Wednesday, December 31, 2014

So—So---So: Socially Responsible Merry Christmas!

Christmas season was less of a frustrating time for me in terms of gift purchases.  First and foremost I attribute less anxiety around gift purchases to my focus on celebrating this season based on my faith.  

My Christmas shopping anxieties were also decreased due to increased satisfaction that my spending has been relatively well-placed with socially responsible businesses.  My personal focus and practice of socially responsible shopping are connected to the fact that one of the five client project service areas of Progress Strategies+ is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).  

CSR clients and project partners of Progress Strategies+ know of the philosophy, practice and standards.  For readers of this blog who may not be familiar CSR is generally known as a corporation’s adherence to ethical and legal standards across all its operations, along with its deliberative and voluntary effects on the environment and positive impact on social welfare.

Those practices include environmentally progressive activities that go beyond what regulators require, and promoting and supporting local, national and global causes. The latter is often achieved through corporate philanthropy where businesses donate some of their profits or resources to charitable causes and efforts to change systemic issues of poverty, education, health and economic challenges. 

Corporations who demonstrate social responsible practices are also justifiably focused on its business case objectives.  Those objectives for example would be to increase brand recognition and reputation as well as increasing sales among the millions of socially responsible consumers (55% of consumers surveyed across the globe by Nielsen) who:

·         Are likely to switch to brands that support a good cause, given similar pricing between products.

·         Do not just talk about corporate good intentions.  According to Nielsen and other similar consumer surveys, socially responsible consumers say they will pay extra for products and services from companies committed to positive social and environmental impact.

·         Are likely to economically boycott companies if they found those companies engaging in irresponsible business practices.

Holiday shopping for 2014 was yet another year where socially responsible standards translated into my shopping experience.  If you were with me during shopping time you would witness me often with my head down walking throughout the mall.  My head was not down in dread of the shopping experience.  Rather, I was looking at my tablet and phone reviewing corporate social responsibility reports and online Counts of Events (alerts and news on the number of company controversies such as discrimination or health or safety fines). I did pretty well not to have stumbled into shoppers, friends, acquaintances or Santa Claus amid my in-the-mall research!   

Reviewing information on a company’s sustainability record and their social/community impact literally before arriving at the cash register is important for me.  Particularly at this time of year it is critical that I have information and some observable assurances that my spending aligns with businesses practicing social responsibility in order to meet social impact goals.   

In addition to using the Progress Strategies+ 11 Clear Commitments to Corporate Citizenship and Social Responsibility project management guidelines, I also refer to GoodGuide (, social responsibility reports and other resources to guide what I will---or will not---purchase from major retailers.  I won’t take time to detail each of the twenty-plus elements that I use.  Instead, I want to provide a gift to you for next year’s use of some tools and factors that keep me in continuous improvement to be a socially conscious shopper:


In my opinion most of the online resources that rate socially responsible companies often focus solely on green measurements---environmentally friendly objectives.  Environmentally sound practices are important to me as well.  However, many assessment services of corporations forget or have a low emphasis on social impact objectives such as community relations, diversity and inclusion in management and the workforce, and records on human rights and wage issues.

I have been using GoodGuide ( as one helpful tool.  For companies and products within major sales GoodGuide uses great methodology, data and criteria to provide ratings on a product in environment, health and social areas.  It also has listings on certifications and seals of approval (i.e. PETA’s Animal Treatment Assessments) for the product you choose. 

For almost any product in personal care, food, household items and more GoodGuide can provide you at the click of a button that product's environment, health and social ratings ranging from 0 to 10 (higher the score, the better the product).  The GoodGuide ratings can help you make a socially conscious purchasing decision or help you decide on switching to a better socially responsible product.  You will get good guidance from GoodGuide.

Corporate involvement in conditions

The last few days of my holiday shopping were fueled by Starbucks Coffee along with good coffee from local businesses.  My recyclable cup coffee refills and gift cards have been held by my hand with the “Indivisible” bracelet on my wrist purchased for five dollars at Starbucks a few years ago. That purchase supported its Create Jobs for U.S.A. Program. Starbucks launched the program with the Opportunity Finance Network to create and sustain jobs in communities throughout the country.  

The program provides capital grants to select Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs). Those CDFIs then provide financing to under-served community businesses in the form of small business loans, community center financing, housing project financing and microfinance. Such loans have helped a Vermont woman open her bookstore business leading to job creation and community revitalization. 

This is social change at the macro level.  As a socially conscious shopper I’ll take a Grande size hot chocolate priced at a few dollars more (10 cent discount when I bring my recyclable cup!) for companies developing their own investment initiatives to address compelling social conditions. 

Where’s my waste go?

