(Photo courtesy of Jace Buenaflor)

Something Between

Nonprofits excel in non-traditional roles

Back Commentary Oct 13, 2016 By Lesley Taylor

In the 2013-14 school year, California’s education financing system was reimagined with a Local Control Funding Formula that established base, supplemental and concentration grants targeting English learners, low income students and foster youth. And while the overall picture of school funding is much improved since the Great Recession, nonprofits still play a significant role in meeting the health and basic needs of children.

Girls on the Run of Greater Sacramento is an afterschool positive youth development program that inspires girls to be joyful, healthy and confident, using a fun, experience-based curriculum that creatively integrates running. Volunteer coaches are trained to teach girls in third through eighth grades strategies for building confidence and emotional health that will last a lifetime. Running is the tool coaches use to enforce these important lessons.

When the bell rings at the end of the school day at hundreds of campuses across the Capital Region, what happens next varies widely. It’s shamefully easy to make inferences by ZIP code about which students will struggle more than others during this time — which will be hungry, which will face community violence and which will breathe the dirtiest air.

Nonprofits that focus on building transferrable skills and strategies to increase the capacity of young people are operating at the intersection of formal and informal education. When there is not enough time in the day or money in the classroom, organizations like Girls on the Run are working to support communities one hop, skip or jump at a time.

When a young girl learns at only 8 or 10 or 12 years old that she has limitless potential, her life is changed forever. She improves her self-esteem, increases her motivation to be physically active and develops a heightened awareness of the value of physical activity. She is comfortable in her own skin, and a bright light shines within her.

Dr. Casey Knifsend is an assistant professor of psychology at Sacramento State and a board member at Girls on the Run of Greater Sacramento. She says what’s special about a program like Girls on the Run is that “it spans multiple areas of positive youth development, including physical, mental and psychosocial well-being. Through the program, our girls learn these transformative lessons at the very age where they begin to internalize messages, both positive and negative, about their self-worth, capacity and potential.”

In their pursuit of sustainable communities, it’s sustainable funding that often challenges these nonprofits. Relying heavily on grants and individual contributions may actually inhibit the innovative, adaptive solutions that community-level change demands. Too often, nonprofits are competing with each other for funding when they could be collaborating.

A promising trend toward collaboration is the growth of Sacramento’s Big Day of Giving, recurring annually on the first Tuesday in May. Affectionately on the “BigDoG,” hundreds of local nonprofits leverage their collective impact and audience to raise around $6 million each year.

For the other 364 days of the year, many nonprofits struggle to balance fundraising with service delivery. Particularly for smaller nonprofits operating in underserved communities, the need to put quality programs into communities month after month and year after year is pervasive. With few or even no paid staff, these groups might be the most mission-driven you’ll find, yet they struggle to expand their reach.

But perhaps this intersection of formal and informal education is a unique position — one at which practitioners are poised to maximize their impact. Education isn’t just six or eight hours a day; it’s a continuum of care and service that has to address the needs of the whole child in order to succeed. Local school districts that embrace nonprofit programs and services in order to leverage their existing funding will continue to be on the cutting edge of collective community impact.   

Is education the most promising tool in health’s tool belt? Or is health a precondition for educational achievement? Nonprofits, government and academia are all working at this intersection, a new-found synergy between two previously disparate, sometimes competing worlds. The need for health in all policies is undeniable.

As the Capital Region continues to evolve and adapt and grow, unconventional partnerships will disrupt the landscape of public, private and nonprofit organizations operating at the intersection of formal and informal education in pursuit of healthy, sustainable communities.