First of all, we are so grateful to Nancy Stueber from the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Lori Eberly from Portland Playhouse, Kayse Jama from the Center for Intercultural Organizing, and Stephen Green from Oregon Public House for joining us last night, and to Oregon Public House for hosting us gratis. And we were delighted to see friends there from the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Historical Society, Basic Rights Oregon, the Big Life Foundation, the Sierra Club, Renewable Northwest, ARCS Foundation Portland, SMART, Salem’s Habitat for Humanity chapter, and a whole host of other great organizations.
But while the panelists spoke eloquently and movingly about what it takes to get involved, stay involved, and make real change in Oregon’s communities, it was frustrating to us as moderators…and it was a familiar frustration. When we were writing State of Giving, for every one story or point that we made, there were several more arguments or anecdotes that we couldn’t, for reasons of space or tidiness of argument, include. The four very different organizations on our panel last night each represented such a wealth of knowledge, perspective, and voice that they deserved panels and books of their own. We believe that there’s great value in bringing together organizations from disparate sectors to showcase the diverse impact that nonprofits have on our state across all aspects of our lives, to swap and celebrate innovative ideas, to highlight points of intersection and partnership between varied causes and sectors, and to provide the public with as many different opportunities as possible to get engaged and enthused. And we think our panel did a wonderful job of doing precisely that.
But there were so many other directions and questions that, had we unlimited time (and beer), we’d have loved to pursue. It would have been fascinating to hear more about OMSI’s earlier transition to the east side and its work as a bridge-builder between east and west Portland and between Portland and the rest of the state, not to mention to learn more about its ambitions for the future of an area (inner SE industrial) that promises to be an increasingly vital, easily-reached, and potentially defining part of the city. And Nancy mentioned OMSI’s position as an Oregon rather than just Portland museum: that’s a difficult balance for any big institution based in Portland (cf. Oregon Historical Society, Oregon Symphony, Oregon Ballet Theatre, World Forestry Center, etc). Under Nancy’s leadership, OMSI’s managed to serve both local and statewide communities, and their reach, for an organization based in the NW corner of the state, is impressive. It would have been great to hear more about how they’ve managed this: we wished we’d had the time to dig deeper.
Gentrification and displacement also came up a number of times. With three of the four organizations located in N/NE Portland, and all of them located on the east side, we would have liked to have an in-depth discussion about the role of nonprofits in both contributing to and alleviating gentrification and displacement, in community building and bridging diverse populations, and in the struggle to maintain community centers and diverse voices within economic circumstances that bias certain populations over others. The Center for Intercultural Organizing’s director Kayse Jama spoke movingly about his own arrival into north Portland, the gradual dispersal of the immigrant and refugee communities that CIO serves, the power of having a unified intercultural and socioeconomically diverse community unbounded by geography, and CIO’s own imminent need to find a new home as their building may become a mixed-use residential building soon. Lori from Portland Playhouse mentioned that her organization deliberately keeps ticket prices low and chooses plays that have widespread relevance, so that the Playhouse’s works are accessible to most income levels and appealing to multiple cultural communities. But she also highlighted the funding problem that doing so creates for the organization: theatre is expensive, good theatre involves paying actors living wages, and like many arts organizations, they struggle to find the sweet spot between accessible pricing and sustainable operating strategy. While some theatres choose fiscal stability over accessibility, the Playhouse does the opposite, which means that its funding needs from other sources are greater. And Stephen from Oregon Public House and Nancy from OMSI also spoke about how their organizations reach out to locals, try to ensure full accessibility, try to build community rather than divide it, and try to incorporate diverse voices and experience. We’d have loved to go into greater depth on these topics, but we’ll have to save it for next time.
Another fruitful line of conversation that we touched upon, but could have spent a full session on, was how to engage a deeper and broader section of the community in these works. Attracting younger donors and volunteers is also a common concern. Stephen from Oregon Public House made a great point about the millennial generation, noting that they tend on the whole to be more altruistic, more engaged, and less profit-driven than some earlier generations. By bringing new philanthropists into the fold–anyone who has a beer or a burger at OPH becomes a philanthropist–Oregon Public House has done an impressive job of tapping into that altruism and enthusiasm, as have our other three panelists’ organizations. The trick for all of these institutions, and for most nonprofits, will be to convert younger generations’ passion into long-term support and gradually increasing donor capacity. But in very different ways, these four organizations are working creatively and pointedly to do so. And we suspect that other organizations represented in the audience have their own tactics and ideas, which we’d have loved to hear.
In the end, it was a great evening filled with fascinating observations, moving experiences, insight into nonprofits’ struggles and impact, and enthusiasm for these organizations’ work and for the general idea of civic engagement, so we’d definitely consider it a success. But we hope that you’ll continue the conversation along these and other lines–the ultimate goal is to stoke up conversation around these subjects and by doing so, and by sharing stories and experience, to bring new voices and ideas into the fold.