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.

Urban League focuses on social and human capital

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Individuals enrolled with the Urban League of Central Carolinas in Charlotte to get national certification training on heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems also work as apprentice assistants to certified technicians who contract with the Urban League to provide HVAC maintenance for churches, nonprofits and residences.

That maintenance program generates revenue the Urban League uses to provide scholarships for others who enroll in certification training.

The program is one of a handful of social ventures the Urban League has developed and now aims to grow with $200,000 from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation through its Neighborhood Builder program that also will provide leadership training for an emerging leader at the Urban League.

The social venture initiatives “are about building capacity for the agency,” says Patrick Graham, president and CEO of the Urban League of Central Carolinas.

Operating with an annual budget of nearly $2 million and a staff of 10 people working full-time, plus 12 part-time teachers for its after-school programs and 10 contractors for its national certification programs, the Urban League serves roughly 5,000 clients a year through its workforce, education and outreach programs.

The workforce programs include job-readiness, life-skills and financial-literacy training; national certification training in HVAC, broadband and fiber optics, Microsoft specialist and customer services.

Education programs include after-school programs at 12 schools in Mecklenburg and Union counties, with technology training at elementary and middle schools to enhance the core curriculum, and broad band and fiber optic certification, Cisco certification, and leadership development and mentoring at high schools.

In addition to a voter campaign in 2012, outreach programs include a bank the Urban League launched in November 2012 in partnership with Carolina Premier Bank that is geared to “underbanked and unbanked” customers and provides lending to minorities.

The Bank of the Urban League of Central Carolinas already has made loans totaling over $1.7 million and is negotiating another loan for $1 million, Graham says.

The Urban League, which receives two-thirds of its funding from private foundations and individuals, and one-third from government, plans to use the funds it will receive from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation to add a development position to increase giving from individual donors.

It also plans to add a job developer who will work with companies to advocate and find jobs for its clients.

And Shannon McKnight, the Urban League’s director of development and communications, will receive training as an emerging leader through the Neighborhood Builder grant.

Graham received similar training in 2006 as director of emergency and financial assistance at Crisis Assistance Ministry, which that year and again this year received a Neighborhood Builder grant.

Graham says his social venture work at the Urban League reflects lessons he learned from that training, and from his doctoral work in history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

His dissertation focused on the migration of blacks to the North from the South during the Civil Rights movement and the institutions they created to address racism in the North.

As a child growing up on Long Island in New York, Graham attended the Martin Luther King Center, which had been founded by migrants from the South, and which he later served as executive director.

Recognizing that minority communities traditionally have lacked access to capital, Graham says, he has worked at the Urban League to find ways to “generate income and provide a means to build financial literacy and capital that would make the community more independent.”