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January 12, 2011 
 
 
Honey and Vinegar

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Life Pieces To Masterpieces executive director and co-founder Mary Brown is a fixture at local non-profit events and a serial winner of leadership awards. We asked her about the high success rate of her organization, which works to improve the lives and attitudes of DC males through art, as well as a bittersweet year and what makes her a Washingtonian of the Year.
 
Life Pieces to Masterpieces executive director and co-founder Mary Brown
Mary describes 2010 "like honey and vinegar." The non-profit doubled its funding from local government but was left in a bind when payments came months late. The cash flow issues contributed to a $50K budget gap. In October, Life Pieces to Masterpieces launched a "Back in the Black" campaign, and community members came out of the woodwork to donate and volunteer. The organization then went to banks and foundations to match the money and was able to end the year with $70K in unplanned dollars. Mary says the biggest lessons of the year were to develop robust reserves and ask local banks for increased lines of credit when you're expecting government grants. "Keep your eye on the prize," Mary adds. "Life Pieces may have to change strategy depending on funding, but we never waiver in terms of commitment."
Life Pieces to Masterpieces executive director and co-founder Mary Brown
Life Pieces to Masterpieces notes that 100% of its students have graduated high school over the past five years. She credits a large part of that to the program's planning and assessment process, which includes a never ending cycle of re-imagination. Whereas innovation gets pushed to the side at some organizations when times are tough, Mary says, "We've always done so much with so little, so we've always done creative thinking." In the coming year, Life Pieces finalizing a character development curriculum that graduates of its program can share in local schools. Mary tells us it's also researching the possibility of opening a charter school.
Life Pieces to Masterpieces executive director and co-founder Mary Brown
Here's Mary with non-profit leaders honored in 2009 with the Meyer Foundation's prestigious Exponent Award. More recently, she was named one of Washingtonian Magazine's Washingtonians of the Year. We asked her to put modesty aside and tell us her strengths as a leader: "I really care, and I really believe in the good of humanity." Mary also says she tries to constantly be listening to the heartbeat of your organization. At least once per week, she helps out in the homework center or participates in "circle time," where the students get together to reflect on the day. Though it's easy for grassroots organizations to get distracted, she says it's critical to stay connected to the core.

Need a Community Needs Assesment?
 
Ijay Consulting CEO Inga James
A community needs assessment (which is just that—an assessment of your community's needs) may not sound sexy, but it can be critical in strategic planning, program development, and outreach to policymakers. We dropped by the Center for Nonprofit Advancement to get some tips on the subject from Ijay Consulting CEO and Brighter Strategies principal Inga James, who's worked with the non-profit sector for 25 years. She says one of the first steps is to put together a committee of people from within the organization and externally interested in reaping the benefits of the assessment. She suggests thinking outside the box when it comes to potential partners, especially in the business community. Too often non-profits don't see themselves as part of the business community or think to partner with companies, she says. The committee is responsible for identifying the goals of the assessment and developing a timeline. A short assessment is about six months and a more thorough one can take a year.
Ijay Consulting CEO Inga James
The assessment also needs a data collection strategy. For quantitative data, there's a plethora of information available through government agencies, universities, hospitals, and fellow non-profits. In addition, organizations should also look at community opinions, knowledge, and attitudes. During a community needs assessment for the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Inga recalls that many in the minority population she interviewed knew almost nothing about hepatitis despite its widespread prevelance. In fact, many thought hepatitis was a "white person problem" mainly because of Pamela Anderson, who has been open about having the disease. The views discovered in those interviews helped the institution discover a gap in its outreach. But Inga says that interviews or focus groups or surveys are not silver bullets by themselves. "None of these as a standalone are going to tell you what you need to know. You have to triangulate and use more than one."
 
Send story ideas to reporter Jessica Sidman, jessica@bisnow.com.
 
 
 
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