Kids studying the river: Missoula Community Foundation aims to help nonprofits grow

Kids studying the river: Missoula Community Foundation aims to help nonprofits grow

Source: Missoulian
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DAVID ERICKSON david.erickson@missoulian.com

In an ordinary bucket of water from Lolo Creek, all it takes is a close look to reveal a dizzying array of life: fishing spiders, stone flies and all kinds of bizarre aquatic insects that usually escape the attention of humans.

On Wednesday, more than 60 sixth-grade students from Lolo School got to do something they rarely experience: explore the ecosystem of their own backyard with the help of specialized scientists. The Watershed Education Network, a nonprofit in Missoula, took the kids on a field trip to learn about everything from the proper chemical balance of river water to how water speed affects natural erosion. They also learned how, because some insects are more susceptible to pollution than others, the abundance of certain bugs in a waterway is an indicator of the health of the surrounding environment.

“These field trips are the most important thing we do,” explained Alaina Strehlowa, a board member for WEN. The nonprofit takes kids from schools all over western Montana on field trips several times a week to learn about Montana’s rivers, streams and lakes and how important they are to the environment. The funding sources for the trips are not secure, Strehlowa explained, meaning the nonprofit struggles every year to come up with enough money to make it happen.

Recently, WEN was one of three winners of capacity-building grants from the Missoula Community Foundation, which also awarded grants to the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center and Women’s Opportunity and Resource Development.

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The Missoula Project for Nonprofit Excellence grants are given to nonprofits that are poised for growth and are designed to strengthen the operations and build their organizational efficiency. According to MCF executive director Meredith Printz, the grants work for a year and have two parts. First, each nonprofit gets $5,000 worth of consulting work done and then they get a $5,000 grant to put the ideas brought forth by the consultant into action.

“A professional local consultant helps them evaluate their internal workings,” Printz explained. “So, for example, the Poverello Center went through the program. They had just moved in to their new building and they wanted to bring a new attitude. This assessment helped them discover they need to work on marketing and branding, so now they have a communications plan and a new website. They’ve reported more donations and staff morale is now higher.”

Printz said the grants give nonprofits an opportunity to reach a higher level of effectiveness in a time of great change.

“Another example is the Roxy Theater,” Printz said. “They went through it and made changes, and now they’ve been so successful that they have redone their façade and have moved on to another section of their strategic plan based on the MPNE program.”

The beauty of the two-part grant, Printz said, is that not only do the nonprofits get to identify areas where they can improve but they also get money to implement recommendations made by the assessment.

“This year’s grant recipients, while diverse in their missions, are all facing significant opportunities for growth,” Printz said. “We are thrilled to support three worthy local organizations by helping them better adapt to meet the changing needs of the community.”
The Jeanette Ranking Peace Center has a mission to build peace by focusing on nonviolence, social justice and environmental sustainability. They have identified a need for better coordination among Missoula’s nonprofits as well as increased outreach.

Women’s Opportunity and Resource Development (WORD) helps low-income women and families achieve economic self-sufficiency and empowers women to shape the policies that affect their lives. The MPNE grant will help that nonprofit evaluate current practices and create a plan for a sustainable future.

The Watershed Education Network provides innovative science education programs and place-based lessons that get students knee-deep in their backyard rivers and streams. It has grown rapidly from serving four elementary schools in 1996 to educating 85 preschool through college classrooms in 2016.

Deb Fassnacht, the executive director of the Watershed Education Network, said the grant will give the nonprofit an opportunity to create a “roadmap” for long-term sustainability.

“We want to look at how we build it to meet demand from teachers for stream monitoring programs and do the best education for all grade levels,” she said.

Fassnacht said many kids, especially in rural schools, don’t normally get an opportunity to learn why the streams and rivers surrounding their town are so important. They also don’t realize why maintaining healthy waterways is important for all kinds of wildlife, from eagles to elk, as well as to the local economy.

“It really does come together when they’re at the river pulling on waders, grabbing an aquatic insect net and saying ‘whoa I didn’t know this was there’ and realizing those indicate a healthy ecosystem,” Fassnacht said. “It’s tough to teach out of a book, so we really think Montana kids really need to know about their backyard rivers and streams. These are the kids that are going to go on and be future stewards of those watersheds.”

They only charge $100 for the field trips, but Fassnacht said they’ve never turned down a request because a school was unable to pay. They make every effort to serve low-income kids and schools.

The MPNE program is coordinated in partnership with the Helena-based Big Sky Institute for the Advancement of Nonprofits. It’s a collaborative grantmaking program, with Caroline Kurtz, Martha Newell, Annie Schaub Watson, Julie Osborn and the MCF participating in fundraising, leadership and decision-making. The grants were supported this year by the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, the High Stakes Foundation, Stranahan Foundation and United Way of Missoula County.

“We’ve seen how powerful the MPNE capacity building process has been for other nonprofits in our community,” said Schaub Watson. “The three nonprofits selected this year are such an important part of Missoula, and we are thrilled to partner with them to help multiply their impact.”