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A new community chat was announced at the center on Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 6:30 p.m. The center is located at 290 W. 9 Mile Road Ferndale. Check goaffirmations.org, facebook.com/Affirmations/ and pridesource.com for updates.
It had only been a few weeks, but Jennifer Johnson’s daughter had started to look forward to Fridays; that’s when she’d visit Affirmations and take part in the youth programs available there. Fridays were also the day that Johnson had come to trust that she’d have a reliable, safe space in which her openly LGBTQ daughter could be herself.
“Each time she [goes she] says she has a great time and it’s a place where she can be herself. She has become more open and she’s still a cranky teenager,” Johnson said with a laugh, “but not as cranky as before.”
That’s why when the Ferndale-based LGBTQ community center sent out news in November that they were experiencing financial difficulties, many members of Metro Detroit’s LGBTQ community, along with allies like Johnson, began to worry. The news seemed especially grim, too: Affirmations, the largest LGBTQ community center in the state, had depleted most its reserves and was facing an impending shutdown only six months away. When a community chat was held to discuss the situation, even Johnson’s 13-year-old daughter wanted to attend; her newfound Friday night routine was at stake along with hundreds of others who regularly use Affirmations’ services.
“When I asked her about going to this community chat I said I’m not quite sure what was going on, that Affirmations might be having some kind of financial challenges,” Johnson said. “I asked her, ‘Do you want to stay home or do you want to go?’ And she said she wanted to go. And I thought that was interesting because what 13-year-old kid wants to go to a meeting like that? But she was OK with it.”
And the Johnsons weren’t alone. That Dec. 10 community chat meeting was well attended by dozens of concerned Affirmations supporters. Throughout that chat and the following Dec. 12 board meeting — the center’s final two public meetings for the 2018-year — community concerns and the center’s finances were discussed at length. The verdict: due to aggressive restructuring, Johnson’s Fridays would remain intact for the time being. The center’s cash flow appears to have been stabilized, at least through the middle of 2019, but at a cost.
Much of that restructuring focused on cutting services and positions not absolutely necessary for the center to stay afloat. This report will provide a look at the many services that Affirmations is still providing throughout its ongoing restructuring process, steps taken by its board to raise revenue and how Affirmations stands now compared to similar centers across the U.S.
Stopping the Leak
According to current board members, most of whom have held their positions officially since May 2018, the single largest drain on Affirmations fiscal resources was staff payroll. This, coupled with inaccurate earnings projections and a trend of revenue deficits over the last several years, made for an unsustainable system that came dangerously close to failing at the end of last year. Board President Mike Flores illustrated this point.
“If you look at the budget for 2014, they had a $1.2 million budget. They were expecting to bring in $1.2 million and they were expecting to provide $1.2 million worth of services. They only brought in about $900,000,” Flores said. “Last year, we predicted about $800,000 worth of services and were able to bring in about $760,000. This year, we’re closer to $600,000.”
Beginning the year, Board Member Cheryl Czach said that the center’s payroll costs ran about $30,000 monthly. When the center got to a point with only $60,000 available in its reserve funds, she said restructuring was imperative.
“We desperately had to make a change and we made the very difficult decision to restructure. None of us wanted to let staff go,” Czach said. “It’s not an easy choice to make and since then our staff has been working really, really hard to try and fill the gap and the board has been really active. We are in the center regularly doing staff meetings, we’re talking about covering shifts when we need to so that people can go on PTO [personal time off].”
Going into detail about 2018’s reserve fund allocations at the community chat, Flores described when the board drew from the reserves to keep the center afloat.
“Three separate occasions have happened in the last eight months where $30,000, $10,000 and $30,000 [respectively] were requested from the cash reserves,” he said. “The first cash reserve [draw] happened in the March/April time frame for $40,000.”
At that time the Center was actively searching for a new executive director to fill the vacant position and estimated that it would cost at least $10,000 to find candidates. Czach, who led those efforts, was able to complete her search without touching those funds.
“Then Cheryl explained that she returned $10,000 back to the cash reserves and immediately the leadership asked for $10,000 to be able to meet cash flow demands,” Flores said. “Basically what that means is that we needed to pay our employees and we were unable to do so. … Then, as late as October, there was another request for $30,000 because again we were unable to meet our cash flow demands to pay our employees.”
