Realism and Radical Change Create Nonprofit Sustainability

By Peter Gamache, Ph.D. & Jackie Sue Griffin, MBA, MS, Turnaround Life, Inc.

When President and CEO Kirk Ray Smith (above, left) joined RCS Pinellas in 2016, the nonprofit had been operating in the red for not just years but decades. The organization with a mission “to feed the hungry, help families facing homelessness return to self-sufficiency and empower survivors of domestic violence” had been serving with a lot of heart but little cash since 1967, depending on reserves and gifts that seemed to fall into their laps.

“We were very good at the front of the house work, the programs,” Smith explains. “It was the back of the house that had to be addressed. I don’t care how amazing your mission is; you can’t let bleeding hearts bleed the organization dry. No margin, no mission.”

Before Smith’s tenure, many within the organization felt that their mission was too important for RCS to go away, but that’s exactly what was happening; RCS was facing liquidation.

Over a little more than two years and four phases, Smith and his COO Melinda Perry (above, right), another recent addition to the executive team, instituted structural and staffing changes to bring RCS operations in line with existing funding.

“If you cannot net zero or be in the black,” Smith says, “you won’t be around very long; I don’t care how great your mission is. We had to take a long, hard look at the reality of our situation.”

They applied Smith’s trademarked VIVID and BECQI models. VIVID is an evaluative model that asks Are we Viable? Are we Impactful? Are we Visible? Are we Inspirational? Are we Deliverable? and BECQI guides daily actions for Building relationships, Eliminating mistakes, Controlling expenses, Quality programs and services and Increasing revenue.

And the results speak for themselves. A 95-percent volunteer organization (2,500 volunteers each year versus 80 employees), RCS serves 130,000 individuals and families each year—15 percent of the County’s population. That includes 500-600 families in transitional housing, 70,000 food-insecure individuals and 17,000 people though safe house and outreach centers annually. In 2019, increased government contracts spurred budget growth of $1.4 million. “We’ve increased the pounds of food we distribute by 2 million pounds. Thanks to this increase, we served 50,000 more people this year than last,” COO Perry says.

Others have taken note of the results of Smith and Perry’s transformational leadership: For last three years in row, RCS attained the coveted 4-star rating (number one in the state of Florida for charities of their size) for demonstrating strong financial health and commitment to accountability and transparency from Charity Navigator, after successfully and fully amortizing all agency debt and growing their assets to $8.5 million.

In 2018 RCS Pinellas was recognized as the Large Charity of the Year by the Clearwater Regional Chamber Commerce and the Large Business of the Year by the Upper Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce. In 2018 and 2019 RCS was awarded the GuideStar Gold Seal of Transparency.

Today, “90 cents of every dollar goes back to our mission,” Smith says. “We’re not ashamed of that.” In fact, he says, nonprofits shouldn’t be ashamed of discussing their overhead: “We should be humble as individuals but not as a nonprofit; we have to be loud and proud when we talk about impact and ROI.”

Smith, Perry and the RCS board aren’t content to rest on their laurels, though: their plan for 2020 includes nearly tripling their current 11-unit (50-person) affordable housing community by adding 20 new units.

The leadership team takes a long look at each step, each decision, Smith says. “As a nonprofit, we have to be realistic about our challenges and capacity.” Some of their initiatives require partnerships, others more intensive collaborations, and some may require taking on new debt. “We’re prepared now to do that,” Smith says. “We have a plan to grow maintenance and program staff to support the additional housing; we have a plan to amortize that debt and show return on investment. We have the back of house in place now to not only support but grow the front of house. Because our mission is too important for us to go away.”

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