Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Story of Survival: Chicago's StreetWise thrives a year after nearly closing

The phrase "four-fifteen" may mean "tax day" for most Chicagoans, but for the vendors and volunteers at StreetWise, this phrase represents a major milestone: a turning point in the 17-year-old organization's history. It was about thirteen months ago-April 15, 2009 to be exact-that StreetWise reluctantly revealed, publicly, that the not-for-profit organization was only 45 days away from closing its doors, due to a significant shortfall in donations and foundation grants.
Today, StreetWise is alive and well. The StreetWise magazine is sold in greater numbers, and it's a superior publication that has gained fans for the quality of its content and its unique perspective on life in Chicago. StreetWise vendors are taking more pride in their lives as independent entrepreneurs, and they continue to earn a living and avoid homelessness. Meanwhile the StreetWise program has expanded to provide more services, and the staff, board and volunteers are more committed than ever.

When last year's story of StreetWise's impending demise first broke, it took many people by surprise. After all, StreetWise has been a highly visible institution in Chicago for years and people took the vendors' role in Chicago for granted. What was needed was a vibrant show of support from the people of Chicago and governmental leaders. This is what StreetWise so generously received, and the rest is history. StreetWise needed $75,000 to remain solvent. Going public with the situation led to the donation of more than $200,000 in twenty days. Support came in large sums and in many, many small donations. Hundreds of people contributed to StreetWise in its time of need.

By far, the most important accomplishment of this period was with the vendors: keeping the entire cadre of StreetWise vendors-more than 180, many with families-working and earning a living. But the story goes much further. The outpouring of support gave them validation. Once the vendors realized that people in the community were pulling for them, they gained an important boost of confidence in their efforts to make strides in their lives.

The StreetWise board also got a needed boost. "The most heartening aspect of this episode was that, as a board, we were grateful that many of our plans to improve the magazine, strengthen board membership, and meet even more of our vendors' needs could, in fact, be fulfilled in the coming months," said Rob Federighi (left), president of the board. "After months of struggling through our financial hardship, there was great relief among the board members that we could focus on more aspects of our mission-not just on fundraising."

Federighi also believes that with that sense of relief came a greater understanding of the board's responsibility not to let the community down.

As an organization StreetWise had already begun to implement a number of changes to keep costs down and improve its efficiency. "When the large sum of donations came to us, we were determined to continue running as a lean and prudent organization, so that we would never face this situation again," said Federighi.

One of the most significant milestones in the organization came with the appointment of long time board member Bruce Crane (right) as the new Executive Director in early 2009. Crane was a former business owner who had a keen eye for the financials as well as a deep understanding of, and experience with, StreetWise as an organization. The well-spoken and energetic Crane immediately took hold of the financial situation and led the board as it decided to go public with the financial story.

Crane then began implementing strategies and practices to improve StreetWise's financial position. During the past year, Crane has continued to find new ways to run a tight ship. His contributions to the organization have had an immeasurable impact on StreetWise, in both tangible and intangible ways. He is highly respected by vendors, staff and volunteers.

"The past year has given us the cushion, or 'endowment' so that we can focus on proactive work, furthering our mission, rather than the defensive, survival posture we had before," said Crane. "The board has blossomed in its commitment, effort, and ideas as a result. The excitement is palpable." Crane also acknowledged that the publicity of "four-fifteen" has made a big difference. StreetWise has gained many more volunteers, increasing the capacity of the paid staff.

Crane can't overemphasize the eye-opening nature of his job at StreetWise. "Professionally, it is very rewarding to help people to help themselves, he said. "Not that it is easy. But successes are contagious and they keep us motivated. Personally, and this is a hard one to put my hands around, learning about the 'impoverished culture' has been eye opening. The more I learn about the life experiences of our vendors, and the culture that created those experiences, the more understanding and respect I have for our vendors. One vendor told me that the only males that modeled a work ethic, in the projects he grew up in, were drug dealers. They were the only men with jobs. That vendor spent the next 30 years trying to duplicate the model of a successful male, resulting in five prison terms for drug dealing. That experience comes out of a culture that is vastly different than any culture I knew-that's probably true of most of our readers and donors as well."

Clarifying StreetWise's brand identity and public perception
Because the public reaction to StreetWise's financial plight during "four-fifteen" was so positive and empowering, StreetWise learned an important lesson: public perception is enormously important and the organization must do all it can to clarify its brand identity and make sure the public has an accurate picture. To further this, StreetWise has strengthened several initiatives.
The first challenge has been to overcome the inaccurate public perception that StreetWise gives magazines to the homeless so they can sell them and satisfy a particular vice. The public hasn't typically been aware that the vendors buy the magazines at a wholesale price of 75 cents and sell them at the retail price of $2. In this sense, they are like any other business people. The vendors are encouraged to grow their business as best they can.

