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Redefinition project

Seeking clarity of mission at MUD

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Given that the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project (MUD) has spent the last 25 years learning, living and teaching the wide-ranging art of sustainability throughout Missoula, it can be easy to overlook the sustainability of MUD itself.

But in a town like Missoula—with its array of nearly 400 nonprofit organizations, many of which focus on environmental issues and offshoot concerns touching sustainability—it’s no simple task for a group like MUD to find and maintain its niche.

And as MUD readies for its transition to a new executive director—the regional search for a leader will close March 10—its board has begun discussing MUD’s programs and overall focus. While the group’s ground isn’t shifting in any revolutionary sense, Laurie Ashley, interim chairwoman of MUD’s board, says the recent dialogue is aimed at “getting back to MUD’s roots.”

More specifically, MUD intends to increase its presence and its outreach in the broader Missoula community beginning in April by emphasizing programs like the Missoula Tool Library, which allows members to borrow from a selection of nearly 800 tools, by expanding the program’s hours, staffing and selection, and by advertising its existence.

Other shifts may be less concrete, but no less significant: For instance, Ashley says, MUD’s board will now be more involved in the day-to-day tasks and decisions of the group—an approach MUD had discontinued after hiring the group’s first executive director in 2000. Another major endeavor will be trying to keep MUD focused on a manageable number of projects so the group’s efforts don’t spiral off in too many directions—a discipline that’s proven difficult over the years, in part because the group centers on the open-ended notion of “sustainability,” which can include everything from sharing tools to composting coffee grounds to networking among individuals and groups to building energy-efficient buildings.

Outgoing Executive Director Rebecca Richter perhaps best sums up the challenge: “It’s great to have a dynamic organization, but you don’t want to have something all over the place because the people investing in you want to know just what it is they’re investing in,” she says. “Basically MUD has been really open to letting people run with ideas. In my personal opinion that can be great, but it’s important to keep our eyes on the carrot and stay consistent in the community.”

The goal is not to do away with the inspired tangle of innovative ideas that MUD has historically engendered and supported, but rather to manage them so the group stays reliable, Richter says. The reality of being spread too thin hits particularly hard on an organization like MUD that’s got just one paid staff member—currently that’s Richter—to do everything from managing programs to paying bills to cleaning toilets.

Susan Hay Cramer, who provides consulting for nonprofit organizations in Missoula and has directed MUD’s strategic planning sessions in past years, says the question of focus has been a consistent challenge for MUD, both in terms of fund-raising and holding onto talented executive directors, who tend to burn out quickly in the face of too many and too varied responsibilities.

MUD’s evolution from its beginnings as the Down Home Project sheds light on its current crossroads. During the economic depression of the late ’70s, four University of Montana students began a backyard farm on three Northside lots, and in 1981 transformed it into the nonprofit Down Home Project, raising chickens, planting gardens and harvesting seeds for its Garden City Seeds company all the while.

The group was renamed MUD in 1991 and began expanding its mission and reach through a variety of programs, many of which are still around in one form or another. Garden City Harvest, a network of six community gardens, and Home Resource, a local clearinghouse for used building materials, are two examples of MUD programs that evolved into independent, self-sustaining companies. Other MUD projects, like Coffee to Compost (for which, in 2005, volunteers hauled by bike more than 25 tons of coffee grounds from businesses to composting bins), the Missoula Tool Library, and a workshop series covering everything from winemaking to auto maintenance, are still run onsite by MUD volunteers and staff. MUD’s membership, which Richter says has risen in her two-and-a-half years as director, now stands at 450.

The Missoula Tool Library is probably the most focused example of MUD helping people help themselves: From 2004 to 2005, more than 1,500 loans, amounting to an estimated savings of nearly $57,000 for members. By launching an advertising campaign in April for the first time, and by broadening the library’s appeal with extended hours and selections, MUD hopes to enlarge the program’s usage as well as MUD’s name recognition and membership.

“We realize this is something great we have and we want to funnel more energy into it,” says Richter, who adds that the library is the only one of its kind in Montana.

Richter, who’s leaving MUD to return to school, says other MUD programs offer more abstract tools for working toward sustainability. For instance, MUD recently received a grant to fund its Sustainable Neighborhoods program, which helps people coordinate and undertake projects in their neighborhood; the Rattlesnake Gateway project, which will begin revamping and beautifying the intersection near East Spruce and Madison streets in April, will be this program’s pioneering project. The Sustainability Coalition, another MUD-inspired project that brings together more than 20 local groups working for sustainability, is working on a Missoula Green Map, to be released in summer 2006, that will feature more than 200 sites and serve as a visual guide to green-friendly businesses and organizations.

Overall, Ashley says, MUD is trying to hone in on self-sufficiency as a uniting theme, and the board’s ongoing discussions are trying to focus programs toward that end as they ready for the major transition a new director will bring.

“We’ve gone in a lot of directions over the years, and I feel really good about coming back to this idea about community self-sufficiency,” she says.

jmcquillan@missoulanews.com

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