Thursday, December 16, 2010

Powerful Impact People: Kenneth Hopkins

You’d have to strap on your dance shoes just to keep up with Kenneth Hopkins, Milford resident and Executive Director/Co-Artistic Director of the New England Ballet Company.  He founded the company in 1989 and shares artistic director duties with Karen Goodman, “Bringing Children to the Arts and Arts to the Children.”

His day starts out on the internet with emails, social media like Facebook, updating the website and mapping out the day. 

Then he’s off to Bridgeport.  Kenneth oversees the teaching and performing that New England Ballet leads for Action for Bridgeport Community Development (ABCD) in a program that brings dance and movement classes to children from 3 to 5 years old.  NEB received a $4000 grant from United Way for performances and a $3000 grant from the Jamie Hulley Arts Foundation for teaching. The ballet is involved in teaching dance classes to the group in weekly classes. This Monday, as part of the ABCD program, the ballet company is performing the Nutcracker Suite at the George Pipkin location in Bridgeport.  The company dancers also receive community service hours for performing.

Luckily the props and costumes are still packed up from the day before.  Sunday’s performance at the Stratford Theatre kicked off their 19th season of the Nutcracker.  While the bulk of their performances are here in Milford at the Parsons Government Center, their Sugar Plum Party at Stratford Theatre is a major fundraiser for the company.  Kenneth was there, by 8 am supervising the floor set-up, getting the dancers blocked, doing prep work and changing into his “Mother Ginger” costume. During the two-show event he signed books entitled, “Mother Ginger’s Nutcracker Sweets” a fund-raising recipe book with photos of the dancers in their costumes and with holiday recipes from current and former dancers.

As he returned to the NEB offices Monday he focused on Nutcracker ticket sales, a fully costumed production of that great holiday classic.  In keeping with their mission of bringing children to the arts, Milford fourth graders have seen this production every year for the past 19 years. This year’s public shows are on December 18 and 19th at Parsons Government Center in Milford.

From 4pm-9pm Kenneth oversees classes and rehearsals at the studio. Since he is the artistic vision behind the productions he oversees costuming and makeup with wardrobe master, Drew Mancuso, who is responsible for the whole look from wigs and headpieces down to the eye shadow they wear.  He also meets with the committee of board members for their collaboration with the Milford recreation department and their work on the Adaptive Nutcracker Suite to be performed on Friday, December 17. Children of all needs are integrated into the Ballet’s Nutcracker Suite that runs before their larger production of Nutcracker.  Innovative ideas like including wheel chair bound dancers into Waltz of the Flowers, is something to look forward to.

This adaptive program is an after school dance program through the Milford Recreation Department utilizing mentor dancers/teachers from New England Ballet, like Shaina Arsenault and Katie Kurata (both playing “Clara” this year).“We are thinking ahead because NEB has written a grant to Autism Speaks, so we are starting our work on this idea now with the performances and videos.  Autism Speaks is interested in funding dance groups for children with autism.”

With opportunities for his dancers through ABCD and the Milford Recreation department to mentor and perform for children who have never seen live performance while getting trained to be high level ballet dancers, the company is offering more than just dance training. “We are now teaching them how to make a difference in the community, one child at a time. To change a life through the arts.”

“One of our little boys in Bridgeport who just started the program with ABCD is participating in his first live production at five years old. He’s playing a soldier mouse and is adorable”.  When asked what benefit this had to the young boy Kenneth says, “ it teaches him motor skills, interaction in a social group through the arts and is an introduction to classical music. The whole concept is that it opens their minds to learn about other possibilities than what they see normally.”

