Diversity is one of a community’s strengths and makes it richer, and yet it can be difficult to be inclusive and give everyone the opportunity to participate fully. In Marin County, nonprofit organizations play a crucial role in identifying unmet needs of underserved residents, while finding ways to reach out to them. And with more than 1,500 nonprofits working to give residents opportunities to better their lives better while making their own contributions, they’re at the core of a countywide spirit of altruism. The resources philanthropy provides are essential and support the good work, but it takes more than money. It requires a feeling of satisfaction on both sides if a mission is to succeed, and so creating meaningful liaisons that benefit everyone is a worthwhile endeavor.
Many of Marin’s nonprofits started with small ideas to meet specific needs and grew into respected organizations that thrive through their community partnerships. Take Lifehouse, for instance, the San Rafael nonprofit that puts developmentally disabled individuals on the road to independence. It began in 1954, when a group of parents who had children with special needs sought a way for them to receive an education. They found that the public school system didn’t provide a place for them. “[But] these parents were determined,” says Nancy Dow Moody, president and chief executive officer of Lifehouse. She explains they’d been urged to send their children to an institution, a common practice at the time, but like parents everywhere, they loved their kids and wanted to keep them close. And so they found space on the campus of Dominican University, and with this collaboration, they created their own school, which eventually grew into the Marin County Office of Education’s (MCOE), special education program. From there, they went on to establish the Marin chapter of the Special Olympics, giving their children the opportunity to participate in activities that most families took for granted.
Today’s focus is on supporting more than 260 adults with developmental disabilities in Marin and Sonoma counties so they can live as independently as possible and contribute to society, living in homes in their own community, working at jobs where they feel valued and taking part in social and recreational activities. “Most people need assistance to live independently in the community,” says Moody, and the services Lifehouse provides allow the people they support to take the leap and leave home when they reach adulthood, like most young adults. She gives the example of a young woman with cerebral palsy, who is bright and doesn’t have a cognitive disability, but needs support if she is to live in her own apartment and go to work. “It was her first experience away from home,” says Moody, and the degree of independence she’s achieved has allowed her to feel successful as an adult. In another case, four women live in a house that Lifehouse owns, and several work at Safeway and walk to work. They’ve become a family, and need minimal support, which staff members give by making sure they get groceries, pay their bills, and cook healthy meals.
Sometimes the unexpected happens, and the people Lifehouse supports need assistance to deal with new circumstances. “We have a wonderful staff,” says Moody, and she explains that when the Wine Country wildfires broke out in October, they went into action to support 15 individuals in Sonoma County who had to leave their homes and the familiarity of their daily routines. They rented hotel rooms for their displaced individuals and later helped them move them back into their homes, which were undamaged, when they were permitted to return, easing a difficult experience for them. Autistic individuals in particular prefer the safety of predictability. “They did a great job in making people feel safe and supported,” Moody reports.
Everything comes with a price tag. “The money we get from the state doesn’t cover the cost to cover the service,” says Moody, and financial support from local businesses helps make Lifehouse’s work possible. “Businesses are giving a gift to the community. They’re supporting their neighbors,” she says.
Alan Brayton, senior partner at Brayton Purcell LLP, a Novato law firm, serves on Lifehouse’s board of directors and finance committee, and the firm is a major donor to the organization’s annual fundraiser, Great Chef and Wineries. Lifehouse—then MARC—Marin Association for Retarded Citizens—first approached the firm more than 15 years ago asking for a sponsorship for an event. “We have continued to support the organization through their name change to Lifehouse and their growth into being one of the leading advocates for the developmentally disabled in North California,” says Brayton. As a director, he supports events and participates in hands-on projects at Lifehouse properties. In addition, Brayton Purcell’s employees contribute, working as volunteers at the event and supporting Lifehouse’s activities. What they get in return is a gratifying experience and the satisfaction that comes with knowing they are helping to make a difference in people’s lives and giving back to the community where they live and work. “The clients we support are wonderful. The leadership and staff are fantastic, and the organization makes a real difference in the lives of so many people,” he says. “Being able to play some part in their success and to use my resources and talents is both personally and professionally rewarding.”
Bruce Burtch, a member of Lifehouse’s board of directors and the author of “Win Win for the Greater Good,” a book that provides guidance for organizations that rely on raising funds, believes that nonprofits do best when they approach potential supporters as business partners. “I’m not a big believer in philanthropy. I’m a believer in partnerships,” he says. According to Burtch, partnerships are a way for different entities to come together to focus on the greater good. He considers the relationship between a nonprofit organization and a for-profit organization a marketing partnership. A company usually donates funds from its marketing budget, he says, rather than making a charitable donation, and both partners receive the resulting benefits. He observed the success of such a strategy firsthand, when he was a public affairs officer for the Marriott Corporation and put together a promotion that involved the March of Dimes and the opening of Marriott’s Great America in 1976. “It was a very detailed partnership,” he explains, and it was based on what each needed to gain from the other. The promotion raised $2.5 million—40 percent more than the March of Dimes had ever raised before in their Western Region, and it was the first cause-marketing campaign, eventually earning him the title, Father of Cause Marketing.
