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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Zen and the Art of Grant Applications

I just sent off my first grant application! And I learned something very important in the process.

Well, it was technically an award application, but if I receive it, I’ll get $5,000 for The Great Exchange. I discovered the award within one day of the deadline, so the process of writing it was a five-hour, 11-page, mind like water experience of trying to reiterate my passion over and over in meaningful ways.

As I send off my heart, categorized and packaged into a strange, evaluator-friendly format, I’m a little surprised that I’m utterly empty of expectations. Of course I’d love to secure the first small chunk of The Great Exchange’s budget. Of course I would. But I’m simply not expecting to receive this grant, nor am I expecting not to.

I’m just happy that in a couple months, I won’t have to wonder about what would have happened, had I only submitted this application. I hate “what-if’s.” I hate them so much that every time I go to my favorite restaurant in Austin I try a new dish, despite knowing exactly what my favorite dish is.

Today, after this submission, more than feeling excited or nervous or hopeful, I feel content. I suppose you could call it the sheer enjoyment of eliminating a “what if.”

I’m glad I arrived at this feeling naturally, because it seems like a fairly profound way to avoid becoming defeated. I think the process of applying for grants will be much easier when I see each grant not as a make-it-or-break-it means to an end, but as another “what if” put to bed.

100 grants won or lost won’t be 100 grants won or lost; they’re just 100 ways in which I won’t have to wonder anymore.


This Blog, and its Relationship to The Great Exchange

Faceless Nonprofit Director

Another faceless philanthropy fan, or...

Nonprofit Director Meg Nanson

...a spunky, well-informed young woman with a clear mission and an unwavering reason for starting a nonprofit?

Because one of the core values of The Great Exchange is transparency, I want to get a little bit meta today and let you in on part of the strategy behind this blog. It does exist for a reason that extends beyond my obsessive desire to document anything and everything; my word-driven nature is just a fortuitous accident that makes this whole process a lot more fun. There are several motivations for maintaining Guess & Check that have nothing to do with my insatiable drive to write. They are:

Trust. At some point down the road, people will be trusting me to channel their donations into the appropriate pathways for true, systemic impact. Particularly in the early stages of The Great Exchange, I will be filing my own taxes, designing my own curriculum, throwing my own events, performing my own fundraising, conducting my own evaluations, recruiting and training my own volunteers, updating my own web site, doing my own marketing, and desperately delegating whatever I can to anyone who meets my extremely high expectations.

Why on earth should people trust me with all of this when I still get carded every time I try to enjoy an IPA? Well, because I can do it. I absorb information at a frantic rate, and I am constantly learning–from case studies, from people I admire, from blogs, from my friends, from my own mistakes. I have a pretty effective way of processing and applying all this information, and hopefully this blog will prove that.

Moreover, The Great Exchange is fueled by enormous, pure, mission-solidifying, confidence-inducing, grounding and stable love for my beautiful sister. Any project that is motivated by love is so, so much more likely to succeed.

An Easier Means of Replicating The Great Exchange Later. One of my long-term sustainability plans is to design an extensive manual for the next director of The Great Exchange. While this blog will certainly not transition point-for-point to the ultimate manual, it will still contain a lot of great information about running a start-up nonprofit.

And finally:

Web traffic. Increasing The Great Exchange’s web traffic is such a big part of this blog that to document all of it here would make this post intimidatingly long. A good summary, however, is that because this blog is dynamic, current, and consistently updated, it naturally entices more visits than The Great Exchange’s relatively static web site. However, it does drive visitors to learn more about The Great Exchange by, say, clicking on a well-placed link.

I stay afloat financially by performing marketing, SEO, social media, and light analytics work for a wonderful tech start-up. The SEO field is just as competitive as it is misunderstood, and given how expensive SEO experts are, it’s not surprising that all of my clients are for-profit companies. There’s a gaping hole in web marketing where nonprofits are concerned, and the most successful charities are naturally the ones that understand how many donations take place online.

