November 12, 2010

Are you ready for volunteers?

Last time we checked in on the Institute for Excellence in Volunteer Management (i.e. our two day volunteer management extravaganza in September) people were asking, "What do we do with all of this great information now?" ... Well you didn't think we were going to leave them high and dry, did you?!

Part of the mastery of the institute's design included continued support for the participating organizations to help them clearly focus on the identified topics where they felt as though outside help was needed. University of Texas graduate students from the School of Social Work, LBJ Public Affairs, and the College of Communications are working together collaboratively with these 15 organizations:

It is amazing to see what is being accomplished with in the groups!  The student consultants are working together in the following focus areas:

Focus Areas: Volunteer/Staff Relations and Buy in
  • Staff attitudes towards volunteers
  • Levels of training (volunteer management)
  • Position descriptions and roles (staff and volunteer)
  • Language related to volunteers (ex. mission, website, literature)
  • Expectations
  • Conflict mediation procedures
  • Volunteer and staff recognition
Focus Area: Evaluation of Volunteer Program, Staff & Volunteers
  • Establishing evaluation needs
  • What needs to be evaluated (volunteer program, volunteers, staff, etc) 
  • Purpose of evaluation (efficacy, satisfaction, or both)
  • Forms of evaluation that best aligns with organization’s needs
  • Providing research, evaluation tools, applications, and useful examples 

Focus Areas: Supervision & Support
  • Provide an overview of the supervision process
  • Guidelines for supervising volunteers
  • Effective follow up with volunteers
  • Methods to provide support to your volunteers. 

Focus Areas: Policies, Procedures & Organizational Strategies
  • Assess & evaluate existing policies and procedures
  • Identify problem areas that could be addressed to strengthen policies and procedures
  • Identify resources related to strengthening policies and procedures
  • Develop hands on strategies and tools (including technology/data management) to successfully integrate policies and procedures into organizational culture
As the end of the semester is rolling around, the students are doing a great job at getting these consulting projects completed.  The next big thing will be providing the organizations with the valuable information that they've worked so hard on all semester!  Stay tuned to hear about more progress!

November 3, 2010

Celebrating Our 10th Anniversary!

In celebration of the Literacy Coalition of Central Texas turning 10, check out just how far we've come by looking at our organizational timeline!

(The more you 'zoom out' by viewing less years at a time, them more details you can see about each of our entries. Scroll to the beginning and start from there!)

Also, visit our website to find out more information about how YOU can win a gift!
(Hint: All you have to do is follow this blog, follow our Twitter account, and become a fan of our Facebook page and tell us about it!)

October 25, 2010

I read it and all, but I don’t know what I read

October is Health Literacy Month—and even though it is nearly over, there’s still time to think about what health literacy is and why it’s important, and maybe even take some action! A quick definition: health literacy is the ability to read, understand, and act on health information. Sounds simple, right? Health literacy includes not only fundamental literacy (reading, writing, speaking and numeracy) but also scientific civic and cultural literacy. (Zarcadoolas, Pleasant, and Greer).

On one end of the spectrum, think for a minute about the challenge for someone who has limited math and reading skills having to figure out how to give the right dose of over- the-counter pain medication to her child. On the other end of the spectrum, think about someone having to make decisions about cancer treatments—and how those other literacies—scientific, civic, and cultural— come into play.

Another way to think about health literacy is to think of the difference between senders and receivers of health information. The senders are experts of various kinds—medical experts like doctors, nurses and public health professionals, or employees of pharmaceutical companies, men and women with scientific knowledge, who tend to use that knowledge frequently. Receivers, the patients, are very often infrequent, non-scientific users of medical information, though they may have many other kinds of expertise. It’s pretty clear that simply handing over the information from sender to receiver isn’t very effective. The work of health literacy is to find ways to create a framework for communication between them.

How does health literacy affect us? It’s nearly Halloween, so some scary stories are in order. Think of an elderly person with impaired eyesight and perhaps diminished cognitive skills taking medications—maybe six or seven, with multiple dosing instructions, including several different times of day and warnings for taking with or without food. Or think of the young woman who said the following:

I got pregnant with my second child trying to take the [birth control] pill. I don’t think I took them right at all. A month after I started taking them I found out I was pregnant. I had to read the instructions over and over and I still took them wrong.

