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Strategic, Savvy Nonprofits

Innovative business strategies help nonprofits serve clients when they’re needed most.

The Montgomery Dragon Boat Festival raises funds for both Rebuilding Together Central Alabama and Bridge Builders Alabama.

The Montgomery Dragon Boat Festival raises funds for both Rebuilding Together Central Alabama and Bridge Builders Alabama.

SOME ALABAMA NONPROFITS ARE USING INNOVATIVE BUSINESS STRATEGIES to increase their viability and success even in today’s economic climate. Some of their strategies include expanding markets, creative fundraising, partnering, adopting best practices and branding themselves as good investments. Here are several examples of winning Alabama nonprofits.

National Children’s Advocacy Center

The National Children’s Advocacy Center (NCAC), based in Huntsville, helps fight and respond to child abuse not only in the Madison County and surrounding area, but also across the nation and the world. On a local level, the NCAC offers various prevention and intervention programs and provides mental health and medical services as needed.

The successful Madison program, which got its start in 1985 through the advocacy efforts of former Alabama Congressman Bud Cramer, has inspired and fostered the creation of 800 children’s advocacy centers across the country that serve more than 270,000 children each year. The centers are now proliferating globally, having spread to 26 countries. “Alabama can be proud to have taken the lead in the fight to protect children against abuse and neglect,” says NCAC Executive Director Chris Newlin.

Since its beginning, NCAC has trained more than 80,000 child abuse professionals. A central resource for such professionals, the NCAC holds two conferences at its Huntsville campus each year. “Proceeds from the training and conferences help fund our local programs,” Newlin says. “With so many nonprofits struggling with funding cuts, we’re fortunate to have a growing source of revenue in addition to traditional sources.”

Cramer was a district attorney in the early 1980s when he witnessed how abused and neglected children, especially those who had been sexually abused, were being further traumatized by the legal system. Often children had to retell what happened to them numerous times to various officials as they were shuttled from location to location. “Efforts weren’t coordinated, and it was children who suffered,” Newlin says.

Cramer had a vision to enlist law enforcement, criminal justice, child protective service, medical and mental health workers to work as a multidisciplinary team, coordinating their efforts at a location that would provide a safe haven for the child. The local program Cramer spearheaded worked so well that child abuse programs across the country began modeling their program after it. “Now recognition of the program is growing internationally, which has opened new markets for us,” Newlin says.

United Cerebral Palsy of Birmingham

Five years ago United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) of Birmingham, which helps disabled clients find employment, was awarded a secure document-shredding contract from the Internal Revenue Service. That small contract, facilitated by the National Industries for the Severely Handicapped (NISH), allowed UCP to buy equipment and set up a secure document-shredding facility on its Lakeshore campus. The contract allows UCP to provide jobs for its clients, who would otherwise have a tough time finding employment.

Leveraging that contract, UCP created a secure document shredding business, Gone For Good, that now serves 300 businesses in Birmingham, Huntsville and Montgomery. Six months ago, UCP opened a second business, Scan Do, to scan documents for electronic filing. “The two businesses are complimentary because a company may choose to have its documents securely shredded after they are scanned,” says Gary Edwards, chief executive officer for UCP of Birmingham.

The businesses currently employ 90 disabled workers and will expand employment as demand for services increases. UCP uses the positions to help train clients for other job opportunities with area companies. The slots are also used for those who are so severely disabled that other employment is unlikely. “We have been able to invest in the technology that enables even someone with a severe disability to do the job,” Edwards says.

The NISH estimates the unemployment rate for those with severe disabilities is 70 percent, so the document shredding and scanning jobs are golden opportunities. UCP is seeking additional customers for both businesses so staffing can be increased. “Our people are thrilled to be able to work. The joy is written all over their faces,” Edwards says.

Gone For Good and Scan Do offer both a high level of customer service and competitive pricing, Edwards says. Because Gone for Good staffers are able to separate colored paper from white before shredding, they get a higher return on the recycling and pass the savings on to their customers.

Montgomery Dragon Boat Festival

A creative fund-raising partnership, now in its third year, is helping boost revenues for both Rebuilding Together Central Alabama and Bridge Builders Alabama. The Montgomery Dragon Boat Festival generated $60,000 in net proceeds from its second annual event August 27, says Andrew Szymanski, executive director of the festival. “The popularity of this new annual race and festival has exceeded everyone’s expectations, especially in the current economy. We believe participation and interest will continue to grow,” he says.

Dragon boat racing, which began in ancient China, has become an international phenomenon in recent years. Cities across the country are beginning to host annual dragon boat race festivals and a number of them are tied to charitable fund-raising groups.

Twenty paddlers and a drummer team up in a long canoe-like vessel decorated like a Chinese dragon. Anyone of average athletic ability can participate on a team, one of the reasons for the sport’s popularity. “Participating is just so much fun and bonding for the team members as they come together for fundraising, several practice sessions and the race itself,” Szymanski says.