Since funding for the arts was cut by 80% statewide the ballet saw their state funding sink from $17,500 to $3000 this year.  But they are surviving the economic crunch with creative fund raising utilizing social media, working with a great board, and partnering with a cutting-edge internet marketing company that provides access to billion dollar markets and the know-how and technology that benefits this group.  He first saw the advantages to social media/marketing at their production of Swan Lake in May.  Never having more than 300 audience members, this year the production had at least 700 excited fans.   Ken credits his internet savvy to the expertise learned from partnering with

When the work day is over for most professionals, rehearsals at the ballet don’t end until 9pm and Ken, the renaissance man who is also a professional photographer, holds photography sessions and goes over details on promotional material till 2am for the ballet.  The fund raising cookbook is all set and now it’s time for the next big idea. 

For Kenneth, there is more than just art cooking at the ballet. 

Visit the New England Ballet online at:



You can get my attention as a non profit if your marketing approach is unreasonably well designed, if your preparation is unreasonably over the top, if your volunteers are unreasonably attentive and generous and honest. You can earn my recommendation and donations if the experience of your fund raising is unreasonably over-the-top, out-of-the-box irresistible given the competition.

This goes for all businesses as well. It even applies to getting into a famous college.  You'll need to have unreasonably high grades, impossibly positive recommendations and yes indeed, a life that's balanced. That's totally unreasonable.

The non profit market as well as the business market now expects and demands an unreasonable effort on your part. You don't have to like it, but it’s true.

Unreasonable is the new reasonable.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Use ‘em or Lose ‘em –
Do You Know the Value of Your Volunteers?

Okay, now you found a “new” volunteer – what’s next?

You give them a job and say ‘fly with it’ – it’s really easy, you’re smart, you’ll figure it out!

How long do you think you’ll have that volunteer?

BUT if you have a training system in place – you’ll keep them, they’ll be able to move around throughout your organization and be the TOP volunteer every time!

Better to train them, give them an inside edge and then let them fly. Let them put their personalized ‘stamp’ on the position and then have them train the next one!

You have grown your organization one fabulous volunteer at a time.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Powerful Impact People: Mary Ann Wasil Nilan

Mary Ann Wasil Nilan, the executive director of the Get in Touch Foundation in Milford, is one of those people you meet and then feel that you have known your whole life.  Her day starts at 5:30 am with 30 min of yoga and Starbucks and then she’s ready for her day. The day may not be ready for her.   First she answers hundreds of emails from schools, medical centers, Girl Scouts, homeless shelters and from many women who are interested in her program.   Her mission is “to encourage gals of all ages to “Get in Touch” with their bodies, information and each other in our crusade against breast cancer.” 

In 2004 at 39 years of age, Mary Ann was diagnosed with Stage 2 bilateral breast cancer.  I “know so many women now under 40 who have a similar story. There are 250 thousand diagnosed and 40 thousand a year die.  That number hasn’t changed. Education is so important and so is awareness of your body, so if you notice any changes in your body you are confident, strong and smart enough to get to the office.  You need to find a doctor who takes you seriously.” She’s been cancer free for six years.

After her email session she manages the social networking sites, the website, twitter, her e-newsletter, and Facebook. “Our Facebook site is very active and has been incredible. It’s unbelievable to me the level of contact through that. College and high school girls asking us how our program can be in their schools.  By looking at my own daughters I realized this is bigger than me.  This is even bigger than my daughters. It’s everyone’s daughters.” 

Still before 8am she takes her son to school, runs to the printer for a brochure, some flyers and daisy wheels, and then goes to the office. 

Last week she spoke to a group of high school girls at Bunnell High School in Stratford.  “They had the most incredible questions. The nurses there teach the program.  The girls knocked my socks off with some of the thoughtful and engaging things they asked.” Other high schools in her line up range from South Boston to Atlanta and back to Milford again with Laurelton Hall.  “No matter where I go these kids want to be healthy and make the right choices to be smart and strong”.

Mary Ann lets these young women know that, as a non-profit who works with health, there is much misinformation out there.  Just because a woman doesn’t have any breast cancer in their family they need to know that only 6% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have a history and that she had no family history. 

Recently she got back from Williamsburg VA, where she was the keynote speaker for the Virginia School Nurses Association conference.  “They wanted to hear about our program as well as focusing on wellness for the students and wellness for themselves.”