Or this woman, about taking her prescription correctly: When I got this pamphlet it was a lot of words-- it is a lot. I read read here and there but I didn’t understand it. Because it uses a medical language. Much of the time, I don’t understand it. And when I read it, I read it and all, but I don’t know what I read. (translated from Spanish)

The Literacy Coalition of Central Texas stepped up to address health literacy directly through its Health Literacy Initiative. Working with both “senders” and “receivers,” LCCT has developed trainings for literacy groups offering literacy programs resources and workshops to learn how to include health literacy in their curricula. Additionally, it recently partnered up with Sage Words to distribute informational flyers for health literacy month across its network of literacy providers. Along with People’s Community Clinic it has launched a health literacy action group to collaboratively address low health literacy in Central Texas. The Literacy Coalition also offers trainings for healthcare providers on health literacy and effective patient-provider communication. To learn more about the how you can get involved with health literacy or to register for an upcoming workshop, please contact Nichole Lopez-Riley at

By guest contributor Kath Anderson from Sage Words

October 18, 2010

events, events, events

As you all may know, the Literacy Coalition hosts an awesomely fun early springtime event called Austin's Great Grown-Up Spelling Bee for Literacy.  If you don't know anything about this event, really - you are missing out!  A uniquely Austin event, the Bee supports the important cause of literacy while also providing an uproariously fun time to all of those involved.  Businesses enter teams of 3 spelling adults who compete against other corporate teams on the main stage at Austin Music Hall, all while wearing funny and amazingly creative costumes.  You'd be surprised how some of these teams manage to spell ridiculously difficult words!  If you haven't heard of it, you should definitely check it out on our website.

I've gone off on a tangent, so back to my original reason for this post: events.  When I started this gig, we only had our hallmark big spelling bee, three satellite spelling bees, and our key advocacy event Literacy Day at the Capitol held every other year during legislative sessions.  All of our events happened between February and April.  Since I've come on board, though, we've been adding some events.  We host a 'getting to know us' event (sometimes more than once a month), are starting up Happy Hour Spelling Bees once a month (more information about those to come!), are hosting another fall fundraising event focused on individual donors, and thinking about adding more...  And let me tell you, it's a lot of work  Don't get me wrong, I LOVE events.  Really, I love them.  However, I do think there is such a thing as being overstretched.

On that note, I've gathered some words of wisdom and tips for non-profit events. Here are just a few things you should think about before you decide to take on a new event:

1. What is my goal?  Do we want to raise a lot of money? Or do we want to just increase our visibility in the community?  Be sure and make a goal!  This will help the events coordinator and events committee stay on track.

2. What will this cost the organization?  Does your organization have policies about what makes an event "worth it"?  Some organizations don't hold an event unless it's completely underwritten by donations and sponsorships, so that the org can yield 100% profit.  Are there things that could be donated to help reduce the cost to the organization?  Ultimately, with your organization's money and staff time, this will help you evaluate whether or not your event idea is really worth it.

3. How will you promote the event?  For some events, promotion is everything.  If you don't promote your event effectively, you might have just wasted a lot of time and money on something that will not benefit the organization in the end.  Before you start heavily planning, evaluate your organization's connections for promotions.  Do you have the money to print invitations or flyers?  How will people learn about the event?  Would a logical partnership make promotions a lot easier?  (For example, does your cause align with a local sorority or fraternity's philanthropy goals?  If so, get them involved to bring in the college crowd!  This could be a useful partnership to get volunteers, too.)

Here are some helpful websites that give great tips and things to think about:

And, the internet can be your best friend... if your organization has an idea for a unique event, Google the idea and:
  1. Make sure another organization isn't already doing that 'unique' event in your area
  2. Look into what other cities are doing and learn from their mistakes and successes
  3. Learn as much as you can about other general tips for non-profit events!

October 11, 2010

Institute for Excellence in Volunteer Management

For a day and a half, the Literacy Coalition offered an institute to assist our partner organizations with the task of learning more about how to effectively manage volunteers. We were able to develop and host this amazing training thanks to the Renewing Our Communities grant from the OneStar Foundation.  A partnership with Dr. Sarah Jane Rehnborg of the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service ensured that we had the best of the best educating our partner agencies. We would also like to thank St. David's Episcopal Church in Austin for providing us with such wonderful accommodations and being so attentive to the needs of our guests attending the event.

