the short-term pain. The model is there for you to follow. Look at what other states in the country have done and look at what your neighbor to the Southwest has done. Use Sustainable Jersey as your guide and in particular use Randy Solomon as your role model.
I did not run for Mayor in 2006 to save the environment. That issue did not make any of my mailers. It was not in my polls. It did not get brought up in my debates. I simply did not talk about it at all. I never imagined what a hot button issue it really would become.
I ran on a platform of economic development and jobs, pledging to make Woodbridge vibrant again. Little did I know that when I ran for re-election, I would highlight our environmental accomplishments first and foremost and often. As I said earlier, sustainability became our brand. It became my brand. Sustainability helped me reach all of my campaign promises in both a direct and indirect way. Sustainability is good government. Good government is good politics. I am now the Environmental Mayor and very proud of it.
So, in closing, my advice to my colleagues in this room is to embrace the program. Own it. Make it yours. Lead by example. Take advantage of this program to really reach your residents to show them you care about the environment because they do. Even those who dispute that climate change is caused by humans will respect you for the efforts to make your town more greenable. Everyone likes to save natural resources, everyone likes to save money. Make Sustainable Connecticut a priority in your municipality like we did in Woodbridge and your residents will love you for it.”
Update as of December 15: The final H.R. 1, Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was released on Friday, December 15, 2017. The tax plan will not repeal the Johnson Amendment and does not include the Universal Charitable Deduction, however it does maintain the current charitable giving incentive for itemizers.
Ad*vo*cate: a person who speaks or writes in support or defense of a person, cause, etc.
Lob*by*ist: a person who takes part in an organized attempt to influence legislators.
The difference between the two feels quite nuanced doesn’t it? And, to add to the confusion, the rules for private foundations are slightly different than the rules for charities. With the extraordinary proposals coming down in the federal tax reform effort, my organization, the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, is spending a lot of time in this space right now. Truth be told, everyone that works in, benefits from, and supports our social sector should be in engaged as well.
One of the primary roles that the Council plays for our members is that of advocate. The proposed changes to the federal tax code include a number of elements that either directly impact the operations of foundations or stand to dramatically impact the work of grantees or both.
We have done a lot of outreach to New Jersey’s Congressional delegation and senators to let them know CNJG’s perspective on those issues that affect or concern foundations.
For instance, a key aspect of the legislation is to raise the standard deduction. Sounds like a good thing right? Except that now far fewer people will be able to itemize their tax return — which means they can’t take advantage of the charitable deduction. In fact, it means that 95 percent of tax filers will actually pay tax on their charitable deductions! It is for this reason that so many of us are concerned — if the incentive to give to charities goes away the loss in charitable giving is estimated to be as much as $13 billion.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the proposal to create a Universal Charitable Deduction, which would not only counter this loss but in fact open up the incentive to all taxpayers. It didn’t make it into either the House or Senate versions, but we are hopeful it might be taken up again when they take up welfare reform, which is apparently up next.
Or, perhaps you’ve heard about the effort by a very small group of conservative churches to have the Johnson Amendment repealed. This amendment, named for then-Senator Lyndon Johnson who championed the law, assures that charities are not allowed to endorse candidates or engage in “electioneering.”
There has been a large national movement to explain to elected official why repealing this amendment is very, very bad idea. Can you imagine the influence a donor, looking to advance one candidate over another, could exercise over a charity to endorse “his guy”? Or the boardroom of a charity now faced with the question of whether to endorse the current Mayor or the challenger? For a private foundation that wants to provide general operating support how can they be assured that a grantee won’t sign onto endorsing a candidate that the foundation has no interest in supporting? To learn more read an op-ed that my colleague Linda Czipo of the Center for Non-Profits and I authored in NJ Spotlight.
From taxing charities with supposedly “highly compensated” employees and flattening the excise tax that private foundations play, to requiring increased reporting for donor-advised funds, we are watching closely the negotiations between the Senate and House as the legislation comes through conference committee.
