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Mississippi Chapter Wins Charles R. Stephens Diversity Award

The Mississippi Chapter has just about 75 members, but it did an extraordinary job of developing a diversity conference that is worthy of any chapter size. That extraordinary work led it to being selected as the recipient of the 2015 Charles R. Stephens Award for Excellence in Diversity.

The chapter set out to truly embrace diversity and inclusion, not just for the benefit of its members but the entire sector. To accomplish its goal, the chapter collaborated with a wide number of groups, including the Mississippi Association of Grantmakers, the Mississippi Center for Nonprofits, Volunteer Mississippi, the state’s Arts Commission, and Mississippi Development Authority. It also partnered with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation to help develop workshops and bring in other leaders, including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

“I think it’s fair to say that winning this award is not just an honor, it is humbling,” said Jane Alexander, MA, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Jackson and president of the chapter in 2016. “So much of the reaction we see to injustice in American towns, real and perceived, is a result, I believe, of a failure to recognize, much less address, the very real issues of representation, access, opportunity and success among people of different races and in underrepresented groups. By partnering with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, we started a more meaningful conversation about inclusion – because we are already a diverse society, just not necessarily an inclusive one. We are finding it useful to consider what we mean by ‘diverse,’ when we talk about our organizations, so that we can expand the definition to mean more than simply race and gender.

By partnering with like, but very dissimilar sectors (volunteer, grantmaking, fundraising, nonprofit management, and arts), the chapter has broadened the scope of the audience it is targeting with its messages, with the result being the chapter has been more inclusive than ever before.

The result of all of these collaborations was an amazing series of presentations and discussions at the Positioned for Progress conference in October 2015, designed to begin the process of diversity and inclusion through conversations and planning on a broad scale. Topics included The Power of Dialogue Circles, Board Diversity and Inclusion, Engaging Youth in Community Change, Measuring Success of Diversity and Inclusion, and Working with Community Partners.

“A year and a half ago I was inspired by what I heard at the Leadership Academy about the issues of diversity and inclusion,” said Kitty Cook Ramsey, CFRE, senior executive for Advance Mississippi at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and chapter president in 2015. “I knew that Mississippi needed this programming more than ever. But we could not have been successful or reached such a broad group of Mississippi's mission-based professionals if we had not been able to work with these partners who are committed to positive change in the state.”

By holding a single conference for all of the mission-based sectors in the state, the chapter is leveraging resources and bringing individuals together for a single platform for conversation and bridge-building. And the work is far from done, as the chapter and its partners will annually meet to document shifts in conversations and changes that can be made to keep the dialogue going.

“Being able to bring forth the need for diversity and inclusion was an awesome experience I would like to see develop even more in the future,” said April Jones, divisional direct marketing manager for the The Salvation Army Divisional Headquarters in Jackson and vice president of diversity and inclusion for the chapter. “Mississippi has a rich history, but one that is not so appealing.  However, if we continue to inform and introduce the importance of unity, diversity and inclusion will produce well needed growth that strengthens our communities.”   

Steps to Collaborating for a Successful Conference

The Mississippi Chapter’s collaboration with so many other organizations is especially noteworthy. Here are some steps and ideas in putting together their conference that might help other chapters.

1)     Invite the leaders of the proposed partners to a formation discussion meeting. In preparation for this meeting, each of the partners should bring a list of their current continuing education, coalition-building, inclusion, community activity, and membership programming, as well as an analysis of how well their activities are meeting target audience needs.

2)     Coalition partners meet to agree on who will act as fiscal agent for the conference, whether or not they will hire an event management firm, who will act as leaders, what sort of location best serves the needs, a draft budget, what a partnership fee will be, how the income will be split, etc.

3)     The fiscal agent leader creates an MOU that each coalition partner organization must sign and return with a partnership fee. (Ours was $1500 per partner.)

4)     The conference leader will manage all planning meetings, sponsorship appeals, site details, partner business details (hotels, restaurants, etc.), and media.

5)     Regular meetings are held with action plans for the separate areas and reports of activity concluded and in play. (We had work committees who oversaw planning of each workshop track, fundraising, speaker engagement, and PR & marketing.) Each partner committee is expected to disseminate conference information in targeted messages to their constituencies to ensure maximum participation and registration. For instance, the AFP MS chapter is hosting a pre-conference session for the CFRE Prep Test and are working to disseminate that information to neighboring states.

6)     Each of the committees is responsible for working with the event management group to oversee their portion of the conference. This means making sure that all A/V, food, and volunteer needs are met as well as troubleshooting issues as they arise. Fundraising committee will meet with the current sponsors and exhibition vendors to request sponsorship pledges for the following year.

7)     After the conference, the partner leaders will survey their constituencies to find out how the workshops, plenaries, and sessions impacted them and whether or not the conference was a positive experience.

8)     The partner leaders will meet to discuss the conference and see what can be done better next year and who we need to engage Coalition partners will be more than happy to work with other groups to implement this in their states.

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