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Great ideas fueled by a cup of coffee

When Lynn Peters calls and asks someone from a nonprofit to have a cup of coffee with her, they should quickly say yes. The result could be sweeter than a peppermint mocha latte.

Lynn Peters

Lynn, the Community Foundation staff member who works with U.S. Venture’s Basic Needs Giving Partnership, calls them her “coffee and conversation” sessions. Meeting for coffee is just a relaxed, low-key way for her to explore potential projects that area nonprofits are thinking about.

“They are big ideas,” she said. They are the answer to the question: “What could you do if you had the money?”

The Basic Needs Giving Partnership has had the money. It awarded more than $1 million in grants in each of its last two quarterly grant cycles to address the root causes of poverty. The money comes from the U.S. Venture Fund for Basic Needs, within the Community Foundation, raised from the annual U.S. Venture Open golf outing and additional funding from the J. J. Keller Foundation and other community partners.

When you are giving away that much money, it takes work to find exciting projects that meet the goal of addressing the root causes of poverty.

“It’s not the easiest approach. It takes time,” Lynn said. She tries to invite a nonprofit representative to coffee every week. “Funny, no one has ever said no.”

It’s a good opportunity when a nonprofit is invited by a funder to find out what they are doing. Lynn said she goes beyond that and asks, “What do you aspire to?”

In one such coffee conversation, Joe Mauthe, executive director of the Housing Partnership of the Fox Cities, told her about an idea for a survey of the homeless and near homeless he had been discussing with other groups that work with people who are living in homelessness. Lynn told him it sounded like a good fit for the Basic Needs Giving Partnership. The result was Project RUSH, which sent 125 volunteers out into the field to do 600 interviews. They came back with important observations about what led to homelessness for the individuals and more questions needing answers. A $10,000 Basic Needs Giving Partnership grant – and a cup of coffee – helped to support the project. (Read the Project RUSH report.)

She wants her coffee companions to get out of the box and think about things the community needs, rather than programs the nonprofit can afford. “I really think the unstructured nature of the conversation leads to that,” she said.

She has her favorite coffee shops, but generally tries to choose someplace near the location of the nonprofit. Some ideas are good but don’t address the root causes of poverty. Those Lynn refers to other Community Foundation staff members working with other grant programs.

In this process, even a meeting that doesn’t produce any projects has its perks.

“Sometimes there’s nothing and we have a great cup of coffee,” Lynn said.

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