As this landmark tax legislation moves forward it is critical that all those who give to, work in, and steward our nation’s charities which are essential and integral threads of our society’s fabric — understand what these far-reaching changes will mean. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources and organizations (many that I’ve linked to here) that can help you understand and help you to connect with your elected officials to share your thoughts.
Imagine walking into an airy, beautiful, contemporary building with 50,000 poetry books, one of the largest audio and video archives of poetry in the word, a small theater for readings, spaces dedicated to workshops, meetings and conferences, and its own little cottage for visiting poets. The odds are, if you’re reading this blog, you’re among the people who will appreciate what a rare experience it would be.
The Poetry Coalition Meeting in Tucson | Photo: Tyler Meier of The Poetry Center
It would take a poem to describe the feeling of standing in the main library of the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center in Tucson, looking around at the stacks, and trying to imagine the time, resources, work and perseverance that went into creating it. People, many people, chose to bring this place into existence and keep it thriving. Even in these times, there are people making a space for poetry, not only in their own lives, but for everyone.
That spirit is also behind the work of The Poetry Coalition, a group of the largest poetry non-profit organizations who are working together to bring poetry into more people’s lives. When we met in Arizona this past weekend, we all felt the power of the place we were in, not only the physical place of the Poetry Center, but the collaborative one created by our gathering together for a common purpose: to increase the visibility of the art form and demonstrate its unique ability to spark dialogue and encourage empathy.
One of the things we accomplished was to choose a shared theme for our March 2018 national series of poetry events: Poetry and the Body. This marks the second year that over twenty poetry organizations will present events on a common theme. Each organization brings its own approach, so check back with us at Dodge, and follow the Poetry Coalition news for information about events in your area.
After a day of meetings, we traveled to the Phoenix Art Museum for a reading by Sandra Cisneros, Rita Dove and Joy Harjo, hosted by Natalie Diaz in partnership with ArchiTEXTS: A Conversation Across Languages. Listening to those three powerful voices reminded all of us in the coalition that, yes, this is why we do the work we do.
“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”
– Toni Morrison
As part of research for Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation exploring how philanthropy can support diverse, inclusive newsrooms, I visited local newsrooms, interviewed experts and community groups, sat with journalists and listened.
Leaders agree on the importance of innovation yet few can consistently agree on what it actually means or how it looks in a newsroom context. The journalism field is often seen reacting to disruption and an ever-changing digital media landscape rather than driving and defining change for itself. This reactive dynamic directly impacts diversity in newsroom innovation.
In absence of industry-shaping what innovation means for itself, news media startups tend to walk the similar, unfocused path set by Silicon Valley and often build products with an eye toward securing venture funding first and foremost rather than serving and informing the public. Furthermore, the same diversity challenges in journalism are heightened and exacerbated within the venture-backedtechnology industry.
The effectiveness of this approach is short-sighted and does not lend itself to sustainability. While the need for innovative, diverse journalism remains more pressing than ever, the venture funding environment has remained tough. Last year, venture funding to media startups hit a four-year low.
“The decline in venture funding comes amid a moment of reckoning across the digital media landscape. Web publishers like Mashable Inc. and International Business Times have fired dozens of employees this year. Smaller players are seeking new business models as they struggle to sustain themselves on digital advertising, which is being increasingly dominated by Google and Facebook Inc. Many of them are shifting their business to focus on web video, where advertising rates are higher.”
In the vacuum of redefining innovation in a journalism context, media startups are beholden to the Silicon Valley’s standards for innovation: growth, scale, and speed. While those conditions may work in some newsrooms, those metrics of success do not translate for local and hyperlocal newsrooms. In this context, these newsrooms are experiencing growth but work and function at a different pace and scale. Venture funding is one method, but there is a myriad of other paths to carve for media funders seeking to support innovative, diverse journalism that strengthens communities and serve the public.
