Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson discusses the nonprofit industry with Laura Farmer, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates of Southwest Missouri; Emily Givens, executive director of Lost & Found Grief Center; and Jason Hynson, executive director of Victory Mission & Ministry.
Eric Olson: What’s one word you would use to describe the nonprofit industry today?
Emily Givens: I’ll say resilient.
Laura Farmer: That was actually the word that first came to my mind, too, especially with the challenges in 2020. But I also immediately thought of adaptable because a lot of nonprofits had to shift into different modes of serving clients and delivering their services.
Jason Hynson: Change. If you’re event driven at all in the nonprofit world, now you’ve got to change that. You’ve got to change how you serve. Victory Mission used this as a time to totally change a lot of things. I told our staff this is your one chance to blame it all on something that’s not you. [Laughs] Why’d you quit doing that? Oh, the pandemic! It just ruined everything. We may never be able to go back to live events. We’ll see.
Olson: The year held so much change in so many organizations. What change had the most significant impact on your operations?
Farmer: For us at CASA, before the stay-at-home order, we had about three days to shift our new volunteer training into a virtual format. I met with my staff, and we had a decision to make. We could either adapt really quickly and shift all of our training from in-person to a virtual format, which none of us was familiar with Zoom when this was going on, back in March of 2020. We had that decision to make: Are we going to adapt quickly and meet the needs of the children in foster care that we serve and continue to train and recruit new volunteers? Or are we going to wait this out and be behind the eight ball? Our staff chose to adapt quickly and to be flexible. As things continue to open back up, and who knows what 2021 will bring for us with the vaccines, we may continue to offer virtual training because our people have really connected with it. We had the best year in recruiting and training volunteers in 2020 even through a pandemic because people could fit the training into their schedule. They really enjoyed the virtual format. In 2019, when we were still doing all in-person training, we trained 81 new volunteers. And in 2020, doing all of our training virtually and doing a lot of recruitment over social media, we trained 89 new CASA volunteers.
Givens: Because we provide grief support in a group format, it’s a real challenge for us to try to get that same connection within our families and trying to have them connect with one another over Zoom. It wasn’t the same. You’re talking about the very deep, very personal, very emotional subject of death. Shifting to the Zoom format was great at the time. As we got into it, we realized that less and less families were showing up to group virtually because it just was not as effective. When we finally shifted back to in-person, our biggest change was you have to be 6 to 7 feet apart. We have to take your temperatures. You have to wear a mask. And when you’re trying to connect with people, again, on that personal, emotional level and all you can see is this [motions to eyes] and you can’t hear very well because you’re so spread out, that is a challenge. But it is so much better than doing it virtually. About 5% of grief centers in the nation are in-person because they just haven’t figured out how to do it. We decided that we can make it work because it’s important enough. Families who are not comfortable, we can meet them where they are virtually.
Olson: How are you able to maintain in-person meetings?
Givens: A lot of our rooms are not large enough for the amount of people that it needs to hold because of distancing guidelines. We are renting out hotel space. Taking the families to one of their conference centers and setting up chairs, it’s not as intimate as maybe one of our rooms here, but at least it can be in person and that’s all the families want. You lose a child, you need to be around other people who’ve lost a child because they’re the only other people who truly understand and get it. We found a couple of hotels who were gracious enough and we do pay them a small amount.
Hynson: We got the call when the shutdown first started, we have 160 men that are living in this one room, so we essentially had to move 40 right away. We thought we’re going to have to displace them. The [Springfield-Greene County] Health Department was kind of pushing down. We basically just adapted. Instead of 40, we moved 26. We had an extra floor on our third floor, which displaced our women’s programming outreach center that we were doing, so we basically just prioritized. We took over classrooms, we moved bunk beds, we expanded out. We really didn’t know at first the complexity of the virus. We basically shut down all outreach. If you’re in shelter with us, we’re going to stop welcoming volunteers. How do you have relationships with people via Zoom if you’re supposed to build quality relationships? We started serving more meals because we served the men that were with us; we gave them two meals a day. They didn’t even have to leave the building. We just really invested heavily with the people we had and did less with the outreach. We kind of just kept shifting and pivoting and adding things back and seeing what worked.
Olson: With these operational changes, what’s going to stick? What are the silver linings?
Givens: If we have to pivot again, we can. I hope we don’t have to ever pivot as much as we did. Our families are still being served and that’s No. 1.
Hynson: We have a food pantry, and when we shifted that, one of our staff members said, “What if we do a mobile food pantry?” We shifted to the mobile and we got church partners to do it in their parking lot. We went from one location to six locations spread out throughout the city. It’s amazing because really at the heart, we want people to go into these church groups and have newfound community and to find a place where they can plug in and find some hope. That’s the whole goal of that church is to build a community in that neighborhood. Knowing that your team can do that, it’s like: What’s next?
Farmer: We have learned a whole new set of skills this year. As we look ahead to 2021 or even beyond that, we will continue likely to do virtual trainings and support for our CASA volunteers. Our CASA volunteers who are serving our kids in foster care, they became really creative in the way that they were connecting with kids. In 2020, we actually started a new Fostering Futures program serving older youth in foster care. Our older youth in foster care actually love the virtual, like getting Snapchats from their CASA volunteer and us teaching our CASA volunteers how to send a Snapchat.
Telling the story
Olson: Prior to 2021, it seemed donor fatigue was a local challenge. What was the experience with donors in 2020?
