Can a Pooled Special Needs Trust in LA help you?

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Bet Tzedek Legal Services are working together to see how many local families could benefit from a Pooled Special Needs Trust which can provide affordable vital financial protection to people with significant physical, mental, cognitive, and developmental disabilities. It is a safe and legal investment vehicle for private funds and does not impact the beneficiaries’ financial eligibility nor reduce their funding from essential government benefits such as SSI, IHSS or Medi-Cal.

All Pooled Special Needs Trusts are required by federal law to be operated by a non-profit organization, which becomes the Trustee for the funds invested on behalf of a beneficiary. In Los Angeles, our intention is to create a new non-profit with board members from existing Jewish organizations, along with family/stakeholder representation.

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How non-profits are similar to poor families

I’ve been trying to figure out why so there’s often so much inter-personal tension and drama at non-profit agencies, and I think I’ve come up an answer, or at least a partial answer–there’s simply not enough money or other resources.

Just like a poor household that is always faced with bad choices, such as whether to buy food or prescription medicine, too many non-profits are dealing with similar situations, only its type of scenario: do we invest our money in hiring another development staff person, or expect the program staff to add a fundraising piece to their portfolio? Almost by definition, non-profits don’t usually have enough operating funds, which  can easily create an environment of petty jealousies, turf battles, and in the end of the day, a less than efficient workforce.

What is this means is the senior staff, board members and executive director need to agree on what’s really the top priorities of the agency, and funnel all available funding to those precious few items, while letting other issues move down the priority list. We just can’t do it all, especially on a limited budget.

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Tough Problems Require Multi-Sector Solutions

I listened in to a Chronicle of Philanthropy webinar today about Advocacy in this post-election era, and each speaker, in a slightly different way, encouraged non-profits to reach out beyond their “usual suspects” in order to meet their goals, whether fundraising, programmatic or public policy. Yet, I am involved with, and touched by so many great non-profits doing good and important work, but they haven’t quite bought into this concept of coalition/collaborative work as a high priority. If we really wish to be effective change agents, our executive directors, board members and staff will have to make this part of their regular, on-going work, and not something to dabble in when time permits.

The next generation of donors that is emerging won’t have the patience for non-profits who aren’t working together, joined by government and business and faith-based groups, to make their lofty ambitions a reality

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Wasserman Foundation Grant to LAUSD: What’s Good, What’s Not

The good news is that the Los Angeles-based Wassserman Foundation is giving $4 million to the LA Unified School District (LAUSD) in partnership through an on-line educational philanthropic portal, DonorsChoseLA,org. 

According to the LA Times, through the contribution from the Wasserman Foundation, $15 gift cards will be distributed to the families of public school children in Los Angeles — adding up to $2 million. The families can use the gift cards for the projects posted by their children’s teachers. Another $2 million will be used to match the donations from others in the community, the foundation said.

These cards, will be used for various classroom projects, up to $800, that teachers can post online, and each teacher can post up to two projects.

It is truly wonderful to have a local Foundation invest in our public school system.

However, this program has two major flaws:

1) The majority of families who send their children to LAUSD are poor — more than 80% of LAUSD students are Title I, meaning their families qualify for free school lunches and other government programs for the indigent. How many of these families have a working computer with internet access at home? How many of those gift cards will actually be used? In a robocall I received at home as an LAUSD parent, we were informed that we have the option of using the computers in the Parent Center for free, which is great, but let’s face it, only a very small percentage of parents will make this extra effort.

2) Although it is great to donate money for needed classroom projects, the real challenge facing LAUSD is staff layoffs and cutbacks. All the Ipads in the world can’t replace an experienced, caring teacher, sports coach or compassionate aide in a special education class.

Funding public education is sorely needed but all the gimmicks are not.

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Collective Impact: A Must-Do but Hard to Accomplish

Why is it so hard to solve society’s problems?  The issues we are working on feel so intractable — poverty, high school drop-out rates, chronic or disabling illness — that it is hard to see how one small (or even large-sized) non-profit can really make a difference. The most rational solution, of course, is to join forces and work together with other like-minded non-profits, governmental agencies and corporations, yet too often these joint efforts come across more like an earnest public service announcement than real systemic change. That’s why I can’t recommend enough the article titled, “Collective Impact” written by John Kania and Mark Kramer in the Winter edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

The authors highlight the success of Strive, a non-profit subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks , which brought together a wide range of local foundations, school districts, universities and other non-profits to collectively create a shared agenda for improving public education in the Cincinnati and northern Kentucky region. Despite the recession, this group of over 300 community stakeholders has meet most of their agreed-upon goals, and is now poised to help nine other communities replicate their model and strategies.

Aside from the familiar scarce resources of not enough time and not enough money, a major obstacle to bringing everyone to the table is something we all have in abundance–to0 much ego. In order to accomplish great things, that is something we will all have to learn to jettison, and the sooner the better.

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Working in a Non-profit is like working in a relationship

In every relationship, there are times when the partners are in excellent harmony, really working together as a team and both contributing more than 50%. Everything is in sync. But during bad times, everything little thing becomes a Big Thing, and people almost seem to work at odds with each other. The same can be said for workplaces, writ large. Just as you can’t expect your partner in life to be perfect, don’t expect your organization to be without its flaws. Over time, almost everyone involved — staff, volunteers, donors — develops their own list of personal grievances and resentments. The only way to avoid this is to work with robots, not humans. The solution is the same as in any relationship — focus on the positive, and see the good you can do together.

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Collaboration point people

In the last two weeks, I’ve reached out to two wonderful community based non-profits for various collaborative programming work in the healthcare arena, in one case for a large federal grant and in the second, for a pressing advocacy issue. In both cases, it was hard to figure out exactly who to contact first –the Executive Director, the Program Director, or maybe the Community Outreach specialist? Then it dawned on me: if non-profits truly want to collaborate more often, we need to make it easier to find one another and create a new connection. We could start by designating one staff person as the professional portal. Just as there are now designated staff people to work on social media, we need to the same for agency to agency contacts–maybe call the person A2A contact??

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