There is an opportunity for journalism funders to study, support and build upon innovations in other fields and incorporate those products and tools into newsrooms. An example of this can be seen with CrowdTangle, a publisher tool embraced by newsrooms large and small backed by several venture funds as well as Knight Foundation’s Enterprise Fund. The tool was first developed to support activist organizing efforts during Occupy Wall Street. The social dashboard tool was later acquired by Facebook continuing the complicated tightrope walk between Facebook and publishers.
Generally speaking, the journalism field has defaulted to the Silicon Valley definition for innovation, a standard that holds even in face of failure. A recent example of this can be seen with Circa, a venture-backed news app once heralded as the future of civic media.
“It’s with great disappointment that we let you know that Circa News has been put on indefinite hiatus. Producing high-quality news can be a costly endeavor and without the capital necessary to support further production we are unable to continue.”
There is a mission misalignment when newsroom innovations are sourced from companies which exist first and foremost to deliver a return for its investors and not to serve or inform the public or strengthen communities. After Circa shut down operations in 2015, it later sold remaining assets to pro-Trump media conglomerate Sinclair Broadcasting Group.
Larger well-resourced newsrooms have approached this innovation challenge by building out internal research & development units. These R&D labs are often expensive to run, focused on branded content and are quickly shuttered. The research and development unit within the New York Times, NYTLabs, closed last year and will relaunch as Times Story[X], a division that will work closely with TBrandStudio, the internal brand marketing unit within the New York Times. Buzzfeed’s research and development unit, Open Lab, was its in-house open source innovation lab and ran for two years. It hosted Open Lab fellows, cohorts of technologists, developers, and journalists and regularly hosted hacker/maker gatherings. Buzzfeed announced it was closing its Open Lab, citing in a company memo, “As we near the end of our original two-year commitment, we’ve learned that there are better ways to integrate new technologies into BuzzFeed’s mission.” The Washington Post research and development unit, WaPo Labs, was not apart of the newspaper’s sale to Jeff Bezos, it was spun into a company called Trove before ultimately shutting down in 2015.
This grand opening/grand closing clip of internal research and development labs exacerbate the problem of approaching innovation from operating within a silo, instead of collaboratively with communities or by integrating product and solutions-building in close partnership with those who hold in-depth knowledge of internal newsroom challenges.
Innovation Matters: Invest in Collaborative & Sustainable Practices for R&D
A shared challenge among many journalists interviewed for this project included unpacking both institutional and resource constraints to approaching innovation in newsrooms. These challenges include building and adapting new systems to doing business, iterating on hiring procedures or remaking job descriptions to be more inclusive, and also shared challenges around developing and integrating technology tools for covering diverse, shifting communities in new and thoughtful ways.
Several journalists interviewed lead side projects and affinity groups of like-minded peers also interested in building solutions. Many had participated in events such as Hacking Journalism, This American Life’s Audio Hackathon or open data unconferences. These convenings proved valuable in building trusted relationships and communities that engined momentum for projects. Universally, journalists interviewed for this project expressed energetic hope for what was possible for the field. Unfortunately, they also expressed resignation at the lack of mechanisms for continuous support to integrate systems and tools developed after-hours back into their newsrooms.
In this context, the practice of innovation and solutions-building becomes siloed to nights and weekends, which is both unsustainable and an approach that neglects the most likely source for the future of journalism: journalists themselves and the communities they cover.
One journalist shared:
“I feel as though participating in these events gave me the opportunity to be both a learner and an expert. It exposed me to new ideas and fresh ways to approach covering communities and improve how my colleagues and I work. But trying to take those ideas back to my newsroom felt like hitting a brick wall. To make the case internally on implementing or simply testing new tools was really hard to the point that it became a distraction from my actual job. It’s ironic because these skills and learning experiences are absolutely crucial to doing journalism well. That is my job.”
The journalism field does not suffer from a dearth of ideas of how to improve the field and build the future of news. There are, however, a shortage of pathways for journalists and communities to continuously and collaboratively test, iterate, fund and implement innovative ideas in sustainable, collaborative local ecosystems.
