Many nonprofits in the region have had to rethink their operations following the recession, as donations dropped and human service demands increased. While a few were forced to close their doors, most have had to make tough or creative decisions to get leaner and more efficient. Some reached out to form new partnerships with other charities. Others gave board members new tools to get the word out and raise money in the community. Several looked inward, using the time, for instance, to convert paper-based systems to digital and update their services. As the Center for Nonprofit Advancement hosts its Excellence in Nonprofit Management award on Thursday, in partnership with The Washington Post, here is a look at some of best practices put in place by the charities selected as finalists.
Young Playwrights’ Theater
Type of work: Teaches students to express themselves through playwriting during in-school and after-school programs.
Location: The District.
Number of staff: Five full-time, two part-time.
Annual budget: $696,000.
Executive director: Brigitte Pribnow Moore.
Which management practice are you proudest of? “Continuing to invest in staff despite what was happening around us. We didn’t make any staff cuts. Keeping those good people at the table was really big. Also investing more in individual donors in a grass roots way instead of trying to find these mysterious, big donors that are out there,” Moore said.
The success of Young Playwrights’ Theater could be a play in itself, with all of its twists and turns. The group, which turns ordinary students into playwrights, hit financial turmoil a few years before the recession. After hiring a well-known heavy hitter in the nonprofit arts community, David Snider, as executive director, YPT turned around in one year. It went from a $170,000 budget deficit with no reserves to a surplus of $34,000 with reserves. That was just Act One. The group began changing its management practices. It turned staff meetings into roundtables where each member, from entry-level to senior management, generated ideas. One idea to come out of the process was for a fundraising contest in which the biggest donor had a play written about his or her life by one of the students. That and other ideas increased the organization’s donor base by 300 percent. The giving slowed, however, during the recession, forcing the group to begin dipping into its reserves. Last year, after Snider stepped down, the group anticipated a $70,000 budget deficit from projected funding cuts and expanded programming. It has avoided that under Moore, its new executive director. YPT released its first published book, earned income by contracting its summer camps and threw its first gala. Now the group is expecting a surplus of $40,000 and serves 15 percent more students than last year.
Type of work: Serves clients with mild intellectual disabilities, substance-use disorders and mental illness.
Number of staff: 55 full-time, 14 part-time.
Annual budget: $5 million.
President and chief executive: Wendy Gradison.
Which management practice are you proudest of? “Our recruitment and onboarding. It all comes back to the staff we hire and their relationships with the clients we serve so they can develop a trusting relationship,” Gradison said.
If the workplace at this nonprofit looks more like a corporation than a nonprofit, it’s because it boasts a human relations department that has made this group one of the “Best Nonprofits to Work For” three years in a row, according to the Nonprofit Times. But it wasn’t always this way. For years, the organization had a 40 percent turnover rate that was impeding its services. Four years ago, executive director Gradison — the nonprofit’s second in its 50-year history — hired a consultant, developed a three-year strategy and revamped the human relations department. The group introduced new programs for staff such as skills training, job coaching, group coaching and regular meetings with supervisors. A dashboard system tracks employee satisfaction. It also improved its employee benefits to include whole life insurance and tuition reimbursement and created entrance interviews for new hires. Since 2008, employee turnover has dropped to 14 percent.
Type of work: Provides homeless services through shelter, guidance, education and advocacy.
Number of staff: 20 full-time staff and 14 part-time staff (nine of whom are seasonal for its hypothermia shelter).
Annual budget: $2 million.
Executive director: Lissette S. Bishins.
Which management practice are you proudest of? “Program success indicators have been translated into a dashboard that management staff and the board use to establish the direction of the organization … Utilizing outcome data, Carpenter’s was able to recognize the need for an internal structure reorganization to support both the community plan to end homelessness and Carpenter’s strategic plan,” Bishins said.
When Bishins became executive director in 2010, she knew something had to be done about the data and filing system at this large homeless shelter serving 1,000 people each year. It was all done by paper. Bishins led a major conversion of all paper files to electronic records to better evaluate clients. The group created an internal social networking program that tightens communication between departments to increase collaboration. The changes came at a time when the organization was hard hit by cuts in grants from the Freddie Mac Foundation, which made up 10 percent of its revenue. The group continued to diversify its revenue sources. While many shelters get most of its funding from governments, Carpenter’s Shelter relies mostly on private sources, including businesses. Government funding represents a third of its revenue. The group has also built a volunteer base of 1,000 individuals that run the food service operations.
Good Shepherd Housing & Family Services
Type of work: Provides services for homeless, including housing and financial aid.
Area location: Southeast Fairfax County.
Number of staff: 10 full-time, four part-time.
Annual budget: $2.5 million.
Executive director: Shannon Steene.
Which management practice are you proudest of? “If we can do things in collaboration with others and find the mutual win, that’s great. It’s because of that we grow. But we’re not interested in collaboration just for collaboration’s sake,” Steene said.
Gone are the days when a charity board seat required little more than a minimal investment. These days, joining a board can feel like a second full-time job. At Good Shepherd, a board member’s responsibility goes well into the weekend. As part of its internal communications strategy, board members and staff carry cards that contain the charity’s elevator pitch and a picture of clients they serve. These aren’t for handing out. They are to prime the staff and board on how to convey the group’s message. Executive director Steene also sends out a brief e-mail to board members every Friday updating them on new developments and successes of that week. Steene does this so that board members can communicate this to colleagues at weekend events like cocktails, dinner parties and church services. Collaboration externally has been key, too. The group partners with 17 homeless service providers to connect people with housing units. It also partnered with eight other nonprofits for county funding that aims to end homelessness.
Literacy Council of Northern Virginia
Type of work: Teaches adults the basic skills of reading, writing, speaking and understanding English through four education programs.
Area location: Falls Church.
Number of staff: 16 members (10 full time; six part-time).
Annual budget: $1.5 million.
Executive director: Patricia M.
Which management practice are you proudest of? “We have really understood the importance of engaging and developing the board and making them aware of the importance of their role in governance and fundraising. That has totally strengthen the organization,” Donnelly said.
The Literacy Council began preparing for the worst a few years before the recession. It began an aggressive campaign for individual donors and major gifts by starting challenge and matching grants with wealthy donors and businesses. So when the recession came, and the organization lost grants from foundations, it was sustained by its individual giving. However, in the past two years, the charity took a big hit. The government cut $100,000 in grants, causing the nonprofit to supplement with reserves. Now the group depends more than ever on its structured volunteer program. Its 700 volunteers are on something similar to professional career tracks. They can rise from tutors to tutor trainers to assessment specialists and test proctors for the 1,500 adults the group serves each year. LCNV also relies on partnerships with other nonprofits to aid its clients in areas in which it doesn’t specialize, such as legal and refugee services. Over the past year, it increased its board engagement by developing a form that outlines each member’s commitment, including pledges and hosting fundraisers at their home. Since then, board members have generated three new major corporate gifts.