AABP Award 728x90

With a former organizer in the Oval Office…


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The bad news is, organizations like Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI) can expect less money from donors and foundations in 2009. The good news is, a former community organizer like them is running the nation.

“The door is open,” Mary Stranahan told a meeting of CCI rabble-rousers last week, “to make the country more accountable to its citizens.”

Stranahan and Dave Beckwith were in town representing the nicely named Needmor Fund. It has been in existence for 50 years, but since 1980 has been giving money only to community organizers. They couldn’t help referring to President Barack Obama a few times, the man who was criticized during the presidential campaign for wasting his early career years as a mere community organizer.

“I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,'” Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said back then, “except that you have actual responsibilities.”

That slight wasn’t something to pout about, Beckwith said; it was an opening. “That was a great favor,” said the Needmor executive director, here from Toledo, Ohio. “It was an opportunity to give the short answer to the question about what we do. The best answer is always, ‘Come, let me show you.'”

Needmor – the name originally applied to a farm on the site where the foundation now operates – gives $1.5 million to $2 million a year to U.S. community organizer groups, including $175,000 to CCI in the past seven or eight years.

It’s spark plug money. Stranahan was “born with a silver spoon in my mouth” because her family founded the Champion Spark Plug Co. The money piled up, one cylinder ignition at a time, and in 1956 her grandfather started the Needmor Fund. “I suspect it was a tax dodge,” said Stranahan, who is now a retired physician in Arlee, Mont.

She describes herself as a left-wing nut and some of her siblings as right-wing nuts, but somehow they manage to run the organization together and agree on who should get grants. “We want to find people who have not had a fair shake,” she said. “It’s important that they work together and push government officials to do what they say they’re going to do.”

Sounds like Iowa CCI.

The audience of veteran CCI troops heard a few comments from Bankers Trust Co. President Suku Radia, who talked about the value of building “social capital” and said, “I applaud everything CCI does.”

Then they listened to Beckwith and Stranahan, who talked about how Needmor operates.

“We look for multi-issue organizations,” said Stranahan, as well as strong training for future leaders.

Needmor wants to deal with veteran groups, not start-ups, and it funds organizations, not individual projects, Beckwith said. Then there’s the “pronoun test.” “When people refer to the organization as ‘they,’ it means something different than ‘we,'” he noted.

Some questions came next. Developer Tim Urban asked about anger. “How do you express it?” he asked, implying that it’s not wise to go full-throttle every time on every issue. “There’s a lot of anger out there, and it’s deep-rooted. How do you tap into it?”

“It’s a terrible thing to steal people’s passion away,” Beckwith said. “We owe people the process that allows them to express it thoughtfully.”

And, of course, the money-giving visitors laid down a money-based challenge. “There’s never been a better time for funding community organizers,” Beckwith said. “We’re here to encourage you to join us in doubling down.”

No doubt CCI also would like to find some willing donors who weren’t sitting in that room. People who like the idea of fighting for justice but never quite find the time.

“It’s quite sexy now,” Stranahan said encouragingly. “Thanks to Barack.”

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