Right Strategic Plan Makes Measuring Success Easier

By Tim Kubatzky, CFRE

Non-profits are faced with the task of measuring success, a concept that has grown in response to competition in the independent sector and a generational shift in funders’ sense of, and desire for, greater accountability.

Consequently, strategic planning and measurable goals and objectives derived from it are important tools for nonprofits to report progress and justify funders’ investments.

The model of strategic planning an organization chooses needs to align with its reason for planning so that any tasks and objectives from the work plan ultimately feed into progress toward goals that can be reported to funders and other stakeholders.

Creating and following a plan makes reporting progress easier. An organization can choose monthly or quarterly check-ins, for example, and avoid the stressful search for data to validate their grant funding when annual reports to funders are due.

Regular check-ins to measure progress have the added benefit of informing decisions on resource allocation and program direction. Mid-stream adjustments take less effort than full-course corrections made in annual planning sessions.

Letting everyone in the organization know that the goals set during the strategic planning session will define the measure of success for the coming year(s) creates buy-in and authentic interest in the process. It also ensures the work plan will not be shelved until the next long-range planning effort.

Public, Nonprofit Sectors: We Have a Failure to Communicate with Clients

By Katherine Kerr, APR

Nonprofit communicators spend a lot of time trying to figure out the right message and channels for reaching donors, volunteers and the ill-defined “general public.”

But how much time is spent trying to communicate with potential and existing clients? You know, the ones who are supposed to benefit from our services?

When it comes to human service nonprofits and governmental agencies, we often fail to use public relations best practices:  Research, Plan, Implement and Evaluate.

Two recent examples I’ve encountered involve a school district trying to inform the community about proposed rezoning and a government program to provide low-income individuals with vehicle repair and replacement grants so they can continue to work.

In both instances, the clients or customers are blamed for not participating and/or accessing services.

For example, a school district with over 11,000 students sends fliers home in folders to parents about a town hall meeting at 7 p.m. on a weekday at one particular school. Only a couple dozen people showed up. In addition to the small turnout, many of those attending are Latino/a and either don’t speak English or English is their second language. The fliers were not translated nor was a translator available to speak to those constituents during the meeting.

When questioned about the low turnout, district staff defended the use of the fliers, adding the information was posted on the website and in the district’s e-newsletter. And, a story had been placed in the local newspaper.

It was up to the parents to get that information and get to the event. That was the expectation on the part of the district.

A big-box store that pays its marketing staff or agency would not accept that explanation  (excuse) for customers failing to come through the door. That is a poor return on investment.

For-profit marketing staff would be expected to figure out why the message didn’t work and what channels are appropriate. They also would be expected to examine whether the timing and location for such events are appropriate for the target audience.

In this case, the marketing staff should know that since nearly 44 percent of the students are Hispanic, one side of the homebound flier and the on-site handouts should have been translated into Spanish.

Since 44 percent of all children in the district are also eligible for the federal free lunch program, marketing staff should be mindful of the reading and verbal comprehension levels of parents. In print pieces and in public presentations, district staff should avoid education jargon that is confusing and possibly intimidating.

The school district staff should have tested the messaging and explored the best channels for reaching parents and taxpayers. They also should have researched whether having a community meeting on a week night at a school on one side of town was the best time, date and location.

Planning based on the research would have dictated a refined message, the appropriate channels and the time, date and location of a single or multiple forums if the district truly wanted and valued citizen engagement.

After Implementation of the plan grounded in the research, the district would want to evaluate whether the district achieved its goal of effectively informing the public about its plans for rezoning. Metrics for success would include turnout and feedback surveys of attendees.  The results of the evaluation would inform future efforts and help the district examine its existing message and channels and refine them as needed.

In the second case,  I learned during a county commissioners court session of a program that was started at the federal level and has trickled down to local levels that would provide low-income individuals with grants to repair or replace vehicles so they can continue to get to work.

It was the first I had heard of the program and I know several nonprofits that serve individuals who would benefit from the assistance.

