Blueprint embraces, guards supporting role

Sean Kosofsky
Sean Kosofsky

Ret Boney

RALEIGH, N.C. – Even as Blueprint works to become an independent nonprofit later this year, the young organization is staying committed to its role as mentor, investor and booster for dozens of advocacy groups across the state.

Incubated at the North Carolina Justice Center since 2006, Blueprint has filed the paperwork required to become a separate group and likely will move out of the Justice Center’s downtown offices this fall.

But that move won’t change the organization’s goal of working behind the scenes to help its 51 member nonprofits gain visibility and influence.

“We didn’t want to launch initially as an independent organization because that raises tensions around what this group is going to do,” says Chris Estes, chair of Blueprint’s steering committee and executive director of the North Carolina Housing Coalition, which is a member of Blueprint.

“People now have a much better sense of what the benefit of Blueprint is,” he says. “If you’re going to have a big, broad base, especially with community-based organizations, it’s helpful for it to be more independent.”

The role of Blueprint and its six staffers is to be the connective tissue for advocacy organizations across the state that share the common goal of “achieving a better, fairer, healthier North Carolina.”

It does that by purchasing and sharing tools and technologies that member groups, many of them small grassroots organizations, can’t afford on their own, and by providing support, training, funding, guidance and opportunities for partnership and collaboration.

Recently, that has meant helping its member nonprofits get the word out to their constituents about the importance of participating in the U.S. Census.

Blueprint’s participation paid off, says Sean Kosofsky, who joined the group as director in November of 2009.

About 74 percent of North Carolina residents responded to the mailing portion of the Census, topping the U.S. response rate of 72 percent and far outpacing the 66 percent the state logged a decade ago.

“We’ve been offering a coordinating arm to those efforts,” he says. “I’d like to think the reason we’ve had such a high response in North Carolina is due in part to our efforts.”

And this summer and fall, Blueprint will be providing tools, training and other resources to help its members increase voter turnout in their areas in advance of the elections in November.

“Our goal is to make sure the electorate looks like the population,” says Kosofsky. “Right now there are populations that don’t vote at the rates they should. We need to remedy that.”

For the upcoming election cycle, Blueprint aims to narrow the voting gap statewide, and is focusing extra effort on a few communities where numbers of underrepresented voters are significant.

The goal is to increase the voting population over the last comparable election, which was the mid-term election of 2006, and Kosofsky says that if individuals vote for the first time and then vote again, they tend to be lifetime voters.

To do that, Blueprint is providing funding for members to conduct door-to-door canvassing and phone-banking efforts, and will provide polling data and access to database experts to help develop get-out-the-vote strategies.

“This is a strategy everyone should care about,” he says. “We should be hoping for a society with 100 percent voter turnout.”

Throughout the year Blueprint works to improve the communications skills and programming of its members, which include the League of Women Voters, Democracy N.C., Wake Up Wake County, Action for Children North Carolina, the Conservation Trust for North Carolina, and the North Carolina Latino Coalition, among others.

That means its communications team daily searches the news media across the state, forwarding relevant articles and information to members, and noting each instance a member is quoted, featured or mentioned.

Staffers also summarize and distribute relevant polling data about issues affecting members, and help member organizations get media coverage and frame their advocacy and fundraising messages.

“There’s a lot to be gained from nonprofits learning and working together on issues of common ground,” says Estes. “There’s better coordination and less competition when we create macro messages that benefit all of us.”

That assistance has benefitted the North Carolina Housing Coalition, says Estes, particularly in helping the group retool its messaging strategies and reach out to nontraditional partners, thereby creating a more united front when dealing with lawmakers on critical funding issues.

“We’re not trying to build our own brand or grow our own name,” says Kosofsky. “Our members know our energy is going to build their brands. We’re trying to get more money into these communities and help these organizations do their work better.”

That overarching philosophy will help Blueprint strike out on its own without members worrying about competition from a group that was formed to support other nonprofits, says Kosofsky.

About half the organization’s budget, which is about $950,000 for this year, pays for Blueprint’s administrative expenses, while the remainder benefits members through tools, consultants, polling, training and re-granting of funds.

“We’ve built a lot of trust with our partners and they know our model isn’t competitive,” says Kosofsky. “It says that after we raise a base level of support for our staff, everything else is for our partnership. That model helps us.”

Chris Estes agrees.

“The goal isn’t to get individuals to support Blueprint, but to get them to support the individual organizations,” he says. “Our focus is the work we do to support other organizations.”

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