Thursday, November 12, 2009

Foraker Focus Group

I got to the Mountain View building about ten minutes early.  (Yes, they did move into the part of town that probably has a higher percentage of clients of the non-profits they serve, putting their money and their jobs where their mouth is.)  The parking lot was full and I saw the sign.  New snow plays tricks.  But at least I knew there was additional parking and the other side of the building was the most likely place.

The Foraker Group is an offshoot of the Anchorage United Way.  From their website:

In 1998, the United Way of Anchorage surveyed its agencies to determine what services they needed and would be willing to use in a pooled organization. Their initial list was long, but the four highest demands were assistance in fundraising, planned giving, finance and technology. A model was developed based on a concept of sharing these four resources under one nonprofit umbrella, thereby helping other organizations afford these services which are often beyond their budgets. This model is The Foraker Group.

The Foraker Group officially began offering shared services to the Alaska nonprofit sector in January 2001, after it secured the major financial support of the United Way of Anchorage, The Rasmuson Foundation, The M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, ConocoPhillips Alaska and BP Exploration (Alaska), Inc.

Today, The Foraker Group offers a wide range of services, training and educational opportunities that help assure the success of Alaska's nonprofit organizations. [I left out all the corporate logos they had up.  An advantage of underwriting my own blog is I don't have to post any ads.]

The back of the building was in bright sunshine and made for a much better picture than the front.  Avocado has long been out as a color for appliances.  Maybe it's back now for buildings. 

I'm on the steering committee of Healing Racism in Anchorage (HRA),  which joined Foraker this year.  Our steering committee chair and our part time staff person went to a meeting with Foraker and the whole steering committee went to a strategic planning meeting this summer.

So now Foraker is having focus groups with representatives of its member groups to see how they are doing and detect future needs.  I was available yesterday, so HRA  sent  me.

I walked around to the front, cleaned the snow off the sign (both sides) and went in to the meeting.

Around the table were people from a diverse set of organizations - Volunteers of America, The Holy Rosary Academy, Friends of Alaska CASA,  Kincaid Project Group, me, and the Sitka Music Festival.

We spent a short time going over Foraker's sustainability model for nonprofits.  Basically it's about making sure that the money, the personnel, and the organizational purpose are all three healthy and working in a collaborative community.

We did some exercises to give Foraker feedback on how well they are serving their members.

What I got most out of this meeting was the chance to talk with and hear from people from other nonprofits.  It was interesting to hear their issues and experiences.

I also learned that while foundation and corporate donations were down, individual donations were holding relatively steady. 

Dennis McMillian who is head of Foraker is seen by many folks as a man who walks on water.  I know Dennis and I too think he has pretty extraordinary skills.  It's been one of his goals to improve the
nonprofit sector in Anchorage in part by fostering collaboration across organizations, professionalizing the way nonprofits are run, and encouraging greater philanthropy. But whenever a group is successful, some folks are likely to become disgruntled.

The collaboration of United Way, Foraker, and the Rasmussen Foundation in some ways has become the 400 pound nonprofit gorilla in Anchorage. I tend to be pretty much out of the gossip loop, so I can't tell how big a deal that is. I know that the people running the three organizations are very competent and pretty driven so I suspect they could seem pretty formidable to organizations outside the network. My sense though is that they acknowledge that not everyone wants to do it their way and that they wish them no ill will. But looking around on line, I can't find online about these organizations that isn't glowing.  What I'm tiptoeing around is the notion that these organizations seem to have been treated by the media with kid gloves.

I'm pretty sure that what they are doing is basically for the benefit of Alaska and particularly Alaska's needy.  I personally have no knowledge of anything negative.  But I also think they are big enough players in town that the media ought to pay more critical attention to what they are doing.  Just to make sure they keep doing the right things.  Alaska media has had a tendency to be overly respectful of those in power, especially when they dole out money.  I'm not in any way suggesting that there is anything untoward going on, but journalists should always have some healthy skepticism. 


  1. A question for media organizations on this trinity is about the concentration of power, the eroding effect of gatekeeping. I know more than one organization, after having established independent relations with an outside funder, found Diane in the middle, with continued relationships mediated through her foundation.

    While Alaska used to be a place to run free, it is less so today. To do the big stuff, an agency has to be blessed by them, and to be in tow.

    That loss of independence is offset by the training, the access to new funds, of course. Yet it very possibly may result in a development process that looks much like herding ideas. I liken it to a wild area and a city park. There are different natures involved.

    It is one of the reasons Gene and I left Alaska. There was Uncle Ted on one side and this rising power on the other. How do new or radical ideas grow in such a funding environment if they are not blessed by their vision of the part?

    Oh, well.

  2. ' their vision of the park?' is the correct ending, of course. Cheerio

  3. Alaska seems to have too large state apparatus. Every 4th people works for the state. That sounds a lot.

  4. Jay, thanks for your insights. This has nothing to do with the individuals involved, but merely with the concentration of power. We have to carefully monitor the balance between the benefits of efficiency and leverage and the costs of creativity, independence, etc. If less ethical people take over in the future, what will happen?

    Ropi, you're right. But we also have to keep in mind that Alaska has a population density of one person per square mile. (Hungary's is 280/sq. mile; 109/ Much of the land is mountain or tundra. Much of the land is owned and maintained by the US government and by the State of Alaska. We have a number of military bases and all that is government employment too.


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