Literacy Coalition Faces Uncertain Future

Funding crisis prompts group to consider options, dissolution

In April 2010, Washtenaw County commissioners marked a transition – handing over leadership for a literacy coalition the county had spearheaded.

Washtenaw Literacy Coaltion meeting

At left, Amy Goodman, executive director of Washtenaw Literacy (a different entity from the Literacy Coalition of Washtenaw County), led the Sept. 26 membership meeting of the Literacy Coalition of Washtenaw County.

At the time, the Literacy Coalition of Washtenaw County had just hired its first executive director – Vanessa Mayesky – and reported progress in goals outlined in the county’s ambitious Blueprint to End Illiteracy.

But at a recent working session of the county board, commissioner Rob Turner reported that the coalition is now in crisis.

Mayesky resigned earlier this month to take a job at the University of Michigan, and funding for the coalition’s efforts is nearly depleted. Amy Goodman, chair of the coalition’s steering committee, had sent out an email on Sept. 20 stating that the coalition is at a crossroads. Based on the coalition’s financial situation, action needed to be taken, she wrote – and one of the options is to dissolve the coalition.

Goodman’s email was also a call for supporters to attend a Sept. 26 membership meeting at the NEW Center, to give input on the future of the coalition. At that meeting, which The Chronicle attended, Goodman and other steering committee members outlined the status of coalition finances. The faltering economy has tightened funding from both private and government sources, and the situation has been made even more challenging by a new coordinated funding approach being used by the county, city of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw United Way and other funders.

The coordinated funding focuses on six community priorities, ranging from homelessness to health care. But despite intense lobbying from coalition members – who noted that illiteracy is at the root of nearly every other social challenge, including unemployment and poverty – literacy is not on that list of coordinated funding priorities.

Options discussed at Monday’s meeting include: (1) trying to operate the coalition at a fully-funded level, which would entail raising funds for an annual budget of at least $71,000; (2) operating at a significantly reduced capacity, with a part-time coordinator and annual budget of $45,000; (3) creating a volunteer group to continue the effort; or (4) dissolving the coalition completely.

Coalition Background: A Countywide Initiative

Under the leadership of former Washtenaw County administrator Bob Guenzel, the county government has backed several countywide plans related to community needs. Among them is a 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness, which was published in 2004 and is being shepherded by the Washtenaw Housing Alliance [.pdf of Blueprint to End Homelessness]. Guenzel in particular was instrumental in bringing together other community leaders to support that effort, which also received funding from the county.

In many ways, the literacy coalition is modeled on that plan. The county board established the literacy coalition by a board resolution in July 2007, and the Blueprint to End Illiteracy was published the following year. [.pdf of Blueprint to End Illiteracy]

The coalition was never intended to provide services directly – there are nearly 90 agencies that are working in some way on literacy issues in Washtenaw County. Rather, the aim was to raise awareness about the pervasive problem of illiteracy – in reading, as it’s most commonly perceived, but also for illiteracy in finance, health and workplace skills. The coalition would gather and track data, coordinate efforts of the county’s many disparate groups that are already addressing aspects of literacy education, and seek funding for joint projects that couldn’t be tackled by any single provider.

The specific initial goals of the coalition were three-fold: (1) to develop a directory of literacy service providers; (2) to launch a website for the coalition, with resources and other information; and (3) to raise public awareness about illiteracy.

Guenzel and Josie Parker – director of the Ann Arbor District Library – served as co-chairs of the coalition’s initial steering committee. The county, AADL and the nonprofit Washtenaw Literacy were the largest providers for in-kind contributions of staff time, materials and other support. Initial funding was provided by the Washtenaw United Way ($50,000), James A. & Faith Knight Foundation ($17,000), and the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation ($10,000).

In 2010, the county took a step back from its leadership role. In a presentation at the April 7, 2010 meeting of the county board of commissioners, Guenzel – who retired as county administrator the following month – called the coalition’s transition a kind of graduation. He said the county wasn’t abandoning the effort, but was handing it back to the community.