To that end, the Coral Project, a joint initiative by Mozilla, the New York Times, the Washington Post and Knight Foundation is a refreshing antidote to the siloed approach some news organizations take to research and development. It is collaborative, the software the project stewards is open-sourced and the development and integration of new technology products are community-driven. The outlets part of the initiative “wanted to join forces to improve commenting, invite reader interaction, and expand our notions of audience engagement beyond comment moderation. The project aims to help publishers foster meaningful conversations with readers on their own sites,” explained in the Columbia Journalism Review.
“The Coral Project has been an unprecedented partnership that took on one of the industry’s biggest challenges: improving the digital dialogue about the news. Its exhaustive research, which included collaborating with hundreds of journalists around the world, has produced technology and best practices that will have a lasting impact on the way newsrooms and readers engage with each other,”
The Washington Post is the first publication to use the Talk system, “the Coral Project is in talks with a number of other outlets who didn’t want to be among the earliest adopters,” Nieman reports.
Newsrooms suffer from risk-aversion and innovation is inherently risky. Adaptation patterns indicate that newsrooms comfortable testing new solutions are outlets large enough to mitigate the potential downfalls but also large enough to reap the rewards of first mover advantage.
There is an opportunity for media funders to mitigate risk for smaller, local and hyperlocal newsrooms. But to do so, it must also seek to reframe and redefine innovation for this specific newsroom context. There is potential to reimagine R&D from a technology-centered orientation to community-centered orientation.
Invest in Community Expertise
To build diverse, informed communities, journalism funders should explore more inclusive, iterative methods to fund innovation. The lack of diversity within venture-backed companies reinforces the constraints women and people of color experience building and scaling technology products. There is an innovation Venn diagram in play: women and people of color not only make up the fastest growing segment of entrepreneurs but also represent rapidly increasing audiences for local newsrooms. Diverse newsroom leaders building products and relationships at hackathons and after-hour work sessions are already shaping the future of news.
There is an opportunity for media funders to directly influence the rate and face of newsroom innovation by meeting these leaders where they are, listening to their unique needs, and designing accessible systems to support them.
A Technology Case: Say This, Not That
Listening and building upon the expertise among us is a resource all newsrooms can leverage. Tapping into this innovative capital requires recognizing gaps in our understanding, the humanity in other people’s lived experiences and seeing the space between these two realities as an opportunity to elevate the standards of journalism. This requires looking beyond traditional innovation labs and tapping into the expertise of communities around us.
Yee Won Chong is a management consultant who regularly leads racial and workplace equity initiatives to support foundations, nonprofits and community organizations seeking to build and live inclusive values. Yee Won is a transgender activist from Malaysia, earned political asylum in the United States and as a college student bootstrapped an independent newspaper in college called The Other Press (or The O-Pressed for short). Yee Won is the co-founder of Say This, Not That, “an online platform that identifies harmful words and phrases in copy — any written content you choose to analyze. Then, STNT offers alternative words that are more inclusive and compassionate, with detailed explanations.”
In an interview with me, Yee Won describes the experience where they recognized such a tool would be transformative for their field, “As a communications person I have to think a lot about how do we use language that doesn’t just perpetuate certain attitudes or have implicit bias. I remember clearly at a training that we were co-facilitating, we were using the term “the achievement gap.” We were the trainers and we were talking about racial equity, and someone in the audience said to us [achievement gap] is actually not a phrase that is very inclusive and it actually reinforces racial bias.”
Yee Won immediately recognized the challenge to scale sharing that information, “As the communications person, I was thinking, ‘Well, you know, it’s great that people are telling us but what can I do to kind of spread that news even more?’”