Dragon boat racing was brought to Montgomery’s Riverwalk Park after John Jenkins, executive director of Rebuilding Together Central Alabama, saw his first race and shared his enthusiasm for it with others. He and Carol Butler, president of the Central Alabama Community Foundation, collaborated to help create a joint fund-raiser for his nonprofit and another she helped found, Bridge Builders Alabama.

Rebuilding Together helps low-income homeowners by providing free home repair services. Bridge Builders is a two-year mentoring program for high school students that builds leadership skills and fosters community involvement.

This year’s festival race drew 55 teams, up from 27 last year. Teams donate at least $2,500 to the festival to participate. Organizers are hoping for 60 teams this year, in addition to expanding the sponsor base, exhibits, entertainment and other offerings for the festival.

Eventually the festival could grow to a multi-day event, which would allow more teams to compete. The City of Montgomery has gone out of its way to help foster the event, which drew 7,000 this year, Szymanski says. “We’ve been told we have one of the best setups in the country for races and could draw dragon boat race clubs from across the country,” he says.

Shocco Springs Baptist Conference Center

Since 1948 Shocco Springs Baptist Conference Center, located near Talladega, has offered a natural retreat for Christian groups seeking spiritual renewal and transformation.  While the 780-acre campus continues to fulfill that mission, it now also hosts various nonprofit groups and actively markets itself to the nonprofit community.

The strategy has become an important part of the center’s fiscal health. “Shocco Springs could exist serving only Christian groups but could not provide the level of quality in staff and facilities. By broadening the clientele we serve, we can provide an experience that meets today’s expectations,” says Executive Director Buster Taylor.

Over the years the center has expanded to include 365 motel rooms and 55 conference rooms of various sizes. It hosts more than 400 groups each year, including more than 43,000 individuals in 2010. About 15 percent of Shocco Springs’ business now comes from nonprofits.

“It’s a great partnership. The nonprofit groups appreciate our affordable pricing structure, which is especially important in these lean economic times. The groups tend to meet in our slower months. That helps us keep our rooms full. And from a spiritual viewpoint, we know we are helping nonprofits fulfill their missions to help others,” says Wendy Westerhouse, sales and public relations associate for Shocco Springs.

The idea to broaden its client base came to Shocco Springs’ leadership through a request to host clients of the Alabama Department of Mental Health and Wings Across Alabama for a conference 15 years ago. The groups needed the right environment with lodging, meals and conference space to care for clients with mental health issues who might only leave their group homes once a year. “Because our foundation serves Christian groups, we felt this was a way to put into practice our beliefs,” Westerhouse says.

The collaboration got off to such a great start that the mental health groups now host several events at Shocco Springs each year. The center also regularly hosts Habitat for Humanity National Office volunteer groups and Alabama Foster and Adoptive Parents Association conferences among others. “We never knew 15 years ago the impact of that one decision would be vital to our survival in today’s world. It has been a gradual process to meet new organizations, but we see the effects of it every day in keeping our doors open for service,” Westerhouse says.

South Alabama Nonprofit Coalition

The South Alabama Nonprofit Coalition was created three years ago to help enhance operating standards of Mobile and Baldwin Counties nonprofits and advocate for their worth. By operating under the coalition seal of approval, member nonprofits are able to assure donors their investment is well placed, thus fostering continued support.

“In today’s economic climate, to stay funded you must be able to demonstrate you’re being a good steward and operate effective programs. You’ve got to be able to show the value and impact of what you do for the community,” says Andrew Wynne, administrator for St. Mary’s Home in Mobile, one of 35 nonprofits in the coalition.

“Our membership is open, but a nonprofit must be willing to undergo scrutiny,” says Wynne, who is on the coalition board. “We are happy to work with a nonprofit that knows it needs improvement because we want to cultivate best practices throughout the nonprofit community.”

All coalition members must agree to follow 33 “Principles for Good Governance and Ethical Practice” developed by the National Council of Nonprofits—standards that include the role of the board, financial accountability, record keeping and fundraising. The federal government has adopted 31 of the 33 principles into its nonprofit reporting requirements.

In addition to promoting high operating standards and providing peer review, the coalition provides advocacy for the importance of nonprofits through such efforts as periodic receptions for elected officials. The first reception for local and state government leaders was held last October, and a second is in the planning stages.

Such receptions offer officials the opportunity to learn how nonprofits contribute to their communities. Most people underestimate the impact of nonprofits, Wynne says, while noting that in Mobile and Baldwin counties alone, some 125,000 people—one of every five people—benefit from the work of nonprofits. “We want to make sure elected officials understand nonprofit impact so they’ll be able to make better decisions,” he says.

Kathy Hagood is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.

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