I am surrounded by Macy’s gift boxes this time of year---for good reason.  Macy's is my main department store of choice.  They keep me up-to-date on their goals to reduce paper consumption. Whether purchasing in-store or online it is a positive shopping experience when I know that the contents holding the gifts include recyclable folding gift boxes (100 percent recycled with 35 percent post-consumer waste) and wrapping tissue (100 percent recycled with 40 percent post-consumer waste).  That is getting close to being as good as the bags used by Santa himself. 

Wages and wages

After years avoiding the world’s second largest clothing retailer I have thawed out and made a few purchases at H&M.  I have quite a few H&M gift cards and apparel purchases to celebrate my initial shopping experience.  Among the reasons that I have included the company on my list includes their launch of the Fair Living Wage initiative.  The initiative is focusing on establishing fair living wages in the textile industry.  In the midst of wage inequity combined with instances of economic exploitation by many bad actors worldwide, I also give H&M credit for educating workers in India and Bangladesh about their rights.  Another plus for the company is that 50% of their board members are women.  Speaking of…..

Inclusion and Equity from top—Who’s the Boss? 

Another Progress Strategies+ project area is Diversity and Inclusion.  It is a practice that I preach during shopping.  Regarding the authentic aspect of inclusion in the form of power sharing it should be an inviting challenge for socially conscious and inclusion focused credit card users to decide between MasterCard and American Express.  Why?  It would be limiting to support these companies solely because people of color are at the helm, but it is important.    

More important is the fact that those companies and their financial service industries are known to craft and cultivate women and people of color in management positions.  MasterCard has entrusted Ajay Banga, who is from India, to be president and CEO of MasterCard.  Kenneth Chenault of American Express is the third African-American CEO of a Fortune 500 Company. Once again, I support businesses in this aspect because they also have systems to recruit and cultivate diverse talent to the top. 

Direct cultivation of young leaders in industry

I appreciate corporate support of non-profits working with youth in a wide variety of areas such as health and education.  What I have really been impressed by is when good corporate citizenship also comes with investments in youth to become future company talent and not just the next generation of consumers.

Polo by Ralph Lauren is a brand that I share among family (and myself) when it comes to some apparel gifts during this time of year because of what they do in cultivating future leaders in the industry.  Actually, I have been supporting the brand since high school.  That was when my mother said I could buy all the Polo that I wanted----from the money of my first-ever job!  Back then it was about quality, material and style. 

In the early years of 2000 purchasing decisions and staying with the brand had been guided by my appreciation of the Polo Fashion School.  The school was established to provide highly motivated, gifted students exposure to the world of fashion in the hopes that some will pursue a career in the industry.  It added outreach and after-school courses for inner-city teenagers hailing from East Harlem School at Exodus House and Harlem Children’s Zone.  Youth from those areas and others have tested their talents that have led to job offers from Polo.  One young student, Syreeta Gates, helped design limited edition jackets and other products that led to Ralph Lauren offering her a job after her final presentation.

As with people there is no perfect company or product.  These companies and others that I make efforts to support would be the first to tell you that more must be done in improving corporate social responsibility practices.  “More must be done” is documented by adherence to measurements, standards of good annual reporting and investigative resources.  The “more must be done” element happens when we as consumers and customers establish our own socially responsible shopping criteria or refer to the standards that exist.  When we pay attention to such good corporate citizenship with our dollars, we pay resources forward through more companies who engage in social change to fulfill the value that it is indeed profitable for everyone when the right thing is done.

P.S.---For my personal friends reading this:  This blog entry doubles as a list of places that you can feel free to shop and buy gifts for me next year.  Progress Strategies+ will also introduce some new client profiles next year.  In the meantime Happy New Year to you all!

Eric K. Foster is Principal of Progress Strategies+, a project management consultancy working with non-profits, business, corporations and organizations in the five client areas of Diversity and Inclusion, Grant Writing and Project Management, Community Engagement Strategies, Public Policy and Advocacy, and Corporate Social Responsibility.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Give to the Poor----Directly (and don’t ask what they did with the money!)


I have joined some of my allies of social impact in various fields in becoming wonderfully attentive to the practice of direct cash transfers to individuals and families in poverty.  The last time when I was rather pensive of direct cash transfers was exchanging brief thoughts with my colleague Randy Osum at The Source.  For those receiving this blog out-of-town/state, on the coasts, down south or abroad here is some information about The Source (

Back to direct cash transfers.  The philosophy and practice of transferring cash directly to those in poverty has been making its point and purpose almost exclusively in “developing countries” from what I have witnessed in my fledging observations.  NOTE:  As society has moved from the ‘First World/Third World’ terms it is my hope that we have a better and non-Westernized term other than “developing countries.”  For now......