Flores then addressed the direct plan of action being used to help stop the loss of money that the center was facing.
“Number one is stopping the bleeding. Number two is only keeping the essential services. Number three is reaching out to your major donors and number four is taking a breather. We’ve done the first two, we’ve started on number three,” Flores said, adding that over the next six months the center’s leaders hope to develop a clearer financial action plan.
According to year-end financial charts passed out at the Dec. 12 board meeting, Affirmations’ cash flow looked stable through the beginning of February. During that meeting Flores also expressed confidence in opening its doors for Ferndale Pride in June.
The next board meeting is scheduled for February. This week a new community chat was announced for Jan. 16 at 6:30 p.m. (check goaffirmations.org and pridesource.com for updates).
The Path to Rekindling Relationships
Per the third step of the plan, current board members said that Affirmations is now dedicated to reaching out to its regular and former donors to ensure that beyond grants, the center has a regular and reliable source of funding from its members. If successful, the gradual return of these donors that Affirmations has been steadily accruing since its inception in the late 1980s should help in offsetting the center’s payroll and operating costs. However, it might not be as simple as placing a few phone calls or sending out several appeal letters to donors who haven’t been contacted in a while. Successfully restructuring will mean reactivating old relationships and proactively maintaining them.
According to Alice McKeage, a former board member and existing center partner, she is eager to aid the center in its time of need, but hasn’t received any appeals in months — and it’s not only among fellow center partners
“As a supporter of Affirmations, I have to say that one of the things that really concerns me is that I’m still a center partner. When my credit card expires, I call and give them new information. I have talked to so many [former donors] this past year who say, ‘Oh, they don’t have that program anymore,'” she said. “And it’s because nobody contacted them to say, ‘We tried to run your center partner donation and your credit card is wrong.'”
Board member Tim Lantzy said that part of the reason behind this slow outreach is a long-term database issue that the center only recently identified.
“We have four different databases that reach out to our donors and none of them were talking to each other,” Lantzy said at the Dec. 10 community chat. “None of them were collecting updated information. None of them were working so one thing we started doing in the last two or three weeks to get them to talk to each other to get them to communicate.”
Lantzy also emphasized that existing members of the donor system reach out to Affirmations to make sure that the center has updated contact information. This will ensure that they stay up to date on center happenings via mail and email announcements.
Beyond targeting individual donors, the board has taken proactive measures in reaching out to “subject matter experts” and made an appeal to gain more knowledge about Affirmations history.
“We have reached out to several crisis managers, we have quotes from them, and, to former board members, and I think it’s a disadvantage that so many of us are new because we don’t know you,” Czach said to supporters at the community chat. “Thank you for coming and please introduce yourselves and I would love to talk with you about getting some historical knowledge of the organization that we simply don’t have.”
Czach’s comment points further than just the currently appointed board, too. Affirmations’ history of former executive directors shows that for almost a decade, the center has been in a state of relative flux regarding new staff hires and appointments. Since former executive director Leslie Thompson’s departure from the center in 2011 (she was the last long-term employee in her position, having served for 11 years), Affirmations has seen the entry and departure of six consecutive executive directors/interim directors, many of whom brought with them new board members and different means of leadership. An attendee at the community chat, Michael Einheuser, emphasized the impact this fluctuation has had on Affirmations’ overall function and the difficulty for new directors and board members to get acquainted with the center without stability.
“It’s not going to be a matter of just going out and asking for money,” he said. “… We have to keep the doors open and there’s a legacy out there, and for all the donors who put money in, the doors have to stay open over and beyond that. I think a great deal of time and attention needs to be put to looking at management, governance and particularly on leadership.”
Centerlink is a national organization that helps develop relationships between LGBTQ community centers across the U.S. In partnership with the Movement Advancement Project, an organization dedicated to increasing LGBTQ equality, the two groups released an Aug. 2018 report that helped create a comprehensive overview of 128 U.S. LGBTQ community centers’ capacity, programs, services and needs. Though Affirmations was not a participant in the surveys conducted for the 2018 Report, the comparison between national averages provides a perspective on its existing ability to provide services and its impact on the Metro Detroit LGBTQ community.
