West Marin Fund awarded $100,000 in community grants to 24 organizations that have now reported on how our funds have helped them be the best that they can be.
Article by MARCIA BARINAGA
In 2018, Socorro Romo, then program director at West Marin Community Services, knew that important information on their food pantry, emergency assistance and other programs, was slipping through their fingers. The organization had new software that was meant to help them capture data about who was using their services, but the staff were not comfortable using it, so information was still being collected the old-fashioned way, in paper records that were inefficient and laborious to organize.
When Romo saw that West Marin Fund was offering grants to improve organizational effectiveness, she seized the opportunity. She applied for and received a $5,000 grant for a database-training course for her staff. The results were transformative. “The training really got us conscious about the importance of collecting data,” says Romo, who is now executive director at WMCS. “When we collect that data and produce a report, it tells us whether there was a drop or increase in participation, and that gives us information to either look for more funding, to hire more people, or to shift programming.” They are now using their database to its full potential, she says, improving the efficiency of all they do, and the staff feel empowered by their new skills and understanding of the power of data.
“We typically get funds to provide services to the community,” says Romo. “But very seldom do we get funds like this for staff and program improvement.”
Support that enables nonprofits to better do their work in the community is an ongoing focus of West Marin Fund. One area where small nonprofits struggle to stay current is information technology. Outdated systems, old and inadequate computers or a klunky web site, can suck up staff time and slow down an organization, while new technology can save time, improve staff effectiveness and help connect organizations with their client and donor communities. But when money and time is tight, updating is too-often postponed.
Last year when West Marin Fund asked local non-profits what tools they needed to improve their effectiveness, the responses flowed in: a new web site, an updated computer system, a new app. These were simple, well-defined requests, examples where a few thousand dollars could make a qualitative difference in how these organizations reach and serve their community, raise money and utilize precious staff time.
An up-to-date web site is crucial for an organization. Outdated web sites not only make a bad first impression, but frustrate potential clients and donors. West Marin Fund has recently helped three organizations—The Bolinas Community Land Trust, The Bolinas Museum, and West Marin Community Mediation – with grants of $4000 to $5000 to develop new web sites. The Bolinas Museum reports that their new site has given them capacity the old one never could, with pages that feature the museum’s collections and allow members of the public to easily become museum members on-line or renew existing memberships, greatly easing administrative staff time.
For The Bolinas Community Land Trust, the upgrade was game-changing as well, says Evan Wilhelm, the land trust’s managing director. The old web site was “stone age,” she says, poorly organized and difficult to navigate. “Finding things like a rental application was really hard.” The new web site is not only a beautiful, up-to-date public face for the organization, but it has produced tangible results. Applications for housing are up, as are donations. “We get calls from people who found us through the web site and say this is amazing; we didn’t even know you existed!”
A 2019 grant from West Marin Fund promises to usher West Marin Community Mediation “into the 21st century,” says Melissa Nelken, a professional mediator who volunteers with the group. The organization has been providing free mediation services for 25 years, relying on word-of-mouth and paper notices posted on bulletin boards to reach their community. The new web site, which should be up by the end of the year, will have public pages in Spanish and English to educate people about mediation in general and put potential clients in touch with the organization’s case managers. “People are much more likely to connect with mediation services when there is a way to do it on line,” Nelken says. The site will also have a private portal where the volunteer mediators and case managers can connect more efficiently to schedule meetings and mediations.
For local radio station KWMR, grants from West Marin Fund over the years have been a lifeline to help the station keep technologically current. Radio stations are particularly dependent on expensive equipment, says executive director and station manager Amanda Eichstaedt, and this is problematic for a small community-based station operating on a shoestring budget. In recent years, Eichstaedt says, grants from West Marin Fund helped KWMR update its failing computer system, and replace its “fading monster” of a broadcasting console, which dated back to the 1980s and which they had been repairing for years with parts scavenged on eBay. In 2017, a $3000 grant from West Marin Fund helped the station develop a smartphone app allowing West Marin residents to stay connected to KWMR from anywhere, something especially important during winter storms or other times when residents need up-to-date emergency information. “If you are over the hill and you need to know what is going on, you can listen to the app,” Eichstaedt says.
“Community grants for organizational capacity are something that makes West Marin Fund stand apart from other funders,” says Eichstaedt. “These grants are like bootstraps. They don’t need to be big grants to make a big difference.”
And that is West Marin Fund’s goal—to carefully leverage our funds to help West Marin non-profits be the best that they can be.