Secondly, the public tends to think of homeless people as unmotivated. This certainly isn't true of StreetWise vendors. Selling the magazine has helped them stay out of homelessness; vendors have used the StreetWise opportunity to find a better apartment, take GED or college classes, provide food for their children, help their children attend college-in short, to take control of their lives.

"Our research shows that most of the public thinks we are only a magazine and an income opportunity," said Crane. "We are much more than that. The magazine is only one of our eight programs. Though it is the one that is visible to the public, most of our work, and assistance to the vendors, happens in our office, with counselors, trainers, tutors, and mentors. Our vendors are trained in, and use, computers to access the internet, email, GED programs, create resumes, etc.; secure housing, food, toiletries, and clothing; enter job training classes, work programs; and participate in AA, NA, vet-to-vet support groups and so forth."

During the past twelve months, StreetWise has embarked upon a comprehensive strategy to enhance its mission, tell its brand story, broaden its relationship with the Chicago community and to provide more and better services to its vendors. Led by board member Jon Reinsdorf (left), the board has developed a new strategic plan which encompasses all aspects of the StreetWise mission: financial management and fundraising, vendor recruitment, vendor services, the publication itself, advertising and marketing, publicity, volunteer organization, and strategic partnerships with other organizations.

Strategic partnerships are helping to grow the organization
The strategic partnerships have already paid off in substantial ways. Again, led by Reinsdorf, StreetWise researched and formed a partnership with the LEEDS Job Training Program at Roosevelt University. The goal of this partnership is to encourage eligible StreetWise vendors to enroll and complete this job training program, so they will have clearly recognized job skills with which to pursue a long term career path. Already, 15 vendors have completed this program.

Another strategic partnership that has proven very beneficial is with Saatchi and Saatchi. The Chicago office of this advertising giant has assisted StreetWise by developing and implementing a market research program through which StreetWise has been able to better understand its brand identity, the strengths and weaknesses of the magazine, and its magazine readership.

Gillette, Ray - head" Among the discoveries is the fact that nearly 70% of the purchasers now actually read the magazine instead of simply buying it as a gesture toward the vendor and then discarding it. It's a testament to the improved quality of our product," said Ray Gillette (right), a board member who heads the publication committee and nurtured the partnership with Saatchi and Saatchi.

Executive Director Bruce Crane reiterates the point: "With color and high resolution, the magazine can run articles and include graphics and pictures that were never possible before, when StreetWise was a black and white newspaper." Advertising sales have also improved, due in part to the transition from newspaper to a full color, glossy magazine.

"Through the study, we learned that the largest group of people who read StreetWise is educated, middle aged women," said Gillette. "They tend to have a strong altruistic ethic and are concerned with social issues." While this isn't necessarily surprising, it has been important for StreetWise to recognize. "First of all, we want potential advertisers to know that StreetWise has a targeted demographic of loyal readers," said Gillette. "For businesses and organizations that want to reach this group, StreetWise is a very good, reasonably priced option." Secondly, StreetWise is continuing to determine what types of content will give it a unique presence while broadening its readership. "Certainly, we want to be more attractive to a younger audience," said Gillette, "but we won't attract them at the expense of the readers who appreciate and read the magazine. Hopefully we will develop new approaches to appeal to the 'social media set.'"

The improved quality of StreetWise was noted by the Illinois Women's Press Association, which named Streetwise Editor in Chief Suzanne Hanney (left) the outstanding journalist for 2009. In winning the "Silver Feather" Award, Hanney earned four First Place, three Second Place and one Honorable Mention for her columns, special articles and feature stories in the "Non-Daily Newspaper", "General", "Social Issues", "Government and Politics", "History", and "Physical and Mental Health, Fitness, Self Help" categories.

Another key partnership is with the Jane Addams School of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. During the past year, StreetWise has solidified a partnership with the Jane Addams School whereby graduate social work students have the opportunity to fulfill professionally supervised field internships at StreetWise and provide casework services to the StreetWise vendors.

"Most of the StreetWise vendors can benefit from a variety of social services," said Federighi. "One of my personal goals is to bring my vision of StreetWise as a 'hub of services' to fruition. Clearly, StreetWise is not in a position to provide our vendors with all of the services they need. But we are in a position to help them find great organizations with whom they can connect. Our partnership with the Addams School of Social Work is one important way that we are reaching out to them. The interns can be found at the Streetwise office; they make themselves available to the vendors and get to know them on a one-to-one basis. But we make sure that the vendors don't feel coerced-they are welcome to set up an appointment with a caseworker as they desire."

