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Common Good Grant Program: Advocacy and Leadership

Story posted May 19, 2010

With six months behind them, the Common Good Grant Committee shuffled stacks of grant proposals and reviewed their talking points for the ensuing debate.  It was the bleary Saturday morning of April 3rd: The Common Good Grant's Decision Day. This was the final round to determine the recipients of the McKeen Center's Common Good Grant. 

The two student leaders coordinating the grant program this year, Jaclyn Zaborski '10 (Visual Arts/Art History) and Sean Morris '11 (Sociology), have been diligently at work since September, planning weekly seminars to educate student participants about philanthropy and non-profit organizations. The seminars included a dynamic line up of community leaders, visitors from local foundations, and fundraising specialists from the College who gave workshops and led discussions to teach students about the complex world of non-profit management. Morris saw the educational seminars as "long lessons in the value of stories and how they can move people to action."  The speakers touched on everything from grant-giving foundations and grant-writing for non-profits, to the donors that make it all possible.  Armed with this new information the Grant Committee was ready to begin the grant evaluation process, while the Extension Committee set out to speak with potential donors. 

"We're so appreciative of these donors' generosity and willingness to contribute to the Common Good," states Sarah Richards '10 (Economics).  "I've always known how important fundraising is to the efforts of all non-profits, but asking for money was intimidating for me.  Through the warmth of my conversations with the donors, and Eli Orlic (Alumni Relations and Development) and Eric Foushee's (Annual Giving and Alumni Relations) advice, I gained new confidence and appreciation for this component of philanthropy." This year a record $9,500 was raised by the eight-member "Extension" Committee; the fundraising task force of the Common Good Grant Program.  This left the 12-member Grant Committee with the daunting task of allocating the total funds of $19,500 among a large list of worthy finalists.

The Committee saw decision day as the final step in a long learning process about advocacy and leadership.  "I know of no other program that gives the kinds of learning opportunities that the Common Good Grant does," remarked Morris.  As board members on the Common Good Grant, students realize the importance of taking a stand in order to make decisions about which grants to keep and which to cut.  The charge of distributing $19,500 can be very empowering.  Tobi Olasunkanmi '12 (Government/Sociology) noted, "coming to this decision process wasn't easy: my small group was fully aware that ultimately some very deserving grants would have to be turned down and so we focused on a fair selection process rather than purely the outcome-as a bottom line person, this was something to get used to."  Other student participants agreed that what made the decision process so difficult was the fact that all of the grants were clearly so worthy of funding.  Rachel Turkel '11 (Math and Philosophy) noted, "All of the applicants had fabulous, idealistic proposals, but what I really admired about all of the final grants this year was that not only did they have a greater good in mind, but they outlined the specific ways in which their goals would be carried out.  A great idea is a starting point, but all of these grants gave us confidence that their mission would materialize."

For Director Susie Dorn, the struggle through the decision process results in a valuable lesson for participants: the importance of leadership.  "Members of this committee will be future executives, board members, and community leaders," says Dorn. "Their awareness of public issues and the ways in which non-profits address those issues is the first step in preparing them for these important positions as active citizens." 

Having selected the final 15 proposals, decision day served as an exercise in leadership as the participants discussed and deliberated the winning grants.  That deliberation was the hardest part. 

Two of the initial guests invited to speak in the seminar series were Cyndy Carney, director of the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Project in Brunswick, and Barry Sturgeon, the director of the Davenport Trust, a small foundation in nearby Bath.  Representing a non-profit organization and a foundation, Carney and Sturgeon educated students about the business of grant writing and grant making.  At times the process of grant writing inhibit as much as enable non-profits. Sometimes it's not worth the time to fill out a complicated grant if it only results in a small amount of money. It's a cost-benefit deal just like anything else.  The students learned in part that the Maine Philanthropy Center has tried to address this issue by encouraging local foundations to use a common application form-something the students decided to do for the first time this year.

Beyond generous community members like Carney and Sturgeon, the committees also benefited from the resources and people available through the McKeen Center for the Common Good, the Alumni Relations Office, and the Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations at Bowdoin.  People like Cara Martin-Tetreault from Corporate and Foundation Relations, and Eric Foushee and Eli Orlic.  Martin-Tetreault drew on her previous work with non-profits.  As one of the key grant writers for the College she gave workshops on "Philanthropy 101," and "Grant Writing," which taught students how to craft a grant proposal.  Foushee and Orlic met with members of both committees to talk about the art of "The Ask": the delicate process of connecting and meeting with possible donors to gain financial support for the program.

All this prepared the students for the final decision day, where the students were happy to fund 10 organizations.  Read more about this year's recipients and about past grant recipients.

Jeff Bush '10 (Geology/Environmental Studies) reflected on the value of the decision day experience.  "I came into the Decision Day with a list of the grants that I wanted to fund and was sure that I had picked the best ones.  I left decision day having funded only some of those grants, but I felt that I had made a more informed decision to identify the best possible grants. I think we all benefited from our diversity of opinion and perspective and it channeled into a great decision making process."  

"This is my third year with the Common Good Grant Program," states Zaborski, "and I believe it embodies all of the McKeen Center's goals.  Through this program we have acquired leadership skills, engaged in meaningful discussions, improved student involvement and community awareness and in the end improved the well-being of society."   

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 mid February.  For more information, contact the McKeen Center at (207)798-4133 or visit www.bowdoin.edu/mckeen-center.

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“I think we all benefited from our diversity of opinion and perspective and it channeled into a great decision making process."
— Jeff Bush '10

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