– Center Capacity
Affirmations is unique in that it has an owned physical space. The report found that though “nine out of 10 centers have a physical space,” the majority, 63 percent, rent while only 27 percent owned the buildings.
“One in 10 centers lacks a dedicated physical space; all but one of these centers have budgets of $150,000 or less,” said the report.
At the end of 2018 Affirmations had total revenues of about $600,000 putting it among the larger centers in the U.S. However, due to its total expenses of nearly $770,000 this past year, it was on track to create a loss of $170,000 for the year. It is important to note that that sum includes $92,000 of depreciation on the building – a non-cash expense. The “cash” deficit of $78,000 was plugged with the draws from the reserves discussed by board president Mike Flores at the community chat.
Affirmations is also in the minority of centers that are open to provide services more than 40 hours a week. Even with shortened hours, the center is currently available to serve community members 45 hours a week, providing potentially life-saving services like STI and HIV testing and community support — this year alone the center provided 121 days dedicated to free and confidential HIV/STI testing. Affirmations also follows suit with the report’s 83-percent majority that provides “all gender restrooms” for visitors.
– Center Staff and Boards of Directors
Affirmations is among the half of participating centers that are “thinly staffed” and is in the 32 percent that has between one and five paid staff members. Currently, Affirmations does not have an executive director, but board members are in the process of conducting a search for someone to take on that position. That aligns the center with 35 percent of centers across the U.S. that are in similar circumstances and have high rates of executive director turnover — having had a new one almost every year for the past four years. Currently, Affirmations ranks below the national average regarding diversity on its board, 18 percent compared to 39 percent. Due to current low staffing, the rates for Affirmations’ diversity regarding its staff are unreliable.
Affirmations’ budget far exceeded almost half of centers nationally, whose budgets were $150,000 or less. However, among large LGBTQ community centers Affirmations was below the average 2018 expense budget of $1.1 million with roughly $600,000 now projected.
Affirmations is among 88 percent of its peers in offering transgender-specific programming, among 83 percent of those centers offering LGBTQ youth-focused programming and activities and among 68 percent of centers that offer physical and mental health care. It is also among three quarters of centers that provide computer access for its visitors.
Annually, Affirmations has provided these services to more than 35,000, provided LGBTQ+ 101 Trainings for 1,700 individuals, including representatives from major health care systems, schools and other businesses in the region.
Services Provided and Existing Staff
Entering 2019 Affirmations is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. through 8 p.m. and offers both support and discussion, along with recovery-focused groups. In 2018 the center served 8,880 community members through its discussion programming – 750 of those members are LGBTQ youth. Beyond those services, Affirmations offers programs like tobacco quitting resources, relationship skills classes, counseling services, HIV and STI testing, LGBTQ education and learning labs and even includes a gallery for local artists to showcase their work. Below is the center’s schedule of recurring groups. For a full list go online to goaffirmations.org.
Support & Discussion
– Coming Out Together 6:30 to 8 p.m.
– Transgender Life Support 6 to 8 p.m.
– Senior Koffee Klatch 1 to 3 p.m.
– FtM Detroit (2nd/4th) 6 to 8 p.m.
– Writing Group (1st/ 3rd) 6:30 to 8 p.m.
– Millennial Men 18-35 (2nd/4th) 6 to 8 p.m.
– Youth Drop-In 13 to 20 3 to 8 p.m.
– Coming Out 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
– Smeared Lipstick (4th) 3 to 6 p.m.
– Men’s Discussion Group 5 to 7 p.m.
– Lesbian Euchre (1st/Oct.-May) 5:30 to 8 p.m.
– Motor City Bears (2nd) 5:30 to 8 p.m.
– Youth Drop-In 13 to 20 3 to 8 p.m.
– AA Brownbaggers 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
– NA Diversity 6:15 to 8 p.m.
– AA Brownbaggers 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
– CMA – Crystal Clean 6:45 p.m. to 7:45 p.m.
– NA Regardless Of … 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
– AA Brownbaggers 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
– SMART Recovery 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
– AA Brownbaggers 1:30 to 3 p.m.