One of Mary Ann’s daughters entered her in a Pink Power Mom competition where she became one of eight women in the US to win $5000 for Get in Touch.  These women were selected for their inspirational fight against breast cancer, and they were honored for their courage. Something that I am finding with all the executive directors I am following for the day is that they are quick to list other women who have inspired them.  Mary Ann sites women like Nancy Brinker of Komen for the cure as one her mentors. “We women know we don’t do it alone”.   

It’s hard to believe she ever touches down in Milford for long. In Long Beach, CA for the California Women’s Conference she won a coveted publishing contract from Balboa Press, for her book  “A Diary of Healing,” which will come out in 2011.

“At the end the day, it’s about speaking to a women from Milford or Santa Monica who might have stumbled upon our website or viewed a video and who says ‘you saved my life.  I could not wrap my head around this.’  They see our Women of Strength video or the Diary of Healing pictures and that is exactly why I put that together. When I had that middle-of-the-night-panic and thought there was no where to go, there was no voice that said to me ‘this is really hard but you have to live thru it’. One of my favorite sayings by Winston Churchill is “if you’re going through hell, keep going.”

Mary Ann’s future work is to always be a voice for education and overall health. She’s there to encourage girls to make good decisions for their whole lives.  Her goal is to be able to say that when breast cancer existed organizations involved with breast cancer did a great job. That they eliminated the cause or cured it. There are incredible people working on this.   While they do that, she is going to continue to educate girls on being comfortable with their bodies and respecting themselves. She is also going to continue to be an inspiration to women who are dealing with the realities of breast cancer. 

“This is an emotional rollercoaster.  You have to live through it.  It’s the new normal.  I want women to know that you can be a bigger version of yourself.  It is hard.  Things scare me but I am realistic and optimistic. I don’t want to live anywhere else.” 

We are glad she feels that way.

For more information, please visit the Get in Touch Foundation website:


Unique Leadership:

The easiest form of running an NPO is to encourage or demand that people do more. Or another way to look at it is to go faster.

The most important and difficult form of management (verging on leadership) is to encourage people to do better.

Better is trickier than more or faster because people have trouble visualizing themselves doing better. It requires education and coaching and patience to create a team of people who are better.  Longer and more work for you, but in the long run, much more effective leadership for your NPO.

What ‘education’ can you set up today? Website usage? Facebook or Twitter tips? Public Speaking tips for your volunteers? Progressive marketing ideas and tips?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Use ‘em or Lose ‘em –
Do You Know the Value of Your Volunteers?

How do you find NEW volunteers? The best way is to get referrals! How? Network! Most volunteers are very busy people but they want to GIVE to their community in some way. ASK!

You need to have a good ‘commercial’ in order to promote your particular cause! Why should I volunteer with you and not ABC organization down the street?

Always have one good example of how your organization helped someone – make sure it has punch! Would someone change the channel or fast forward through your commercial? OR would it grab them and touch their heart (or pocketbook)! Think Hallmark!

KNOW your need! Once you get a referral for a volunteer, do you know where you’ll USE ‘EM?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Powerful Impact People: Toni Dolan - Beth-El Center

Toni Dolan, executive director of the BETH-EL CENTER a Milford Non Profit that  feeds the hungry, houses the homeless, and seeks to prevent homelessness, has her day cut out for her.  Originally an interim director, she became so engaged with the shelter’s mission that she has stayed on for five years.  “You begin to build relationships within the community and through that I began to realize how vital the services are and how well respected the center is. I felt I could make a difference. The whole issue of homelessness, people not having a safe place to lay their heads at night, is a societal curse that doesn’t need to be.”