The strategy works even for small organizations, when they and their business partners share the mutual goal of increasing the for-profit entity’s profile and meeting its marketing needs and objectives, says Burtch. It’s a method that is based on three principles: transparency, alignment and business value proposition. “First and foremost is transparency,” says Burtch, explaining that it requires telling the truth about what an organization needs and why, whether it’s the for-profit or nonprofit partner. He observes that people don’t always tell the entire story and explain the challenges, but it’s more productive if they do, because full knowledge allows them to help each other achieve their mutual goals. “When you get together for the first time, you put all your cards face up on the table, and you tell the truth,” he says.
Second, a nonprofit and a business should be a good match. Marriott Corporation, for example, is family-oriented and was seeking a nonprofit that was also family-focused. The result was a partnership with the March of Dimes, which helps families by mitigating or preventing childhood diseases, and could get the word out to the audience Marriott wanted to attract. Similarly, Barefoot Wines and the Surfrider Foundation, which protects and cleans up beaches, make good partners, because going barefoot and beaches are aligned.
Building a business-value proposition and focusing on business-partner development also yields results, and not necessarily monetary ones. Burtch recalls Wells Fargo loaning an executive to the Red Cross, rather than writing a check. The man worked with the finance department at that organization’s offices to help upgrade financial business practices, and the bank paid his salary. “That is extremely valuable,” he says, because the executive became more knowledgeable about the nonprofit world and thus a better employee. “When you engage your employees and encourage them to go into their community, they can get experiences in communication, leadership and project management that they don’t get in their own company,” he explains. In addition, employees are more likely to respect and appreciate an employer who will give them that kind of opportunity, which potentially increases morale and encourages workers to stay. “It has a direct effect on the bottom line of an employers. If you can keep an employee, your turnover is less,” says Burtch.
Burtch also advises conducting an assessment at the end of the year to determine what worked and what didn’t. It’s an opportunity for learning, and for partnerships to grow as a result. He observes that changes in corporate philanthropy are taking place country-wide, as companies form partnerships with organizations working in areas important to their own businesses and employees, rather than simply giving a lot of money to many different nonprofits. They believe it’s their money, their talent and their business, and they want to know what they’re getting in return. “They have every right to ask for that,” says Burtch, who observes that companies are inundated with requests for money, and non-profits have a much better chance of getting a proposal accepted if they present it as a partnership.
Fundraising events often highlight the many ways businesses contribute to an organization. Lifehouse’s Great Chefs and Wineries celebrated its 27th year in 2017 in an event that featured delicious food and fine wine from 50 of the area’s top restaurants and wineries. Among them is Thirty-Seven Wines, a vineyard and small family winery that Brayton and his wife operate. “We donate wine to support various Lifehouse events, pour every year at Great Chefs and Wineries and donate wines for the silent auction at the event,” he says. In addition, Brayton Purcell is a Diamond sponsor. Live and silent auctions and a raffle are also part of the evening’s activities, and donations from local businesses make them possible.
Robert C. Placak and Associates Insurance Services, of San Rafael, was the raffle sponsor in 2017, and president Bob Placak is impressed with the leadership that Moody and her team demonstrate in helping to bring dignity and confidence to individuals with special needs. “The integration of her mission with practicality of delivery is truly inspiring. It makes me want to challenge myself to do better,” says Placak, who runs his own event, the RCP Tiburon Mile, a one-nautical mile swim from Angel Island to downtown Tiburon, which attracts top swimmers from around the world and raises funds for Special Olympics. “Why wouldn’t you do something like that if you could?” he asks. “As my 13-year-old son reminds me, to whom a lot is given, a lot is expected.”
Lifehouse gives its business supporters significant recognition at the event, listing them in the program on a big screen and having Huey Lewis, who has been honorary chairman for many years, publicly thanking them at the event. “We really try to acknowledge people in those ways,” says Moody, observing that when both entities feel appreciated and benefit from the relationship, it’s a good partnership.
Lifehouse also recognizes many of its supporters at its annual Awards Banquet in the fall. “It’s my favorite event of the year,” says Mary Jane Burke, Marin County Superintendent of Schools, who serves as MC and was one of the organization’s first board members. While some of Lighthouse’s business supporters receive recognition, it’s also an opportunity for all of its clients to attend a formal gathering, meet and greet members of the community and thank them for their service. The event has a DJ and a dance, clients dance to the Village People’s song YMCA, and the enthusiasm is infectious. “It’s fabulous. There you are in the presence of a strong, caring community on behalf of those who are most vulnerable. It makes me be proud to be a small part,” she says. It’s especially meaningful for her, she adds, because when she was a new teacher, she worked with children with varying disabilities and first met some of Lifehouse’s clients when they were three or four-years old and were her students. “To see those same people now in the adult phase of their lives, able to give back to our community, is inspirational. It’s so important that all kids have every opportunity to succeed in school and life,” she says.
She describes Lifehouse’s services as a safety net that has an impact each and every day, allowing people with challenges to flourish, engage in the community and take pleasure in their accomplishments. Partnerships make it all possible and demonstrate that extraordinary things happen when people work together with good intentions and common goals.
A giving Place
The Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership in San Rafael did a study to examine Marin County’s nonprofit landscape in 2008 and updated it in 2013. It found that 1,543 registered nonprofit organizations are active in the county, and they focus on the five following areas:
• Environment: 10 percent
• Health: 10 percent
• Arts, Culture & Humanities: 16 percent
• Education and Youth: 22 percent
• Human Services: 26 percent
Although some, such as the Marin Community Foundation, have multi-million dollar budgets, more than half—57 percent—operate with budgets of less than $100,000 a year.
Source: Marin County Nonprofit Landscape Study 2013
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