This post is part of our Spotlight series, where we spotlight our incredible partners. We are so thrilled that GivePulse has been able to work with these nonprofits, institutions, and corporations!
With programs spanning the Providence public school district, Inspiring Minds maintains deep ties to the Providence, RI community. Inspiring Minds has several programs that work with elementary school students in Providence; according to Melissa Emidy, Executive Director of Inspiring Minds, “the underlying theme of all of our programs is that adults go into classrooms in Providence public schools and create relationships and support academic success.”
These relationships rely upon effective and consistent engagement from volunteers and the nonprofit. Emidy defines engagement as “being authentic and listening to the needs of your community, and providing services that are impactful and effective and to the benefit of your community.” This focus on authenticity and impact has shaped the recently updated mission of Inspiring Minds: “Inspiring Minds empowers students for success in school and life by supporting them with trusted relationships, tutoring and mentoring from inspired community members.” Trusted relationships are at the forefront of Inspiring Minds’ mission.
If volunteers are to create trusted relationships in Providence public schools, they must recognize how their own backgrounds and those of the students impact their work.
To accomplish this mission, the volunteers need to understand the context of their work. In order to create trusted relationships in these schools, they must recognize how their own backgrounds and those of the students impact their work.
“Both students and teachers come with background information, most from different places,” says Emidy. “We work with elementary school kids only, and 95% of those kids are students of color, 86% are poor, and our teachers are overwhelmingly white middle class women. They have different backgrounds.” This is where the volunteers come in: “By bringing community members into the classrooms, we build a bridge between those two worlds.”
While many teachers commute in from towns and cities beyond the Providence border, volunteers are members of the Providence community. Through Inspiring Minds’ programs, Emidy says, “Kids build a relationship with someone who’s in their supermarket — how cool is that? Having community members in the class is awesome.”
Functioning within dysfunction
The work being done by Inspiring Minds and their volunteers is necessary and complicated. Providence public schools were recently the focus of national attention when an investigation by Johns Hopkins University researchers found that students in Providence public schools were performing drastically below the national average, with 90 percent of students not proficient in math and 80 percent not proficient in English. The reasons for this are widespread, including extensive issues of bullying and fighting, low student engagement, and low teacher morale. Emidy describes the report as “93 pages of absolute heartbreak.” While she notes that there are good practices happening at some schools, the underlying conditions surrounding Inspiring Minds’ work remain complex: “We are a community agency functioning within dysfunction.”
“The underlying problem,” Emidy adds, “is systemic racism, and that’s a big issue to grapple with, especially for people who haven’t been on that journey to understand their privilege.” In this context, training and volunteer management are crucial, particularly as the volunteers’ actions in the school can be life-altering for students. “In a lot of cases,” Emidy says, “these trusted relationships between community members and students makes [the student’s] day.” To build this trust, volunteers must learn how to communicate with and inspire these students.
“We are a community agency functioning within dysfunction.”
Before Inspiring Minds started using GivePulse, volunteer management took up a significant amount of time that could otherwise have been used for training volunteers and interacting with schools. But with GivePulse, “We are so much more efficient,” Emidy says. “We can spend more time in schools supporting volunteers; our whole entire agency has shifted because of GivePulse. We don’t spend nearly as much time matching and placing — we spend much more time at schools.”
This shift in focus from volunteer management to program enrichment is evident in the roles of the Inspiring Minds staff. “In our new model,” Emidy says, “we have a program director who is going to be meeting with teachers and learning what our kids’ needs are through data and conversation.” With the extra time provided by a responsive management system, this director “can then go into a classroom and coach [the volunteers] in how to work with that kid.” According to Emidy, this is “transformational from where we were two years ago.”
Inspiring Minds worked to set up GivePulse in the summer of 2018. Emidy says that the best thing Inspiring Minds ever did in setting up GivePulse was to hire an intern whose role was to learn and train others in the platform. “Anyone that’s going to change and have a new system is going to have an implementation plan,” Emidy says. “You’ve got to have a subject matter expert, and you’ve got to have someone who’s going to do the tedious work and then train your staff.”
In regards to these trainings, Emidy adds, “Be patient.” It may take time for volunteers and coordinators to engage fully with GivePulse, but once they do, the organization will transform. Overall, Emidy says that switching to GivePulse “has changed our organization tremendously. I’m happy with it; I tell people all the time.”
With GivePulse, Emidy says, “We don’t spend nearly as much time matching and placing — we spend much more time in schools.”
A key facet of this change is the information Emidy is able to gather through GivePulse. Before using GivePulse, Inspiring Minds wanted to get everything on one sheet of paper, and because of this did not ask any demographic information.
Emidy says that switching to GivePulse “has changed our organization tremendously.”
With the online application she has added through GivePulse, Emidy says, “Now I can tell what the demographics are of my volunteers. I now know their employment information, and the big question — does your job do matching gifts? I can look at their employer and know that XYZ employer matches gifts and get that information to that volunteer, so that I can not only get the volunteer’s participation and time, but I can also get a corporate gift.”
Interactions with both volunteers and donors have been altered significantly by implementation of the platform. “We interact so much more. If you go back to when I first got here, we didn’t even know how many volunteers we had out there on any given day.” Now, when Emidy wants a funder to come and visit a program, she “can just log in to the system and do a little magic and find out how many volunteers [she has] at one location at any given time.”
When she wants a funder to visit a program, Emidy “can just log in to the system and do a little magic and find out how many volunteers [she has] at one location at any given time.”
Moreover, these operations can all take place at the very start of working hours: “Operationally, I can do everything I need to do before I hit the office, which in a small shop is beautiful.” She can access critical aspects of volunteer management “anywhere. It’s all in one spot.”
Volunteer tracking and coordinating benefit from this easy access to information. Emidy can easily “message people who need to know one certain thing. I can message all of my RIC students a RIC notice; I can email all my Brown work-study students and tell them their timecards are due; I can message an entire school and tell them that next week is eighties day.” These targeted messages allow for efficient volunteer coordination, opening time for actions that more directly impact the elementary school students.
Now, Emidy can focus on creating trusted relationships through both work and play. Inspiring Minds is currently planning for trainings that will address how to move forward after the Johns Hopkins report, including a panel discussion on the report’s findings.
In addition, Inspiring Minds will be working with an Americorps fellow to manage volunteers with GivePulse. Beyond this, they have “a couple of new things in the works,” including a burgeoning work-study partnership with Providence College.
Even as these elements change, Inspiring Minds’ emphasis on mutual trust and growth remains the same. Their play-based model relies on understanding how different contexts and backgrounds influence interpretation. Emidy says that in her trainings, she can watch this understanding grow. Students are far from the only ones who benefit from this engagement: “It’s such a cool, eye-opening thing when you say that to adults… having that community member in the classroom, it’s learning on both sides.”
“Having that community member in the classroom, it’s learning on both sides.”