Quasi-Indefatigable Xenolith


Thoughts on Tucumcari Program Development

You might be sitting there thinking that Jay has no right to even comment on this subject because he has never started a program in our area. Actually, I have started a few (not in Quay County) and one of them celebrated its tenth anniversary last year (This was originally written in 2003). The secrets I give here have been learned from observation and experience gained over the last fifteen years that I have been involved in the non-profit scene in our region. If you want to discount it, that is just fine, but it would be foolish to refuse to consider these things. I offer these secrets as an aid to those who would try and start community programs in our area.

Secret #1: Cowboys don't need your stinking program. Think Tucumcari.

When you are talking about county-wide initiatives, you are talking about Tucumcari with a tiny Logan outreach. Unless you are stablizing hay prices or some such, the rural folks want nothing to do with it. You might get some to come to educational programs that compliment what Extension does, but don't count on their support or participation. Not that these are not the nicest and most generous folks in the world -- they simply keep to their own kind and look after each other. They expect the "townies" to behave the same way they do (which they don't). Also, they don't want "help" from some townfolk that don't understand them. Don't make commitments to funders that include their participation unless you like failure.

Secret #2: Tucumcari is not and cannot be a vibrant, growing town with an exciting future.

Some people have a very romantic notion of Tucumcari which is dangerous for program creators to believe: they think that the only thing keeping Tucumcari from prospering and growing is pessimism and greed. There is one big reason that Tucumcari is shrinking and will continue to shrink: it is no longer really needed as a place. Tucumcari fills very few needs that can't be better met elsewhere.

Tucumcari is a created railroad and highway town in the midst of marginal rangeland. Railroaders were assigned here to meet the needs of the company. The townbuilders came to meet the needs of the railroaders for houses, clothes, food, and liquor. Government came to create infrastructure, laws, schools, and order. Some people came here to get rich creating restaurants, curio shops, gas stations, and motels along Route 66. Others wandered in to work in all these places for a variety of reasons. Truckers came through and became the next railroaders. This is what Tucumcari was.

What Tucumcari is today is the leftovers of the past. The railroad is gone. Most of the truckers are gone. The Interstate and high speed limits bypass a lot of the old traveler trade. These few attractive features that brought people and business to Tucumcari are either gone or irrelevant now, so we are losing population. Tucumcari is a lot like the oat dust left in the bottom of the Cheerios box when the cereal is gone -- the bits hanging around in the husk of what once was.

Romance aside, Tucumcari is likely to continue to get smaller in the future and programs should have that fact in mind. If a program expects to grow here, it should plan such growth by expanding the services they provide to existing groups, not by finding new Tucumcari people to serve.

Secret #3: Tucumcari isn't a smaller version of Albuquerque.

One consistent and fatal error is the idea that Quay county can do what, say, Albuquerque does on a smaller scale. It would take a rather large web page just to spell out a few of the political, economic, and cultural differences between Quay and Bernalillo Counties. In short, size isn't the biggest difference between a big town and a little one.

Secret #4: No one wants to pay you to run a Tucumcari-sized community program.

When you see programs in other places with nice offices and a staff and a director in a nice car going to high-powered meetings, it is an alluring vision. "I could be that person." Please understand that all these nice things are paid for from money scraped off the bottom of real acitivites that attract funds. You can't have these "bennies" for any period of time without hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars worth of successful direct service being done. First, you must make a successful program, then there may be some money from funders to pay a salary. The nice car may never come.

Secret #5: The most successful fund raising comes from reducing your need for money.

Since I came up with this secret, I have heard it in lots of prominent places, so it is not unique to me. It is a hard pill to take, especially if you hoped you could make a living at saving the world. The trick to a successful program is to do it with as little money as possible. This means that you focus on your core services. You use volunteers. You take food and equipment donations when you can get them. Working with money just creates a bigger mound of work and regulations that volunteers rarely have a passion for. Avoid money until you can't avoid it anymore. Paid staff ends up doing all the work you can't get volunteers to do. If you can't get volunteers to do anything, you are obviously doing nothing worthwhile and you need to either rework the program or close up shop.