StreetWise has also reached out to its peer publications throughout North America via the North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA) of which more than 20 publications are members. This year the annual conference, to be held July 29-August 1, will be hosted by StreetWise in Chicago.

The world of journalism education has also taken positive notice of StreetWise. In another important partnership, the Medill Graduate School of Journalism at Northwestern University has undertaken a long-term project whereby graduate students are looking at ways to improve the editorial structure and content of StreetWise. Nothing will be left untouched: students have developed a variety of alternative graphic design approaches as well as new and re-worked content areas and approaches with the goal of expanding readership. A special issue of StreetWise, designed entirely by Medill graduate students, goes on sale today, June 9. Additional fruits of the students' labors will be on display later this year, which includes a newly designed website, now in beta versions (http://www.beta-streetwise.org/). Medill Assistant Professor Jeremy Gilbert (atjgilbert@northwestern.edu; (847) 467-0874) heads the project.

Reaching out to the younger generation
Yet another example of StreetWise's newly realized forward thinking approach, the organization has begun to nurture its leadership for tomorrow. One major step has been to launch a highly committed, hard working junior board. Another step has been to reach out to the younger generation by embracing social media. With social media becoming ubiquitous among this group, StreetWise has jumped on the bandwagon in a big way.

"We have redesigned our website with new branding and we're keeping our content updated," said Federighi. "We've also started our own blog. Our weekly DineWise restaurant column is now posted each week at DineWise Chicago. We've received many positive comments about the blog." Streetwise also has a strong Facebook group presence, with 640 friends. There is also a Twitter account, @StreetWise_CHI.

Opening Up the Doors to More Services and More Opportunities
While many people recognize the value in StreetWise's entrepreneurial approach-giving people a hand-up, not a hand out by helping them become entrepreneurs-StreetWise recognizes the need to build a stronger vendor community by helping meet vendors' needs for housing, health and wellness, education and job training-and a sense of belonging. During the year, one important step was to strengthen communication between board members and vendors. Roundtable discussions involving both have helped to identify other issues the vendors would like to see addressed. Among the programs under development are housing programs whereby StreetWise would subsidize apartment rentals or contribute to initial security deposits. This would help those vendors who are now limited to SRO-type accommodations because they can't afford the initial deposit required to sign a lease.

Other programs under development include health counseling at the StreetWise office, a hot meal program and a new vendor lounge which is turning the vendor "warehouse" space into an office environment, more attractive and appropriate place to relax and meet people. Finally, StreetWise continues to work with the LEEDS program and other workforce training programs to help match vendors with those services through which they can build job skills and become better socialized into the world of work.

Streetwise has maintained a strong financial footing
Last year's deep recession had a strong impact on StreetWise's financial situation, and its impact is still being felt. Yet StreetWise has managed to stay financially sound ever since the days of "four-fifteen."

"Funds available to non-profit institutions by way of grants are dwindling," said Federighi. "Yet, we've had success in securing more grant income than we've had in the past, even though it's from a smaller pool." Federighi attributes this to a number of factors. StreetWise has clearly learned a lesson from last year and has become more proactive and diligent in seeking out donations. Secondly, more foundations have begun to see the value in the StreetWise model, which gives vendors immediate gainful employment and allows them to become part of the world of business, even if in a small way. Thirdly, StreetWise donors have remained loyal and have continued to give throughout the recession. "It is during difficult financial times that folks with financial stability are often more giving."

Some Challenges Continue
In the midst of all of these successes during the past year, StreetWise never underestimates its biggest challenge: building a larger following of avid supporters. While the organization remains grateful for whatever it has, "we know we are only tapping into a small segment of the opportunity in Chicago and its suburbs," said Federighi.

Bruce Crane has a simple request of Chicagoans: "Support your local vendor. Financially, by buying and reading the magazine, and emotionally, by sharing a smile, a friendly word, and making eye contact. We all feel more valued and respected with those things."

If the past twelve months are any indication, StreetWise will continue to proudly display the banner for the homeless, and those at risk of homelessness, for a long time to come. The need is great and the resources are limited, yet StreetWise, and Chicago, are better off for having the commitment and dedication of this unique, iconic, and growing community of people.

For more information about StreetWise and its activities, please contact Bruce Crane, Executive Director, at (312) 829-2526 or send an email to bcrane@streetwise.org. Please visit the StreetWise website at http://www.streetwise.org/. StreetWise offices are located at 1201 W. Lake Street, Chicago, IL 60607.
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