July 10, 2008

Portland, Ore., Anti-Poverty Group’s New Education Center Goes High-Tech

By Stephen Beaven, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

Jul. 8--When Mercy Corps opens its new headquarters next year in Old Town Chinatown, visitors will enter on Southwest Ankeny Street to find 3,500 square feet of technological wizardry aimed at engaging them in the fight against global poverty.

At interactive kiosks, computer stations and on giant screens, they'll see videos that explain the plight of impoverished countries, along with up-to-date dispatches about how Mercy Corps and other humanitarian aid agencies are responding. Then visitors will be given a menu of steps they can take to help, in Portland and globally.

The Mercy Corps Action Center will be an untested, 21st-century approach to humanitarian relief work. But the agency is betting that it will leave visitors, especially high school kids, feeling that they can make a difference.

"This is not a new way to market Mercy Corps, per se," said Neal Keny-Guyer, the agency's chief executive. "We're not doing it for that purpose. We're doing it to inspire a generation of young people to get engaged in these issues."

The interpretive center will be on the ground floor of the agency's headquarters, now under construction at the Skidmore Fountain Building at First Avenue and Ankeny. In addition to the action center, there will be a reception area, conference room, retail space and Mercy Corps offices.

The building is expected to open late next summer a block from the University of Oregon's new facility, and it will be part of the big makeover under way in Old Town Chinatown.

But the agency's first action center will open this fall in Manhattan about five blocks from its New York office. The two centers will be similar but will each include local information about how to help.

The interpretive centers are unique in the world of philanthropy, said Renee Irvin, an associate professor at the University of Oregon who teaches nonprofit studies.

Nonprofits are often reluctant to spend large sums on their offices, Irvin said, fearing that donors will see it as a waste of money that could go toward the agency's mission.

"I'm always concerned if anybody thinks we're spending too much on ourselves and not enough on the mission," Keny-Guyer said. "But education is part of the mission."

Portland's Mercy Corps Action Center will cost $2 million, as part of the $37 million headquarters project. The agency is raising the money for the building through a capital campaign that will include more than $13 million in public funding.

None of the money for the headquarters is coming from donations for relief efforts, said Susan Laarman, a spokeswoman who added that owning its headquarters will be cheaper than continuing to lease its current home on Southwest First Avenue.

Plus, Irvin said, the action centers will allow people to learn about Mercy Corps in a way that old-school fundraising efforts such as direct mail can't match.

"It's very compelling to bring the public into your space," she said. "Suddenly they care. You have these compelling pictures and videos and upbeat things they can do for the cause."

Providing an upbeat ending for visitors is an important part of Mercy Corps' goal for the interpretive centers, especially after providing unflinching depictions of war, poverty and famine.

Visitors will be given hundreds of options to help, depending on how much time they have to devote. The options include donating money to Mercy Corps or another agency, providing a microloan for a small business and local volunteer work.

Gideon D'Arcangelo, a New York-based designer working with Mercy Corps, says the action centers will be an update on traditional museums, where viewing an exhibit is often a passive experience.

"We see the action center as the next step beyond that," he said. "A public space that enables people to take action out in the world."


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