Several years later, the Nonprofit Technology Network’sLeading Change Summit was hosting an Idea Accelerator, a competition where participants could pitch ideas for platforms and tools and win support for turning product concepts into reality. “I was taking a stroll around Union Square in San Francisco and taking a break from the conference. I was walking around and thinking about my experience back when someone told us about the achievement gap and to this accelerator program. I thought, ‘If something like spell check can do this, why can’t this work on words and phrases that are harmful? That is when the tool came together for me.’ Yee Won entered the competition, met those eager to support turning the idea into reality and won first place and the Community Choice award for Say This, Not That.
Yee Won’s vision for the product is similar to the ease of consumer-facing tools like Grammarly and would have immediate utility in a newsroom context. It sources and pulls information and expertise already used within media organizations and leverages it in a way to produce stronger, more inclusive journalism. “There are campaigns like Stop The R-Word, Drop The I-Word, things like that and this is all about language… what happens if you put all of them in one useable practical tool? A tool like Say This, Not That, where when you’re writing it will right away highlight the problematic word or phrase. It’s not like have to create resources to explain to people why that word can be problematic because there are people already writing about it. We can pull in things that already exist. There are people who do this language work already. There are people who do this leadership already.”
Yee Won’s recognized a space for their expertise as a racial equity trainer and the expertise and lived experiences of the communities they were working in. In doing so, Yee Won was able to build a bridge to potentially accelerate communication, expand understanding of how bias appears in language and by extension, improve humane coverage of marginalized communities.
“We are using words that are potentially harmful without even knowing because it is ingrained in so much of our culture. Again, the example of me as a racial equity trainer, using this phrase that is not actually very equitable because it is a jargon that we use so often in the nonprofit world. For me, I was using without thinking too much about what the implicit meanings are. Even when I look at people who are covering and working on these issues they are also not even aware because we don’t get to stop and think intentionally about certain terms. Usually, it is either used by thought leaders and we just assume, ‘Oh yeah, that’s trusted.’”
“We can evolve together”
The development of Say This, Not That follows the arc of other platforms conceived during journalism hackathons and intensive accelerator events. Yee Won was matched with consultant support to develop a funding proposal and was able to connect with a co-founder, linguist, and technologist Katie McCormick. Together they built an online community to support future development of the platform but progress toward a beta product has not emerged far beyond that stage. In this example, community is the innovative capital fueling this initiative forward while a relatively small amount of funding to secure developer hours could be the real gamechanger. Yee Won describes the challenge as weaving together community knowledge capital with technology, “Those are the two things, the two main ingredients that have to come together to make this happen.”
A Systems Case: Language Style Guide
Language is a powerful tool that can bring people together, bridge divides and builds power. But how journalists report and experience language, both as practitioners and as members of communities, can also be unintentionally exclusionary, harmful and divisive. In this case for journalists who understand how newsrooms systems implement language guides and communications design, there is a case to be made for funders to support internal systems innovators. Internal innovators occupy all levels of newsroom leadership; from human resources to editorial to business. As individuals who experience internal operations and systems first-hand, internal newsroom leaders can provide necessary insights to optimize and build better news products.
Hanna Thomas is a Campaign and Culture Director with SumOfUs, a global consumer watchdog group that campaigns to hold big corporations accountable. In her role, she regularly writes and publishes widespread email campaigns and public communications to encourage the SumOfUs community to take action. Like Yee Won, Hanna experienced a communications gap between her expertise as a campaigner and the communities she was working to mobilize and was able to recognize an opportunity for internal systems innovation.
In an interview with me, Hanna explains, “I wrote this email to a million people about angora fur and I used the phrase ‘falling on deaf ears’ and I got an email from a charity in the UK, the National Deaf Children’s Society. That was really sweet and asked, ‘We care about bunnies. Do you think the deaf children don’t care about bunnies?’ It was a wake-up call.”
In a Medium post, Hanna recounts the message, “What implication lies behind this old, outdated phrase? That telling a deaf person about the plight of rabbits, they wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t be able to communicate, wouldn’t care? Deafness is not a learning disability. I just want to express my frustration and disappointment in an organisation that is clearly working for the benefit of others, without realising in their message they are stigmatising a minority. I hope you succeed massively with this campaign, I really do. But please, remember to write in an inclusive manner.””
