I recently met with the organizer of a fledgling non-profit, that will help “new Americans” find best place in our society, offering mutual support, and drawing wisely upon existing resources.

Then, after some reflection, I wrote the following summary of our discussion (slightly edited here for publication).  I share it here not for the specifics regarding this new organization, but as a possible model of the kind of thinking needed to give birth to a vital and well purposed group.

Vision — A world in which the phrase “new Americans” is not even necessary, as all are treated with such dignity and respect, and receive assistance fulfilling their potential, in an open society that values differences as well as strength, that supports varied cultural forms, and that is open to growth and change.  [I’ve just listed my thoughts here, probably not in the most refined, and final, wording]

Mission — New Americans helping each other take their full place in the economic and cultural life of this society, sharing their strengths, receiving help and support, and maintaining their dignity and sense of self worth.  In particular, supporting new Americans who have experienced torture and other trauma, as well as abuses from the systems in place that should have offered support and welcome.

Support committee — An informal group offering you (the presumed director) counsel and support, but that has no decision-making power or formal organizational role.  This group could be a group that can be a sounding bound for you, a source of advise, a place to test out ideas without making them visible to the whole community.

Executive Board — The formal group holding the “vessel” that is your organization.  This is a point of organizational grounding, financial accountability, legal integrity.  But it’s not the place where program originates.  Largely consisting of new Americans, it may also draw upon others who can offer expertise in law, finance, non-profit grants, publicity, development, and other such areas.  With good fiscal sponsorship, this group may not be needed right away to handle the organizations’ grant income, etc.  Still, the structure of self-government is important, and experiencing this mechanism of self-determination right away can be an important experience and inspiration.

Community Board — A representative group, that ideally has members from all the ethnic groups being served.  This is the group that identifies and then evaluates program, insuring that it really meets the needs of the communities it is supposed to serve.  You will need to find clarity about how this group should function, how decisions are to be made, etc.

We spent time discussing the names of these last three groups.  I still support my original comments, but believe you could call them anything — as long as you define clear and appropriate roles for each group.

These words are clearly not definitive.  And that’s precisely why I’m sharing them here.  If I’m incorrectly reporting what was shared and generally agreed upon, or if in retrospect some of these ideas are questionable, this is a great time to correct and move forward.

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I’d read about Three Buoys — the new fish restaurant that recently opened up a few blocks from my office.  It sounded like a wonderful place for simple fish sandwiches, and for more sophisticated seafood preparations as well.  So, I thought this morning, why not try it for lunch today.

I was warmly welcomed, but then presented with a dense page of typewritten text, that must have contained at least 100 different menu items.  All were priced well above what I wanted to spend for lunch, and most were not seafood.

Yes — I could have scanned the menu, checking out the seafood items.  There probably were some that would have interested me, and at a price not too much above what I expected to spend on lunch.  But the very fact that there were so many items on the menu was proof positive to me that this place couldn’t be doing anything very well.

My “proof positive” may have been completely wrong.  I might have missed a taste thrill for lunch today.  But that’s not the point.  What’s interesting is that I entered the restaurant wanting to buy something, and I left feeling upset that this mission was so hard.  They might have lost not just my one purchase today, but a loyal customers for years to come.

What might have helped turn me into a real customer?

  • A menu sorted by kind of item — Perhaps fried seafood, broiled seafood, soups, salads, meat, poultry, etc.
  • A menu that was just shorter.
  • A server who has offered to help me pick out something on the long menu for this new place.
  • A page of lunch specials — perhaps only slightly cheaper than the full menu, but much more approachable.

Also, as I left, somebody might have asked, “We’re sorry you’re leaving . . . What were you looking for that you didn’t see on the menu?”

I want this little place to succeed, and may go back to offer my feedback — for what it’s worth.  But if they are not querying their customers (or would-be customers), there’s not a lot of hope that they will get it right.