Today her morning started with a to-do-list of grant writing, administrative tasks, working on raising funds as the chair of ‘clubs and agencies’ for the United Way’s fund raising goals…and then a crisis hit.  A husband and wife with three children knocked at the door. The mother was not working and had just gotten out of hospital and had no health insurance.  It was crunch time.  Toni stopped what she was doing and got some bags of food together after the mother said “I have nothing in my cupboard to feed my family”.

The Beth El Center, supported by the United Way, is not an emergency shelter but they have all the resources to guide people to those shelters that are safer situations for families. “We are called a transition shelter.  A lot of people think of the classic, stand in line at 5pm, get taken in for the night and put out in the morning, type of shelter.”  Beth El is a program that tries to help with all issues including self-sufficiency. 

Toni and the center also work closely with other agencies in a shared capacity. Peggy Pisano, of the Milford Rape Crisis Center and her assault councilors for the families at the shelter. Peggy Kelly of the Milford Family Resource Center and her certified parent educators who work with the mothers exclusively on parenting skills and with children in a shelter.  The Visiting Nurse Association of South Central CT that access clients if needed and help to prevent emergency calls to 911.  And Karen Schur, who works with the Young Parent Program, Milford Hospital, especially for young women who might have become parents before they were ready. 

Toni devotes some time to the soup kitchen, a vital service that serves the greater community. Anyone who needs a nutritious hot lunch, five days a week can come.  There were 18 thousand meals served last year.  The shelter also offers a “no freeze’ shelter in the winter. “We don’t have a great capacity to house them, but at least we get them out of the cold from January to March in an effort to lessen the impact on the city services”.

A large portion of her day is spent fund raising.  This year they may be facing a 5% cutback in the shelter contract.  “United Way has a million dollar goal.  If we don’t get that it’s another cutback from what we can provide”.

Major challenges?  Housing. There is not enough affordable housing in Connecticut.   Compound that with the economy and top it off with the job market.  “We do have clients that are working, but they are working poor because they don’t have jobs that earn them enough.  It takes 23 dollars an hour to afford a modest two family home here. Without the educational level or skills what do you do?  You have to put together 2 or 3 jobs to make it work.” 

What she and the shelter provide is a 90-day program, working with clients one-on-one in supportive services that assist them to self-sufficiency and in not repeating the cycle. “Of late we have evolved into our goal being to end homelessness.” And while that may sound like a lofty goal, she knows that even though a small agency can’t do this alone, they can collaborate with other agencies. Working one person at a time Toni and the Beth El Center can make difference. 

Just like she said she would. 


Best fund raising:  “We have three fund raisers a year.   The biggest is a Spring gala event with dinner, live auctions and a “successful story” told by one of our clients. What has been especially good in the last 2 years is determining what the cost per night is for our clients and asking people to bid on that.   50 dollars. Knowing what their 50 dollars is paying for exactly has helped tremendously. It’s that direct connection to the people you are helping.  


Ch Ch Ch Ch Changes


We’ve all seen it.  The people who fear change speak up immediately because they think they will be hurt by the idea.  They even speak loudly and without regard for the odds or reality sometimes.
The people who benefit from a change usually don't believe it until it they see it, so they sit still.
And that's why change in an organization is difficult.
The trick is to get your board and your volunteers enrolled or enticed into the new idea. The new possibility.  A secret?  Even the very best hearted folks will want to know how this new idea benefits them.  


Use ‘em or Lose ‘em –
Do You Know the Value of Your Volunteers?

What would a nonprofit organization do if there were no volunteers? Recently I learned that one long established group was being disbanded for lack of volunteers – or should I say volunteers who didn’t want to take the responsibility of the open positions.

Talk to your volunteers! Find out if they are happy doing what they have been doing so well! If they are NOT happy, give them a choice. There is a job for everyone – wouldn’t it be better to have a happy volunteer doing something different than one who is going to burn out if they have to do that task one more time?

