What Works: How a nonprofit had to fail to find success

By Marnie Eisenstadt

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Whole Me began 11 years ago with a grassroots effort. People who worked with deaf and hard-of-hearing children saw a problem. The kids they were interpreting for in school were going home to afternoons of isolation. So they built a solution: An after-school program for deaf students. No one got paid. The office was a dining room table.

Over the next decade, WHOLE ME, Inc. grew little by little. It got a real office in an old TV repair shop in Geddes. The budget reached six figures. But it took failure in 2011 for the small organization to find a solid path to financial security.

That was the year WHOLE ME, Inc.Whole Me was denied for United Way funding. It was devastating, said Christine Kovar, WHOLE ME, Inc.’s executive director and one of the founders. “We cried,” she said.

Last month, WHOLE ME, Inc. staff cried again. This time, it was because the letter hand-delivered from the United Way held good news: Whole Me was approved for United Way funding. The organization will get $60,000 over the next three years for its afterschool program.

That acceptance is about more than just the money, Kovar said. It’s a seal of approval in the nonprofit world.

“You get to play with the big boys now,” Kovar said. “You get to be on the playing field.”

How they got there is a lesson in dealing with failure. The board of Whole Me dived into the United Way’s rejection, looking for a way to change.

They met with United Way Executive Director Frank Lazarski and other United Way decision makers following the bad news in 2011. Lazarski still remembers the exchange.

“It was a different meeting, a very emotional meeting,” Lazarski said.

He said the board members brought families they worked with to the meeting. Many of them had to speak through sign language interpreters, Lazarski said.

Lazarski’s message to WHOLE ME, Inc. was that they needed to grow and to prove they could be sustainable.

The board talked through lots of ideas and even tried out a gift shop as a way to bring in more revenue. But that wasn’t enough.

The answer, it turned out, was right in front of them, Kovar said. They knew there was a great need in the deaf community for interpreters. With two board members already certified as sign language interpreters and their connections in the deaf community, they could fill that need.

The Board of WHOLE ME, Inc. decided to start up a referral service that would link sign language interpreters with places that needed them.

They were nervous about running a business – especially one that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as the interpreting service does.

“We had to be accountable in a different way,” Kovar said. It’s been a steep learning curve, she said. And a struggle, sometimes, to answer calls for interpreters 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But it’s working.

The interpreting service has grown to more than 150 clients, big and small, Kovar said. They include Upstate University Hospital and Onondaga Community College, as well as schools and doctors’ offices.

As a result, Whole Me’s revenue has gone from $100,000 to more than $400,000 in the past three years, according to financial filings.

Much of that money goes back into running the interpreter service and paying the interpreters, but there’s enough left to keep the heart of Whole Me’s mission secure.

Their afterschool program helps 50 kids and parents. On a recent warm afternoon, they were planning a picnic in the space they use at the Solvay-Geddes Community Center.

Hands flew as they talked, in sign language, about what a picnic is and what food they should bring.

Many of the kids don’t know what a picnic is, said Lindsay Ryan, co-director of the afterschool program. The socialization and language skills of the students are often delayed because of their hearing. Some use sign language to communicate. Others don’t. The program adapts to the child’s needs and the parents’ wishes, Kovar said.

Elly Velazquez was waiting to pick up her 11-year-old son Charlie. They live in Syracuse, but he goes to school in Solvay because that’s where the region’s program for deaf and hard-of-hearing students is. Students come from Onondaga, Cortland and Madison counties.

Charlie ran up to his mother and hugged her, a broad smile across his face. He’d been playing in the gym with some other boys in the program. His mother said the Whole Me program has helped Charlie with socialization in a way that school and home could not.

“It’s hard for kids like Charlie to have other kids to play with,” she said.

What Worked: WHOLE ME, Inc.took a failure to get United Way funding in 2011 and turned it into an opportunity to grow and find sustainability. Following the failure, the group’s board started a referral service for deaf interpreters. The revenue has grown from $100,000 to $400,000. This year, it received the United Way’s stamp of approval and $60,000 over three years for its afterschool program.

The lesson: Success is sometimes born by failure. “I believe that we all have a purpose and it’s important to have faith — especially when you want to give up! I pray a lot and I know that this organization is much bigger than those of us who founded it and who work here. WHOLE ME has a distinct purpose and that is to give deaf and hard-of-hearing kids the same opportunities as their hearing peers in all aspects of life.” – Executive Director Christine Kovar

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