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December 26, 2011

Springboard session connects executives with STEM education nonprofit

Vicki Nemeth, a member of the STEM Collaborative, took a drink, cleared her throat and asked the question.

"What strategies can we use to effectively communicate broad messages about the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education to a wide range of audiences in the state, using limited resources?"

The question was not unfamiliar. Indeed, it had been honed, debated and bandied about by STEM members and a dozen high-level experts from a range of organizations during weeks of email, teleconferencing and one-on-one interaction.

But now it was showtime. What transpired over the next 90 minutes was a whirlwind of advice from some of the best minds in business and philanthropy.

"Partner, partner, partner," said Laurie Lachance, president and CEO of the Maine Development Foundation.

"Sell the sizzle," offered Charles "Wick" Johnson, owner of Augusta-based precision machine manufacturer Kennebec Technologies.

"I want to see you be a convenor, an umbrella of a lot of disparate organizations that are all doing the same thing," offered Meredith Strang-Burgess, a state representative from Cumberland and CEO of Burgess Advertising and Marketing in Portland.

The event was Springboard, a business-to-nonprofit collaboration sponsored by the Portland-based nonprofit Common Good Ventures. Springboard offers nonprofits the opportunity to pick the minds of some of the state's best and brightest business people.

Afterward, participants from the STEM Collaborative — a group formed in 2007 to increase the quality of STEM education, aspirations and awareness in Maine — appeared energized — and overwhelmed.

"Our heads are swimming," Nemeth said. "This has been fantastic."

The event underscored one of Maine's top economic challenges: How can the state train future workers to fill high-tech jobs and satisfy sought-after high-wage employers?

Maine's unemployment rates have outperformed many others, but prospects for future wage growth are poor. The latest example of the pessimism: Forbes magazine's annual state-by-state survey, released this month, again ranked Maine's business climate dead last, citing "anemic" job growth forecasts. After statewide job summits throughout the fall, upgrading science-oriented education in Maine emerged as a key talking point for the LePage administration. Legislation has not yet been offered.

If the way forward is murky, programs like the Springboard could offer an efficient process of creative problem solving for groups such as the STEM Collaborative, trying to move a cash-strapped state forward with limited resources of its own. Springboard brings a dozen panelists from the private and public sectors in front of the directors of a nonprofit group for facilitated brainstorming meant to help the nonprofit solve a mission-critical challenge.

Finding panelists with interest, expertise and time to volunteer has not been a problem.

"It's kind of snowballed," says Common Good Ventures Executive Director Andrew Watt. "[Panelists are] employees of corporate funders, board members of nonprofits and people they know, people who Common Good staff have relationships with, organizations that contact us through our website. It's always a mix, and it's different wherever we go."

In a funding environment that crimps many nonprofits as need for their services grows, Springboard has aided groups that improve youth programs, homeless shelters, wildlife protection and a host of other causes.

Common Good provides support services beyond Springboard, including fee-based consultations and networking help. With four full-time staff and several times as many volunteers, 60% of Common Good's annual revenue of approximately $515,000 comes from charitable gifts by corporations, individuals and foundations, according to the group.

How it works

Watt said the group has done 77 Springboards since 2001, starting in the Portland area and branching out to York County, Lewiston and Bangor to benefit groups as diverse as the Girl Scouts, Maine Audubon and the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter. The Dec. 16 event aiding the STEM Collaborative was the group's first in Augusta. It featured a smattering of legislators along with a mix of leaders in business and education from across central Maine.

At the beginning of each Springboard, a facilitator frames the session. Then the leader of the nonprofit that has requested the session delivers a 10-minute presentation and asks the question facing the agency.

Then comes the brainstorming — fast and furious.

"The idea is to focus this hour and a half in a crisp way so our business panelists can quickly add value," Watt said.

The nonprofit must prepare a PowerPoint presentation on the question and send a brief background memo to panelists beforehand. Common Good Ventures Managing Director Chad Sclove said the entire preparation process can take five to six weeks.

"We find a lot of groups benefit just from the process of shaping the question," Watt said. "There's lots of clarity to be gained just by that exercise."

The ideas coming out of a Springboard session belong to the participating nonprofit. Follow-up assistance may be available through Common Good Ventures' Business Advisory program.

"We start right at 7:30 in the morning and end right at 9, and people walk out of the room feeling like, 'I had a good day already'," Watt said.

There's value for panelists in branching out beyond their corner offices.

"These are people whose nine-to-five, nine-to-six, nine-to-seven jobs are very focused within their own operations," Watt said. "It's a different attraction to feel engaged in their communities, and they are in a forum of peers making connections that carry forward outside the room."

The value to nonprofits is clear.

"We estimate our time, our prep time for Springboard, is about $3,000 per session," Watt said. "If you look at the market rate and compared it to the time spent by CGV volunteers, it would [cost] many multiples of that per session."

The Maine STEM Collaborative was itself born of a public-private partnership, connecting people in the education, research, business, government and nonprofit sectors.

An affiliation of the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance, the Maine STEM Collaborative's vision is to increase Maine's overall student STEM participation 10% by 2014.

With a two-year organizational budget of only $30,000, the group lists as one of its goals to "maximize communication efforts on our current shoestring budget." Thus the trip to the 90-minute Springboard inside the Augusta boardroom of Central Maine Power Co.

"We'll now go to our steering committee with this and develop a strategic plan that moves us forward," Nemeth said.

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