I set to trying to find out more about the program. The first challenge was its name: the Low-Income Repair Assistance, Retrofit and Accelerated Vehicle Retirement Program or (LIRAP). That is a mouthful of a title and even college-educated citizens are going to have a tough time grasping what that means.

To add insult to injury, in Texas the program is known as “AirCheckTexas Drive a Clean Machine -Vehicle Assistance Program.”

If a client is fortunate enough to secure the equivalent of a Golden Ticket that reveals the name du jour of a program a computer search takes you to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality where information is even more confusing.

There,  the webpage instructions casually drop that adjusted gross income is a factor and states that eligible vehicles “Must be certified to a federal Tier 2 Bin 5 or cleaner Tier 2 Bin standard or to a federal Tier 3 Bin 160 or cleaner Tier 3 Bin standard (see the list: model year 2017201620152014).” What?!:!

In other words, to even figure out if a person is eligible for the funds, she has to spend a significant amount of gathering data and documents.

Bear in mind that the possible clients for this program is likely to be a working mother juggling two minimum wage jobs, transportation, childcare and life. She is just trying to get by each and every day.

She does not have the luxury of spending a lot of time on the phone or sitting in offices with government employees to figure out what she needs to bring to get funds so she has reliable transportation to get to work, kids to school and to buy groceries for her family.

In doing informal research, I learned that there is almost no effort dedicated to getting this information out to social service agencies that serve clients who would benefit.

Couple that with a high rate of staff turnover in the nonprofit and public sectors, institutional knowledge about the program is lost.

For a relatively small investment by the public and/or nonprofit sectors on marketing and refining messaging, this program could make a dramatic impact on the ability of low-income workers to stay off public assistance rolls.

Professional communicators for nonprofits and governmental agencies have just as great a responsibility to communicate effectively with their clients as they do to other stakeholders, including donors, volunteers, partner agencies and voters.

Otherwise, we continue to have “a failure to communicate.”

Spokespersons are Nurtured

Do you have a comment?

By Katherine Kerr, APR

It is a rare soul who wants to grow up and be a spokesperson. However, many people are thrust into that role by necessity. If you’re fortunate, it’s because something good has happened. If something negative has happened, the experience can be downright awful.

The goal in the latter situation is to do no further harm. In other words, you want to do what is right and do what you can to protect your organization’s reputation and financial standing.

The first step is being prepared, as in the Boy Scout motto. That doesn’t mean you have a contingency plan for every possible situation. Rather it means you have a broad strategy for addressing a variety of negative scenarios.

Recently I spent a day in Washington, D.C., helping train every-day American Muslims on how to speak up for their faith. They know too well how much misinformation has been spread about their religion and how hostile members of the media have been toward people who identify as Muslims. The result has created a deep and unwarranted fear of Muslims and rampant Islamophobia.

During the workshop, I started by discussing about what and who the media are, what they want and how to “feed the beast.” We talked about the importance of responding promptly to media inquiries and about having prepared talking points to address Frequently Asked Questions (and Allegations).

I gave them a six-point rubric for addressing potential crises. We also talked about the need to remain calm, to ask for time to gather thoughts and to prepare. And, since we were in Washington, we discussed and practiced the tactic of pivoting when a question is asked in a way that doesn’t allow for a fair response.

While working through a case study, members of the group quickly realized they need to prepare for potential crises within their own communities. They can’t wait for the news vans to roll up before having a plan in place.

I divided the participants into pairs and assigned them to respond to “what ifs,” based on some real-life scenarios that had been discussed throughout the workshop. At the end of that exercise, they practiced interviewing each other using the tactics I had taught.

When the workshop concluded, each each of the individuals felt empowered to be a more effective spokesperson for their religion.

The same process can be adapted for other organizations and movements. Success depends on nurturing communications skills, personally and as a group.

Are you ready to step up as a spokesperson?


Why I Marched

By Katherine Kerr

There’s a Facebook post going around where women oppose the Women’s Marches across the world.

I respect your opinions AND I invite you to read my responses to your cut-and-paste post.