After learning a wealth of knowledge about effectively managing volunteers, all institute participants are now receiving free consulting from graduate students at the University of Texas who assisted with the institute and helped our partner organizations identify things that they wanted to work on to strengthen their volunteer programs.  Students are focusing on five key areas: Volunteer & Staff Relations, Supervision & Support, Policies & Organizational Strategies, Roles for Volunteers, and Evaluation. 

Check out some pictures from our two day event below:

everyone at the institute! what a great crowd!

the marvelous Dr. Sarah Jane Renhborg

group brainstorming

great shared learning experiences!

Stay tuned for updates about the student and organization progress! 

September 16, 2010

What's your favorite book?

Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez speaks at a podium after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, Sweden, 1982. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Gabriel García Márquez, winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize for literature.

If I was illiterate, I couldn't have enjoyed 100 Years of Solitude.  I would never experience the extraordinary events of one family's history, never enter their world to think and dream, and never learn the lessons my favorite book taught to me.  And whatever my life would be like, I know something magnificent would be missing. 

Imagine life without literacy, much less literature: when reading for pleasure is beyond your grasp because you have trouble just reading for survival.

September 7, 2010

Collaboration Sucks

As a young, idealistic, emerging professional I made a decision to enter a unique niche in the social services sector-- leading system level community change.  Collaboration has become a buzz word, not only in academia, but on the ground in the non-profit and government human services arena.  But really, why collaborate?  It's HARD.  I worked for several years with a team of other professionals who were trying to figure out this treacherous field of community change - coalition building, partnership development, and collaborative change movements.  Our motto was 'Collaboration Sucks.'  Bringing together diverse organizations to affect the common good can bring with it an array of surprising, complex, and seemingly insurmountable challenges.  We're all competing for limited resources, so why should we tell each other our programmatic weaknesses and challenges?  We are all struggling to address complex needs of very vulnerable families, so why should we take the time to talk about big-picture, community level issues and policies?  We have very different approaches to solve problems, and very different organizational cultures, so why should we try to pool our resources and advocate with one voice?  Why?  Because sometimes that is where we can make the biggest impact.  Coalitions get stuff done.  Sharing the burden of advocacy, public awareness, professional development, resource development- it makes sense.  Sometimes the rising tide really does float all boats.  However, it comes at a cost.  Hundreds of hours of staff time can be sucked away as staff attend meetings, always somewhat unclear about their role in the meetings, how to represent their agency, and confused about where conversations might be heading.  Different perspectives and values collide in very real and sometimes very emotionally challenging ways when different organizations are asked to think in different ways, and even sacrifice resources or ideas to which they have clung for decades.   My perspective on the issue is simple.  Don't collaborate unless it REALLY makes sense.  Don't just throw your hat in the ring if your agency doesn't have a clear gain from being at the table.  Don't allocate staff resources if your program will not benefit.  Collaboration is challenging and time-consuming.  So don't do it if it doesn't further your mission.  But when a chance at a powerful collaboration comes your way, engage fully, openly and passionately. Magic can happen. I've seen magic happen hundreds of times.  That's why I stick with it. -MP

August 31, 2010

Congratulations! You’re now a Development Specialist! Now go develop… what, exactly?

I’m the new kid here at the Literacy Coalition, about six weeks into my position as a development specialist.  While sharing the good news about the new job with my friends, one of them told me that she would hate to do development because fundraising and asking for money sound like horribly difficult things to do.  While I’m not sure if I agree with her, I can certainly see her point.  Fundraising can be kind of scary.   In the past few weeks, however, I’ve realized that development does always not mean frantically writing as many grants as humanly possible or soliciting everyone in sight for money.

In fact, the most important thing we’re trying to develop is the community.  Dedicated individuals and non-profit organizations that address different facets of illiteracy can do only so much on their own.  Illiteracy is a convoluted community problem that has to be addressed at every juncture.  The community as a whole, every sector, is what has to put in some effort if we truly want to eradicate illiteracy.  Employers, neighbors, legislators, and doctors: these are just a few of the people who have to help turn illiteracy around.   Human capital is the most valuable resource we can obtain, not foundation grants (although those aren’t so bad either).