Cash Transfers. Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT). Social Cash Transfers.  And the most disruptive in change and courage—Unconditional Cash Transfers.  There are slightly different practices in process and approach among these versions of cash transfers to those in poverty.  Nevertheless, it is the unified goal of donors/investors to give money to the poor directly while mostly or exclusively bypassing Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) that would normally provide services to poor populations via receipt and administration of funds.

What the varying methods share in common is that they grant money to the poor through basic technologies (phones for the most part).  Those individual recipients will decide what they will do with the money.  In the example of CCT, a donor, charity or agency will transfer the money to people meeting certain criteria such as the need and stated uses of healthcare, enrolling children in school and other needs.

Unconditional Cash Transfers----which I am really finding interest in----is simply the same premise of giving direct cash transfers to the poor to reduce poverty but without any conditions on what the recipient must do with the money.  Reading several reviews of the book that I will soon have, “Just Give Money to the Poor, cash transfers have been utilized effectively by those in poverty.  Many agree with authors Joseph Hanlon, Armando Barrientos and David Hulme that direct cash transfers to households have been central to some poverty reduction along with other factors, policies and programs.  The jury seems to give insight into its open deliberations.  The jury is not out but they are gravitating to the view that poor families have been very capable of using such money properly. 

One person who would agree is Paul Niehaus, one of the founders of GiveDirectly.  He has given $40,000 of his own cash as well as time and talent to this organization. As their site
site shows at they are a non-profit created by donors "focused exclusively on giving to the poorest possible households at the lowest possible cost."
GiveDirectly literally gives funds directly and unconditionally to poor villagers in Kenya through a technology called M-Pesa.  M-Pesa allows people to send and receive money via cell phones.  The added benefit is that it helps those who have no access to regular banks.  The money moves at a Matrix-like way around and through NGO administration, fees and bureaucratic trappings as 90% of each donated dollar reaches the recipient!

The philosophy, practice and process is not charitable because the transfers do not predetermine or presuppose the needs or uses.  With a great and fresh blast of empowerment it leaves such determinations up to the recipient.  You, me, Mr. Niehaus and other on-the-ground observers at areas in Kenya could guess what villagers would do with funds for purchases.  So far residents are making certain purchases for things like food, clothes, livestock and other provisions such as the aforementioned necessities at my introduction.  However, there is one study that I reviewed reporting how people are using the cash transfers for major infrastructure needs such as roof repair and other infrastructure type essentials.

My observations and thoughts:

I like this effort a lot and may start to learn about application upon completing the book.  The element of empowerment, self-governance and breaking down assumptions of what those in poverty can—and will—do with money is just too great to forget about.  It puts into practice what many of us know:  All poverty is not attributed to bad decisions or behavior.  Rather, the issue is often of scarcity in resources and money (I know those of affluence who make bad decisions with money). 

Second, the use of technology is exciting---phones in this case---to both deliver cash and address the systemic barrier that many people in developing countries face having no financial services institutions.  Lastly, I am intrigued with the trusting donors along with equipped recipients of the cash. Is the use making impact in systemic and structural poverty?  No, but researchers cite that there is repeated efficiency, change and day-to-day impact of cash transfers (both conditional and unconditional).  Funds given in large scale directly to those in poverty have been used by recipients in Central America, Mexico and areas in Africa for effective, reasonable and necessity-oriented uses such as sending kids to school, home repair, starting businesses and other uses. 

From what has been observed and reviewed I believe that I will read about how the transfers have not only yielded good use of funds but also made some short-term reductions in poverty.  I cannot wait to see if there is documented social/human development that recipients experience such as long-term use and administration/investment of money, sense of empowerment and other personal development measurements.

International---for how long?

Why don’t we have such swashbuckling attempts of this type of practice here in the United States whether it is conditional or unconditional cash transfer?  Opportunity NYC: Family Rewards is the first noteworthy CCT from what I have reviewed. Would you not agree with me that a pilot (or two, three, four, five..) should and could be a focus in challenged cities and areas from Appalachia to Atlanta, and beyond? 

Without going into philosophical, political and power reasons (next time) as to why it is not a particular practice here, I would imagine that the founders and investors of direct cash transfers have eyes on developing countries because of the scale of poverty.  We know that in the context of extreme poverty, the most significant portions of the population living on less than $1 a day is most widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia----making up 40 % of the population living on less than $365 amid a daily reality where food, shelter and other necessities are critical and scarce. Those donors put on the straight economics view as those types of circumstances are absolute poverty as opposed to relative poverty.  Better there than here for now is probably their view.

Interest continues

As I take the small bit of free time of fall days amid a boring college football game or Saturday winter days reading the book, I will think about these questions and thoughts about cash transfers here:

·        What are the standard social, participatory and financial needs/criteria to determine the recipient?  Whether it is conditional or unconditional transfer, what does fair targeting of a recipient or recipient areas look like? 

