Story posted April 06, 2009
Last week the student-run Common Good Grant Committee at Bowdoin College announced the 2008-09 grant awards. Meant to increase the bonds between the College and the local community by providing students with a philanthropic experience, the program helps Bowdoin students better understand the community in which they live while learning about the important role non-profits play in meeting community needs. Seven grants totaling $15,630 were allocated to support projects proposed by ArtVan, the Bath Elementary PTA, the Compass Project, Maine Housing Building Materials Exchange, Merrymeeting AIDS, MidCoast Hunger Prevention Program, and Tri-County Literacy Volunteers.
In its eighth year, this committee of students has an annual gift of $10,000 with which to fund local projects through grants. Over the years, a second committee has grown out of the first, working to raise additional funds for the grant. Through the generous support of local community members, they added $5,630 this year to extend the impact of the grant. Comprised of students in all class years and representing 13 different states (as well as Bermuda and Sweden), they have been meeting weekly since the fall semester to learn about MidCoast Maine, non-profits, philanthropy and grant giving.
Having selected the final 14 proposals (out of 43!) submitted from organizations all around the midcoast, they are faced with $30,000 of requests. They have the day to determine which projects they will fund with $15,630 to provide what they think will have the most positive impact.
Many members of the Bowdoin and local community have come together to provide this education for the students. Setting the foundation in September was Cara Martin-Tetreault, Assistant Director for Bowdoin’s Corporate and Foundation Relations Office. Cara helped the students understand the big picture of philanthropy and grant development through the work of foundations. Early in the fall, the students then heard first-hand about how non-profits function from Connie Hartley, Executive Director of Big Brothers Big Sisters, Rick Wilson, Executive Director of the Cathance River Educational Alliance, and Tara Hill, Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity Seven Rivers Maine. Erik Jorgenson '87 from the Maine Humanities Council also visited one week and led a discussion about philanthropy from a reading, emulating the reading groups the Council has developed. Next Eric Foushee, Director Annual Giving and Alumni Relations at Bowdoin, and Eli Orlic, Associate Vice President/Director of Capital Giving, helped the students understand the importance of fundraising and donor relations and walked them through the process from beginning to end. “The program brings together the talents of so many people in the community to prepare future leaders for the important work of community involvement,” said Susie Dorn, Director of the McKeen Center for the Common Good and advisor to the program.
Implementing the year-long curriculum, organizing guest speakers and coordinating the committees are the two student leaders, Kerry Persen '09 (Government/Economics) from Arizona and Shelby Davies '10 (Neuroscience/Biology) from New York.
"The committee this year was more diverse than I have ever seen it. Each student brought something different to the table. Brunswick gives the students so much and it is nice to be able to give back in return," said Shelby.
Armed with new understandings, the students set out into the community to visit organizations that had received grants in the past. At Spindleworks they learned from Liz McGee ’89 the importance of self-expression. At Harpswell TV Donna Frisoli showed them a behind-the-scenes look at the local television station. Don Knisely from Tedford Housing explained the challenges many in the community who don’t have housing face, and Jamie Silvestri put them to work with kids in a Bath neighborhood in an ArtVan project.
Despite their busy schedules, past recipients generously make time for these site visits, in part because the program has become well known in the community and the students’ work and learning are equally encouraged. "We are so appreciative of the grant award and recognize how much time, effort, commitment and energy goes in to the Common Good Grant initiative," said Sue Hall Dreher, Executive Director of Sexual Assault Support Services of Midcoast Maine upon receiving a grant last year.
At the beginning of spring semester, students began making appointments with members of the community, visiting with them in their homes to share information about the grant and query interest in adding to its base. "I learned just how important it is for community members to support local non-profits instead of donating to big national organizations," commented Sophie Springer '11 (History/Education) who is fr om Brunswick. Added Sam Collins '11 (Romance Languages/Environmental Studies) from Bermuda, "It was wonderful to see the enthusiasm from the community members we visited - to not only help Bowdoin students learn about philanthropy but also give back to the people around them in need - especially this year with the economic crisis."
All this prepared the students for the final decision day, but made it no less difficult. All proposals were good, and they wished they could fund each one. But knowing they couldn't, they began the process identifying the strongest requests. Through a series of conversations which helped the students think about the various implications of each proposal, they moved from discussions in small groups to full committee debates.
"I really like this proposal because it's unique and very reasonable to expect that with the network this program already has, when the youth finish their apprenticeship, they will be able to get a job," said Angela Viani '11 (Biology) from Vermont.
"However, the funding will be used in part for compensation of boat building teachers. What do we think about that?" questioned Zac Crawford '12 from New Orleans.
"Well, I think that's a legitimate approach. Yes, it's salaries, but it's for a unique to Maine skill of boatbuilding," reflected Rachel Turkel '11 (Philosophy/Math) from New York.
Because they have developed as a "community" over the course of the year, presenting and defending the merits of each proposal according to individual opinions was done with politeness, and promoted an interest in learning from one another through the process.
"Having worked with kids like this as a counselor, I respectively have to disagree," Eli Bossin '09 (History) from Massachusetts stated before he moved into his argument to defend the PTA scholarships for summer camp. Others added their opinions, and eventually the proposal is put into the "fund" pile.
"I like arguing. If everyone agreed with me and I was comfortable with that, I wouldn't learn anything," said Kayla Baker '09 (Economics) of Arkansas. "And while I may have to go along with some of these decision even though I'm not thrilled, when you look at the final piece, three of our funded proposals were on my top five list."
In the end, the projects chosen ranged in location, issue and types of community members served. This year's grants will provide funding to:
expand ArtVan’s neighborhood project to bring a mobile arts therapy program to children, teens, and adults in Mid Coast Maine (Bath)
provide the Bath Elementary PTA with scholarships to increase the opportunity for low-income students to attend summer camps in the area (Bath)
support the Compass Project’s Youth Apprentice Program at MATC which use boat building to provide job-skills training for at-risk youth (Portland-Brunswick)
create five mini-grants for the Maine Housing and Building Materials Exchange to give to low income families to make energy savings improvements to their houses (Lisbon)
offer free HIV testing to teens, adults and senior citizens on National HIV Testing Day at high traffic locations through the Merrymeeting AIDS Support Services (Brunswick)
build raised garden beds to provide clients of Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program with healthy food and education for home food growing (Brunswick)
purchase educational materials for tutors and support training of needed additional tutors in the Literacy Volunteer Program at Tri-County Literacy Volunteers (Bath).
At the end of the session, student leader Kerry Persen commented, “This year, I have learned the value of open discussion, constructive criticism, and selective and thoughtful participation. Watching the committee on decision day come alive and consider interesting and creative facets of each grant was a rewarding learning experience to cap off a successful year.”
When the decisions are finally made and all is said and done, one common theme stands out in particular. In regards to the types of issues the grants address, and the opportunity to be on the giving end in addressing them, Robbie Zhang-Smithermann '11 (Government) from Vermont noted, “It’s hard to put a price tag on something like that.”
The Common Good Grant is available each year for community organizations. The application will be available on the McKeen Center website in early November and is due in the middle of each February. For more information, contact the McKeen Center at (207)798-4134 or visit www.bowdoin.edu.mckeen-center.