A Charity Finds Itself in Dire Need
Thursday, July 26, 2007
One year ago, Western Fairfax Christian Ministries, a nonprofit group that helps the poor in a broad swath of the western end of the county, seemed to be on solid footing.
With a budget of more than $700,000, it was helping thousands of needy families get out of financial crises, get back on their feet and avoid homelessness.
But now, the organization is facing the same dire uncertainties as those it assists. Since May, it has laid off three-quarters of its staff, more than halved its budget and terminated programs that provided almost $200,000 in assistance to families in financial straits. WFCM barely avoided homelessness itself when its landlord threatened to evict the group from its Chantilly offices for nonpayment of rent.
"We've had a few very bad months here," said Dorothy Fonow, the group's executive director.
How did a 20-year-old organization fall so fast?
WFCM leaders say they should have moved more quickly to deal with escalating financial problems last year. But, they say, their problems were compounded by the county's failure to help, as it has aided other struggling nonprofits. In June, the county turned down its appeal for funding to help with its bills.
They blame Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, and county staff members, who, they say, were embarrassed that the organization made public its fiscal plight just as county leaders were touting their success in funding community organizations.
"Yes, we made some mistakes. But I'd like to see other organizations that don't make mistakes," Fonow said. "But obviously the biggest mistake we made was ticking off Gerry Connolly."
"This is a Christian organization saying that?" Connolly responded last week. He said the organization blindsided the county with its financial crisis and then demanded immediate assistance. Since then, officials have been trying to work with the group, Connolly said.
"But they . . . have not been willing to commit to reforms that would provide transparency and accountability," he said. "We can't be using taxpayer dollars to bail out an organization" that the county does not consider competent.
Whatever the reasons for the organization's downfall, it has been quite a comedown.
Launched in 1987 by a coalition of a dozen churches when sleek housing developments were taking over farmland in Centreville, Chantilly and Clifton, WFCM had volunteers distributing donated food and clothing to the working poor, disabled, elderly and those facing unexpected financial trouble. It also offered transportation to medical appointments and job interviews.