Crisis Assistance Ministry targets root causes

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In 2005, Crisis Assistance Ministry in Charlotte received a $200,000 Neighborhood Builder grant from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation that it used to overhaul its operating and business infrastructure, systems and processes so it could double the number of clients it serves by 2015.

While those changes did prepare it to handle growth, Crisis Assistance actually saw demand for its services double by the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2010, in the wake of the collapse of the economy in 2008.

Now, Crisis Assistance has received a second Neighborhood Builder grant that it will use to put into place and expand a reengineering of its financial assistance stability services that it piloted over the past two years.

The pilot developed and tested a new process to spend more time with clients in financial crisis and help them focus both on the symptoms and causes of their financial problems.

“With our ability to spend a little more time with them, we can empower them to address the root causes of the crisis,” says Carol Hardison, CEO of Crisis Assistance.

And while it initially will enable the agency to hire new staff and double to 50 the number of clients it served during the pilot, Crisis Assistance over 10 years aims to expand the new approach to all its financial assistance clients.

Crisis Assistance serves roughly 8 percent of the population of Mecklenburg County, Hardison says, providing financial assistance services to over 20,000 families, a free store that serves over 15,000 families, and a furniture bank that serves over 2,700 families.

Formed in 1975 and operating with an annual budget of over $16 million, the agency has focused a lot of attention on improving its processes so it can serve more people.

With funds from its first Neighborhood Builder grant, for example, it worked with Duke Energy to streamline the process it uses to gather information from clients needing financial assistance, reducing to one from three the number of staff people collecting that information.

And the two-year financial-assistance pilot increases, to three hours from 32 minutes, the time it spends working with each client so it can help them identify the root causes of their financial problems.

The pilot was funded with a total of $224,500 contributed by Myers Park United Methodist Church, Myers Park Presbyterian Church and Christ Church, and has been continued temporarily through an anonymous gift of $26,000.

“By 2023, every person who comes to Crisis Assistance should get this kind of assessment,” Hardison says.

The Neighborhood Builder grant also will include leadership training for Men Tchaas Ari, the agency’s chief program officer, who was hired with funds from the 2005 grant to assess and help revamp its financial services processes and technology.

Crisis Assistance also has developed partnerships with other agencies to better serve clients.

Hardison, for example, serves on the board of the new Bank of the Urban League of Central Carolinas, which has a targeted clientele that includes clients of Crisis Assistance.

Crisis Assistance also is developing agreements with the Urban League and other agencies such as Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont to provide services to their clients.

Those partnerships reflect a growing network of collaboration fostered in part by the Neighborhood Builder grants program, Hardison says.

Patrick Graham, president and CEO of the Urban League of Central Carolinas, which this year also landed a Neighborhood Builder grant, received leadership training through the Neighborhood Builder grant that Crisis Assistance was awarded in 2005 when he was that agency’s director of emergency financial assistance.

“We’re entering into deep, intertwined collaboration,” Hardison says.

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