As this blog eventually moves from “big picture” writing to narrowly focused posts, I will share in detail what I’ve learned about SEO as it concerns nonprofits. In the meantime, I’m going to wrap this post up with a timely piece of advice from my friend (and coworker), Holly Snyder. Holly runs an independent SEO and user experience consulting agency, and in her own blog she recently provided a concise, useful summary of the connection between off-site blogs and on-site traffic. If you’re still curious about all of this, read it!

Sunday Morning Coffee: My Favorite Blog Posts of the Past Week

Guess and Check's Weekly Blog Post Roundup

My darling friend Jacqueline Stuart used to make me lattes that looked like this.

Once upon a time, I wrote this to a friend about rituals: “We need…rituals because we can celebrate the individual differences of each event while taking comfort in their overarching consistency. The familiarity allows us a moment to breathe, a moment in which we don’t have to test our responses to new situations; and yet with each new version of the same event, more differences and subtleties become clear. We’re able to learn and grow just as much as we’re able to give ourselves a break.”

That said, I bring you one of the happiest rituals of my week, my Sunday morning (or afternoon, as it may be) coffee. Today’s delectable blend is Folger’s, poorly measured and badly burnt. What can I say, I don’t live in Portland anymore. This ritual is really important to me; it’s my time to peruse the list of blog posts I’ve read and enjoyed this week (I read upwards of 50 blog posts every night) so that I can parse different points into my brainstorm document, reflect on good ideas, and finally, share interesting information with you. Here’s my top five list for this week:

  • GOOD Magazine makes an interesting point about fighting world hunger. The answer could be bugs!  I always love a good reminder that many of the things we consider “gross” are just cultural constructs, particularly in the U.S.–I still remember David Foster Wallace’s point (in Consider the Lobster) that lobsters (considerably insect-like themselves) used to be considered so disgusting that they were only fit for inmates. Now, of course, lobster is a delicacy. Also, my old English professor would have an aneurysm over the number of times I just said “consider.”
  • The Charity Navigator blog is one of dozens to document Generosity Day, a thoughtful (and pretty cute) rebranding of Valentine’s Day. Now, this is particularly exciting to me because I grew up around people who called Valentine’s Day a “Hallmark Holiday” or a “Consumer’s Holiday.” I won’t deny the truth in this, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love hearts, flowers, chocolate, valentines, and general sap  (third-wave feminism. Thanks, Smith College). Generosity Day is an excellent solution; it keeps the holiday’s inherent cheesiness in tact while shifting the focus from consumption to giving. It reminds you to spend a day leaving 100% tips, saying “yes” to favors, and donating your time to people or organizations. Arguably, it’s stuff we should do every day (maybe not the 100% tip), but campaigns like this are a great reminder and a way to re-situate ourselves within the sphere of giving. Plus, it allows me to continue being a cheeseball every Valentine’s Day, completely guilt-free. I can’t wait to celebrate again next year!
  • And finally, the Center for Creative Leadership brings us an interesting (and reassuring) article about the introvert at work. People never believe me when I say I’m introverted because I tend to be chatty and friendly (a common misconception about introverts is that they’re cold or reserved); but putting on that face takes untold work and energy, and I can only recharge when I’m alone. The proliferation of online social media is an interesting way to bridge the introvert/extrovert gap, and it’s one I take full advantage of. However, I often worry about the impact my introversion will have on my leadership style, and this article raises a lot of great points about the unique qualities introverted leaders can offer (it doesn’t surprise me that they’re able to listen to their employees better).
That’s all for this Sunday. Until next time!

Less Money, Mo’ Problems

The Great Exchange's Mascot, Hoggle

I thought I'd entice you to read this by posting a picture of the most lovable money-trap in the world wearing his (my) favorite hat.

I went into this assuming that writing The Great Exchange’s budget would be my least favorite part. While I can wear many hats (similar to my dog), I’m not a natural accountant. It’s also the part I’m most afraid of, because at some point in the future we will be accepting donations and grants,   and I want to be 100% responsible and open about where every last penny goes. I plan on providing more transparent information than most nonprofits I’ve seen; and while this could be a mistake from a competitive standpoint, I’m hoping it will become one of the core values that will make The Great Exchange stand out. So I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself to start loving Excel spreadsheets and yearly/monthly forecasts.