I don’t think you are a “disgrace to women” because you didn’t support the march. You have every right to choose what to support.

I’m glad you don’t feel like a “second class citizen” because you are a woman. There are many women who feel differently they are because our patriarchal government and institutions have made sure they know their places. Remember, we’ve only been able to vote since 1920 and we still don’t have equal representation in Congress, the state legislatures and most city and county and school entities.

I am glad that you feel you have access to opportunities in America — in spite of a woman. Not every woman feels that way.

When I was searching for my first job, I was told by an editor at a newspaper in southeast Texas that even though I was better educated and had more experience than any of the other applicants, he wasn’t going to offer me the job because he thought the job of police reporter was no place for a young female. BTW – about five years later I was covering night police in Houston.

I am glad you feel you have control of your body and choices. But many women do not.

Some women grow up in families, cultures and religious traditions that tell them their role is to submit to men, to support men and to bear and raise children. I remember a youth-led Bible study in high school when that point was driven home. I was among the few kids whose mother worked outside the home and I always dreamed of a career outside the home. That was the first wedge that drove me from the church for about 20 years.

Too many girls and women have been misinformed and are uneducated about their reproductive systems. When they have an unplanned pregnancy, there are laws on the books and proposed laws in the pipeline that dictate even if they are impregnated by a rapist they will have to carry that child to term. There are also laws that require women to bear a child who medical professionals say is unviable, or as we recently saw here in Texas, dead. Imagine the trauma for those women. Do we really expect them to “deal with it,” or “get over it?”

Then there’s the economic impact of bearing children, especially for those who are undereducated and/or are working minimum wage or low-income jobs where health insurance is nonexistent. Even though child development science proves that having maternal contact is imperative for those first formative months, women who are on the edges of society often face with the prospect of losing their low-paying jobs if they do not return to work quickly. And, try finding good child care for an infant when you’re working a minimum wage job. It was hard enough as a middle- to upper-middle income family.

I am impressed that you do not feel that you are “not respected or undermined” because you are a woman. I am surprised that you have never been called sexist names or had parts of your body grabbed, poked, prodded or ogled. I’m glad you’ve never worked someplace where the dress code for females was different than the one for males and that you were never required to wear heels, pantyhose and not barred from wearing slacks. If you are a woman of a certain age (like mine or older), that is quite an accomplishment!

I’m also fascinated you’ve never been in a business meeting where you could propose an idea and have it dismissed or ignored, yet when a male colleague says the same thing, he is credited for his brilliant thinking. I’m amazed that you’ve been in a workplace where you weren’t expected to make the coffee and clean up the office kitchen and the nasty office refrigerator (or that you did so) because no men would do it.

I’m happy you believe you can make your own choices, speak and be heard, work if you want and that nothing is stopping you except yourself.

For most of my life, I would have agreed with you.

Thanks to the family I was born into, I lived a pretty stable life. I had a mother and a father. I always had a roof over my head, food to eat, clothes to wear and family around to love and care for me. I attended four good public schools.  I was blessed that my parents could send me to college and I graduated without student debt.

But after nearly 40 years of adulting, I’ve learned not all families follow the same paths. Divorces happen, jobs are lost, families get evicted, cars can’t be repaired, illnesses decimate finances and families, not all schools have the same resources, and not all parents are good parents.

I have worked with and on behalf of women who are victims of domestic violence. I have worked with and on behalf of children who have been physically, emotionally and sexually abused. Trust me, he trauma doesn’t go away with the snap of a finger. Too often, those mothers and children have little or no access to mental health services that could help them get better and, in some cases, just get functional.

I have advocated for kids whose unstable family lives and entry into the foster care systems mean their education is repeatedly disrupted. Remember how hard those tween and teen years were? Imagine if every few months you’re the new kid in school. And, since you’re in foster care, some counselors and teachers won’t spend much time with you because who knows if you’ll be in class tomorrow?

I have African American friends who were the only African Americans in their neighborhoods and schools and were ignored and/or bullied by students and parents who used racist terms against them and school officials who turned the other way.

