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This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the February 6, 2002
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Building Community Through Conferences
The cartoon shows a small group of our founding fathers, appointment
books out, quill pens in hand. Three of the men sit around a table,
two stand. All wear the pensive expressions of those trying to fit an
engagement into an already crammed calendar. Ben Franklin, pen poised,
says "O.K., the third of July is out. How about the fourth?"
Not every event is as important to the course of human events as the
signing of the Declaration of Independence, but every event is a major
undertaking, important to its organizers and to their constituents. So
many details need to be taken into consideration. Choosing a date is
For five years in a row, a group of area citizens has joined together
to stage Community Works, a conference that, in the words of lead
organizer Marge Smith, is "designed to empower individuals, paid or
volunteer, to gain skills, find out what other organizations are
doing, and to expand our awareness of the multiple community needs
So well has the growing event worked, drawing ever-larger numbers of
participants, that there was sentiment in the steering committee to
stage similar events for other communities. Barbara Abramson, a member
of Community Works’ steering committee for all five years, recalls
Smith saying, "`We can’t do that, but we can write a book.’" To be
more specific, Smith, former director of the YWCA, instructor at
Mercer County Community College, and consultant to non-profits,
decided on the spot that Abramson should write a book detailing how to
stage a conference like Community Works.
"She’s very good at delegating," Abramson says of Smith. And so
Abramson set out to create a step-by-step blueprint for organizing,
staging — and even cleaning up after — a meeting designed to bring
together all those in a community interested in helping to make it a
better place through volunteer activity.
With the project nearly complete, Abramson says she has come to
realize that the book is not limited to replicating Community Works.
With its detailed instructions, it could be used to rally a community
for any purpose. "It could be used for the Millstone Bypass or the
deer kill problem or a neighborhood issue," she says.
The how-to book is called Beyond Howling: How to Hold a Conference
that Builds Community. The name came from another New Yorker cartoon.
A group of wolves stand around the edge of a rock outcropping. Most
have thrown back their heads and are focused on howling at a full
moon. But one wolf, obviously an introspective fellow, says to a
friend: "My question is: Are we making an impact?"
This new instruction manual on how to have an impact through pooling
knowledge and experience at an annual conference is full of serious
details — how much to spend on postage? does it pay to advertise an
event?. But it is given a delightful lightness by the wonderful
cartoons, one better than the next, and each right on target. There
are a dozen or so, all purchased from the New Yorker’s Cartoonbank.
Abramson says Community Works got a good price on the cartoons because
of its non-profit status and the nature of its project.
This is Abramson’s first book. A graduate of Yale, Class of 1973, the
first class that included women, she worked as a copy editor for
Fairchild Publishing after graduation, and worked as a freelance
writer after that. The only work experience she can compare to writing
the book was a project doing research for an oral history of the Mobil
Born in Manhattan, Abramson began volunteering before she was out of
high school, spending weekends at the Workshop for the Blind, taking
children bowling and teaching them tap dancing. She tutored during her
college years and also volunteered at a mental hospital. Among the
benefits of volunteering, she says, is that "if you’re not asking to
get paid, you get entre." Once in, she says, volunteers have the
opportunity to learn a great deal, and often come away with "a
different view of the world."
Volunteering also changed Abramson’s career direction. "I’m a good
speller, a natural speller," she says. So, when she volunteered to
work for the Fortune Society, a group that works with individuals who
have been in trouble with the law, she was assigned to help a young
man with major spelling problems. It turns out, she says, that his
problems "went way beyond spelling." He had serious language problems.
In helping the young man work through them, Abramson became so
interested in language disorders that she enrolled in CUNY-Hunter and
earned a master’s degree in speech language pathology.
After working as a speech pathologist, Abramson left the full-time
workforce to raise her children, Galia, a 7th grader at the John
Witherspoon School, and Louis, a 9th grader at Princeton High School.
Her husband, Bernard Abramson, is a Merck executive, working mostly in
West Point, Pennsylvania.
