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Wednesday, March 16, 2016, 11:00 am
Alice Dreger, Publisher and Board President


Eli is going to be on sabbatical starting today and running through at least April 11. During the sabbatical, ELi’s Managing Editor Ann Nichols and I will be working with advisors on figuring out how to go forward. If you think of ELi as our ELi—as a communal good that really matters to your life here—then now would be a good time to pause with us and help us figure out how we proceed.

Please start by reading on.

Ann and I made this sabbatical decision on Monday. She proposed the sabbatical because I was literally crying to her about how exhausted I am.

In addition to all I do for ELi, I’m on a national book tour for my most recent book, Galileo’s Middle Finger, I've been finishing a new book for Amazon Kindle Singles on how to talk to your children about sex, and I am co-editing another book on “bioethics in action” for Cambridge University Press. I’ve also been functioning as support for my spouse, Aron Sousa, who, as interim dean, of MSU’s College of Human Medicine is leading MSU’s response to the Flint Water Crisis. And, like a lot of local parents, we’ve been trying to pay more than the usual amount of attention to our teenage son since the recent suicides by two girls at his school.

Ann is not exactly feeling like a chipper spring chicken herself. On top of the substantial work ELi dumps on her every day—and I’ve been dumping more than the usual load on her because of the current craziness in my life—her beloved little dog Charlie is getting near the end of his life, and he is now needing gentle TLC night and day. Ann has also been working steadily for us all on the long story of suicides among our public school children, and that is not exactly the kind of story that leaves you feeling bouncy at the end of the day. For privacy reasons, I’m skipping telling you about the human-family crises we’ve both had to deal with in the last few months, too. They have been non-trivial.

There is so much we are not getting to because, even with the help of our terrific reporters, tech support staff, and advisors, Ann and I are working so hard doing so much daily work at ELi. Besides not having time simply to rest properly, we have not had time to learn from our new LION membership how we should be thinking about grants, marketing, and so on. We haven’t had time to convene group meetings of our reporters, of our donors, or of our advisors, although we’ve been meaning to do all three. I’ve barely had time to convene our Board meetings.

We haven’t had enough time to recruit more reporters. We’ve also not had time to work on recruiting a new Government Editor who can take over that job for me, or to recruit someone who can take over the production of the weekly mailer. We haven’t had time to work on expanding the Board. We haven’t had time to launch a spring fundraiser (and the coffers are getting low), to issue the reader surveys we’ve been meaning to do, or to work on the website upgrade that will make the site more attractive and more user-friendly and that will do a better job appreciating our reporters’ work.

We haven’t had time to start the Home and Garden feature we’d like to provide, to create the clickable map of our stories that we think would help contribute to a sense of “place” in East Lansing, or to deal with some of the more interesting findings we’ve gotten through the use of FOIA. We haven’t had time to follow up on various significant stories, even though new developments have occurred.

We need to take some time now to figure out whether and how we can do these things. A lot of that is figuring out how we mobilize more people in this town to help us more. As I said to Ann when we realized it was time for a sabbatical, we are, in some ways, typical of women: we work our rear-ends off and simply assume people who appreciate our work will jump in to help. We don’t ask for help as we should.

I told her on Tuesday that I am thinking we need to start our sabbatical by reading together the twin books Women Don’t Ask and Ask for It. Because I know there are a lot of people in this town who believe in ELi and who will be upset if we have to give it up because we can’t sustain it, and who might therefore learn now to help us in ways that make this work sustainable.

Let me try now to sketch out what help might look like. But first, here’s a reminder of how we work:

ELi is a non-profit corporation. No one owns it. Legally, the corporation is run by the Board. The Board takes its fiduciary responsibility to our community as seriously as any board I’ve ever served on. I function as CEO and donate all my service (about 30-40 hours a week). We run currently on a total of about $36,000/year. Most of that goes to paying local humans to report and edit. We don’t pay anyone a lot, but we pay a lot of local people a little—everyone from work-from-home parents, to retired seniors, to high school and college students.

