How High’s the Water, Montana?

I feel like Johnny Cash just back from Mexico….revved up and ready….only I’m coming home from Montana.

This was my third trip up to Big Sky country, and my first foray into the western side of the state. I landed in Butte, followed the Beaverhead River down to Dillon (for a service project and then a talk w/Campus Compact students from across the state) and then rolled north, through Hellgate into Missoula, where I spent two full days meeting with nonprofit colleagues and UMT students to listen and lead, help and holler as we discussed the future for America, the evolution of nonprofits and the timber of the times in one of only two states to have not posted a deficit.

The scale of Montana is hard for most Easterners to grasp. Corner to corner, it would stretch from Chicago to DC…and there are still less than 1 million folks who call it home. For many of those who live there, from big cities to far-flung, frontier outposts, nonprofits are a lifeline.

In fact…as you’ll see in my video, many of the very aspects that draw businesses, outdoor enthusiasts and soul searchers to this amazing state are the bi-products of a robust, dynamic (if somewhat overworked and undervalued) nonprofit sector.

But here are a few additional things to ponder.

While I didn’t get a chance to meet her, thanks to my mighty friend Mark Horvath, I learned of (and am now Facebook friends with) Ellie Hill, who leads to Poverello Center (Missoula’s overnight wet/dry shelter, food pantry, cloths closet, drop-in and counseling center) AND who is also the rep for the city at the state legislature. THAT kind of leadership is rare indeed, and I’ll wager that Ellie will be returning home this week from a frustrating session of the legislature (it meets every other year), feeling like she’s been chewed up…and she’d certainly have the right. Her conservative colleagues in Helena pretty much wanted to cut everything they could get their hands on, and she worked hard to hold the line, which is why I hope/suggest that citizens who, like her, work in nonprofits across the state will consider learning from her, and running for office next year, so that when the legislature convenes again in 2013, there will be an army of like-minded, level-headed leaders who see that the future of the state is inextricably linked to the vitality of the sector.

I hope that friends from the Montana Nonprofit Association will help make that happen. A friend and their solid leader, Brian McGee will be stepping aside soon, after having led the group into an era of engagement that has certainly elevated the understanding of the economic role of the sector in the state to new heights….but now could be the time for the group (like all state associations) to start training folks how to run for office themselves. Nonprofits cannot watch brave leaders like Ellie fight for their combined rights alone. They MUST join her there, and at the Chambers of Commerce and the Boards of Trade and any gatherings where plans for the future are being discussed. I’ll keep you posted on efforts in Montana, and any others efforts I hear of.

But Ellie is not an anomaly. Missoula is awash in great programs and dynamic leadership who treated me like kin and proudly showed me every corner of their community. I visited the Peas Farm, hit the North Missoula Community Development Center’s new Co-Op, talked about plans for a community kitchen and how it could develop food products that could empower dozens of new businesses, run by men and women who could have those businesses financed by a micro-credit program run by the United Way, which, to my surprise, is now being ably led by Susan Patrick Hay, an old DC colleague. These projects could have business and marketing plans developed by UMT students and they in turn could devote a percentage of their profit back to the same fund so that others could follow. Of course, banks and the city could match contributions to that fund, so that by working in tandem with social-enterprises, they could further revitalize both the downtown core, but also those outlying, across-the-tracks communities that are so often the last to see investment.

That’s a lot of could..…but they have a lot of courage, and I was honored for the opportunity to meet, eat, drink and dream with them over the last few days.

As Johnny Cash asked…”How highs the water, Momma?”

Well, it’s rising fast in America. Too many are trying too hard to throw people and programs overboard. You never know….with a little vision and a lot more leadership….we might just all rise together.