Abramson works part-time at the Jewish Center of Princeton tutoring
students for their bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, but beyond that
10-hour-a-week job, her life revolves around her family and
volunteering. In addition to her work for Community Works, she
volunteers at her synagogue, her children’s schools, and the Princeton
Collaborating and forming friendships are high on Abramson’s list of
the benefits of volunteering. "I’m a relationship-oriented person,"
she says. The new book is very much a product of collaboration.
Abramson gives lavish praise to Jaclyn Boone, a freelance book
designer who helped her every step of the way. The original plan was
to obtain a grant, in large part so that Boone could be paid. But when
a grant didn’t materialize, Boone went ahead and did the work anyway,
and Abramson credits her with making the book so attractive and —
more important — so easy to use.
Writing and designing a how-to book is not nearly as easy as it looks,
says Abramson. "With a novel you just add pages. You just keep on
going," she says. But a how-to requires organizational tricks.
Cartoons need to be placed next to the text they comment on without
running the text onto another page. Financial worksheets have to be on
facing pages, with no room left over. There needs to be an
easy-to-follow scheme throughout that differentiates between different
types of content. Most challenging of all, some vital pieces of
information don’t fit easily into the scheme, but have to be worked in
nevertheless. In accomplishing all of this, Boone was invaluable,
It was Abramson herself, though, who came up with the book’s main
organizing mechanism. Racking her brain for a way to present the
thousands of details that go into creating an effective conference,
she came up with the idea of going meeting by meeting. So, right after
the introduction — with the howling wolf illustration — comes
Meeting 1. For that, and every subsequent chapter, Abramson presents
an agenda (using a clipboard graphic that was Boone’s idea), a list of
every single material needed for that meeting (staples to toilet
paper), and things to do "Before You Adjourn."
She found, however, that not everything fit neatly into the Meeting 1,
Meeting 2 scheme. Not all the action occurs at the meetings. Rather
than scrap the Meeting chapter heads, she added more sections.
Entitled "Between Meetings," these sections include activities such as
field trips to evaluate meeting sites, and calls to newspapers to
determine which editor might cover the upcoming event. There is also a
section on what to do on the day of the conference, and one on how to
evaluate how well it accomplished its goals.
The book is intended as a turnkey how-to. "We’ve done this for five
years. Five years," Abrams emphasizes. "It works. We know it works."
However, she says she wrote the book in such a way that worksheets,
sample letters, and agendas could easily be tinkered with. A
challenge, she says, was to walk the line between detailing absolutely
everything any group would need to replicate Princeton’s Community
Works, and appearing to condescend by providing too much information.
"Obviously," she says, "if you find you didn’t make enough copies of
the registration form, you go out and make more. I didn’t have to say
that." At the same time, she provides a diagram illustrating in great
detail just exactly how the post office likes those registration forms
to look when they go out in the bulk mail.
Howling is nearly complete. Final edits are being made, and Community
Works is weighing publishing options. "We might still try for a
grant," says Abramson. That route would provide her with some
remuneration for the time she has spent, and, more far important, she
says, would compensate Boone. The alternative is to find a publisher.
That avenue would carry the advantage of taking care of distribution.
In any case, Abramson expects that the book will be available for
purchase well before the spring.
Here is an advance peek at some of Abramson’s suggestions for
organizing a conference, particularly one to address community needs.
agenda includes signing in and refreshments (15 minutes), networking
(30 minutes), developing the purpose and framework (25 minutes),
brainstorming possible workshop topics (25 minutes), and conference
title and site (15 minutes).
Specific instructions under "signing in" include, "have a pad at the
door where committee members can sign in with their name, address, and
telephone numbers. If they have FAX numbers or E-mail addresses, get
them as well." While this sounds simple, canvassing the room for
people who have come equipped with pens and paper takes time, and
forgetting to collect E-mails addresses cuts off one of the most
effective means of communication.
