Sunday, February 3, 2008

Funding Change in the Valley

Youngstown has many good non-profit organizations, and several key local foundations regularly help to support their work. But until now, those efforts have not been well-coordinated, nor have non-profit leaders had many opportunities for professional development and networking. The Raymond John Wean Foundation is stepping in to fill that void, as part of a new initiative on “capacity building” – that’s non-profit jargon for critical self-reflection, strategic planning, and deliberate, intentional efforts to develop an organization’s ability to make a difference and strengthen its day-to-day operations.

This week on Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with the Wean Foundation’s still-fairly-new President, Joel Ratner, about the Foundation’s new directions, including a series of programs aimed at helping area non-profits work better and work together. Starting with a community summit last fall and continuing with a very well-attended set of workshops on strategic planning in January, Wean is providing training, opportunities for networking, and grants to support capacity building, all aimed at helping organizations serve the local community better.

This includes getting people working together. Those who have read the MIT working paper, “Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown,” understand that one of this community’s challenges, historically and still today, is that those who want to solve problems don’t always work well together. Just getting non-profit leaders together to discuss the planning issues that we all face is a step in the right direction. As someone who directs a center at YSU (the Center for Working-Class Studies), which functions as a hybrid academic unit and non-profit group, I’m grateful to Wean for the opportunity to learn not only about how my center can work better but also about the efforts of and issues facing other area organizations.

The other half of Wean’s new strategy is a focus on neighborhoods through small grants of $500 to $5000 to small local groups, especially neighborhood organizations that want to pursue concrete projects to improve their community. This project is still getting organized; the Foundation is establishing two community review boards, one for Youngstown and one for Warren, who will evaluate applications for these small grants. This approach goes hand-in-hand with the neighborhood focus of Youngstown 2010, putting resources in the hands of ordinary people. It also works as another form of capacity building, helping people develop the skills and experience to become community leaders.

Talking with Joel Ratner was inspiring to me, and what I’ve heard at Wean Foundation events this year suggests that they are working strategically both within the Foundation and with area organizations. I look forward to following the progress of these initiatives.

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