So, we’re starting a social media campaign (you can thank the campaign for the blog you’re currently reading), sending newsletters, writing press releases, publishing reports, meeting with elected officials…the list is lengthy.  We are hosting a series of get-to-know-us events called the ABCs of the Literacy Coalition.  The point of these events is not to wrangle dollars out of people.   The point is to raise community awareness.  It’s all to develop our most valuable resource – you.  Interested?   RSVP to come to an event (check out for more details).

It’s almost too bad development isn’t just about writing a ton of grant requests.  That would probably be a lot simpler!

August 25, 2010

Time Flies When You're Getting Sh...tuff Done!

Today is my final day as the AmeriCorps VISTA Health Literacy Specialist at LCCT, and wow, it's amazing how this year has flown by! To commemorate my Year of Service with the Literacy Coalition, I've decided to throw it back, circa 4th grade Father's Day card era, and write a limerick for everyone...

My Year of Service with the Coalition has been real,
That's an old term but it's truly how I feel.
It started with research, in that overheated old church,
From the workshops, Doritos I did steal.

Health Literacy! Health literacy! How you've consumed my mind.
Formatting the Resource Directory? Words for that are not kind.
But no duties did I hate,
and the majority were great.
Thank you Food Stamps for allowing me to dine.

I developed professional skills and knowledge alike,
became a true health literacy specialist, isn't that tight?
New clothes and shiny shoes,
allowed me to schmooze,
so that next year I'll have a salary and tax hike.

Facilitating workshops is in the running for being the best,
next to outreach and traveling throughout Texas' wild west.
Some said I was too young,
but the issue of health literacy was unsung,
so I ignored the claims and worked to teach the rest.

Thank you Texas, for this great year of learning.
I'll be gone for a while, but for y'all I'll be yearning.
Headed out to explore, this great country we adore.
Don't worry - in two months I'll be returning.

August 20, 2010

Illiteracy Isn’t Sexy

As the development gal here, I’ve come to the realization that illiteracy isn’t sexy.  What I mean by that is that people don’t get too attached or moved when they hear about the issue of illiteracy.  While I could spout off numbers about the hundreds of thousands of people [in the Austin area alone] that need literacy services, the average person probably wouldn’t feel deeply moved.  For a development person, this is tough!  How do you get people excited about your cause?

Here’s the route I’m taking – I’m making the stories personal.  When I talk about the Literacy Coalition, I make sure to mention the lives that we positively affect, not just the programs we offer.  Doesn’t everyone know someone who struggled in school?  Wouldn’t you be horrified to hear a story about a little girl almost overdosing on a prescription, simply because her parent couldn’t comprehend the directions on the prescription label?  There are moving stories for every issue.  People out there are passionate about many things!  For example, the reason an organization like Susan G. Komen For The Cure is so popular is because probably everyone involved knew or knows someone with breast cancer or had breast cancer themselves.  {Lightbulb!}  Make your issue personal!  We weren’t all made to have a deep passion about the same issues – different people care about different things; and it’s my job as a development staff person to find those who do care and appeal to their innate need to help others.  Even though it's tough, I'm up for the challenge!

Now I want your opinions! Have any of you out there tried to raise money for a cause that wasn’t a trendy, attractive cause? How did you raise the money? What tactics did you use to draw in folks that are passionate about your cause?

August 10, 2010

Literacy Across the Lifespan

No Former Child Left Behind

Adult education doesn’t get attention or funding the way children’s literacy programs do. Why? Kids are full of potential, quick learners, and photogenic. No sane politician hits the campaign trail to declare “Children are not our future!” Nobody blames kids for their inability to read. It’s wise to recognize the importance of children’s literacy and devote resources to raising a new generation of readers, but no comparable investment is made in the parents of these children. When parents can’t read to their kids at home, the kids have a harder time reading in school. Adult basic literacy programs are left to languish, despite the fact that the biggest influence on a child’s literacy is the literacy level of the parent.

Untapped Potential

Children are the future, but they’re not today’s workforce. Adult Basic Literacy, English as a Second Language, and other adult education classes serve an urgent purpose. Right now, one in five people (over age 16) in Travis county can not read or write well enough to fill out a job application. Imagine everybody in Austin getting together, from the East, West, North, and South—like if everyone here could actually afford to go to ACL Fest. It’d be a great party. Now visualize Austin’s usual suspects: a UT student, a tech yuppie, a SoCo hippie, you, your neighbor, and imagine counting off each person: “1, 2, 3, 4, too low-literate to be employed.” Do this at ACL in September and people will probably tell you how depressing you are. Tell them that’s how depressing illiteracy is.