So for her own benefit, she began pulling together language and communication style guides and integrating them all into a shared Google document. Newsrooms are no stranger to the language style guides and many larger newsrooms publish their internal style guides online such as Buzzfeed, BBC, and the Guardian as well as utilize style guides provided by advocacy organizations such as GLAAD and the National Center for Disability and Journalism.
The style guide Hanna developed was innovative in the organic fashion it came together (a simple Google doc synthesizing free and available resources), the context of the intended audience (progressive activists) and the approach it took to discuss the evolving nature of language and community.
Working with independent editor Anna Hirsch, the pair “began the compilation of a new kind of guide — one that sparks a conversation about language among progressives.” The guide stated, “We invite drivers of progressive change — community members, grassroots leaders, activists, and progressive funders — to peruse the vital movement frameworks, decolonizing usage, and up-to-date word choice and phrasing for current theory of change directions and momentum across groups and issue areas presented in this guide.” Leveraging their knowledge of internal organizational needs and systems and their awareness to how language impacts marginalized and underrepresented communities, the pair co-designed a valuable repository of resources and stewarded The Progressive Style Guide.
The intention of the guide was to start a conversation and for a community of practitioners to become better together and in turn improve the communities they serve. What surprised Hanna was recognizing a guide on inclusive language was not already accessible within the field. She describes in an interview with me, “There are a handful of other projects, blogs or things along this vein that exists. But I was really surprised that at first instance when I realized I need to get better at this, I just Googled. I was constantly Googling, I was trying to find this and I could not find it. That was really surprising to me at the time. I was like, ‘Has no one thought to do this before?’… I think it is something that we are all struggling with so much.”
Recognizing systems, shared challenges and opportunities for improvement are undeniable strengths from organizations which hold space and support internal systems innovators. This approach can be adapted in a newsroom context for media funders seeking to support internal newsroom leaders. The staff time investment for this initiative was modest by Hannah’s estimates, while the value, impact, and dialogue within the intended community it serves have been substantial.
Innovate Innovation for Local Newsroom Context
Overall, there are tremendous opportunities for media funders to support inclusive innovation in the space between investing in expensive research and development labs and supporting one-off hacker/maker events. Identifying strategic opportunities, that both strengthen journalism and how it serves the public, requires funders and their partners to define innovation in the local news context.
This presents an opportunity for funders seeking to support an ecosystem building networked power. It opens the pathway toward improving diverse, inclusive and intentional innovation in local and hyperlocal newsrooms.
It is possible to innovate innovation and build upon the momentum of initiatives like the Coral Project, accelerator events and support developing systems that allow internal newsroom leaders to build and test new systems and processes in local communities. It is possible to turn to the expertise of the communities journalists cover to build, expand and improve upon newsroom products, language, and systems.
It is possible to intentionally design initiatives that support these activities in ways that collectively serves business outcomes and honors journalistic integrity.
But to successfully achieve that, media funders, local newsrooms and communities alike must be aligned with shared outcomes that do not prioritize shareholder value over a diverse, informed public.
“The invitation, the ask, and the important thing here is that we demand that innovation be something that yields healthy returns well beyond venture capitalists, founders, technocrats… Similarly, innovation and creativity that uplifts the opportunities, voices, and spirits of less fortunate people we walk this earth with must be lauded at least as much as the next viral app, if not more.”
it influences who gets to define innovation and shape the future of news when the journalism field responds to external disruptive forces rather than proactively and iteratively developing new tools and resources within the field and with communities it serves. Defining and resourcing innovation in local newsrooms and communities is the necessary step to building power for a diverse, inclusive and resilient ecosystem.
Sabrina Hersi Issa serves as a Senior Advisor to the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, where she leads research on journalism ecosystems and how philanthropy can support efforts to build diverse, inclusive newsrooms.