I know Asian American friends whose kids were called racist names and ridiculed for their appearance.

I have Latino friends who have been told “you lost the war, go back to Mexico,” even though their families have lived here for generations. A friend who is the mom in a biracial family told me that her darker skinned daughter was called a “bastard wetback” by a neighbor’s child. The parents of the offending and offensive child did nothing.

I have Muslims friends who have been verbally assaulted and told to go back to where they came from, accused of being terrorists and told they were not real Americans.

Science (yes, I believe in science), shows the impact of trauma I’ve described on the brain development of children. It affects their ability to learn, reason, cope and control. It also erodes self esteem, which you are blessed to have in abundance.

I have come to learn that institutional racism and oppression over generations has an impact on people’s abilities to realize the American dream regardless of how hard they work and how much they hope and dream. We will always find the exceptions who overcame adversity, but wouldn’t it be nice if we worked together to eliminate barriers of isms?

My ancestors enslaved people who were kidnapped from Africa and brought to America against their will. I think it is fair to assume that these same ancestors split families; treated men, women and children like or worse than livestock; and brutally punished those who tried to escape, who didn’t breed in accordance with the masters’ instructions and who tried to learn to read and write.

When emancipated, these formerly enslaved people had nowhere to go and no resources. They and their descendants were likely hounded and threatened everywhere they went. Later they suffered under Jim Crow laws, which limited upward mobility. Doubtless they were forced into segregated neighborhoods and schools where resources were definitely not equal. Despite Civil Rights legislation, their descendants have probably lived under institutional and systemic racism, which is real and which continues to exist.

Exhibit A:  Take a look at Mr. Trump’s cabinet, corporate leadership and political systems. They do not reflect our demographics and it isn’t because of lack of talent, education or experience.

Since you and I grew up in relatively healthy situations, you’re correct, it isn’t right that WE blame our circumstance or problems on anything other than our choices or that we didn’t get what we want. But not everyone is as lucky as we are.

Frankly, I think it is okay to blame disease if your life isn’t perfect. Whether that is a disease you suffer, or a disease, or accident or tragedy that devastated your family or deprived you of your parents. Either way it’s likely to really screw up your life and affect how you see the world and whether you have the energy to fight for a fair shake or save your energy to just get through the day.

I do not equate explaining with blaming. I believe context matters. Every person’s life is different, which means circumstances shape lives and outcomes. Some walls, virtual and physical, are real and cannot be climbed over alone or even when someone tries to give you a hand up.

I take responsibility for myself AND I take responsibility for others whose voices are not heard, whose lives are marginalized, who are struggling just to survive. I do so because my faith calls me to do so. And because of my privilege.

I’m not trying to impress you when I say I do speak about and try in some small way to address real injustices and tragedies that affect women, children and other human beings in so many ways.

I would love to talk and work with you about effective solutions to domestic violence, latch-key kids, living wages, teen pregnancies, affordable housing, mental health issues, the environment and any other issues you want to discuss.

And, as a citizen of a nation with a great deal of power in the world, I think we also should address oppression of women and other vulnerable groups around the world.

And, I’d really like to have an honest dialogue about how together we can work toward a civil discourse, even though we come from totally different ends of the political spectrum.

I do not hate you, nor do I love you less than I love people I’ve never met who live in other countries. I believe we are all children of God (or a creator or higher power known by the name you choose). I believe with my whole heart, soul and being that each and every human being deserves to have our basic needs met and opportunities, not barriers, to realize our potential.

Like you, I am a mother, a daughter, a wife, a sister, a friend. I also am an aunt and soon to be a grandmother.

I wasn’t wearing one of the pink hats on my head during the march, nor did I scream profanities or bash men. (After all, I am married to a great guy and have three amazing sons.) Those who did the latter two were among the minority. Most of us were pretty laid back, coming together to peacefully share our concerns, frustrations, and grief because we are deeply concerned about the future of our great country.

I hope that I have responded in what you consider to be a kind manner because many of those who posted this meme are friends whom I love and respect.