During this first meeting, Abramson suggests topics for the upcoming
conference be considered. She offers a list of possible topics,
including community needs, marketing, volunteers, technology, conflict
resolution, diversity, and personnel issues. She also provides a
mechanism for deciding which topics will be included. "For this
process you will first split up into groups of four or five, each with
a facilitator. Hand out index cards and have people jot down ideas for
workshops, one per index card. Then, share your ideas. The facilitator
consolidates the topics within the group, preferably listed for
display on an easel pad or poster, and, after 20 minutes or so when
the groups reassemble, reports them to the entire committee."
Before the first meeting adjourns, Abramson suggests volunteers be
assigned to scout a conference site, draw up a registration form for
the conference, and invite other organizations to join the planning
selecting topics and titles (60 minutes), confirming site, date, and
time (20 minutes), and gathering names of workshop leaders and
panelists (25 minutes).
As with every meeting, there is a list of necessary materials. They
include simple refreshments, name tags, markers, sign-in sheet, easel,
a calendar with important local events marked (no one wants to try to
compete with the hospital Fete), index cards, and adhesive dots or
Selecting a site is an important part of the second meeting. "This is
one thing you must have donated," says Abramson. The cost of renting a
conference room is just too high in most cases. She suggests high
schools, community colleges, and universities as possible donors of
meeting space. (Community Works holds its conferences at Princeton
After a site is found, a date needs to be chosen. Sounds simple, but
it is important to allow enough lead time to line up speakers, print
and mail registration forms, and process returns. Anything less than
three months probably is cutting it close. It is also important to
check into conflicts not only with blockbuster local events, but also
with sports, school or community events, and holidays.
With a date set, the committee can turn its attention to time of day.
"Community Works," writes Abramson, "is held right after work, which
is thought to be convenient for most people in our suburban community
without intruding on weekend time. Our post-conference survey revealed
that 85 percent of the respondents favored "weekday early evening — 5
p.m. to 9:15 p.m. — for future conferences."
At this meeting, names of possible workshop leaders are compiles.
Sources suggested are local non-profits, service clubs (Rotary, Elks,
etc.), local businesses, local colleges and schools, religious
organizations, friends, foundations, training departments at a large
"Try to use local people as leaders," Abramson writes, "because this
builds community. It calls attention to the talent and resources
available in your own area. Secondarily, it keeps your costs down by
minimizing travel expenses." The workshop leaders, she says, should be
asked to donate their servies, and the asking should be done by a
friend where possible.
(5 minutes), networking (10 minutes), status report on preparations
and setting the registration fee (30 minutes), and assigning jobs (30
Jobs include handling registration, serving as treasurer, publicizing
the event, recruiting workshop leaders, enlisting a keynote speaker,
writing brief bios of the speakers, devising a get-acquainted
activity, photocopying all documents to be distributed at the
conference, serving as liaison with site management to arrange for
audiovisual or computer-related needs.
In the "Before You Adjourn" section for this meeting, tasks include
making sure everyone is clear on how to proceed with his task,
assigning a volunteer to consult the post office for rules governing
bulk mail, agreeing on the next meeting date, procuring address
labels, making arrangements for publicity photos.
(5 minutes), networking (10 minutes), preparing the bulk mailing
(variable), making signs for the conference (variable), and taking
publicity photos (variable).
Now the conference is shaping up, and it is time for many hands to
join in to make it happen. Abramson gives detailed instructions on one
of the down-and-dirty tasks, getting out the registration forms. Among
her instructions: "Bear in mind that to qualify as bulk mail every
piece must be identical and may not be personalized on the outside.
Even writing your name over the return address may disqualify the
piece and result in a higher postal rate."
"Current postal regulations do not require you to seal the piece.
