On the last Tuesday evening in January, I braved the bitter cold and threatened snow to wander over to what proved to be the most amazing event I’ve been to in a long time. Informed the day before that it would be “speed networking”, and being a little old for the “speed dating” scene, I had no idea what it would be like, and indeed, I went with some trepidation.
The event, called “Weaving Community: A Sharing, Connecting and Networking Event”, was sponsored by the United Way of Greater New Bedford’s Community Building Mini-Grants Program as an opportunity for current and past Mini Grant recipients to come together and learn about each other’s programs, with a hope of sparking a few collaborations as well. I was invited, though not a Mini Grants recipient, because of the Legal Center for Nonprofits’ work helping birth new nonprofits. Claudia Kirk, the Mini Grants program director, told me that many of her grant recipients were on the cusp, considering whether to formalize their organizations.
I wasn’t the only one braving the cold that night! Claudia welcomed a roomful of us to the Parish Hall of Grace Episcopal Church. (Grace Church’s Sunday Breakfast for the Homeless is a Mini Grants recipient.) After a few words of welcome and some announcements, Claudia turned us over to Brian Pastori, a staffmember with a Mini Grants program founding partner, the Community Economic Development Center of Southeastern Massachusetts. He quickly laid out the ground rules—those of us seated on the outside of the U-shaped table arrangement would stay seated, while those on the inside would move to the next chair every 5 minutes; each facing pair would take turns—2 minutes each to explain to each other what our organizations do, with a minute to talk together about possible collaboration.
Quite a clamor erupted with these instructions, but Brian didn’t give us time to fuss and worry. We just got right down to it. Nonprofit people are passionate about their missions and organizations, and I can’t remember ever meeting one who was speechless when asked, “What do you do?” This night was no exception.
At Brian’s signal, the room quickly erupted once we got past that awkward first second or two—“Who talks first?” Our nonprofit energy simply took over. A strange kind of Zen sensation emerged, perhaps because we were so deeply in the moment, focused on what the other person was saying, shutting out the noise around us. It felt as though time expanded, allowing us plenty of time to give our little spiels. But when the timer sounded the signal to move, time abruptly collapsed, and I thought, “Already?”
I met 7 new people I’d never met before, and learned about some fascinating grassroots efforts happening right now in New Bedford—for example, Bus Riders United is working on improving bus transportation in the Greater New Bedford region; the Coalition for Clean Air is working on helping the town of Somerset cope with the closure of its power plants; and Voices for a Healthy SouthCoast is working on making SouthCoast more amenable to bicycling.
All of the programs represented at the Weaving Community event are involved in the Mini Grants program, as either past or current recipients. Mini Grants recipients are all-volunteer organizations with budgets less than $25,000, and their projects are small-scale, with a goal to improve the local community. Projects can be continuing year-long, or they can be one-time special events. Claudia explained that proposals for 2014 grants will be due later this spring.
“The Community Building Mini-Grants Program strives to build a vibrant and stronger community by working together one project at a time,” Claudia says. “We continue to be the only local comprehensive program to administer, promote and support the capacity of the grassroots all-volunteer community.” Her statistics tell the story: Since 1995, 587 mini-grants have been awarded to 343 all-volunteer groups for projects that raise the quality of life, increase civic engagement and develop people who are making a difference in our community. In 2013, 37 groups received a total of $33,000.
And to be sure, they brought their vibrancy to that room on Tuesday night.
By the way, visit here to see how other nonprofits are creatively using speed networking.
For more about United Way of Greater New Bedford’s Mini Grants program, visit here.