Charlotte LGBT center faces critical fundraising deadline

Group has only $6,000 on hand, has sold only six memberships since last month

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: February 7, 2014 in News

lgbtcentercharlotteCHARLOTTE, N.C. — The LGBT Community Center of Charlotte faces a critical fundraising deadline over the next three weeks or will be forced to close its doors, as board members and community members discussed at the group’s second public town hall on Thursday evening.

With just about $6,000 cash on hand, center board Chair Roberta Dunn said the group does not have enough funds to cover the group’s approximate $7,000 in monthly expenses going forward. The expenses include rent of about $3,500 a month, utilities, an employee’s salary and other operational expenses.

Additionally, the center said only six memberships and two sponsorships have been collected since the group announced its new membership and sponsorship structure last month.

About 40 people attended the town hall, following up on a variety of financial, governance and accountability issues initially discussed at a similar forum on Dec. 4. About 100 people attended the December meeting, planned in response to several commentaries from this writer at his personal blog in November.

Dunn said the group has a near-term goal to raise $20,000 in memberships and sponsorships.

“If 100 people in Charlotte … gave a sustaining $50 membership a month we’d be financially flush. We’d be fine,” she said. “We need to have fundraisers and community support and that is the bottom line.”

But, nearly all the meeting focused on continued concerns over board leadership, decision-making, accountability and trust, with some community members continuing to call for bylaws changes granting new members the right to vote at an annual meeting and approve revisions to the bylaws.

“I think it’s obvious that the community has kind of lost confidence in the direction of the community center,” said Diane Troy. “If people could see a clear change in the policies or direction the center is going in, you could possibly rebuild some of that confidence.”

Chad Sevearance, president of the Charlotte Business Guild, said the support to maintain the center is present among local organizations and businesses, but only if center leadership can be held more accountable.

“We polled 50 businesses yesterday following our meeting with Roberta,” Sevearance said. “They refused to help the center without the change in the bylaws. That is the sticking point and I know we’re beating it like a dead horse. But, they feel like if they don’t have a voice and a vote, they are putting their money into something and taking a huge risk.”

Though Dunn told local news affiliate FOX 46 Carolinas that she would recommend a vote to change the bylaws, other board members don’t yet seem convinced on the need for change.

“I don’t mind voting on something, but I need to know what its for,” said board member Crystal Long. “You talk about this membership thing. I knew nothing about it. I like to study stuff. I like to know what it’s all about. What is the meaning and why is it so important?”

Town hall moderator Josh Jacobson, a non-profit consultant who has volunteered to assist the center in its strategic planning, said the center has a desire to learn more.

“We want to be thoughtful about this and not be reactive,” Jacobson said. “It’s a good point that it’s going to be hard to fundraise [without the change], but that’s a tactical decision to change with a lot of strategy behind it. People want that from an accountability standpoint, but there is a desire on the board to understand if there are other underlying reasons. Is there a lack of trust? Is there a lack of accountability and a history of that? … There is a desire to explore deeper rather than react to feedback in this manner and to be reactive. They want to be proactive. They want to hear and get to the bottom of those.”

Discussions over the center’s financial status, its spending priorities and board leadership have been a topic of public discussion for months. Recent changes to open board meetings and institute a membership structure following the Dec. 4 town hall failed to move the organization forward and it has since apologized for what it called errors and mistakes in those changes which technically left board meetings closed to the public.

Similar conversations over the center’s fiscal stability and direction have reached back for years.  In 2007, the center came close to closure while also facing concerns over a lack of transparency.

Despite continued financial struggles, the center said it will remain in its current location, with rent costs of about $3,500 each month.

Troy called the monthly expenses the “big elephant in the room.”

“How difficult would it be to get out of this lease and take a loss and pick up somewhere where the expenses are less?” Troy asked. “If we are just trying to hold onto the community center in a very expensive location because we have a longterm lease, maybe we should try our best to get out of it and find a place that is less expensive and make it more manageable.”

Dunn said the current location is within $200 of the cost of the center’s old location at the N.C. Music Factory, but at four times the size. Additionally, the center is guaranteed no increase in rental rates over five years. Dunn said community members wanted the center to move back into NoDa or Plaza Midwood and find a place that could host large events.

“I just have a problem with the cost of this — the reason why you need a space this large,” Troy responded. “You need to try to figure out what your objectives are. You don’t need to be paying $3,500 a month just because you might want to have a large gathering here every couple of months.”

The center’s occupancy costs have run high over the past several years. In 2008, 48 percent of their total yearly expenses went toward occupancy fees. That amount jumped up to 59-60 percent from 2009 through 2011. According to the center’s most recent financial disclosure, it paid $41,580 for occupancy in 2012, or about 49 percent of that year’s total expenses.

Current center leaders say they can’t change the past, but they know of the problems and want to fix them now.

“Things happened with the center way before I started,” said center Operations Director Glenn Griffin, who began working for the group last May.

Griffin said the town halls have been helpful for him to learn about past mistakes.

“People feel they were burned. They were hurt. They were ignored. They volunteered and didn’t get any appreciation for that,” Griffin said. “To, me it’s wrong. I agree. I want to help mend those fences as well.”

Griffin said he wants to see the change, but knew from the beginning about frustrations in the community.

“When I first started, one of the questions that was asked of me was how do you feel being a part of an organization that doesn’t welcome everybody,” he said. “I was appalled by that.”

Dunn said she and other board members, with the help of Jacobson, plan to initiate feedback sessions and a stakeholder committee made up of community members who can work with the board.

The center’s board will next meet on Feb. 19 at 6:30 p.m. It will be their first open board meeting. Several topics and concerns are expected to be addressed.

A fundraising and membership drive party, “Back to the Block,” will be held this Saturday, Feb. 8, 8 p.m. The event will celebrate the center’s one-year anniversary at its NoDa location. Memberships and sponsorships will be sold at the event to support the center’s ongoing operational needs.

Communication, engagement still an issue

Despite recent calls for better community engagement, the LGBT Community Center of Charlotte’s Thursday town hall exposed continuing communication issues.

Only about 40 people attended the Thursday forum, down from around 100 at a similar event in December. Several people who attended Thursday’s event said they had only learned about it over the past few days.

Center board member and public relations chair Patrice Shannon said the center was trying to open better avenues of communication. She said the town hall had been announced via the center’s newsletter and other means. Additionally, she has been working to spread the word about the center’s “Back to the Block” fundraiser this weekend.

Shannon said the group is also beginning to reach out to other organizations. She cited a recent trip to a Young Democrats event as an example.

“That’s a new thing that we’re starting to do,” Shannon said. “We want to be more connected with all the people in our community and organizations. We want them to support us and we want to support them.”

Whatever outreach the center currently has might not be enough.

Chad Sevearance, president of the Charlotte Business Guild, said many people in his organization didn’t learn about the center’s troubles in a timely manner. His group received 11 angry voice mails, he said, asking why the group wasn’t doing anything to support the center. But, no one from the center actively reached out to the Guild, he said.

“It angered me to hear people upset with my board,” he said. “No one on our list knew about the event tonight.”

He also questioned why the center board wasn’t more engaged.

“Our logo is on your website,” Sevearance said, noting the presence of other organizations the center features prominently on its home page. “Those are the people you should have talked to first. They are your supporters. Those are the people who should have been called about tonight and called about [the fundraising event] this weekend so we could have Facebooked and tweeted and done whatever we could to get in touch with people.”