Yes, I joined many sisters, brothers and children and youth. I did not hear whining. I heard and sensed an energy and desire to protect the fundamental ideals of our country. We feel our basic freedoms – speech, press, religion, assembly and the right to petition our government to address our concerns – are under attack.  I We believe we have grounds such fear because of the rhetoric of Mr. Trump and his cabinet.

I march for truth because integrity matters. And, Mr. Trump seems to have a complete contempt for the truth.

I marched, not for myself, but for my children, my grandchildren (of which I hope there will be many!), my nieces and the children of my cousins and all their descendants. I speak for those who I have not met, that I will never encounter nor who will have any biological connection to me.

I marched because women still earn 78 cents compared to the full dollar that men make. I marched because
“traditionally female” important and difficult careers like education, health care and social work, are grossly undervalued. I don’t want today’s women or others who have been oppressed to be subjected to further discriminatory and exploitive circumstances.

I marched and will continue to march for kids who need education so they can be contributing members of our society and they have a greater shot at realizing their dreams. I march for those who have historically been marginalized because of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age and ability. I marched for the homeless, the hungry, the impoverished, the sick and the incarcerated. I marched because I can give a voice to those who cannot or are afraid to speak.

And today, and every day, I will pray for wisdom, empathy and discernment for all of our leaders, elected or not, and regardless of whether I voted for them. Just as I have for most of my adult life.

Change Pews (and Perspectives)!

By Katherine Kerr, APR

Every Sunday my curmudgeonly great uncle and my great aunt got up an hour and a half early to get the prime parking space at their church, the handicapped spot right next to the sanctuary entrance. The space one over, or two over, wasn’t good enough (we’re talking 6-8 feet for heaven’s sake!). If someone beat him to “their” space he would grumble all day.

Even worse, though, was if somebody was sitting in “their” place in “their” pew. In most churches, there are no assigned seats or reserved spots. But if you go week after week, you see the same folks sitting in the same places. And if someone new has the audacity to inadvertently sit in someone’s seat, it tends to cause a shift in the universe. Or so you would think.

The same phenomenon happens in the workplace. You see employees occupy the same seats during staff meetings. Occasionally, I would break ranks and sit on the opposite side of the table or room. Or, shift from the front to the back, or a combination of the two. That decision would cause a bit of stir, often accompanied with jokes about going to the “dark side.”

… if someone new has the audacity to inadvertently sit in someone’s seat, it tends to cause a shift in the universe. Or so you would think.

That small change would mean I’d learn that the staff member I thought was diligently responding to emails was really playing Candy Crush on her phone or checking out the latest pics of the grandkids. Or the person scribbling away wasn’t taking notes, but instead was doodling three-dimensional boxes.

Changing places not only gave me a different view in the meetings, it also gave me opportunities to build relationships with colleagues I didn’t usually sit by in these gatherings.

At professional development and networking meetings, people from the same company or agency tend to sit together at a table.

Recently I was at a professional association meeting in which five people from the same department at a company sat together at an eight-top. Other than cursory introductions, I didn’t have a conversation with any of them. Throughout the lunch they talked among themselves, which not only is rude but defeats the primary purpose of such meetings, which is to get to know other colleagues in your field.

When I supervised a staff of three (plus an intern on occasion), I had a rule that we were not to sit together at these outside meetings. We represented a nonprofit agency and our role as communicators was to increase awareness of our brand and the services we provided. Staff members understood that talking up our agency was part of their jobs at the rubber chicken lunches.

As a small business owner, I intentionally look to sit with people I don’t know so I can build my brand and seek out the types of clients I serve. Why pay for an overpriced lunch or a training session if you don’t meet new people? Making quickie introductions and exchanging cards on the way out the door is much less effective than actually getting to know someone during the program.

Why pay for an overpriced lunch or a training session if you don’t meet new people?

I heard of a pastor, who was a disrupter before the label became ubiquitous, preached in one of those multi-functional spaces where there were no pews bolted the floor. Rather, chairs were set up in rows and a pulpit rolled out to the “front” of the worship space.