Secret #6: Create programs in the proper way for Tucumcari.

Another big Tucumcari mistake is creating a program out of order. Most groups get the money and then they start the program and then they attract people to their services. This only works in the big towns where there will surely be a decent-sized group of people who already want the services. Funders always think "big town," so they figure there will be a crowd to work with and you will get money with that supposition. You can't work that way in Quay County.

First, you must attract people to your proposed service. The easiest way to do this is to find already existing groups and work to fulfill their wants and needs. As an example, we already have an active bunch of senior citizens who would like to get cheap or free health screenings on a regular basis. This is an excellent thing to try and provide in our area.

Second, you should do as much of the program as you can without funding. In our example, you could enlist the aid of organizations interested in providing some senior health screenings for free or a reduced rate. Bring together groups to provide aspects of what you need in a screening event and coordinate some events.

Third, you will need to go after some money when it is needed. At some point, you will likely need to seek outside money to either expand the reach of our example screening event or provide some screenings that local sources cannot afford to donate. Your proposal will include your past successes in this arena and clearly spell out your need beyond what you already do. This sort of proposal for funds has an excellent chance of getting money.

The reputation of Quay County is littered with the corpses of broken promises and failed "big city" programs, to the point that some funding sources are closed to us forever. The secret is to get money only when needed to expand or strengthen programs that are already working right here, right now.

My purpose here is to be honest about the realities of Tucumcari and how these realities affect the creation of programs in our county. Even in ideal circumstances, programs fail. It is important to have a clear picture of a situation so that you can reduce the chance of failing as much as you can. I don't intend to offend people that feel a deep connection with Tucumcari and hope for its renewal. It is an appealing vision but one cannot base programs and funding proposals on hopes.

Jay's Funding Rules to Live By

Now that my secrets are out, I should probably reveal my rules for seeking funding:

Find another way to do it!

If there is any concievable way to accomplish what you want to do without starting a staffed and granted program, do without such things. This probably means an ad-hoc association of volunteers at best or more likely a one-person volunteer show.

Get the right person to lead it.

This should always be your first consideration and should be done long before anyone gets paid. It is not just a function of qualifications -- being the leader requires personal efficacy and passion about the program's aims. When you hire someone to run a program, you run a great risk that this person is just in it for a paycheck and is going to have the wrong attitude and destroy things. If you are wanting something to happen, it makes sense that you should lead it, unless you are just in it for the paycheck, too.

Plan for a quarter of the clients you think you can get.

Sad experience has shown that we grossly overestimate the interest and capacity of Tucumcari residents to make use of programs. If you think sixty people would be interested, tell your funder that you will serve fifteen. You will struggle hard enough to get the fifteen.

Start as a volunteer and intend to stay that way for a very long time.

I consider this the great litmus test of both a program and its creators. If the program works, it must be wanted and needed. If you can keep volunteers, the work must be fulfilling and good. These are signs of the right program done in the right way.

Get funding for specific direct service needs or products, not specifically for program operations.

No one wants to give money for a director to sit at a desk. Many people will help fund or donate equipment for kids to have a wilderness experience. Having (or being) a program director is something that gets paid for from the scraps of your real work.

Provide a wanted service, as opposed to just a needed service.

I am not saying that you should ignore needs, but people don't participate in programs because they need to; they participate because they want to! In other words: Address your desire to meet needs through wanted methods!

Ask for money at market rates and then do the work yourself as an income.

It is easier to ask for money to publish a pamphlet than to try to get money to buy a copier and pay a staff person to run it. You get bids from local printers to set the amount you want, then you pay yourself (as a contractor) to act as the printer. Hey, look, an income!

Don't reinvent the wheel.

If you can add what you want to do with something that is already happening, you have saved yourself a lot of pain. Partnering with an existing program to share space or equipment can also open you up to their clientele.

Be your own fiscal agent when you must work with money.

When you bring on a fiscal agent to handle the money for you, you essentially give away control of your program. This often means that your program will become a political tool of your agent and your soon-to-be replacement will be somebody's cousin. The actual work of your program will be lost in the posturing. If you must take in money, figure out how to do it yourself.