·        How is standard quality control and effective use measured?  Site visits? Interviews with recipients? Or in the case of unconditional transfers would the donor/investor even have an expectation of seeing reports, measurements and evaluations that many of us in social impact work adhere to?

·        Where do our policy-makers and businesses fit in regarding other actions that must be done in combatting inflation and poverty such as targeted efforts on wage increases and prices of goods that would maximize the dollar being transferred?

·        What is the role (or no role) of banks and government to ensure that the transfers to those in poverty keeps to the outcome 90% of each donated dollar reaching the recipient?

Much to think about just as there has been much given away.  To those in poverty.  Directly.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Report: Residents take steps to learn about progress through policy advocacy

I am glad to share this brief report—with more in later months—about brave residents who are taking the steps to learn about making social impact and social justice directly through policy advocacy. Some of you requested updates about what has been happening since the launch of the Micah Center’s Grassroots Leadership and Advocacy Training Program that I have put together. I work with the center in the Public Policy and Advocacy area of Progress Strategies+ First, it has been enjoyable. But you weren't asking about me!

Thank you for your interest in the program participants. In addition, thank you in advance for your best wishes of these individuals. Most of them are taking the first step to become educated, equipped and empowered in advocacy with their elected officials and policy-making process that often seems to them isolated or impossible to navigate.

The Micah Center is the leading social justice advocacy organization in Grand Rapids, Michigan and one of the best to partner with for an effort to equip new residents making the transition from community engagement to advocacy. The Micah Center focuses on educating people about the call to do justice and how they can respond to that call in their local community.

Such a non-partisan and faith-based (not proselyting) approach has equipped resident leaders to successfully work with elected officials to develop local policies against wage-theft and working with those officials to prevent the proliferation of payday lending. This is not my first advocacy training but it is the first to incorporate faith values. Along with my standard sessions there are also ones like Session Seven focusing on self-care.

Since the first of eight sessions that started on July 24, 2014 we have 17 individuals in two separate class tracks coming together as learners of social justice policy advocacy. Beginning with Session One, Theory of Change: Advocacy accountability 101, Micah Center 101 and Injustice Introduction, they are also learning group accountability, participatory planning and self-governance standards such as voting on their course schedule, group decisions on accepting new participants and other essentials. As Grassroots Leadership Director retained by the Micah Center to conduct the training, I am simply their coach and guide on that journey.

Here are some quick takeaways of this journey in this third month:

Diverse and dynamic people stepping up!: Seventeen committed residents who represent diverse backgrounds are coming together to create positive change by learning to work with elected officials. They are men, women, youth, African-American, Caucasian and Hispanic. They are individuals and those affiliated with other organizations such as Seeds of Promise, Grand Rapids Institute for Leaders and Proud Fathers. We have retirees, full-time workers, and those seeking employment who are giving of their time to learn. The educational backgrounds range from those with a GED to some who have their masters and PhD. There are three groups of families! In the face of static to low poll numbers of citizen confidence in politics and civic participation, these people want to learn how to engage in policy advocacy directly.

Those who thought themselves removed from policy and advocacy understand it quickly! Give people the true Theory of Change, break down policy, surround them with the people who are willing to share knowledge, connect them to elected officials who believe in authentic citizen collaboration and you have individuals who are understanding state, local and federal advocacy faster than they thought. In one exercise amid Session Three: Local Policy Advocacy, the group in Class One quickly came up with a pretty sound local public safety policy during a simulation that complemented the session overview on the difference between an ordinance and administrative rule.

As one participant admitted: They thought some policies to be high-level (and boring—their words not mine!) stuff until they put the training into applying policy to their everyday lives and aspirations for societal improvement and justice. The best among us can see prepared people beyond the prism of voting in elections. Patience added with knowing their inherent ability can lead them to crafting public policy in collaboration with those they vote for!

With group dynamics, community support and encouragement from leaders the program participants are quickly becoming confident. After Session Four: State Policy Advocacy—People, Process and Ballot Initiatives, one class participant told me that if they needed to testify in Lansing or create an idea for a statewide proposal, they feel that they could do it tomorrow! That confidence did not just come from the training or strategies, but also from the narratives of real people who successfully navigated the legislative process for some small victories. This newly confident participant---the Tomorrow Man! we'll call him now---was also empowered by the guest presenter who was a part of the statewide initiative to raise the minimum wage before the Michigan Legislature acted. Step-by-step, they heard a personal narrative from people not at all different from them who gave their time as volunteers to help enact a form of economic equity. The sharing and knowledge that everyday people are influencing policy matches perfectly with our technical information on such ballot initiatives.