If you can read this, you have a literacy problem...

The general attitude toward adult education is indifference. Grown-ups can fend for themselves. They got by this long. It’s true most adults can fend for themselves, and adult education students tend to be creative and adaptable. They’ve survived with low literacy despite how most of the world’s demands come in written form: Rent Due by the First of the Month, Slow Down Construction Ahead, Take One Every Three Hours While Symptoms Persist. Illiteracy is a deeply personal problem. But when too many of our neighbors can’t pay their bills, don’t know there are hazardous conditions on the road, or wind up in the ER because of low health literacy, it eventually affects the entire community. The illiteracy problem spills over from personal to public.

Literacy Across the Lifespan

To truly develop our community’s potential, we need literacy across the lifespan. Literacy programs are underfunded and overwhelmed, especially adult education programs. That’s why every donation of money, supplies, or time has a huge impact. The same way illiteracy affects the quality of life of everyone in our community, your time or treasure donated to a literacy program makes this a better place to live for all of us. And if you’re an advocate for literacy, remember education isn’t just for kids.

If you want to volunteer with kids, check out awesome programs like Bookspring, Heart House, or the Austin Batcave. If you think kids are annoying or would just rather help an adult education program, check out Lifeworks, Community Action, or Austin Learning Academy. For more ideas, call 512-320-4505.


July 30, 2010

Bursting your Bubble!

Welcome to our blog! I am very excited to get a conversation going about everything literacy-related that has an impact on our community. To get things started today, I wanted to share with you a few facts and figures about literacy needs in Central Texas and perhaps burst that bubble that most of us have been living in. 

We know that...
  • 147,180 adults 18 years and older in Central Texas struggle with English language.
  • The young non-English speaking population is growing.
  • 45,477 students in the five Central Texas county schools do not speak English in their homes.
  • Of the 164,452 adults needing GED, 121,074 of them do not have the minimum literacy skills necessary to enroll in a GED preparation class.

Why should we care?
  • Adults with the lowest level of literacy skills earn approximately $240 per week, compared with $681 for those with the highest level of literacy skills.
  • Adults with lower literacy skills are less likely to read to their children. These children are 3-4 times more likely to drop out of school in the long run since they are at risk for not developing basic literacy skills before they enter school.
  • A mother's literacy level is one of the most significant predictors of child's future success in school. 70% of mothers receiving pubic assistance have literacy skills in the lowest proficiency levels.
  • Children of adults who participate in literacy programs improve their grades and test scores, improve their reading skills, and are less likely to drop out of school.
  • In 2003, 43% of adults with the lowest reading skills were living in poverty, compared to only 4% of those with the highest level of skill.

What can you do? 

Meg already gave you some great ways to get started on addressing this need in our community in her post below. However, be on the lookout for some additional and more specific ways to help out and get involved from Jen and Carly! In the meantime, I am curious to hear what ideas or solutions you all have in mind to address the increasing literacy needs in our community. Looking forward to hearing from everyone!

July 21, 2010

Why Blog? Most Austinites are living in a bubble

When I first became involved in human services in Austin, I was startled to learn about the literacy needs in our community. Like most Austinites, I was living in a bubble. I thought that the vast majority of adults in Central Texas were very well educated. In fact, the opposite is true. An even larger segment of our population is functionally illiterate. About one in five working-age adults cannot read or write well enough to fill out a job application, and that does not include the thousands of families who struggle with the English language. This is why the Literacy Coalition was formed. We know the truth about low literacy in the Austin area, and want others to know the truth; to come out of the bubbles we were living in, and do something about this serious issue. The great thing about adult and family literacy is that there actually is a very concrete, doable, and easily realizable solution to the issue. And everyone can do something to help.
  1. Connect a family in need of literacy services with our referral line: 1-866-518-READ.
  2. Volunteer to teach English or tutor children or adults in reading
  3. Make a donation to the LCCT or one of our partner agencies.
  4. Donate in-kind goods
  5. Talk to your employer about donating classroom space, or allowing employees time off to volunteer.
  6. Encourage your friends to visit our web set and learn about local literacy levels- see our snapshot report linked right on the our home page at
We're excited you joined our blog - get ready for lots of great posts and interesting discussions! 

Welcome aboard, 
Meg Poag 
Executive Director