Of Great Ideas

What’s the best idea you’ve ever had? Regale us with every detail of the idea — the idea itself, where it came to you, and the problem it solved.

I’m an idea person. Perhaps I would have done well in marketing, but I chose social work so I that’s where I’ve been applying my ideas for the past two decades or so. I’m not an administrator or executive so I had no aspirations of organizational leadership – I just like to create and launch projects. I like to discuss ideas. I like to solve problems.

I love ideas. Sometimes I get a swirling feeling in my head as the idea settles in and sometimes it sort of seeps in, like a gentle wave during low tide – the one that seeps up just a bit further than its supposed to. It catches your attention as if it is hoping to grasp onto the sand in spite of the other waves ebbing and flowing their way with the course of nature.

I also love brainstorming with people. It is like the grown-up version of all those grad school confabs over big thoughts and cheap beer. Sometimes it even pays the bills.

I’ve had a few good ideas, but two immediately come to mind.

In 1995, I was the social service minister for an order of Catholic nuns in Western Kentucky. My tasks included launching an interfaith social service center. The space was an old airport terminal and it was filled to the brim with donated clothing. I needed help. I also needed to connect with local women in this very poor rural community, women who wanted to take care of their families without accepting charity (and the strings that were always attached.) When they did ask for some assistance, they insisted on working for it. So I came up with a volunteer merit program – adults could volunteer and receive a $5 credit for every hour they worked. Then they could use the credit to purchase clothing from the thrift store for their families. Within a few weeks, we had dozens of women signed up to help. They brought their kids who also pitched in (and received their own lines of credit.) The pile of clothing was organized and sorted in no time. Tons of new donations came in as word spread. And thanks to the credit program, lots of clothing went out the door to create space for the new inventory.

It wasn’t solely my idea. A woman had befriended me, her name was Stacey. She was very quiet, but she is the one who educated me about the charity concept. And we talked for hours about dignity.  She and her husband would drive around in the evenings to “other girls” as she put it and invite them to come in – they knew who was in need and had access that I could never build. I clearly remember her telling me to cap it at $5,00 (I wanted to make it $10 because we had A LOT of clothes) because she was conscious of when a bargain becomes too one-sided.

The project was a success on many levels. It taught me a lot about dignity and the distinction between support and charity. I learned about rural poverty that year, but I also really learned about resiliency and community. I also eventually learned that the problem wasn’t the overabundance of clothes or the need for volunteers – the problem was me. I strolled out of the suburbs of Pittsburgh into a rural community with lots of ‘white savior complex’ ideas, some implanted by my employers and some home-grown. I learned how to listen from Stacey, to listen when people are identifying what they need and how I can be helpful (or not.)

The second great idea I had was The Pittsburgh Tote Bag Project. I watched a man drop a cabbage from his food pantry distribution and had a lightbulb go off in my head. 40,000+ bags and other excess promotional items later, we had demonstrated that the project had merit and legs. It just didn’t have enough administrators or executive types to keep it going. It was a victim of its own success, you could say.

The idea was simple – redirect extra new and gently used tote bags to food pantries. This helps people carry their groceries with more dignity and ease while reducing dependency (and money spent on) plastic bags. It started with asking people to donate their extra bags. It quickly grew into the HUGE market of unused promotional items – everything from bags to pens to cups and beyond. Not items that were misprinted, perfectly good items that simply weren’t distributed. We partnered with the convention center, printing companies and more. The potential for redirecting tens of thousands of bags was huge. It became a logistics issue and that’s where it ran aground.

I identified a bigger issue, something that went back to my nonprofit days. There is a huge need for donated items, but limited resources to sort and store them. A good example is foster care where decent suitcases are a huge need. The problem is that they are needed at a moment’s notice which is just impractical. A caseworker responding to a placement request – to children in need of safety and security – at 2 AM or with 30 minutes notice at any time of day – doesn’t have time to go to the office and pick up suitcases. Most of the time, there’s nowhere at the office to store suitcases anyway. Or if you do “a drive” – there’s little time to sort and organize and dispose of the unusable bags plus take photos and all that – you are trying to help children. Enter the ubiquitous black trash bag. It is more practical if horribly undignified and awful. It isn’t the fault of the provider, the foster parents or even the system – it is a reflection on all of us for placing such little value on the lives of our neighbors. We don’t fund agencies well enough for them to allocate storage and staff to donations.

What would be interesting would be a sort of goodwill for human service agencies, sort of a co-op model. That central place could handle the donation ends of things and the agencies could simply stock up on the supplies that they need. There’s a lot of stuff in the world that could be quite useful to tackle issues like poverty, hunger and environmental impact.

My hope is to convince Goodwill to revitalize the Tote Bag Project. Some good ideas need a little respite before they gain their footing.

One thing I learned from the tote bag efforts is that a good idea doesn’t necessarily translate into a good project (or a good non-profit.) It takes more than innovation to be successful. And if things don’t work out, that doesn’t mean someone is to blame. Sometimes listening to what people need includes acknowledging when you can’t meet that need.

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