In the spirit of full disclosure, The Great Exchange is not an official 501(c)(3) yet, meaning it doesn’t have nonprofit status and donations aren’t tax-deductible. The paperwork is being filed as I–well, not as I write this, because I’m writing this–but it’s being filed. It’s going to take a little while, and in the meantime I’m looking into fiscal sponsorship from an established nonprofit, which would allow me to use some of their infrastructure, including their 501(c)(3) status. More on this later.

The point is, I am not accepting donations yet (hence, the reason our donations page is so bare bones), which means The Great Exchange’s budget is currently fearsomely intertwined with my own personal budget. And that’s where I made my first mistake! Cue the confetti! See, it turns out that even without throwing a single event or even holding my first group meeting, there are unforeseen start-up costs. There’s domain registration; purchasing Google Apps so I can perform outreach from a Great Exchange email account; newsletter software; web site upgrades that will make The Great Exchange more crawlable (ie–more views); and much more. Additionally, while I’m bootstrapping as much as possible, I refuse to scrimp on decent graphic design and the like. My contest on 99 Designs cost me $300, but if it will result in helping The Great Exchange present an attractive face to the community, then it’s money well spent.

What puts me over the edge, financially? Well, remember that part where I said The Great Exchange’s budget is feeding off my own? Earlier this year when I went to the animal shelter looking for a companion, I couldn’t resist adopting a special-needs dog named Hoggle. His two back legs are locked in an unnatural and painful position, and he needs surgery on both legs to be fully functioning, pain-free, and happy. This isn’t cheap, despite a lovely show of support from people who have decided to donate on the Austin Pets Alive web site.

Suffice to say, money is even tighter than I thought it would be. Everything is going to be absolutely fine, of course. My age is in my corner with this one; I’m young enough so that I don’t have a mortgage, children, or other major financial responsibilities. I’m resilient enough so that I don’t mind killing a few roaches in my apartment or smelling nauseating fried food every time I walk out my door (we live across from a Wendy’s). I’m also perfectly happy eating meals that consist of various iterations of rice and eggs, and it helps a lot to have a boyfriend whose greatest pleasure in life is visiting the grocery store and buying fancy produce for the both of us. So, all is well in my world.

But it does prompt me to give this advice: 

If you’re thinking of starting a nonprofit or business as a means of remedying your unemployment, and you’re not one of the lucky ones who has some seed capital or a couple Angel Investors, don’t do it. Not only will you be performing untold hours of work for free–maybe for years–but you will also be sinking your own money into a plethora of costs, only half of which you anticipated. If there’s anybody in your life who relies on you financially, you may end up putting too much pressure on yourself to provide for them while staying afloat, and you won’t be able to make your clearest decisions regarding your start-up. I understand the entrepreneurial drive better than anybody, but from a logistical standpoint, most people would be much better off just finding a job.

Well, that’s enough of that. Thanks for reading a lot of words about finances, and I’ll keep everybody posted on the results of my “will they or won’t they?” relationship with Quickbooks! I know; the tension is killing me too!


Possible logo for the Great Exchange

Could this be the winner?

I have some incredibly talented graphic designer friends, but when I considered my options for The Great Exchange’s logo, curiosity about 99 Designs overcame me and I crowd-sourced my design brief.

The specifications I gave my designers included three colors (red, yellow, orange–if any nonprofit is allowed to feel sunny, it’s this one) and the feeling I’m trying to achieve. I also said I love bridge imagery, since a lot of our programming will run with a bridge metaphor, and that I had been previously experimenting with a nifty bridge / heart shape combination.