Whether you do or do not, the postal service prefers the opening at
the top and the fold at the bottom, which will be the case if you have
followed our model." (A thoroughly annotated model registration form
In the "Between Meetings 4 and 5" section, Abramson lays out a number
of essential last minute tasks, including "clarify expectations with
the site management. As to cleaning up, who will supply additional
trash receptacles if needed? Will there be someone on hand to stock
the restroom? As to security, what arrangement is there for latecomers
to be able to enter the building?
minutes), networking (15 minutes), selecting facilitators (five
minutes), and preparing the conference folders (throughout the
This is a time to call in all hands. Facilitators are to be chosen
from among those who have registered. Their job will be to introduce
workshop leaders, keep time during workshops, and collect evaluation
sheets. Family, friends, high school students, and any other willing
pool of free labor are to be tapped to set up signs, cloak rooms,
registration tables, and bathrooms. They also will be needed to work
audiovisual equipment, greet workshop leaders, hand out forms and
answer questions during registration, check off names, accept payment,
and hand out folders.
day-of-the-event to-do list on two facing pages. It’s all there, from
setting up registration tables and putting out trash receptacles to
introducing speakers to moving participants along from workshop to
an important one. Here committe members talk about what went well —
and what didn’t. Workshop evaluations are reviewed, but the post
mortem doesn’t stop there. Abramson’s list of conference aspects to be
evaluated includes how well parking went, whether the food was too
messy, how the computer equipment worked, whether attendance lived up
to expectations, and was there enough room to hang coats.
says, is the mood. "In Hebrew we say `ruach,’" she says. It’s a
spirit, a feeling. When everything comes together, it’s just
It was a powerhouse of a meeting. Nearly 300 of the most influential
movers and shakers in Central Jersey gathered to meet and greet, hear
an inspiring keynote speech, participate in some of the 30 workshops,
and go home ready to claw their way past competitors and make their
Forget that last part, about the clawing and the money, because the
purpose of this event, Community Works, was to develop volunteers and
staff members for nonprofits, and as you might guess, nonprofits
aren’t rolling in dough.
You might also guess that Community Works was run by and attended by,
mostly, women. In the years before two-income families, women
dominated the volunteer field, and even now they make up the bulk of
for-free workers. Here, just one of seven attendees was male, and the
very large and energetic committee that put this together was
virtually all female.
They were Princeton’s power women. Among them: Two former YWCA
executive directors, the president of the Delaware-Raritan Girl Scout
Council, the superintendent of Princeton Regional Schools, two
directors of Family and Children’s Service organizations, the
directors of the Arts Council of Princeton, the Princeton Public
Library, and the Historical Society of Princeton — and the
international president of the Junior League. To name a few.
Patty Byers, Mimi Ballard, Barbara Abramson, Janine Honstein plus two
dozen more women — and one man — were on the committee for the fifth
annual event, begun by Marge Smith five years ago. Smith designed and
teaches the certificate program in nonprofit management at Mercer
County Community College, but before that she was executive director
of the Princeton YWCA.
"I think the event is unique, says Susan Hoskins, director of the
Chandler Hall Health Services Program at the Quaker Settlement at
Stony Brook in Princeton. "I think Marge Smith is unique. She has
vision. She has connections. And she is good at keeping things
rolling. She has a phenomenal way of sweeping people up as she moves
Community Works is always held at Princeton University (which donates
the space) and always at the end of January (between semesters). This
year, it took place at the Frist Student Center on Monday, January 28,
from 5 to 9:15 p.m. It started with Power Networking, paper and pencil
parlor game-like networking exercise, designed to rev up everyone to
meet new people. The din was deafening.
Deborah Brittain, the keynoter, quoted the Bhagavad Gita, which says,
"If you do not give something to the community, then you are a thief."
A Princeton Township resident who is president of the Association of
Junior Leagues International and has been active in the National
Council of Negro Women, the Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the
National Urban League.
Maximum use of time with minimum folderol was the mood. Box dinners
were handed out to be consumed during in the first workshop, and
coffee and cookies were served in the break before the second
Hoskins offered insights on the "Men are from Mars, Women from Venus"
question. A birthright Quaker, trained in conflict mediation, she
taught the "Managing Conflict" workshop. "Women and men often approach
problem solving and organizations differently," suggested Hoskins.
"Men tend to solve problems hierarchically — with the boss dictating
the solution — and women tend to think collaboratively."
