Poverty center lays off vice president, 5 staffers

Nonprofit is facing financial problems

November 20, 2001|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

The Center for Poverty Solutions, an organization born three years ago from the merger of two well-known agencies that helped the poor, has itself fallen on belt-tightening times.

Saying the center must pare back, its new president and chief executive officer has laid off a vice president and five staffers.

Alma Roberts, who left a vice president's job at Detroit Medical Center recently to become the organization's CEO, said her cuts would save about $100,000 for the poverty center, which has an annual budget of about $4 million.

One of the jobs eliminated belonged to Ralph E. Moore Jr., a vice president who had been in charge of programs.

"I think the center had some paring back to do to get realistic," Roberts, a native Baltimorean who was once vice president for corporate development at Liberty Medical Center, said yesterday.

The organization is "looking at everything," she said. "We're going to step back and look at a refinement of our mission."

The Baltimore center was created in 1998 from a merger of the Maryland Food Committee and Action for the Homeless, two long-established organizations. At the time, board members thought they could take a successful page from business -- consolidating operations for greater efficiency, while combining forces to get at the root causes of poverty.

The organization saved money at first by eliminating duplicated staff. In 1999, it was among the first in Maryland to receive the seal of approval from the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations, which certifies compliance with 55 "standards of excellence" in nonprofit management.

It successfully lobbied the legislature for a statewide emergency food program, which it helped administer, and a breakfast program in public schools.

The center has turned the administration of the emergency food program back to the state, along with another program that provided equipment grants to soup kitchens.

While nonprofit organizations have worried that the stumbling economy and Sept. 11 terrorist attacks will hurt them this holiday season, the poverty center has been struggling for a longer time.

Financial reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service show that the center has always spent more than it brought in. For last year -- the most recent report available -- the organization ended up with a deficit of $500,000 after expenses of $4.7 million.

Robert V. Hess, the first CEO, left in February to become a housing official in Philadelphia. Hess said the center had a hard time with direct mail fund raising because its name was not familiar. "We went to a name that isn't recognizable at all," he said. "It hurt us."

The center's building at 2521 N. Charles St. has been for sale for several months. Howard M. Weiss, chairman of the center's board, said yesterday that a sale is imminent and should bring in close to $1 million.

"We're going to get a substantial infusion of capital from that," Weiss said. "I'm very satisfied for the first time ... that the expense level and the overhead are at an appropriate level for what we're doing."

Roberts said the smaller organization -- winnowed through attrition from 53 staffers to 23 with Friday's layoffs -- hopes to lease back a portion of the building.

Roberts said the staff cuts will be the last and that the center can bounce back through aggressive fund raising in the African-American community and in the churches. "Those are markets the Center for Poverty Solutions hasn't tapped into," she said.

Moore, the former vice president, said the organization also has been hurt by news that Maryland had the lowest poverty rate in the nation.

"I would say that poverty is not uppermost in people's minds," he said. "I'd like to see the organization survive. I think it has got a lot of rebuilding to do, and I hope they'll just remember you not only need a strong body -- you need a soul. We've always got to remember our connections to the community."

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