ELi is a public service, not a small business in the conventional sense. Many people besides me (the Board, various reporters, some key advisors, etc.) donate their labor, and our goal is to provide news and information, not to make money. We have so far elected not to take advertising, because we see advertising as a potential source of conflict of interest, and also as potentially detracting from the message that we are a communal public service project.

So what could we use help with?

Grant-writing: We have an experienced person who has volunteered to lead a committee looking into grant opportunities for ELi. If you have grant-writing experience, consider volunteering for the forming committee dedicated to this.

Fundraising: We could use small groups of people who could take on the work of seasonal fundraisers (perhaps one group per fundraiser), including a spring fundraiser right now. This would include figuring out what the fundraiser should look like and doing the work of bugging people to donate. (We keep donation amounts confidential, so Ann and I would continue to handle the tallies and thank-you letters.) This might include organizing fundraising events like cocktail parties, garden/house tours, or a whimsical ELi decathlon.

Local sponsorships: While we don’t take advertising in the conventional sense, the Board has discussed seeking and accepting corporate sponsorships if they come from businesses or foundations unlikely to pose a conflict of interest for our reporting. We could use help pursuing this possibility.

FOIA coordination: We could use someone to volunteer to function as FOIA coordinator. This person would be the go-through person for ELi-related FOIA requests and would document what goes in and what comes back. This is a good volunteer job for someone who is upbeat and pleasant and good at confidentiality, can use Excel, and pays close attention to detail.

Government Editor: We need to identify someone who is a strong writer and editor, interested in local politics, and willing and able to attend City Council meetings and work with our Government reporters. The person also needs to be willing to be underpaid like everyone else. (You have to love the mission to work for ELi, because the money is not enough reward!) This person has to be a real professional (be classy and a stickler for our standards) and able to take the bumps and bruises that comes with this work. Is that you or someone you know? Or could you help us figure out where we should be looking?

Weekly e-mailer: This currently takes me about two to four hours of work on Friday and/or Saturday, and requires someone who can be very careful with accurate representation of stories and events. (We have proofreaders who can check it before it goes out.) We use Mail Chimp, free online software that is pretty easy to use once you just get the hang of it.

Clickable map: Are you good with Google maps? We want to create a clickable map that ties our stories to a map of East Lansing, so that visitors can click around the map to read what we’ve reported about this town. We need help setting up the map and then filling it in with stories we have provided.

What else? We aren’t sure. That’s part of what we need—help in figuring out what we need help with. Oh, and as always, we could use your help simply in terms of donating to ELi.

We now have 1,600 page “likes” at ELi. Do you know what? If everyone of those 1,600 people donated just $2 a month to ELi, we would meet our annual budget with no fundraising effort required. (And Aron and I could stop donating quite so much money, or we could keep donating as much and pay people more!)

Need an incentive to donate today? Well, tomorrow is my 50th birthday! If you appreciate the work I’ve been providing via ELi, you could donate to help me celebrate my birthday.

I do think that if we can keep working on ELi as a community project—one dedicated to sharing critically-important and quality-of-life-improving information about our small city—then we can keep this going. As I said to Ann earlier this week, I feel like we have an opportunity here to turn a corner rather than close a door.

But at this point, we need to turn the corner not as our tired little drum-and-bugle corps, but as a serious marching band.

Thanks for reading this, and thanks especially for letting me bring this service to you. No matter when I stop doing this work, I will always look back on it as an amazing experience of local democracy and citizen activism carried out by neighbors for neighbors. Even as we’ve had to document a lot of pain and hardship here at ELi, the project has always left me more in love with East Lansing, my home of twenty years come this summer, and full of gratitude to everyone who has done this work together for our city.

Image: The Spirit of '76 by Archibald Willard, courtesy of Wikipedia

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