11 designers pulled through with 55 designs (not 99), many of which were quite beautiful. I then narrowed it down to three. Each design would target a different audience and would speak for The Great Exchange in a different way. The one I posted above is my personal favorite, but there are some obvious issues with it–namely, it wouldn’t be a great “instant brand.” The other two images (not posted here) work with or without text, and I think that’s important.

Unable to make a decision, I sent a quick email to my 20 most design-savvy friends and asked them to weigh in. The results? Every single person loved a different design and hated designs that other people had loved. My in-box is now a cacophony of of converging opinions, and the lack of a clear front-runner is really starting to mess with my head. I was expecting my friends’ opinions to create a tonal symphony of clarity, but instead it feels like the dissonance that occurs when you wind up and play 20 music boxes at once.

There’s a large part of me–probably the same part that used to write 25 drafts of a poem before calling it done–that wants to scrap all three designs and start over. There’s another part of me would like to take this moment to remind myself that forward momentum is sometimes better than waiting to make the “perfect” choice. If there’s one thing my short life has taught me, it’s that there’s never a perfect option, and that waiting for the ephemeral usually just causes a build-up of fear and stagnation.

Pick one, work with it, and keep running. That’s my motto for the day.


A Labor of Love

I spent awhile thinking about how this should begin. Should I just start spilling out all of the ideas that are scattered like constellations throughout my Google Docs? Should I list my heros in the Social Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame (Mary Gordon, founder of Roots of Empathy, and Muhammad Yunus, in case you’re wondering) and fade into the ways in which I think my ideas could ultimately multiply and take off like theirs did? Should I just hit you with the mission statement of my nascent little startup, The Great Exchange? Let’s be honest; I’ve thought about that mission statement a lot, and I’d love to share it.

But I probably shouldn’t do any of those things. I think all organizations, causes, art projects and entrepreneurial endeavors begin with a narrative that’s a lot simpler than that. So here’s mine:

Hi. I’m Meg, and that’s my little sister Martha wearing the blue overalls. I’m a little older now, and so is she. Here are some things you can tell from this photograph: in many respects, we display the sisterly dynamic you would expect to encounter. We adore each other, and I’m fiercely protective of her. In fact, “protective” is an understatement; at many points throughout my life, Martha has shown me glimpses of what it must be like to have children, an encounter with thick and nearly tangible love combined with a selfless but frantic sense of anxiety. It’s a truly profound feeling–not happy or sad, but just big.

Here are some things the picture doesn’t reveal: a few months after this photograph, Martha will be in a hospital bed, head shaved, scar crawling across her scalp like one of those giant centipedes in the Amazon Rain Forest. For the next 17 years after that, she will encounter a system of special education programs and classes that vary wildly in quality. And today, she’ll be 20, and my Mom, Dad, older brother and I will be initiating a series of conversations about how to plan for her future. Martha grew up brain-damaged and cognitively disabled, and because of this, she will never be alone.

And because of this–well, this combined with a fiery passion for entrepreneurship, an aversion to having a boss, and a creative drive that is best funneled into building large projects and systems–I’m starting a nonprofit called The Great Exchange. So here, then, what I’ve been waiting for, the mission statement:

The Great Exchange promotes self-advocacy among intellectually disabled adults by setting up pathways for them to network with nonprofits around Austin. In exchange for team-based volunteer work at each nonprofit, the host site will provide a list of ways they plan on fostering inclusion in their workplace or community. 

I just felt a little thrill, after pasting that from my web site. So what makes me qualified to run a nonprofit when I’m only 26 but, moreover, when it seems that everyone and their brother is taking advantage of the troubled economy by starting up well-intentioned but barely functioning organizations and duplicating one another’s efforts in the sloppiest of fashions? Well, hopefully this blog will get to that someday, but I think my most important credential is this one:

I absolutely adore making mistakes.

I’m hoping to use this blog as a means of documenting these mistakes, the lessons I learn, the triumphs the Great Exchange experiences, and to make my thought process as transparent as possible as I carefully determine how to move forward. I hope anyone following this journey can use the ensuing ups and downs as a resource as they build their own projects and write their own love stories.

So without further delay, my love story.