More to come in the winter once sessions are completed and the participants choose their advocacy groups to put into practice what they are learning. Congratulations and appreciation to them and the Micah Center. As I continue to note in mentions and presentations to non-profit organizations, advocacy for policy change and administrative rule making at all levels of government is permissible. It is an obligation. Some groups are not aware of that or believe funders would frown upon such engagement---although some of them actually expect and encourage such work. One organizational leader took it in a more head-on way when they stated: “How would we not join in policy advocacy to solve the root causes, systems problems and pressures that force us to deliver many of our services in the first place?” Indeed.

The next thoughts from the ProgressPeeps+ Blog in September will be in the Corporate Social Responsibility area.

Eric Foster is Principal of Progress Strategies+, a project management consultancy specializing in five areas of social responsibility (Diversity and Inclusion, Community Engagement Strategies, Grant Writing & Project Management, Public Policy & Advocacy, and Corporate Social Responsibility).  In Public Policy and Advocacy he finds it exciting when everyday residents learn that the policy is not as confusing as some who wish to exclude them make it out to be.

Please visit Progress Strategies+ at:

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Advocates for Senior Issues: Allies for authentic inclusion.

Racism and housing discrimination against senior citizens of color were not the first things that Advocates for Senior Issues expected to take on in their goal of addressing and enhancing diversity and inclusion.  However, this non-profit and volunteer-led organization in Grand Rapids, Michigan realized that their initial focus on the goals and strategies of authentic inclusion required them to be responsive to the inequity and unjust treatment facing senior citizens of color in housing.  After all, they are called Advocates for Senior Issues.  They were my first client specifically in the diversity and inclusion area.

I was still in the beginning of my pre-assessment phase of the organization based on the Progress Strategies Standards for Assessment of Inclusion and Diversity Performance and Progress (SAID:P2) when the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan (FHCWM) issued a report documenting notable housing discrimination against seniors of color in our county. County-wide almost one out of every three (3) minority seniors or seniors with a disability seeking housing may meet an unlawful barrier posed by housing discrimination.  At the first review of the report it was my belief that Advocates for Senior Issues should act on this issue even as we were just developing their first-ever comprehensive inclusion program.   

After full review of FHCWM’s report funded by the Kent County Senior Millage and the Area on Aging of West Michigan from 2007-2010, I asked Advocates for Senior Issues to take the following actions:

1.     Invite the center to brief the entire membership on the report of housing discrimination against seniors of color.

2.     Consider an action item or commitment to help call attention to this issue.   

They immediately responded to the call.  FHCWM provided almost 200 members of Advocates for Senior Issues with the presentation and briefing at a general membership meeting.  This meeting also marked the first such presentation dealing with issues of race and inclusion.  A handful of those members voluntarily enlisted to become ‘testers’ almost immediately. 

Testing is a means to uncover evidence of race discrimination in renting and housing.  It was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982.   An advocacy group will send a comparable (socio-economic similarities except for race or ethnicity) white or person of color to inquire about housing at the same property in order to document housing discrimination and preferential treatment based on race.   

As I mentioned, some men and women of the almost exclusively white membership were so moved by the presentation that they stepped up to ‘test’ themselves and the system.  They were also a part of my test to determine their readiness to engage in the full creation of a comprehensive organization diversity program of new policies, procedures and external partnerships for authentic inclusion.  It was one of many choices they made to transcend the basic and myopic organizational focus of 'diversifying membership.' 

Once again, this awareness and activity on the housing issue developed during the middle of my assessment, research, and identification of key findings, community surveying and sampling on community expectations of organization diversity and 10 major strategic project action items. The comprehensive report and strategies also included the development of the Advocates Improving in Diversity Engagement grant in order to position the group to obtain resources for sustaining their progress.

That progress has included the following achievements from a committed group of volunteer community leaders of a non-profit organization with two staff members:

·       The first diversity and inclusion value statement and diversity and inclusion policies with the full range of inclusion from race to sexual orientation.

·       The adoption of diversity and inclusion internal practices of membership recruitment and external partnerships to address issues of equity.

·       African-American seniors as Elected Officers and Executive Committee members.

·       African-American seniors serving on the very important Legislative Committee.

·       Before the completion of the project they took immediate action on a specific recommendation to move their meeting location from the suburbs to recommended sites in the culturally diverse and second-largest city of Grand Rapids, Michigan.  They have since expanded site locations that now include core city locations that are home to religiously diverse communities.

·       Continuing the internal diversity and inclusion governance body.  The Advocates for Senior Issues Internal Committee established to monitor diversity and inclusion program progress is now a permanent committee with the Progress Strategies+ standard organizational diversity structure.

