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Giving back: Nonprofits are tough to start and tougher to keep going

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

When Jimmy Chandler started the S.C. Environmental Law Project in the 1980s, he never intended for it to be around long term. That’s why he used the word “project” in the name, said Amy Armstrong, who took over as head of the nonprofit after Chandler’s death from cancer last year.

“He started it to take on a few cases that wouldn’t be fee generating. The idea was to whip the agency [DHEC] into shape and have them make better decisions and the project wouldn’t be needed anymore,” she said. “When he told me that, we kind of chuckled, because when I started he was 10 years in. Now it’s still here and operating because you aren’t going to whip the agency into shape.”

The project will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year, and it’s only luck and a lot of hard work that have kept it around that long, defending the state’s natural resources, Armstrong said. When it comes to running a successful nonprofit, “there’s no formula to it.”

“It’s kind of figuring out what model works and then constantly reassessing that model for financial stability,” she added. “There have been years — recent years — where we have questioned whether we’d be around long term.

Without constant reassessment, the project might not be.

Like other nonprofits, the project has been hurt by changes in the stock market and foundations having less money to distribute through grants.

“Our model used to be mostly driven on foundation support and individual grants,” Armstrong said. “We had to shift that a little, to incorporate some fee for services to keep the doors open.”

The project is currently struggling to raise money to hire a third lawyer to handle its case load.

Chandler’s death could have also meant the end of the project if not for his planning. He had long been grooming Armstrong to take over when he retired and she already had an integral role in the functioning of the project when Chandler got sick.

If that hadn’t been the case, “SCELP could have very easily closed down,” Armstrong said.

If people knew going in how much work starting and running a nonprofit is, they would probably think twice about it, said Betsy Marlow, executive director of Miss Ruby’s Kids, an organization dedicated to early literacy. She is also a co-founder of the group with her sister, Jo Fortuna.

Miss Ruby’s Kids started in 2003 as an outreach mission of Holy Cross-Faith Memorial Episcopal Church, but it didn’t take long for organizers to realize it needed to be a separate nonprofit.

“It was really kind of scary because we didn’t know if we were going to be successful,” Marlow said. “With fear and trepidation, but with a lot of support, we stepped out and got our 501(c)3 in June of 2006.”

They had a “fair amount of training” before they got to that point, but all the work that goes into starting a nonprofit was still a bit overwhelming. There was setting up of files and learning which records had to be kept, registering with the S.C. Secretary of State to raise funds and seemingly a million other details.

“It’s a small business is what it is,” Marlow said. “You can’t just have good intentions. You’ve got to do it right.”

The group was lucky it was able to start out under the umbrella of another nonprofit on the church campus, Baskervill Outreach, and with help from other groups.

“It takes time,” David Gaines, said of keeping a nonprofit going. “I would have to say you have to be very passionate about what you’re doing.”

Gaines and his wife, Melanie, run the Ashley G. Charitable Foundation. The family started the foundation in 2008 while the Gaines’ teen daughter, Ashley, was battling lymphoma. She died that same year.

The foundation is dedicated to raising awareness concerning the symptoms, treatment and care of children and teens with lymphoma, and to funding research for treatment of the disease and giving financial assistance to lymphoma patients and their families during treatment.

Getting donations is tough, “especially with the way the economy is right now,” Gaines said. But he thinks the foundation has it easier than a lot of nonprofits, because so many in the community knew and loved Ashley, but also because of its cause.

“Everybody has got a grandparent or father or someone who has had cancer. It touches everyone,” Gaines said. That makes people a little more willing to “dig into their pockets.”

But no matter how good the cause, it’s a good idea to test programs and ensure there truly is a need before starting a nonprofit, said Geales Sands, executive director of the Bunnelle Foundation. The foundation awarded more than $2 million in grants to 73 organizations last year.

“It’s like test driving a car,” she said. “People have good ideas every day, but good ideas don’t always merit being acted upon.” She cited one case where a group raised millions of dollars and built a homeless shelter for teens in Alabama. When it opened, nobody came. It turned out there wasn’t a need for a teen shelter in that area.

“That’s a pretty poignant example,” she said.

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