"That’s one of the ways why conflict resolution makes sense to me as a
female — it is collaborative problem solving," Hoskins said. "It also
makes sense to use conflict resolution in nonprofits because many of
the people in the workforce — volunteer or paid — are women.
Creative conflict resolution is a natural fit in the nonprofit."
Diversity of sex can be as great a challenge as diversity of race and
ethnic origin, according to three women on the panel entitled
"Attracting and Retaining a Diverse Board, Staff, and Volunteer
Corps." The three — two African-American women and a woman with a
Hispanic background — are often asked to fill the "race" slots on
boards, yet they advocate a broader application of diversity.
Sasa Olessi Montano, former executive director of the YWCA of Trenton,
now director of Princeton University’s Center for Community Service,
suggested that it might also be important for board members to
represent different ages, sexual orientation, economic backgrounds and
work histories. "Diversity must be a value," she said. "You must be
intentional. You must be committed. Take half of a meeting to discuss
what it means — how it will enhance your mission. Put a diversity
provision in your bylaws.
"Have a plan," said Brittain, president of the Association of Junior
Leagues International. "Decide where you are and where you want to go,
then use a competency-based process."
"Create partnerships with organizations that work with the population
that you want to have represented on your board," said Michele
Tuck-Ponder, former mayor of Princeton Township and current president
of the D&R Girl Scout Council. "One person can light a fire. I have
found that there is always someone in the room who believes there
needs to be a change."
But differences can bring friction. Tuck-Ponder remembered presiding
over a women’s organization board when the "diversity representative,"
a male, referred to the women’s complaining as bitching. "I did manage
to get him out of there alive," she said.
Other workshops were on "How to Ask for Money in Tough Times," taught
by Stephanie Bray, director of college development at Thomas Edison
State College, and "Cross Cultural Communications," by Catherine
Mercer Bing of ITAP International. Claire Sheff Kohn, superintendent
of Princeton Regional Schools and former superintendent in Lawrence,
taught Strategic Planning for Boards and Organizations. Pam Hersh,
Princeton University’s director of community and state affairs, led a
publicity session called "Organizing from the Inside and Utilizing
"I learned how to empower volunteers," said Mary Singleton of United
Progress in Trenton, "how to allow each one to choose what they like
to do best."
"I learned how to speak so others listen," said Yomi Odumosu of the
Lighthouse African Resource Center, a new organization to help
immigrants from Africa. "I learned you don’t focus on yourself but on
what you want them to hear. That little things make a difference, that
you should speak with your whole body."
Not all the lessons were positive. The take-home lesson for man who
attended Shiff Kohn’s workshop on how to conduct three-day planning
retreats was that the person currently conducting the planning for his
charity was (in contrast to Shiff Kohn) incompetent.
The summing up was done the best by Brittain, the keynoter.
"From the abolitionist movement to `Ban the Bomb’ and volunteer
firefighters . . . from organized labor to Mothers Against Drunk
Drivers . . . from the NAACP to Farm Aid — America has changed,
grown, and become a beacon to the world through the non-paid work of
volunteers," said Brittain. She cited statistics that 44 percent of
adults (83.9 million people) volunteer an average of 24 hours a month,
the equivalent of $239 billion in labor.
She challenged nonprofit leaders to compete for credibility by
building their brand. "Americans are looking for meaning and community
in their lives. People, at their core, are more interested in living
`a’ good life than living `the’ good life. We must build our `brand’
by asking volunteers what the words and concepts of `meaning’ and
`community’ mean to them. We must inquire and collect from volunteers
what motivates them and what will retain them. And we must illustrate
and illuminate the way in which volunteering provides the much sought
after ingredients of `a’ good life.’
"These past months have held vivid reminders of our need to be part of
a collective purpose and our will to respond to the needs of others.
Volunteerism has been equated to courage, and that is as it should be.
"However, in many ways, it is simply the courage to know our own
heart, and act on what our heart is saying, that distinguishes us as
volunteers. It is empowering and encouraging to know that so many
hearts here tonight are Courageous Hearts that perform that simple act
of `giving to others’ in a community that works `together.’"
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