Josie Parker, Donna DeButts

At the Sept. 26 membership meeting for the Literacy Coalition of Washtenaw, from right: Josie Parker, director of the Ann Arbor District Library, and Donna DeButts, community relations coordinator for the Ypsilanti District Library.

While Guenzel and other county leaders – including commissioners Leah Gunn, Ronnie Peterson and Conan Smith – had been actively involved in the steering committee up until that point, they no longer regularly attend meetings of the coalition. The current county representatives on the steering committee are Patricia Denig, head of the county’s employment training & community services (ETCS) department, and Patricia Horne McGee, director of the Washtenaw County Head Start program, which is administered by the county. [The county's proposed 2012-2013 budget calls for severing ties with Head Start, however.] None of these officials attended Monday’s coalition meeting.

Rob Turner, one of of the newest county commissioners, who took office in January 2011, was tapped to be the county board’s liaison to the coalition, but he does not serve on the steering committee. At Monday’s meeting, he told coalition members that the project had not been portrayed to him as a priority by other board members or the administration.

Amy Goodman, executive director of Washtenaw Literacy – which has been serving as a fiduciary for the coalition – noted that the community had in the past shown strong support for addressing illiteracy by providing funding from several different sources. But the current major funding source – a two-year grant at $75,000 per year from the county’s ETCS department, authorized by the ETCS community action board – is coming to an end on Sept. 30. By the end of September, the coalition will have an account balance of about $1,000.

Literacy Coalition: Status Update

The coalition membership took action on some housekeeping issues at Monday’s meeting, related to the current transition. Washtenaw Literacy is ending its contract as fiduciary, and that role is being taken over by another nonprofit: Catholic Social Services of Washtenaw County. Until now, the coalition’s fiscal year has mirrored the one for Washtenaw Literacy, which runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30. The fiscal year for CSS is based on a calendar year, so the membership voted to change the coalition’s fiscal year to begin on Jan. 1 as well.

Goodman reported that efforts to increase the size and composition of the steering committee are also in progress. Initially, a majority of committee members worked for entities that provided literacy services. This hampered their ability to fundraise for the coalition, since it would be an ethical conflict with their jobs – they couldn’t raise money for both their own organization and the coalition. So it’s been a priority to recruit new members from the community at large, and about half of the 10 steering committee members now fall into that category, including Gabe Marinaro, an attorney with Dykema, and Brian Royster of Edward Jones, who both attended Monday’s meeting.

The coalition has accomplished a lot since its “graduation” from the county 18 months ago, Goodman said. A directory of service providers is completed, and the website was launched. [Excel spreadsheet of literacy service directory]

The coalition is about two-thirds of the way toward financial sustainability, she said, but corporate support hasn’t materialized as they’d hoped, and funding for this next phase is uncertain. “We have some serious decisions to face here,” she told the membership.

Julie McFarland, vice chair of the steering committee, reported that the coalition has a $22,000 grant from Washtenaw United Way, but there are conditions attached to it. Of that amount, $12,000 must be spent by Dec. 31, 2011, she said. The remaining $10,000 would be available as of Jan. 1 only if the coalition presents a plan for financial sustainability, and if that plan is approved by the United Way.

Another $7,500 remains for a coalition project at the Parkridge Community Center in Ypsilanti – it’s part of a $10,000 project grant awarded through the coordinated funding process, and is used primarily to pay the service providers for a family literacy program at the center. The Parkridge project is an outgrowth of another coalition effort called Learning Is a Family Thing, or LIFT – a series of two-hour interactive sessions for families focused on different aspects of literacy, including financial, health, reading, and workplace skills.

McFarland also noted that as part of the coalition’s transition, its office has been moved out of space provided by Washtenaw Literacy at the NEW Center on North Main. The Washtenaw Intermediate School District is now providing a cubicle for the coalition’s use, at no cost, at the WISD headquarters on Wagner Road.

