The executive director of the Princeton Deliverance Center is the pastor’s wife. Her staff consists of one part-timer. This Trenton non-profit, whose mission is feeding, clothing, and housing the poor, is in many ways typical of the "mom and pop" non-profits that knit and re-knit society’s safety net. Idealistic and hard-working, they tend to be woefully lacking in the basic business skills that could make them more effective.
The Support Center for Nonprofit Management, with offices in the New Jersey State Library on West State Street, exists to provide those skills. Now headed by a new director, Calvin B. Thomas Jr., it is an affiliate of a New York City organization of the same name. The four-year-old Support Center is funded by foundations whose mission it is to make the world a better place by supporting the work of a wide variety of charitable organizations. The recipients of this aid, the agencies that provide education, food, emergency counseling, childcare, and so many other essential services, have good hearts, says Thomas, but they are often woefully short on basic business skills.
At the same time funders are less willing than ever to continue to pour money into charities that are not performing as well as they could be. What the "mom and pop" non-profits of the world need is technical help. The funders of the Support Center – the Mary Owen Borden Foundation, the Bunbury Company, The Fund for New Jersey, the Harbourton Foundation, and the Princeton Area Community Foundation – went looking for an organization that could provide that help. After an extensive search, they decided that the Support Center in New York City, which has 20-years experience in holding workshops and offering consulting services, would be ideal.
Energized by Thomas, a man with vast experience and enthusiasm to match, the Support Center consults to area non-profits, helping with everything from strategic planning to board selection to financial management. It also offers a number of workshops for non-profit managers.
For this fall, workshops at the Trenton location include "Making Technology Serve Your Mission" on Wednesday, October 26; "Developing Competitive Grant Proposals" on Thursday, November 3; "Designing Dynamic Strategic Planning Processes" on Wednesday November 9; and "Board Governance: One Size Does not Fit All" on Thursday, December 1. Workshops taking place at the Princeton Area Community Foundation’s offices at 15 Princess Road include "Building Corporate Support" on Wednesday, October 12; "Media, Marketing, Public Relations, and You" on Wednesday, December 7." The workshops are priced on a sliding scale, with small non-profits paying less than large non-profits. For more information, call 212-924-6744, ext. 302 or visit www.supportcenteronline.org.
After determining the need for an organization to offer consulting and instruction to New Jersey non-profits, the funders went looking for a home for it, and discovered that the State Library houses an extensive collection of resources for non-profits. Its Foundation Center Cooperating Collection contains materials for researching the grantmaking activities of private, government, and corporate foundations. In addition, the library offers a vast array of books on fundraising, proposal writing, special events, nonprofit management, and working with volunteers. It seemed to be the perfect location, and in fact, the library had a small suite of offices available. Speaking from those offices, which have indeed proved to be ideal for his organization, Thomas says that most small and mid-size non-profits have no idea of the resources that the library offers.
"When they find out, they say ‘Wow!’" he gives as the typical response. That is also the response that the charismatic, ebullient Thomas reports to all of the services that the Support Center offers. Its typical client, very like the typical entrepreneur, is totally focused on immediate needs. Buried in an avalanche of day-to-day emergencies, often involving desperately needy people, these non-profits put little energy into essential activities like marketing, board oversight, and fundraising.
While much of the work that Thomas and his assistant, program director April Butler, do is with the "mom and pop" non-profits, they also work with a range of other clients, including libraries. Once secure in the knowledge that their municipalities would fork over all needed cash for operations and acquisitions, many are now finding that they are expected to earn at least part of their keep, says Thomas, who just recently held a series of workshops for the Ocean County libraries.
The Support Center also has submitted a proposal to Children’s Futures, a $20 million initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation is seeking an organization to provide what Thomas refers to as a "Financial Management 101" course to the many small non-profits that provide services to pregnant women and children under three years old in an effort to put the kids on a par with middle class youngsters by the time they hit pre-school. These charities, many of them very small, are completely "financially illiterate," says Thomas, who hopes to start instructions for them in January.
While talking about the challenge, Thomas fields a call from another client, the Lawrence Neighborhood Center. He is working with that non-profit on a strategic plan to address growing diversity and urban ills, including gang violence, within Lawrence’s borders.
Thomas, the divorced father of two grown children, brings an eclectic background to his work. "I’m a fifth generation resident of Trenton – on both sides of my family," he says. A 1970 graduate of Trenton High School, he is the son of a fork lift driver for C.V. Hill and a teacher’s assistant. His father is deceased, but his mother, retired from the Trenton Board of Education, still lives in the Prospect Street area, where he grew up.
Thomas joined the Navy right out of school, hoping to avoid the Vietnam draft. "I planned to stay for four years, and then go to school under the G.I. Bill," he recalls. But four years stretched to 20, in part because he was sent to Trenton as a recruiter after his initial stretch was up. Outgoing and sincere, and with a natural gift for networking, he quickly became the top recruiter in the Philadelphia region for five years in a row. He then was posted to Norfolk, where he served the rest of his time as a shipboard race
relations specialist. "The Navy was the last branch of the service to integrate," he says. "I did a lot of grass roots work on racism, and worked to recruit blacks into technical jobs."