One day at the beginning of the service, he rolled the pulpit to the back of the room and instructed everyone to turn their chairs around. This provided a new perspective for both the pastor and the congregants. Those who clung to the back row were now nearly face to face with the pastor. People who were normally behind certain parishioners were now in front of them. Instead of being on the right side of the room, they now had a left-side angle on the action.

Not only did the pastor shake things up, he forced people into a new way of seeing the service and created opportunities for new interactions.

I get that it is fun to catch up with your friends and is less threatening to sit with people you know. And, it can be enlightening if you choose to be bold, be smart and, despite what your parents told you, it’s okay to talk to strangers.

Kiss and Tell (or Be Straight With Your Donors)

By Katherine Kerr, APR

One ritual of the holiday season is kissing under the mistletoe as prescribed by the late, great Burl Ives.

Growing up in the Texas Panhandle, going to college in Missouri and then living 11 years in Houston, we didn’t see mistletoe except as small pricey packaged sprigs around this time of year. Buying those dried-out suggestions of romance and tacking them over a doorway with the hope of snagging a kiss was fun.

Now that I live in Central Texas, my attitude toward mistletoe has altered significantly.

I’m not trying to be a Grinch, but you see, the sweet little plant is a parasite that kills trees.mistletoe tree We’ve already lost two trees to this invasive plant and the last three are slowly dying. This symbol of fertility really is a deadly nuisance.

When I first realized the harm that mistletoe does I felt like I had been bamboozled, like I was the subject of a bait and switch.

How many times have you been duped? You thought you were getting one thing and instead it was something else completely, maybe even something bad.

When communicating to your stakeholders, make sure you provide the straight story. Fact check what you’re saying about your mission and what you do with the precious dollars that donors give you. You want donors to love you so that when they kiss and tell, they say you deliver.

Recognizing Veterans in Your Midst Can Bring Attention to Your Nonprofit

By Katherine Kerr, APR

Are any of your volunteers or staff military veterans? If so, you can highlight their continued service on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, and raise awareness for your nonprofit.

Your organization can single out a veteran who is also a volunteer or staff member to recognize on Veterans Day. Or, you can showcase several involved with your organization.

Think strategically about the needs of your organization when deciding who you want to use as an example of continued service. Do you have a veteran of color who might open doors in the minority community and who you might introduce to the minority press in your community? If you have female veteran working with your nonprofit, her story can break down gender stereotypes in addition to garnering attention for your agency.

By talking about continued service to their community and country, you give the media a new angle on traditional Veterans Day stories, which they always appreciate.

You also can help contradict unfortunate stereotypes that combat veterans are debilitated by psychological trauma. Most adjust and are raising families, working and volunteering in their communities.

In addition to pitching this angle to your local media, be sure and give a shout out to veterans in your community on Veterans Day. We owe them much.

Handwritten Thank-You Notes Make Impressions on Donors

Did you write your thank-you note?
Did you write your thank-you note?

By Tim Kubatzky, CFRE

Your auntie was right! Handwritten thank-yous still make an impression.

I know one organization that brings the names of recent donors to board meetings along with a stack of notecards. A personal note from a board member is a great way to thank your donors!

If you need a refresher, or heaven forbid you were not taught cursive writing in school, check out this resource courtesy of Dr. Joe Vitolo.

For anyone interested in learning or improving their cursive script handwriting I would highly recommend Michael Sull’s book entitled ‘American Cursive Handwriting‘. I personally use this book to improve my own cursive penmanship.

The book comes in both a Student edition as well as a Reference edition. I own the Reference edition. Full disclosure: I make no money or profit from the sale of this book.



Risks for Reporters

By Katherine Kerr, APR

A homicide scene is the safest place to be. At least that’s what I told my mother.

Surely a “fluff” live shot of a story on tourism would seem to be a low-risk endeavor for a TV reporter and a videographer. The brutal, premeditated murders of WDBJ-TV journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward in Roanoke, Va. today prove that assumption wrong.

