Community Works

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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

just one.

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

nonprofits meet."

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

Education Foundation.

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,

Abramson says.

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.

Meeting 1. This is the meeting that gets things going. The

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


Meeting 2. The agenda includes networking (10 minutes),

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.

Meeting 3. The agenda includes signing in and refreshments

(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.

Meeting 4. The agenda includes signing in and refreshments

(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

is included)

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?

Meeting 5. Agenda includes signing in and refreshments (5

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.

Conference. In this chapter, Abramson has put an entire

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


Post-Conference Evaluation. This is another meeting, and

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.

The most important aspect element of the conference, Abramson

says, is the mood. "In Hebrew we say `ruach,’" she says. It’s a

spirit, a feeling. When everything comes together, it’s just


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Community Works

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

next million.

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

Outside Resources."

"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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