·       Utilization of diversity and inclusion allies such as the organization’s financial sponsors that includes corporations, educational institutions and organizations.  Many of them came together as the External Diversity Committee to critique the project and offer input and changes.  At the time, the committee met quarterly to respond to the development of strategic action items and recommendations. 

·       While once again working to implement diverse membership cultivation strategies, the organization is also addressing systemic issues of exclusion such as transportation access for economically underrepresented senior citizens who are unable to attend Advocates meetings.

I could cite many other areas of progress that this organization is achieving based on the project.  However, I have a personal observation to make as a result of the privilege to create and propose strategies that they are working on to enhance inclusion ---not simply promoting diversity. 

Towards the beginning of my work I thought of my late grandfather who grew up in the segregated south in Louisiana.  Although he was an entrepreneur and self-trained electrician while working for a local elementary school, he was subjected to racism during elections. Election officials would inform him that his voting place was not in his parish (county), but another one miles away.  Officials in that next parish would 'produce' information that his voting place was in an adjacent parish.  So on and so forth as they hoped to run the clock out on his time to vote as he was finishing a regular late workday.

During the work with Advocates for Senior Issues my thoughts grew towards wondering how his full inclusion into civic participation would have been if such an organization existed in his town---a town that only a few years ago drew national attention when a Justice of the Peace refused to marry an interracial couple.  It is rewarding to know that in my hometown Advocates for Senior Issues is developing into allies and practitioners of inclusive policies for senior citizens of all backgrounds. 

Here are my thoughts of how they are developing into allies and practitioners authentic organizational inclusion policies: 

·       They recognized that addressing diversity was not simply a membership issue.  Rather, doing so is a moral issue.  They realized that the imperative of including seniors of all backgrounds into every fabric of their organization (especially in leadership) was not one solely of membership enhancement.  Advocates knew that they are not truly authentic advocates if they are both absent of diverse members and absent of awareness of the particular conditions that racially and ethnically diverse seniors face every day. 

·       They demonstrated a willingness to confront issues such as race prior to starting the work of authentic inclusion.  Authentic inclusion means creating internal and external systems of meaningful power sharing and intentional outcomes among people of color coming into an organization.  The leadership of Advocates enrolled in Healing Racism sessions at my request before I started my work.  The basic premise was that the leaders needed to be prepared for the reality that their work was not just setting the table to invite ‘different’ people to their group.  Their call as leaders is to change that table and the unseen structures that prevented seniors of different backgrounds from coming to the table. 

·       They are becoming allies of inclusion and not just a group simply embracing diversity.  Remember their fair housing response.  Ally development regardless of the organization is the harder work of inclusion and diversity.  The Center for Assessment and Policy Development defines an ally as “someone who supports a group other than one’s own (in terms of racial identity, gender, faith identity, sexual orientation, etc.).  Allies acknowledge disadvantage and oppression of other groups than that of their own.  They take risks and supportive action on their behalf.” 

Ally development is what Steelcase, Herman Miller, Irwin Seating and others are doing in supporting the addition of anti-discrimination protections for the LGBT community in Michigan’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act.  As a young woman of the ‘creative class’ that cities so desperately desire once said to me, “I’m about working at places and joining groups that have my back like the Verizon man.”  She was partially quoting a rap song lyric equating allies with the Verizon commercial where thousands of people in the phone network are following the Verizon man around.  His network is that extensive.  I should get some 'cool points' translating all of that for you.  

Basically, her point was to underscore that being an ally to your diverse employees or membership is the best and basic recruitment tool.  Advocates for Senior Issues represent this quality as they are addressing transportation as a socio-economic impediment for financially vulnerable seniors who cannot attend meetings.  That is the work of what an inclusion ally does. 

Let me end by doing what is part of my personal and professional endeavors---specifically one of five social responsibility areas of my project management consultancy:  Public Policy and Advocacy.  I want to take a brief moment for advocacy on behalf of Advocates for Senior Issues and all senior citizens in my hometown.  Here in Kent County of the great state of Michigan we will look forward to a vote on our Senior Millage.  On August 5, 2014 the Senior Millage is up for renewal and a slight increase.  Approving the millage will continue important funding of 43 different services for senior citizens ranging from home care to fair housing services. 

For those local allies who want to ensure that we can continue to promote the health, dignity and safety of older adults, please support the millage and visit to learn more about the millage and the services it will continue.  Thank you.

Eric K. Foster is Principal and President of Progress Strategies+, a project management consultancy specializing in five areas of social responsibility (Diversity & Inclusion, Community Engagement Strategies, Grant Writing/Project Management, Public Policy & Advocacy and Corporate Social Responsibility).  Advocates for Senior Issues is highlighted as a former client for their great commitment and accomplishments.  They are also highlighted in recognition of his grandfather’s perseverance.    

