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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.
How a 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
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. Even now, as the Bush administration
tries to rally the for-free workers, women make up the bulk of the
volunteer community. The very large and energetic committee that put
this together was virtually all female, and males were a distinct
minority in attendance.
They are Princeton’s power women. Among them: Two former YWCA
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
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 "
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." 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, a 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." She is 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
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
and cookies were served in the break before the second workshop.
Hoskins offered insights on the "Men are from Mars, Women from
Venus" question. A birthright Quaker, trained in conflict
she taught the "Managing Conflict" workshop. "Women and
men often approach problem solving and organizations differently,"
said Hoskins. "Men tend to solve problems hierarchically —
with the boss dictating the solution — and women tend to think
"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
because many of the people in the workforce — volunteer or paid
— are women. Creative conflict resolution is a natural fit in
Diversity of sex can be as great a challenge as
of race and ethnic origin, according to three women on the panel
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
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
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
a male, referred to the women’s complaining as bitching. "I did
manage to get him out of there alive," she said.
"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
that you should speak with your whole body."
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
. . . from the NAACP to Farm Aid — America has changed, grown,
and become a beacon to the world through the non-paid work of
said Brittain. She cited statistics that 44 percent of adults (83.9
million people) volunteer an average of 24 hours a month, the
of $239 billion in labor.
She challenged nonprofit leaders to compete for credibility by
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.’"
— Barbara Fox
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
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 described in the article above.
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 organizer Marge 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
to non-profits, decided on the spot that Abramson should write a book
detailing how to stage a conference like Community Works.
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
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
that Builds Community." The name came from another New Yorker
cartoon. A group of wolves stand around the edge of a rock
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.
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
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,
children bowling and teaching them tap dancing. She tutored during
college and volunteered at a mental hospital. Among the benefits of
volunteering, she says, is that "if you’re not asking to get paid,
you get `entree.’" Once in, she says, volunteers have the
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
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
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 seventh grader at the John
Witherspoon School, and Louis, a ninth grader at Princeton High
Her husband, Bernard Abramson, is a Merck executive, working mostly
in West Point, Pennsylvania.
Abramson works part-time at the Jewish Center of
tutoring students for their bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, but beyond
that 10-hour-a-week job, her life revolves around her family and
In addition to her work for Community Works, she volunteers at 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
Abramson gives lavish praise to Jaclyn Boone, a freelance book
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
scheme throughout that differentiates between different types of
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
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.
"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
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
"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
in great detail just exactly how the post office likes those
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
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
a conference, particularly one to address community needs.
The agenda includes signing in and refreshments (15 minutes),
(30 minutes), developing the purpose and framework (25 minutes),
possible workshop topics (25 minutes), and conference title and site
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
topics, including community needs, marketing, volunteers, technology,
conflict resolution, diversity, and personnel issues. She also
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
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
(5 minutes), networking (10 minutes), status report on preparations
and setting the registration fee (30 minutes), and assigning jobs
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
photocopying all documents to be distributed at the conference,
as liaison with site management to arrange for audiovisual or
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
making arrangements for publicity photos.
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.
a spirit, a feeling. When everything comes together, it’s just
— Kathleen McGinn Spring
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