In general, being a reporter isn’t all that risky. Frankly, there’s a lot of time where it’s hurry up and wait. Or, you’re sitting through boring meetings or trials, writing weather stories or waiting for something to break.

The biggest risk for most journalists is that  you get yelled at by someone who thinks you were unfair or misquoted him. Or pissing off an editor for busting a deadline, a story not working out the way you thought it would, or the worst  –  making a mistake.

In 11 years as a daily newspaper reporter, I never truly felt in danger. I covered night police in Houston, which terrified my mother. She was certain I was in danger when I went to homicide scenes, fires, wrecks and natural and human disasters.

I admit I didn’t tell my mother everything:  the most dangerous place to be was at a homicide scene when grieving relatives showed up.

I was once nearly run over when a car full of family members jumped a curb and roared across the front yard where I was waiting for a statement from investigators. Thankfully a veteran police reporter from another media outlet pulled me out of the way. The family members drove the car almost up the front steps where a young man lay dead.

Another time, an anguished father took his anger and hurt out on me because I was there to report on a game of Russian Roulette gone wrong and the death of his teenage son. He started yelling and pushing me until a medical examiner and TV photographer intervened.

I was mostly telling the truth to my mother about homicide scenes because generally there are lots of armed police officers securing the scene and talking to witnesses. Usually the perpetrator is long gone or in custody.

That said, reporters often do follow police officers and firefighters toward danger when others are running away. They do it to get the story to inform their readers and viewers of the latest tragedy in their community.

The closest I came to a serious problem was during a SWAT standoff when I wandered inside the unsecured perimeter and ended up between the rifle muzzle of a SWAT officer and the house where a man had holed up. After he yelled at me to get out, I found the command station at the other end of the block and sat out the standoff.

Another time an irritated and inebriated Houston Rockets fan threatened to punch me when I tried to get a quote from him about how exciting it was for the Rockets to be in the championship series. He didn’t appreciate me interrupting him watching the game. I found another fan in the bar to interview and got my color story in by deadline.

One night while covering a four-alarm warehouse fire, I fell into a two-foot deep pothole that had filled with water. While I was in no danger of drowning, my ego, elbows and knees took a bruising. Other times, while covering weather disasters, I drove through snow, ice, floods, tornadoes and hurricanes to get the news at the same time officials were warning people to stay off the roads.

I visited people in prison and jails. The only problem I had there was when a sales rep wanted to demonstrate the effectiveness of a cleaner and began spraying it in the warden’s office. Several hours later I had a serious asthma attack and ended up in the emergency room. I received letters from people in prison but never was threatened by them. In fact, one woman thanked me for the fair coverage of her trial.

I admit I was a bit unnerved when I covered two Ku Klux Klan rallies in a remote field in Brazoria County at night. (The guys in white robes knew I was a reporter.) As long as my editor knew where I was, I figured I was safe.

I covered government meetings where people who clearly had mental health issues showed up for the public comment sessions. If things got a little too weird (the guy who told a council member that he dreamed of holding her head) or rowdy (the guy who was agitated because the CIA had removed all his organs and no one in Harris County would help him), law enforcement officers were nearby.

I covered the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, two airliner crashes and the kidnapping and slaying of a UT student and then the arrest of narcosatanicos in Mexico City. In every instance, I got there after those horrible incidents occurred, so I was in not danger.

That’s not to say that reporting isn’t without risks. I’ve known reporters who have been assaulted or injured covering rallies/protests/mobs. Some have been exposed to dangerous chemicals covering refinery fires or chemical truck rollovers. But those were few and far between.

Certainly those journalists who cover war zones and work in countries where crime and corruption are rampant are at significantly greater risk. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 1,141 journalists have been killed since 1992, including 39 this year. That doesn’t count the two today.

Though I’m no longer in the news business, I share the shock and grief at the senseless slaughter of two young people at the beginning of their careers.

This terrible double homicide highlights three critical social issues facing our country:

  • The failure of our society to diagnose, treat and help people with mental health problems
  • The proliferation of guns in our country
  • Workplace violence

Sadly, perhaps a media introspective on this tragedy involving three of their own may serve to bring these issues to the forefront. Maybe then, serious discussions and change can occur.