Please visit Progress Strategies+ at:

Friday, May 23, 2014

Residents complete radical---not hostile---takeover of non-profit!

The residents are coming!  The residents are coming!  The residents are coming!

An open and outright take over of a non-profit by everyday residents recently occurred.  Now sure, the take over was in the making for years. It was clean and smooth---with a bump here and there.  No protests.  No one was kicked out.  The founder and co-founders were not asked to pack their boxes.   The Community Governance Coach/Project Manager is still hanging around but on the path of transitioning out this year.  It is not quite like the Steely Dan song and album title "Everything Must Go."   

Nevertheless, it must be clearly stated:  Neighborhood residents who were told in various ways throughout the years that they could never lead or manage their own affairs have now taken over a non-profit organization in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

On February 19, 2014, four resident leaders---called Host Neighbors---of Seeds of Promise took full reins of their local governing council known as the Host Neighbor Community Leadership Council (HNCLC).  They took full reins by electing themselves after a process we created together.  The decisions to create the HNCLC and the election process by what was then 17 resident leaders could be a model for those in Washington, D.C.  Who knows, the plan and expectation by observers is that Seeds may sprout up many places.

Prior to that time, they were patiently learning and practicing self-governance in 2012-2013.  Another five of them just replaced the founding Board of Directors.  In May 2015 they are soon saying goodbye to their contractual coach and project manager---me!  It is my last year where in each of the past two, I have gradually reduced in time.  I decrease so that these talented men and women can increase!  And are they ever doing that!  But what is this organization that has actually acted upon what is still only spoken of as the new and necessary idea of doing civic engagement from the grassroots as opposed to the grasstops?

Seeds of Promise is a 501 (c) 3 organization otherwise known by its founder Ron Jimmerson as a 'community laboratory' serving a specific neighborhood of the Dickinson Academy area in the southeast side of Grand Rapids, Michigan with 2,000 neighborhood residents.   Please be assured that the guiding word of 'laboratory' is literal at Seeds. Looking past systemic inequality and racism, Seeds of Promise gives residents the permission, resources and personal support that allow them to try something new within the start and stumble of solving their own problems.

The area is 55% African-American, 29% Hispanic, and with a small White population at 12%.  The percentage of those residents below the poverty level is 39%. The distinctive in its community development work is that it is designed to have its solutions created and managed by residents themselves. One man's dream, vision for social impact of an inner-city neighborhood along with his spiritual faith created such innovation.  However, he cites many founding partners.  From God to the banker and student, Ron cites many founding partners indeed.

This hybrid of social entrepreneurship and local self-governance is committed to neighborhood self-transformation through collaboration.  As it stands that collaboration is with 53 endorsing partners to build community leadership, perform continuous deep listening with residents and to empower the community to meet needs in the areas of employment, economic development, education, environment, health and wellness, and other social impact areas.  

I had the pleasure to write the community governance grant, administer it, and the project that is training those 28 resident leaders (and more counting!) funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.  Training new leaders starts next week again! Every other thing that I tell you is done by residents, their growing sense of self, their talent and the benevolence from others through volunteer time. The grant supports those residents through 12 governance training modules, provides stipends to them in acknowledging their time in training and project activity (that only can start after they finish training), provides funding support for their projects and other classes and training of their preparation to lead people, projects and the whole program!  

There are many narrative reports, evaluations, news articles and an upcoming economic impact report on what Seeds of Promise has done.  For a brief moment though, here is what the Host Neighbor resident leaders have accomplished in less than two years:

-Completed 15 of their own self-created and self-directed projects within their block areas.  Those projects included creating public safety awareness and engagement activities for 160 residents (by a resident leader on her block who never hardly met her neighbors before!), neighborhood-wide and street focused neighborhood clean-up projects, and bringing together the city government and residents to repair long neglected infrastructure on a specific street.

-After bylaws and Governance I and II training, they created their own governing constitution for the HNCLC.  They governed their own election as well----selecting four of their peers for Chairperson, Vice Chairperson, Secretary and Treasurer.  The HNCLC governs the Host Neighbor wide decisions via vote on Host Neighbor projects, external partnerships, some funding programs and other important matters to the resident leaders as a whole.  Currently, they have made 14 full group votes on such matters. 

-Managed a $25,000 financial education and business competition that prepared residents in financial literacy and a business investment contest (for neighborhood entrepreneurs in the Seeds Zone only) that awarded various $10,000 investments.  Progress Strategies+ wrote this grant initiative funded by Fifth Third Bank-----but the residents, the bank, Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women and the Inner City Christian Federation administered and implemented it! 