Hynson: We were kind of nervous about that because (COVID-19) hit in really one of our lower times. But we were able to quickly raise $20,000 through an online campaign that we were able to throw together real quick – crowdfunding. That was for COVID response for the food pantry. Then we got the (Paycheck Protection Program) loan, and we were able to sort of put that back. Our board would rather use our surplus, so they said, “Don’t touch that PPP money until we have it forgiven.” We were able to operate without it. It was kind of like that super emergency fund that we didn’t want to use. Having two CPAs on our finance committee, they’re extremely conservative, that’s good. We played stuff close to the vest. Unless we needed it, we’re not doing it. We’re keeping our staff. We raise almost half a million dollars every December, and we need it every year. The (Neighborhood Assistance Program) tax credits really helped. I really think that $300 push per person with the (Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act really helped. I saw some really good other nonprofits actually sending that out, educating their donors [on the tax credit]. You added it into that standard deduction. I’m cautiously optimistic.
Farmer: I think that’s where I’m at, also. We had a strong year financially at CASA for 2020. I understand what you’re talking about, Eric, with the donor fatigue and you hear that amongst the nonprofit organizations, but I think when there’s a crisis, and the pandemic was absolutely a crisis, people knew that if there was a time to give, it was in 2020. They wanted to rally around us nonprofits and support the clients that we serve. I really hope that that continues in 2021 because there is some uncertainty in the state budget, specifically, for child welfare. There were some state funding cuts for child welfare organizations (and) some uncertainty with the federal government funding. In 2020, there was some additional coronavirus funding. There were additional coronavirus grants through Community Foundation of the Ozarks. I hope that all of that support continues into 2021, because we’re not out of the woods yet.
Givens: A lot of donor fatigue goes back to the multitude of events that we hold in southwest Missouri with every one of our nonprofits. We have four big ones a year, and we’re just one nonprofit. With all of these events being canceled or maybe being downsized, I think there was a lot of businesses and individuals who were not being hit up for events that normally are. Lost & Found has a wonderful group of supporters, and our services are needed now more than ever. Our supporters understood that.
Farmer: In 2020, nonprofits really pared their services down to the essential services. And the services were really quality. The community recognized that. They have learned to tell their story, so that it gets to the heart of the donor and the donor understands why those services are really important.
Givens: We got to the root of what every single fundraising expert will tell you: Pick up the phone, call your donor, tell your story. They will respond. You don’t have to have a gala. You don’t have to have a 5K.
Olson: Nationally, we have yet to see the 2020 figures, but 2019 was one of the highest years on record for giving to charitable nonprofits, up 4% to nearly $450 billion. How did you end the year?
Hynson: We were really pleased. We have a fiscal year that goes through June 30, so we’re kind of halfway through and we’re trending up. We got the PPP loan forgiven, so that there was a nice boost that we usually don’t count on.
Farmer: We also had a year of growth in 2020, and we have been growing our revenue as well as our programs. We try to pace that growth together, because we want to serve every child in foster care and we’re still a ways away from doing that. We also had a solid, great end-of-year campaign. We had greater growth than the 4% growth nationally. I really do honestly think that that’s because we have a team – we have our board, we have several committees – that are really focused on strategic growth for our organization. In 2019, we participated in our strategic plan and we set some, really what we thought at the time were going to be, huge, audacious goals and it would take us five years to accomplish here. We are less than two years into our strategic plan, and we’ve already accomplished those goals. So, now we’re setting the bar even higher as far as our growth. We have to have staff that support the volunteers that are working with the children in foster care. 2020, it made us put the brakes on a little bit to say we want to make sure that we can maintain our current staffing. We want to make sure that we are serving the kids that we are committed to. We realized quickly that in 2020, the number of children in foster care was increasing, so it was important for us to tell that story. The community really did rally around us to say we’re going to donate to you all so that we can continue to add staff. We added two new staff positions, which means that we have 60 additional volunteers that can serve up to 100 children.
Givens: We had about 16% growth from 2018 to 2019 and then our 2020 was amazing. We’re down about 60% of our events income; we are so event heavy with our revenues. We’re up about 95% in unrestricted donations. It tells us we can raise money without having to have an event.
Olson: Can you share how you approach what might be a tension between the mission and the money? How do you address it as a leader of the nonprofit?
Farmer: At CASA, we actually play the Great Game of Business. We started that in 2019 and it has really changed the way our organization looks at our finances, as well as our program numbers. We meet weekly with our team, and everyone is on the same page. Our staff understand our financial goals (and) where the money is going. That transparency for our organization has really transformed the way that we talk with one another, the way that we goal set and the way that we work as a team to accomplish our goals.
Givens: When we raise money, I think of it as: This is other people’s money, and they expect the money to go toward programs. If I was to contact any of our donors and just say, this is how I’m spending the money, if I feel confident in being able to tell any of our donors how we’re spending the money that they gifted us, I feel like it’s money well spent. Sometimes, there is more money than expenditures coming in. That’s being put off to the side, so hopefully we can have one less event. We’re going to invest that money; the interest that we’re raising on it, hopefully that can go toward operations.
Hynson: At Victory Mission four years ago when I got there, there was almost $1 million in long-term debt and $250,000 in accounts payable. We were running a line of credit with the vendors that we had, and rather than paying our bills on time, we were running six months of expenses. We really started playing the Great Game of Business in 2017 in the summer. It literally changed everything. As a nonprofit, we have this poverty mindset like the clients we serve – “I hope my check cashes this week.” That was ridiculous. Being a faith-motivated group, I was like, that does not represent the God that we serve that’s supposed to own the cattle on a thousand hills. We just recently paid off all the debt. Victory Mission is completely out of debt, and we have six months of expenses in the bank. One of our board members, who is a coach for the Great Game of Business, she always says, “No money, no mission.”
Excerpts by Features Editor Christine Temple, email@example.com.
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