Goodman summarized several other grants for which the coalition has applied or plans to apply, but that aren’t yet secured:

  • $50,000 from the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, for the Parkridge literacy project. About 20% of that would be used to fund coalition operations, with the rest directly funding literacy service providers. If awarded, it would be the community’s first grant from the foundation, Goodman said.
  • $4,280 from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation (AAACF), also for the Parkridge project.
  • Another $4,280 from the AAACF, for coalition operations.
  • $20,900 from the AAACF through the coordinated funding process, for coalition capacity building – training and other support to shore up the organization’s infrastructure.

Three additional grants are being drafted, Goodman said.

If awarded, none of these funds would be available until early next year, so it didn’t seem feasible to hire someone to replace Mayesky at this point, Goodman said. It might have been possible to hire a part-time coordinator if the $10,000 United Way funding could have been stretched through next spring, she said, rather than using it by year’s end. But even if that had been an option, a part-time person wouldn’t have time to do fundraising, she added.

Goodman said coalition members lobbied hard to make literacy a priority in the coordinated funding process, but that didn’t happen. [The six priorities for coordinated funding are housing/homelessness, aging, school-aged youth, children from birth to six, health safety net, and food. The process is managed by the office of community & economic development, a joint county/city of Ann Arbor department. For an overview, see Chronicle coverage: "Coordinated Funding for Nonprofits Planned"]

The situation came to a head when Mayesky turned in her resignation earlier this month, Goodman said. She praised Mayesky, saying the former coalition director worked long hours and did great work. But Mayesky knew that funding was uncertain, Goodman said, and needed to do what was best for her family by taking a secure job with UM.

In reviewing the status of current projects, Goodman said the effort at Parkridge – which the coalition hopes will serve as a model for intergenerational literacy programs – can continue, since the activities there are being offered by individual service providers. That project launched earlier this month.

The coalition is also a partner in the local Dolly’s Imagination Library, which distributes free books to pre-school kids and their families.

There are also four working committees of the coalition, which are continuing their efforts, Goodman said. They are: (1) data collection and measurement, chaired by Celeste Choate, an associate director at the Ann Arbor District Library; (2) public awareness/marketing, chaired by Colleen Murdock; (3) sustainability/resource development, chaired by Erin Howarth of Washtenaw Literacy; and (4) expansion of services/programming, chaired by Alison Austin of Washtenaw Literacy.

What’s Next?

Part of Monday’s coalition meeting was spent working in small groups, evaluating four options that had been floated by the steering committee:

  • Hire a full-time coordinator to continue to grow the coalition and work toward goals of the Blueprint to End Illiteracy, including fundraising. Projected annual budget of $71,000.
  • Hire a part-time coordinator to maintain basic support of current projects, and work toward some of the blueprint’s goals. No fundraising would be possible by the coordinator under this scenario. Projected annual budget of $45,000.
  • Transition the coalition to a volunteer-only network. No budget would be required. Collaboration would continue, but not be coordinated. There would not be shared data tracking or shared services, and blueprint goals would be met only if addressed by individual service providers.
  • Dissolve the coalition.

As a group, the 17 members of the coalition who attended Monday’s meeting discussed the impact of each of these options, with many of them noting that much would be lost if the coalition is disbanded. Individual learners would likely not see an immediate impact, because service providers like Washtenaw Literacy, the Family Learning Institute and others would continue their work. But there would be far less coordination and no champion to raise awareness of the issue throughout the community, several members observed.

Josie Parker, director of the Ann Arbor District Library, noted that if they decide to operate the coalition as a volunteer-only group, the community at least would be in a better position than before the coalition launched, based on the work that’s been done so far. They could continue to seek funding, perhaps trying to find one major funder to keep the coalition going. It would be wise to set a timeline, she said – a point at which to evaluate whether the coalition is failing or succeeding under a volunteer structure.

