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UIX: Amy Knape solidifies WMCAT's mission by strengthening others

West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology announced a new partnership this week with local maker Ambrose, and the organization is gearing up to celebrate 10 years of existence at next month's iBall. Amy Knape, communications and development director at WMCAT, keeps the organization growing and flourishing. UIX editor Matthew Russell finds out what she does behind the scenes to help promote a culture of opportunity.
The staff and students at West Michigan Center for Arts + Technology have accomplished so much in the realm of education and innovation, it’s hard to imagine anyone resting on their laurels while contributing to the mission: to provide a culture of opportunity for people to make economic and social progress in their lives. One staff member in particular, Development and Communications Manager Amy Knape, not only helps make all the work at WMCAT possible, she embodies it.

While the majority of Knape’s job involves fundraising and entreating supporters to continue their generosity, she covers the gamut of responsibilities at WMCAT, and says nonprofit work, especially at smaller organizations, requires a few different hats to be worn.

"I say about 75 percent of my time is for development, which is supporting the fundraising aspects of WMCAT,” Knape says. “I’m responsible primarily for most of our grant writing, and grant reporting. I handle all of the language for the letters to our donors to ask for gifts, and I also work on everything from our development plan to our budget and any of our events.” If you've ever attended or simply heard about a WMCAT event, like the yearly donor luncheon or the iBall gala, you’re within range of Knape’s influence.

“About 25 percent of my time is really toward communications,” she says.” I oversee social media for WMCAT, media relations, our website, and if we’re applying for awards in the community I’ll write the applications. I’m kind of like the keeper of the message here at WMCAT."

There is a certain tone of voice used in WMCAT materials, certain messages that must be delivered. Knape is not only that voice, she’s the quintessential guide for anyone connected with WMCAT.

“I work closely with the staff to make sure we’re on the same page with our mission and we’re talking about all of our students in the most respectful and empowering way,” she says. “I’m really kind of the keeper of that language and our message to the community.”

That message is crucial, as WMCAT is currently about 95 percent charitably funded, although the organization is always trying to grow earned income, especially to fund the educational programs for youth and adult students, who attend tuition-free. The adult career training program trains underemployed adults in medical technology fields, while the teen arts program, an out-of-school program for high school students in Grand Rapids Public Schools, is centered on arts and technology.

“One of the challenges, being a communications person here at WMCAT, is to really get across how both of those programs are very linked in our mission of providing a culture of opportunity,” Knape says. “While some people may see the programs as a little bit disparate or different, we at WMCAT see them as very interconnected and very linked, using technology, education, and empowerment to create pathways for people.”

Working in fundraising, Knape says, it’s important to keep a diverse mix of funding sources, including foundations, corporations, individual supporters, government, and earned income.

“All of those need really well-written communication,” she says. “When you’re applying for government, foundation or corporation grants, the applications are more formulaic and the questions are very specific and have to be answered in a certain way. When you’re talking with individual donors, you can be a little more creative but you also need to be able to give them a succinct proposal that not only shows what we do in a very simple way, but also kind of pulls at them and shows why they need to support what you do, who you’re empowering, and how and where you’re making a difference. It’s data driven, it’s creative, it’s succinct, it obviously needs to be very well written so people don’t get hung up on any mistakes that you've made.”

But the greater the challenge, the greater the reward, Knape says, and the job is very rewarding.

Knape often works alongside Development Director Louise “Punky” Edison. The two form a major part of the internal workings of WMCAT that many may not see.

“Amy is a fantastic person, WMCAT team member, and development professional,” Edison says. “She is the best grant-writer I've known in my 30-plus years in nonprofits. WMCAT has definitely been energized in the last few years through [Knape’s] efforts in both fundraising and communications.”

Knape, Edison, and Executive Director Kim Dabbs have found success in pooling their efforts at WMCAT, and the organization’s communication potential is all the better for it.

“I rely on Kim a lot, too, to tell me what meetings she’s been sitting in. She gives me great updates and briefings on things she’s been a part of,” Knape says. “That gives me a chance to hear more from people in economic and commercial development. We have a place in that at WMCAT, too.”

Of course, it’s not all just typing away at a desk that proves Knape’s worth. Edison lauds her for her good heart and passion for WMCAT’s mission and students.
 
“We’re small enough that we have the opportunity for daily interactions with our adult and teen students,” Edison says. “Amy is always willing to help where it is needed to keep WMCAT going strong.”
 
Knape’s love of WMCAT and the nonprofit sector is essential to her job, she says, but exuberance isn't without modesty, either, as she's just as comfortable letting the students or other WMCAT staff take center stage.
 
“I think really what’s key to working in the nonprofit sector is to be passionate about what the organization is doing. I’m very passionate about our mission and I wouldn't be promoting it if I wasn't,” she says. “I’m very much in awe of our staff here. The staff on the front lines are teaching artists; our career instructors are working with our students. I’m really impressed by them and I feel like my piece of the puzzle here is to provide the foundations for them to do their important work.”

And the importance of that work is shown in the recognition WMCAT receives on a regular basis. Recently, Dabbs was invited to participate in a three-month international residency at Stanford University's d.school focused on design thinking and innovation in education. Dabbs will be attending this invitation-only residency at Stanford through March. It’s intended to help WMCAT build capacity for sharing innovative approaches to education on an international scale and for platforming new solutions for social impact.

"WMCAT has shown real leadership in using design thinking to create new solutions and pathways for their students," says James Hackett, retired CEO of Steelcase Inc., who nominated WMCAT and Kim for this opportunity. "Kim's participation in the residency will help WMCAT share their innovative model for education nationally.”

During the residency Dabbs will participate in intensive learning, prototyping and sharing around systems change and disruption in educational models through design thinking and social impact. She will then bring ideas and solutions back to West Michigan for further prototyping and implementation.

WMCAT has also made news recently by acquiring Ambrose, a Holland-based after school program and screen printing business previously covered in UIX. Ambrose Founder Adam Weiler will join WMCAT as project director to oversee a new social enterprise that will employ urban teens and young adults, while providing earned revenue for WMCAT’s nationally-recognized Teen Arts + Tech Program.

“Ambrose is an incredibly innovative organization that has been at the forefront of social enterprise work,” Dabbs says. “By bringing their model to WMCAT, we can give urban teens valuable employment opportunities, while developing a new, sustained revenue stream for WMCAT’s important work in social impact.”

In February WMCAT will acquire the screen printing business and equipment from Ambrose, which will cease operations in Holland at that time. Production is expected to begin in March, providing screen printing services to business and nonprofit clients from WMCAT’s facility. WMCAT plans to employ teens and young adults connected to their arts and tech program.

The new partnership is the result of talks between Dabbs and Weiler that were facilitated by staff at Start Garden. In its work with teens, WMCAT saw a need for youth employment both for high school students and recent graduates. The organization has also been working to increase earned income that will, combined with charitable gifts, support mission-related programming. This new partnership addresses those needs, while giving the Ambrose model a stronger infrastructure and foundation for success.

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For more information on WMCAT, Knape, or any of the developments being made at the organization, visit http://www.wmcat.org/

Matthew Russell is the Project Editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com

Photography by Carolina Lopez-Ruiz
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