Coming home, he went to work for the Naval Air Warfare Center in Ewing, doing similar work as a civilian. As an equal opportunity officer, his job included recruiting black engineers. He flew guidance counselors from area high schools to naval centers in Florida and Virginia, trying to sell them on the opportunities the Navy offered to their students. In connection with one such trip he had an encounter with his old guidance counselor at Trenton High that, he says, "changed his life."
The guidance counselor asked him to be a community mentor for the I Have a Dream program. There he met Sharon Powell, director of the Princeton Center for Leadership Training, who was working with the program. She quickly asked him to come to work for her center, where he became director of middle school program. "She taught me how non-profits operate," he says. "She taught me everything I know about non-profits."
Powell says that she saw Thomas’ potential immediately. "He had a combination of an extraordinary passion for making urban schools better, a compassion for people of all ages and backgrounds, and an ability to inspire and motivate people to make a difference," she says. "He has an almost ministerial quality. He’s a natural born leader."
After seven years with Powell, Thomas left to form his own company, the Lodestar Group, which consults to non-profits. He runs the business from his home, in the Island section of Trenton, and was fully busy with his clients when Don Crocker, head of the Support Center in New York City, asked him to open a center in Trenton. He declined, but did agree to work as a consultant to the center. Then, last January, the original director left, and Crocker asked him once again. He said yes the second time, but with the agreement that he would continue on with Lodestar in situations that did not compete with the mission of the Support Center, and that he find a supremely capable assistant to complement his skills.
On the verge of hiring someone else, Thomas received a resume from Butler, and knew right away that she would be perfect. A native of Jersey City who grew up in Plainfield, she is a graduate of Seton Hall (Class of 1992). Her mother was a teacher in Newark, and her father was an IT expert who worked in telecommunications in New York City. The mother of three young children, the Ewing resident, who is married to Timothy Butler, an electrician, has been involved in non-profits both professionally and as a volunteer for all of her adult life. Butler is the office technical expert, the scheduler, and the solid counterweight to Thomas’ enthusiasm.
While Butler keeps the operation running smoothly, Thomas is frequently in the field, consulting with clients, making sure that the funds keep flowing to the Support Center, and leading workshops. There are common areas that need to concern all non-profits, including his own. He talks about key issues, and approaches for tackling them:
Get out to lunch. "The small to mid-size non-profits, the ones with a budget of $250,000 and below, they’re the majority of non-profits," says Thomas. "They’re the front lines, doing the lion’s share of good work."
Busy from dawn to dusk with clients’ needs, the directors of these non-profits tend to bury their heads in work, thereby cutting off the possibility of meeting potential board members, funders, and partners. "They need to take someone out to lunch!" exclaims Thomas. His clients receive this directive as a shock. It has never occurred to most of them, but, says Thomas, this socializing is not a luxury. It is a necessity for non-profits that want to continue to be able to serve their clients well.
Copy the competition. The Support Center’s director of development is Ruthellen Rubin, who formerly held that post with HomeFront. That charity, which helps homeless people to get on their feet and into a permanent home, is, says Thomas, "a household word." Thanks to smart marketing – combined, of course, with good works – HomeFront is often the very first name that Mercer County residents think of when the urge to help out hits.
Another high-profile Mercer County non-profit is Isles, which is headed by Princeton alumnus Marty Johnson. There is a tendency for struggling non-profits to grumble about all of the attention and money that Isles gets, but, Thomas counsels his clients, "Don’t hate Marty!" Instead, he says, copy his networking and public relations skills. "Ask Marty out to lunch," he suggests. "He won’t say no. He’ll help you out."
Hire staff. "The Interfaith Hospitality Network has one full-time director and a part-time case worker," says Thomas. "They find housing for the working poor. They build a network of churches to host working families. It’s a monumental task. These people move from church to church." The director, he says, "is everything." She is the counselor, the bookkeeper, the coordinator, the marketer, and the janitor. When Thomas asked her what feedback she is getting from her funders, she said, "’they say you’re doing a good job.’"
"No!" Thomas says he told her. "They need to get you staff!" In order to get their money’s worth, funders need to give enough money so that a non-profit can accomplish its mission. "How effective can you be without staff?" asks Thomas. It’s up to the non-profit to articulate this need.
Find great board members. It is very common for a non-profit to give little thought to choosing board members. The result, says Thomas, is all too often a group of seven board members, only two or three of whom even show up at meetings. But board members are key to success. They are the non-profit’s ambassadors and the foundation of all of its fundraising efforts.
"The first thing a board member needs to talk about at every party he attends," says Thomas, "is the mission of his non-profit." Not only must he advocate, but he must do so in a lively, engaging manner. "Don’t say ‘my non-profit runs an after school program,’" urges Thomas. "Say ‘we send young people to college, young people who otherwise would never go.’" And then, Thomas says with the huge smile that has undoubtedly brought in tens of thousands of dollars for charity, "say ‘and you can help!’"
