Leaders with the LGBT Community Center of Charlotte and other local organizations have faced a challenging year — staring down controversy, financial woes, compliance issues and more. But new center board members and those with other organizations say they’re moving toward bright futures. Engaging the community and learning the ropes of non-profit management will guide their way, they’ve said.
At the center, new Programs Chair Tamika Lewis and Grants Chair Ashley Love said the organization will be better able to take a new direction now that it has a strategic plan. The group has also started a new community needs assessment they’re calling “1,000 Conversations.”
The plan, Lewis said, provides the center a “clear direction of what it is we want to do.” The accompanying needs assessment will provide the feedback needed for the center to rebuild and rebrand.
“We want to make sure that [the center] is something of value to each and every person in this community,” said Lewis. “We have this opportunity to have conversations with people. … That’s why were doing our 1,000 Conversations project. … Let’s have a conversation. What do you think is important? Here’s what we think is important. It’s about recreating the culture of community.”
The center has been among the most beleaguered local groups this year. Consistent brushes with leadership troubles, alleged financial mismanagement and fundraising woes have twice threatened to nearly shut down the center this year. Lewis and Love know the history, but feel it sometimes overshadows what they and other board members have said is a remarkable amount of progress in a short period of time. Still, they don’t want to ignore it and will use it to acknowledge past mistakes, rebuild relationships and work toward collaborations and partnerships with other groups.
Their new strategic plan and forthcoming community needs assessment will draw on the lessons of the past, they said. They’re also looking at past documents, including an original needs assessment compiled when the center first opened, found in former local leader Dan Kirsch’s archived papers at Duke University.
“We found it. We want to review it,” said Love. “What was done then? What worked then and what didn’t work then? We want to use that history in a positive way.”
The group has also shifted focus and priorities. Their lease in the current space ends this month and they’ll vacate, but finding another physical location has dropped down on the center’s list of goals.
“Our goal is to pay back any debt right now,” said Love. “We’ve pushed space down the list. It’s not realistic for us right now. In the future — maybe in a year, maybe in two years — we’d be excited for a space, but right now the goal is to pay back any debt.”
The temporary virtual situation will allow the center to refocus its energies, leaders said. It’s something other centers have done, too.
Terry Stone is executive director of CenterLink, a national association of LGBT community centers. He has advised and offered feedback to Charlotte’s center board.
Virtual centers don’t work over the long term, Stone said, but they do allow “for a few months trying to get yourself back on your feet.”
“Considering their cash flow and financial situation, I thought it would be somewhat difficult for them to rent enough space,” Stone said he advised the group. “It was very important that they fill reserves before making big cash outlays. … Wait three or four months before moving into a space.”
Other centers across the country have faced challenges in the past, too, Stone said. In the last couple years, one center had experienced loss of leadership and community trust, issues similar to those in Charlotte.
“In the last couple of years, some very strong, recognized and trusted community leaders who had been around for some of the first early years of the center came back together,” Stone said. “They worked closely together to get the center back on financial footing.”
Like Charlotte’s center, that group had also faced problems with employment taxes. The new leaders got the problems sorted out and kept community members updated on their progress.
“The community got back and reinvested,” Stone said. “[Leaders] kept them informed. … They have people showing up to events and excited again. I know that it can happen. It takes strong community investment and trust and that new group of people doing what they say they’re going to do.”
Lewis and Love hope they can replicate just such a rebuilding effort in Charlotte.
“This is a process. We’re not trying to dismantle something and pop a new one up in its place the next day,” said Lewis. “We actually want to do the work to make sure this is something the community is proud of. When someone googles ‘Charlotte’ and ‘LGBTQ,’ they should see the center and the happenings here and pictures on the website that reflect a community that’s proud of its center and the services it provides.”
The group’s strategic plan, available on its website, outlines a variety of programs and services center leaders will explore as their community needs assessment progresses. Some of the ideas include services for transgender and gender-non-conforming persons, elder services, physical health and fitness programs and educational, arts and cultural seminars and events. The group also hopes it can find a way to re-establish the types of services offered by the LGBTQ Law Center, which closed earlier in the fall.
Youth services and those for other under-served and under-represented populations are also among the ideas.
“There are stories behind a lot of the program and service ideas,” said Love, who wants to “service a population that has not been heard in the past.”
Love added: “There’s been more talk about LGBT youth homelessness. We have such a passion for that right now.” Love dreams that the center could one day possibly provide beds for homeless LGBT youth.
“Just seeing different faces in and out of a space and providing what they need,” Love said. “I get excited about the engagement and just being there for the community and being a support system.”
Center leaders are inviting community members from a diversity of perspectives — including other non-profit staffers or leaders — to join them in their 1,000 Conversations project. “We want it to be made up of diverse people, because we’re looking to facilitate conversations in a diverse community,” Lewis said.
Those interested can contact the center through its website, lgbtcharlotte.org, to get involved.
Stone thinks the Charlotte center might have the potential to rebuild, but it will require increased community involvement and support.
“They are really committed and dedicated and want to do the right thing,” Stone said of the Charlotte center board leaders. “But I haven’t seen the community rally behind that group and say, ‘Yes, we believe in your leadership and we’ll come along with you.’ I know there are some really good people with good hearts meaning to make a difference. I haven’t yet seen the community make that turn and support them and let the past go.”
Other groups rise from challenge
Charlotte’s LGBT center isn’t the only group to have faced challenges this year. The Freedom Center for Social Justice had its tax-exempt status automatically revoked by the Internal Revenue Service earlier this year, though it was quickly reinstated this fall.
The group had also housed the LGBTQ Law Center, which provided free or low-cost legal services to LGBT clients. Fundraising challenges throughout the year eventually led to the group’s decision to shutter the group.
But Freedom Center leaders say their future “looks bright.”
“We are entering a five-year strategic planning process and positioning ourselves for sustainable growth in our press to continue to shift culture toward a more just and LGBTQ inclusive world,” the group said in a release earlier this fall, noting future events, programs and partnerships with a variety of organizations. The group also hopes to continue legal support through a referral network.
Like the Freedom Center, Charlotte Black Gay Pride has also faced compliance issues with the IRS. They’re still in the process of requesting their reinstatement, buoyed in the meantime by support from Center for Black Equity, which provided the group a non-profit fiscal sponsorship for its activities this year.
Crystal Long, chair of Charlotte Black Gay Pride, said this year has taught important lessons on commitment and consistency.
“That’s one of the issues with having volunteer boards,” she said. “Not every organization can afford to hire staff and you’re going to have to have volunteers.”
David Heinen, vice president for public policy and advocacy at the NC Center for Nonprofits, said filing and compliance issues are often faced by newer or smaller non-profit organizations.
The Freedom Center, a newer group, said its tax-exempt revocation came as a “devastating blow” after being previously “wrongly advised” on filing requirements.
Charlotte Black Gay Pride’s volunteer turnover helped contribute to its challenge.
Heinen has seen volunteer leadership changes or the loss of an original founder or board member with institutional knowledge lead to missed deadlines.
Heinen suggests that non-profits institutionalize policies and procedures and make sure all new board members learn those standards.
“Basic things all non-profits should be doing is making sure every board member is looking at 990 filings, even if it’s a small organization filing the 990-N ePostcard,” said Heinen. “Have a policy that you do it the same time every year at a board meeting and spend five minutes making sure everyone has a copy of the 990. That’s a real basic thing to keep non-profits out of trouble.” : :