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Meet Pon Angara of Barkada Circle in Rogers Park

Today we’d like to introduce you to Pon Angara.

Pon, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I started out as a graphic designer in the for-profit corporate world. In January 2005, I left a partnership that lasted 7 years to launch my own venture, Barkada Creative LLC. I was a “solopreneur” providing graphic design services to small businesses and a handful of nonprofit organizations. I was an outsourced member of their branding and marketing teams.

I woke up one day in 2010 and decided to inventory my work and try to reorganize the portfolio. As I was viewing and reading through the various marketing pieces for my nonprofit clients, my inner voice started to critique everything and what I was hearing made me feel disappointed. I realized that the work was already done and approved by the client, but that didn’t matter. From my vantage point, the messages fell flat. They simply were not compelling to me.

I bravely approached a few of my clients who I knew would be open to a candid discussion. I told them how I felt about the work and they seemed to be open to exploring new ideas. I engaged them in a brief exercise in which I first asked, “Why should I donate to your organization?” They answered first with a recitation of their mission, as I expected. I then asked, “So what?” They responded with a “Because…” that mentioned a specific program or service that they offer clients. Once again, I said, “So what?” which I repeatedly asked until they said something that stopped me in my tracks.

The responses that gave me pause were personal, emotional and painted a picture of their journey in building the organization. It was their story and it was compelling. And, thus, Barkada Circle nonprofit storytelling was born! My goal was to empower people working in and for nonprofits to become better storytellers for their mission.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
It certainly hasn’t been a smooth road.

When I told prospects what I set out to do, most of them politely smiled, said they were intrigued ( I heard this word a lot!) then they moved on. They didn’t know what to make of it because, at the time, no one in Chicago had created a formal structure or program for training nonprofit professionals in storytelling. I realized that I had to create from nothing.

I talked to a few of my friends and colleagues who were professionals in the arts–painting, theater, music, crafts–and invited them to help me design storytelling workshops that used methods from these art forms. We piloted these workshops in which participants gave constructive feedback that would help us refine the activities and provide a better learning experience.

Soon after, I learned that the workshops can only serve as a framework for working with one organization as no two nonprofits are alike. Each has their own unique set of needs, dynamic, and culture. The next three years were spent on an ongoing learning curve that required Barkada Circle to continuously evolve. I had to fully embrace the reality that this was a work in progress with no end in sight.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Barkada Circle – what should we know?
Barkada Circle helps a nonprofit organization build a stronger culture in which members of their community feel fully connected with each other and with the mission. We use the power of storytelling as the catalyst for meaningful conversations to happen between staff, board members, volunteers and other stakeholders. It’s the critical first step to mutual understanding and collaborative problem-solving.

We work primarily with associations and foundation & their community partners. Our workshops facilitate essential conversations sparked by participants sharing their experiences. Storytelling, coupled with listening, help people to make personal connections and co-create solutions they can collectively own to address specific issues in the organization.

Nonprofits have engaged us to conduct their board retreats and staff training to help them tell better stories for fundraising, member recruitment, and general outreach. Individual participants have also asked our help to train them in storytelling so they can be better leaders who can inspire their teams to work toward common goals.

I’ve also been invited to deliver the keynote for a number of nonprofit conferences in Illinois.

Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
I’m fortunate to have many supporters. I’d like to especially mention a few who have been with me and believed in my mission since the beginning.

Michael Shapiro / Co-Founder of E-Group Partners: Michael has been my business coach and a dear friend since 2004. He was there before it even all started. Naturally, he knows all about me–the good, the bad and the ugly–and still manage to want to keep seeing me. I learn something new and fresh from Michael every time we talk. He keeps me sane, and that’s no easy feat!

Dr. Sandy Goldberg / Founder of A Silver Lining Foundation: Dr. Sandy was one of the first people to whom I presented the idea of storytelling for nonprofits. She has been a beloved mentor and part of the Barkada family.

Stuart Jamieson / Formerly with Habitat for Humanity: Stuart introduced me to many of his personal contacts in the nonprofit community. I have him to thank for my first opportunity to conduct a storytelling workshop at the Philanthropy Club in Chicago.

Pattie Sheehan / Owner of Second Act Chicago: Pattie runs a successful social enterprise, is a master networker and constantly introduces me to people whom she thinks can benefit from my services.

Otto Reinisch / Director, Organizational Development for Episcopal Charities and Community Services: Through Otto, Barkada Circle was able to conduct its first workshop for a foundation to train its community partners in storytelling.

Karen Pittenger / President of Black Olive: Karen has been a client, friend and mentor (plus a few other roles that cannot be defined) for many years. Her excitement about storytelling for nonprofits remains at the same high level it started when I first introduced her to the idea. Karen keeps me busy, and that’s good!

And last, but certainly not least… Nalani McClendon / Relationship Manager for Barkada Circle: Nalani has been my voice of reason and partner in crime (at the same time!) for many years. She gets me in and out of trouble. Not sure if that makes sense, but it works!

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