The word ‘happy’ appeared three times in the last paragraph – that’s how important it is! The organization will win every time if they keep their volunteers in that wonderful state of HAPPY!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Powerful Impact People: A day in the life of Peggy Pisano (Milford Rape Crisis Center)

Thursday was a typically untypical day for Peggy Pisano, the executive director of the Milford Rape Crisis Center.  Having met her months earlier at a fund raising event, I knew she was a focused and caring person who has been with the center for over 30 years.  She started out as a volunteer and then became the multi-disciplinary team coordinator for the Ansonia/Milford judicial district in 2002.  This team is one of 15 in the state that deals exclusively with cases of child sexual and physical assault and serious neglect.  In 2007 she became the center’s executive director and so I wanted to find out what a day in the life of this woman with the sparkling blue eyes was like.

Peggy had moved here from another state and belonged to the Milford Newcomers Club.  A speaker came from Milford Rape Crisis, Eloise Macaluso, and Peggy realized she really wanted to help women and the community. She quickly learned that the Center not only helps women but also men and children through the multi-disciplinary team.

Her Thursday started by working on administrative tasks like the quarterly report, which narrates this non-profit’s progress over the last quarter, including their speaking engagements, outreach, cases, trends and problems. 

The Milford Rape Center was awarded a three-year grant through the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven to assist them in continuing their work providing services to victims of sexual assault and community education programs. Additionally, on November 1st, the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven is launching an online resource for non-profits (, where people can view 50 different non-profits, make donations, and read particular information on them.

In the afternoon, her duties shifted to dealing with some cases. One case was with an ongoing client who she has been counseling for a number of months; another case involved responding to a long-time client who had issues that were resurfacing. While any success, from helping sexual assault victim to more administrative tasks like helping the center get a grant, is gratifying’ it’s obvious that her heart belongs with helping sexual assault victims.

As evening approached, she prepared for the training with new volunteers.  This 3-hour training took place at Griffin Hospital and was attended by 20 new prospective volunteers. During the training, she trained them in the use of Serchie 100 rape kit, for the collection of evidence in the sexual assault cases. With her co-worker, Advocate Cindy Dugan, she helped train these volunteers in the 14 steps required, ranging from what to do when you first meet with someone in the emergency room to how to deal with police reports.  The trainings are ongoing through Oct 28th where they will become state certified sexual assault councilors, manning hotlines and assisting in counseling.  Advocate Sheila Richards facilitated a wide variety of leaders for the trainings, including the Milford Police Department, Griffin Hospital, Shelton police officers, and Kevin Lawlor, the State’s Attorney for the Ansonia/Milford Judicial District.

When I asked Peggy who the perfect volunteer for her non-profit would be, she listed someone who is a good listener, empathetic, and who doesn’t form moral judgments about people. Being able to handle difficult situations and giving correct information are key, as well as being someone who can respond to an emergency situation, sometimes at 3am.  She emphasized that not everyone is able to handle that kind of work.

We are all certainly lucky and grateful that Peggy is.

Upcoming events:  Indoor Golf Tournament (Feb) and Walk a Mile in her Shoes (April)

Founded in 1974, the Rape Crisis Center of Milford is a not-for-profit social service agency working to end sexual violence through victim assistance, prevention, education and public policy advocacy.   The Center provides services to the towns of Ansonia, Derby, Milford, Orange, Seymour, Shelton, and West Haven . All services are provided at no cost to the community.

MOST SUCCESSFUL FUND RAISING EVENT: Walk a Mile in Her Shoes-- visit the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes page on the Milford Rape Crisis Center webpage for more information


Are they paying attention?

It's extremely difficult to figure out why people pay attention to your literature and why they might throw out your brochure, leave your site... but in fact, this is fertile territory for dramatically increasing donations. You won't find what's broken if you don't look.
Find a savvy 20 year old who would like to donate a few hours to assessing your website for “user friendliness” or “wordiness”.  Remember that this is the generation who grew up online and who have attention spans that need to be stimulated with short bursts of information.
If you are willing to listen to their feedback, you may not only get more donors, but you might also get more 20 year olds volunteering for your cause.