Photo courtesy of WDBJ-TV VIA AP.

Turning Sour Notes Into Whiskey Sours

By Katherine Kerr, APR

In the front room of our home sits what I used to consider an instrument of torture. It is about three and a half feet tall, over four feet long and two feet deep. It is made of wood and has bits of metal and pieces of ivory.

It is the plain, innocent-looking upright Baldwin piano bought by my grandparents for my Dad when he was a kid and thought he wanted to learn to play. In short order, he changed his mind, stopped taking lessons and briefly took up tap dancing.

When my parents married, the piano was moved to their home.

Back in the 1960s lots of parents signed up their children for piano lessons. I would see their kids before and after my piano lessons. I would see the kids and their proud parents at piano recitals. Many of those kids pounded and played their way through classical music scores. I was stuck year after year in the same books, never progressing because I never practiced, never cared.

My piano teacher was a lovely widow lady, Mrs. Bair, who lived across the street. She knew early on that I had neither talent nor interest in piano. But, as long as my mother paid for lessons and I reluctantly trudged across the brick street she did her darnedest to impart her passion for music to me.

Every time I sat down though, it was evident I had not opened the music since the previous lesson. I hit the cracks between the keys more than solid notes. Lack of practice and an inability to keep time massacred most compositions.

Whining, sulking, refusing to practice and “forgetting” lessons didn’t deter my mother.

She believed that one day my inner musician would burst forth so she kept encouraging (pestering) me. As we would enter the Colonial Cafeteria and walk past the lounge lizard playing on the piano in the corner, she would point to him and say, “Someday, you could do that!”

Are you kidding?

Why on earth would I ever aspire to play a piano in a cafeteria frequented by the after-church crowd?

Finally in my seventh unproductive year  — my jubilee year — of lessons, Mrs. Bair spoke to my mother. Mercifully for both of us, the lessons ended.

In the following years the piano sat in the laundry room, attracting paper, pens, pencils and other odds and ends. Occasionally Dad would go in, lift the cover over the keys and play a handful of the tunes he had taught himself. I loved listening to him play the same songs over and over. My favorite was one I called the “ballet song” because it sounded like beautiful dancers gracefully spinning across a stage. I later learned it was “Autumn Leaves.”

After my father died, Mother shipped the piano to me, ignoring my protests that I didn’t want it. Never in the 50 years of my life had the piano been tuned. Hitting just a few keys made that obvious.

For about 10 years, I resented the piano taking up space in my front room, collecting dust and mockingly reminding me of my failed musical career.

Then, one night, while watching the TV show Pawn Stars, a solution appeared. A seller had brought in a “prohibition piano,” an instrument gutted and remodeled to hide liquor inside it.

That was the answer to my problem! I enjoy adult beverages and if I could get my piano converted, that would be music to my ears.

I found photos online of other pianos that had been converted and showed them to my neighbor, who happens to be a gifted carpenter. Fortunately, he likes a challenge. We agreed on a price and hauled the piano over to his shop.

Piano BarA couple of months later, I had a beautiful and unique hospitality center. My neighbor and his wife even patched up the piano leg that had been gnawed by Sugar, my childhood mutt.

We had a “piano bar” party to show off our repurposed musical instrument. Friends think I have a very cool piece of functional furniture that gets a lot more use than it did before.

My mother was not happy with the redo. I think she thought it in some way dishonored my dad, who was a teetotaler. I believe he would have said ‘good on you,” for not feeling like I had to keep it as a shrine to him.

The lessons learned are:

If your kids tell you that they don’t like doing something year after year, don’t make them do it! However, if you sign them up for a season of soccer and they decide they don’t like it after the first game, make them finish the season because they have a responsibility to their team. But don’t sign them up for the next season.

Alter your perspective about a problem and view it as an opportunity. It’s never too late to rewrite or rework a negative and make it something of joy.

In my case, I remixed sour notes into whiskey sours.