FERDNALE-Affirmations Community Center has been plagued by financial difficulties since it opened its new $5.3 million building in downtown. The move, along with unexpected expenses and a harsh economy, has put the community center $1.2 million in the hole. The center has drastically cut back on hours, staffing and programming, keeping only the essentials along with programs that are grant-funded.
But there is hope. Longtime volunteer and former Board President George Westerman is leading the “Campaign for the Future,” a drive to raise the $1.25 million needed to give Affirmations a strong balance sheet and capital structure. Thus far the campaign has raised $540,000, although only $350,000 has been collected.
“Several people who committed early in the campaign have been holding back from making their contributions,” said Interim Executive Director Kevin Howley. “This re-launch, with the very, very, very clear use of proceeds, has gotten people re-engaged. They want the debt paid off and a clean start for the new executive director.
Howley stressed that funds collected have already been allocated appropriately based on the campaign’s goals. “Of the total collected, $200,000 was applied to our outstanding mortgage, $100,000 was used for amounts owed to vendors from previous periods, and $50,000 was used toward outstanding obligations for grants previously received.”
Westerman took time to answer questions about the campaign and his decision to take the reins in bringing Affirmations back to financial stability.
1. Why did you decided to take on leadership of the campaign?
Affirmations is important to me. I was a member of the board of directors when it decided to undertake this campaign to resolve some current debt obligations and to position Affirmations for the future with some board-restricted reserve funds. Because of my experience as a board member and as a leader for Affirmations’ capital campaign, I was asked to assist with this next phase. There is already a group of smart, dedicated people who’ve been working on the campaign to this point.
2. Have you run successful campaigns before? What did you learn from those experiences?
I was the volunteer campaign director for Affirmations’ “Open the Doors Capital and Endowment Campaign” which began in 2003 and completed in 2006. This was a $5.3 million campaign to raise funds to build the current community center building and to create an endowment fund for Affirmations. This campaign was successful due to the hard work of dedicated staff and more than 70 volunteers over the course of 2 1/2 years, not to mention a committee that worked preceding the campaign to complete a thorough feasibility study. Donors responded wonderfully to the campaign and we raised $5.7 million, building a 16,000 square-foot state-of-the-art facility. The most important thing I learned from managing the campaign is that people will respond when there is a compelling case.
3. Why is supporting Affirmations important to you?
I grew up in an area where I had no support for coming to terms with my sexual orientation. It became a big secret that I had to keep and there was no one to turn to for support or as a role model. This is not healthy for a kid, and I prayed each night that I would either wake up “normal” or not wake up the next day. If there had been an organization that provided the sense of community that Affirmations strives to create, I wouldn’t have had to endure the tremendous anxiety I put myself through. A community center provides a place where people can be themselves and, more importantly, connect with other great people.
4. Do you worry about Affirmations’ future? Why or why not?
I think anyone who is dedicated to a non-profit organization worries about that organization. They want it to thrive financially, to fulfill its mission well, and to continually evaluate its performance against its mission and expectations of community members. Volunteers, staff, board members, and community members all want this. So yes, I worry. I did when I was a board member and I do now. That’s why I am so glad that there is a strong and dedicated board, and staff, who put in tremendous hours of sweat and brain-power, and amazing volunteers who show up every day to keep the programs running.
5. Have you encountered people who are concerned about Affirmation’s financial stability? How do you respond to those who may think money is mismanaged, or that the future is hopeless?
Many people are concerned about Affirmations’ financial stability. It’s a difficult economy and many non-profits find themselves in a similar situation. It is expected that after building a new facility, an organization can experience hard times because of a number of factors: demand for services that was previously constrained by a lack of physical capacity, and donor fatigue are among them. We saw this happen in GLBT community centers in San Francisco and Ft. Lauderdale when they built new facilities, and we were prepared for it here. What we were not prepared for was a simultaneous downturn in the economy that would be so severe. But the future is not hopeless. The community still believes in Affirmations, and people continue giving their time, expertise and financial resources because the center is so vital to Southeast Michigan.
6. How long have you been a member, and what is your involvement on the board?
My partner Cliff and I became members in 1992 and have been members and donors ever since. I joined the board in 2000 and left the board in 2010. I was president of the board from 2009 to 2010.
7. What methods are you using to promote the campaign – website, social networks, fundraisers etc?
We have focused on approaching donors who contributed to the Open the Doors campaign at the higher levels, and new donors that have been identified along the way. We will continue doing that, but are adding to our strategy. The campaign will become more public this year but the specific methods will be determined by the committee and staff. We will approach community members at all levels in appropriate ways, and seek to attract new supporters. There is a place for everyone in keeping the doors open.
8. Any other comments of information you think we should add?
It is so important for members of our community to give to the organizations that do so much for us. There are many excellent organizations that focus on youth, discrimination, HIV/AIDS support and prevention, civic engagement, and community building. Whether we give our time or our money, we have to keep them going so that they can continue their good work.