Finding, cultivating, and directing board members with the passion and savvy to represent their non-profits in this way must be a preoccupation of every non-profit executive.
Look to diverse funding sources. "If you rely on government grants 100 percent, one election, and all your funding could be gone," says Thomas. No funding is guaranteed to go on forever, whether it’s from the state, foundations, corporations, or individuals. Vastly inflated gas and home heating oil prices could well erode family giving. A corporate bankruptcy – think Enron – could wipe out a non-profit overnight if that company had been its main supporter. Pulling in funds from many sources is hard work, but it provides stability.
Don’t shrink from the competition a major disaster brings. No doubt about it, says Thomas, the outpouring of giving in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – already vastly more than the aid pledged after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Christmas tsunami – will have an effect on local giving.
But savvy non-profits don’t necessarily have to suffer. Instead they should use the intense media attention on the historic storm to raise their own profiles. Find a way to join in the effort, he urges. HomeFront has already done so in jumping to the challenge of finding housing for victims who made their way to New Jersey.
Follow your passion. Thomas has seen any number of non-profits busily working at projects that are way outside of their main mission. When he says, "But you don’t do that!" the reply he generally gets is "’But we got the money. We’re doing it now!’"
Don’t chase dollars, he tells these non-profits. Instead, chase your passion, and the dollars will follow. No executive or board member of a non-profit whose mission is saving homeless pets is likely to exhibit much passion, let alone expertise, in following through on a grant to plant neighborhood gardens. The non-profit’s image, ability to attract good volunteers and even its future donations and grants are likely to suffer when it chases money for the sake of money alone. Push back on your funders. "When a funder comes, everyone scurries around," says Thomas. "It’s ‘oh no! we have to look busy! Get out the good coffee! Book a table at the best restaurant!’" This panic reflects a perceived imbalance of power. The non-profit’s executives feel entirely dependent on the funders, and display a lack of confidence.
The worst result of this obsequience is a reluctance to tell the funders when something isn’t working. They keep providing money to put an end to gang violence through afterschool programs, and the violence keeps growing as gang members shun the programs.
The approach is not working, and the non-profit knows it is not working. However, receiving a steady flow of money from a funder enamored with the idea of late-afternoon study groups as a solution to mayhem on the streets, its executives are afraid to propose alternative programs to tackle the problem. But these executives are on the ground. They know what is happening. They have the expertise to make things better. This gives them power too, and they need to assert themselves to their funders.
"If the activity you’re doing isn’t changing behavior, stop doing it,"says Thomas. Tell the funders why a change is needed. Never be afraid to speak up. "We’re creating funder panels, so they hear true needs," he says. "It’s a waltz. There has to be understanding. There has to be some flexibility."
Track outcomes. There was a time, not very long ago at all, when a non-profit was judged by what it did. "We could say ‘we ran 15 workshops this year and 30 people came to each one’ and be congratulated on fulfilling our mission," says Thomas. Now funders want a lot more. "They don’t care how many people came. They want to know what they got out of the workshops. They want to know if there was change," he says.
Funders have to answer to their own boards. These boards want to know if their money is reducing illiteracy or raising the profile of the arts or helping children to succeed in high school. Non-profits have to be prepared to show that reading levels are up 2.7 grades or that there are standing room only crowds at the ballet or that high school students are gaining Ivy admission at unprecedented rates. It’s all about outcomes.
While he urges all non-profits to start thinking "outcomes," and to learn how to determine outcomes, Thomas is aware that this is no easy task. It requires tremendous manpower, knowledge, and skill to visit the homes of clients to determine, for example, whether they are eating better as the result of a nutrition education program. His advice: "Tell your funders that a researcher needs to come along with their money," he suggests. If that is not possible, get in touch with a local university. Many professors need to arrange practical experience for their field research students, and will happily provide interns to work on outcomes studies. Professor Elizabeth Paul of The College of New Jersey is one educator who is interested in having her students work in this role, says Thomas.
The mission of small non-profits, whatever their focus, is simply changing the world – and proving that they are doing so.
It’s enough to make the toughest agency directors bury their heads and give up. But they don’t. Propelled by passion, they keep going against daunting odds, serving clients, raising money, recruiting volunteers and board members, and answering to funders. The Support Center, thanks to the insight and support of its own funders, exists to help, and Thomas is living proof that any obstacle can be turned right onto its head, and made into a building block for success. Not everyone can have Thomas’ personality, but by contacting the Support Center, any non-profit executive can share in the lifetime’s worth of experience he brings to non-profit management. Says Thomas, "We open doors."
The Support Center for Nonprofit Management, 185 West State Street, Box 520, Trenton 08625. Calvin B. Thomas, director. 609-278-0482; fax, 609-984-2307. Www.supportcenteronline.org