Dan Rubenstein, Rob Turner, Gabe Marinaro

From left: Dan Rubenstein, development director for the Family Learning Institute in Ann Arbor; Washtenaw County commissioner Rob Turner (R-District 1); and Gabe Marinaro, an attorney with the law firm Dykema.

Parker cautioned that any funding the coalition receives will be “soft” – that is, because the coalition isn’t part of an established organization, like county government, the library or a civic group like the Rotary, it can’t count on a stable, long-term funding source.

Parker noted that in some communities, large corporations have recognized literacy skills as crucial to maintaining a strong workforce, and those corporations are willing to fund efforts similar to the literacy coalition, which in turn draws the interest of other funders. But there are fewer large companies in Washtenaw County than there used to be, she observed. [Pfizer, which was a major funder of local nonprofits, closed its Ann Arbor operation a few years ago. Automakers like GM and Ford were another large source of philanthropic funding for the community, but have also downsized and closed plants locally.]

“We have to start looking at what we have, who we have, and how go from there,” Parker said.

As the meeting wrapped up, Wendy Correll – a steering committee member and executive director of the Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation – said the steering committee would meet again and develop a recommendation, based in part on input from Monday’s meeting. At that point, they’d bring the recommendation back to a general membership meeting for a vote. In the short-term, they were looking for volunteers to donate staff time for tasks like responding to email and phone messages left for the coalition, she said.

When Goodman asked for closing thoughts from the group, county commissioner Rob Turner weighed in. He was relatively new to the group, he noted, since he’d just been assigned as a liaison from the county board earlier this year. He noted that he’d served for nine years on the Chelsea school board, and said that measuring outcomes is important. It wasn’t clear to him what metrics are being used to evaluate the coalition’s effectiveness. And while he knew about the Parkridge project, he wasn’t aware of any other concrete efforts that the coalition is pursuing. It would help him understand the situation if he could have more information, he said.

Goodman replied that it was never the coalition’s mission to provide services directly. Their work focuses on coordinating other service providers and developing projects that involve partnerships with those providers. Parkridge is a good example of that, she said.

Dan Rubenstein of the Family Learning Institute noted that the coalition’s premise is that the community will be better served – and individual providers will be more effective – if literacy efforts are coordinated. Parker cited the Learning Is a Family Thing (LIFT) as another example of that coordinated effort.

Turner said those programs are important to highlight – coordinating and providing connections is a service. If the coalition has been instrumental in making those connections, then that’s important to know, he said. But if the coalition can’t measure its positive impact on the community, in a way that no other organization can provide, then perhaps it’s best to dissolve, he said.

Turner added that in the past, the literacy coalition had clearly been a board priority. But based on his experience so far, it didn’t seem that it was seen by county officials as a priority any longer. Literacy is important, Turner added, both for young children and adults. He pointed to programs in the Chelsea school system, like its funding for all-day kindergarten, as efforts that he supports.

However, in supporting those programs, he said he needed to see metrics, and the same is true for the literacy coalition. What things are happening because the coalition exists, that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise? Especially since money is tight, that’s what funders want to see, he said.

Goodman said that taking an intergenerational approach to literacy education is one of the coalition’s goals, and projects like LIFT and Parkridge are examples of that. She noted that the coalition as an entity is able to seek grants that aren’t available to individual service providers – like the grant pending with the Barbara Bush Foundation.

The data-gathering work of the coalition is also important, Goodman said, to measure community need. When she tells people that one out of every six people in Washtenaw County is functionally illiterate, they often don’t believe her. A report card on literacy in the county, which is being developed by the coalition, “would be a shocking come-to-Jesus,” she said.

Goodman wrapped up the meeting by observing that some of the things Turner is looking for are goals for the coalition, and they’ve been progressing toward those goals. This funding crisis has simply occurred before they could reach those goals in the organization’s timeline.

A recommendation for the next phase of the coalition is expected to be brought by the steering committee to a membership meeting tentatively set for Monday, Oct. 24.