-Coordinated with the the Co-founder to hire two community members with developmental disabilities for meaningful project support work with Seeds of Promise and the Host Neighbors.  Progress Strategies+ wrote this grant funded by the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition (MDRC), but resident leaders---particularly Host Neighbor John Davis along with Ron Jimmerson---developed and coordinated the hiring process of two individuals with developmental disabilities.  One is still with Seeds of Promise after the end of the MDRC grant!

-A team of 10 Host Neighbors after training voted to partner with Grand Rapids Public Schools not only to create neighborhood awareness for the school district's transformation plan, but to create and coordinate an engagement process to re-purpose their local school.  Throughout the summer of 2013, they developed a survey and process that engaged almost 500 residents on recommended changes of the school's name and theme.  Once an elementary school, this now-PK through Eighth grade school is the new Dickinson Academy with a cultural diversity theme.  The Board of Education confirmed the resident recommendations through their vote.  On Saturday, May 24th Host Neighbor Kalif Akbar is presenting awards to children at the school who have completed his programs.  Kalif is also is a custodian at the school and will be completing his Seeds supported projects, the Booker T. Washington program (his guiding kids facing detention to do meaningful tasks instead) and the Carter G. Woodson program (his reading program for kids).

-Putting final touches on a new version of the then-Seeds Center For Urban and Social Entrepreneurship that trained neighborhood residents in jobs where 19 of them were placed with a local manufacturing company.

-Successfully advocated twice before their local planning commission to stop the proliferation of two liquor stores in their neighborhood.

I could go on and cite more.  They also work with six impact teams of outside organization experts to create resident based solutions on a grand scale in areas such as health, education and job/wealth creation.  These grassroots leaders have just begun!  Such leadership is notable because they are among a group of 28 resident leaders---88% who never were involved in civic engagement before and are now governing their council, the 501 (c) 3 itself, creating their own community improvement projects, directing grant funds and other decisions that are making social and community impact in the Dickinson Academy/Seeds of Promise Zone area.  It is my pleasure to implement and deliver a community governance structure for them in addition to the relationship that I have built with these residents.

Some thoughts as I know well regarding how they are doing so many things usually reserved for 'professional' leaders:

1.  A system of inherent trust in the resident's ability to manage their own affairs.  Through models that Ron Jimmerson brings from Cascade Engineering along with Ken Steensma's Help Build Community (HBC) resident leadership model, the entire approach purposefully initiates community improvement from the down-up.

2.  Continuous governance coaching and 12 modules of technical training and interactive governance presentations by Progress Strategies+ added with two from Ron Jimmerson in Diversity and Problem Solving methods from HBC.  The modules range from the details of training residents on how to identify problems, craft specific and measurable solutions, work with endorsing partners in governance (organizational operations and board governance) and computer training for their issued laptops.

3.  Measurements and indicators from Grand Valley State University's Sustainability office (provided by its director, former Seeds board member and now advisory member, Norman Christopher---and his student interns).  Their data that measures economic impact will be showing that for the second year in a row, Seeds of Promise is making economic impact close to a million dollars with the limited and light amount of resources (businesses would love this) of tangible funds and volunteer time.  I keep imagining what more they could do with more funds.

In terms of new approaches to lingering problems and a new method of social justice/responsibility/entrepreneurship that I abide by, here is what it is all about in the words of Ron Jimmerson:

"Seeds of Promise is a 501(c)3, but with a different strategy in waging the War on Poverty that started 50 years ago under Lyndon Johnson.  Since then we have only seen a 1% decrease in the poverty rate, with trillions of dollars poured into this war in just the last year alone.  Seeds of Promise understands that historically the strategy for reducing poverty has not achieved its desired outcome.  Significant resources have been invested, yet there is growing concern about increasing poverty in our urban centers, with all the money being poured into this process which does not encourage work, savings, investments or entrepreneurship. 

“Top down” money for the War on Poverty in our urban center has not worked, and then came Seeds of Promise, taking the best practices from the Cascade Engineering Triple Bottom Line, with people being its most important access.   With the help of Grand Valley State University and Sustainable Community Development Initiative we are learning how to make a community sustainable and prosperous without the “top down” money.  We have also sought the help of Help Build Community, with its “Bottom Up” concept of community governance. Now we have Seeds of Promise, with a New War on Poverty that gives hope, to the hopeless, power to powerless, and prosperity to those who seek it."

Some of those who were hopeless are now running things!  Check them out at their site.  See 'News" for their newsletter or visit them at other sections at:

Eric K. Foster is Principal and President of Progress Strategies+, a project management consultancy specializing in five areas of social responsibility (Diversity & Inclusion, Community Engagement Strategies, Grant Writing/Project Management, Public Policy & Advocacy and Corporate Social Responsibility).  He also finds it hard to call this profiled organization a client.  They are his family.

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