Immigrant service tightens belt

FIRN goes back to basics to reduce debt, improve results

March 29, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The Foreign-born Information and Referral Network - a Columbia nonprofit organization with the ambitious goal of helping immigrants start new lives in America - is struggling with a roughly $50,000 deficit, the largest in its 20-year history.

The only organization in Maryland that works comprehensively with all foreign-born people, FIRN has gone back to budgeting basics as it tries to lift itself out of debt. And its basic premise is, "We get the money first, and we spend it second," said Dawn Fisk Thomsen, the group's interim director.

Through a combination of circumstances - managing a number of projects, relying heavily on grants and using cash accounting - the organization that helps assimilate immigrants into life in the United States has found itself seriously in the red.

"FIRN has been going through a very difficult transition period," Thomsen said.

One of the primary problems, Thomsen said, was that the organization was essentially acting like a much bigger operation than it is. It took on projects - such as resettling refugees and working with students of English as a Second Language - that inflated the group's budget by thousands of dollars, but it didn't have the necessary staff to manage those ambitious endeavors.

"Suddenly, we were an organization handling operations that were nearly three times the size of the organization, and it just couldn't stand the weight of that," Thomsen said. "We tried to get involved in newer issues, and we got in over our heads financially."

Meanwhile, FIRN had fallen into a trap that afflicts many nonprofits - spending on speculation with the attitude, "Oh, we'll get that grant," Thomsen said. "And you just can't count on that; you can get burned pretty badly."

So, the $350,000 organization instituted cutbacks. The refugee settlement and English as a Second Language programs have ended. Some staff members were laid off at the conclusion of tasks.

FIRN now has nine paid employees, compared with about 14 when all the projects were running.

The only project the organization has taken on for the next fiscal year is the renewal of an interpreting training program funded by the Maryland Office for New Americans. The federally funded $176,000 project expires at the end of June and is expected to be renewed for about $111,000, Thomsen said.

FIRN has also changed from cash to accrual accounting - counting transactions when they happen instead of when the cash is received - which more accurately reflects its finances, Thomsen said. The cash flow is now well-managed and "we don't have a long list of seriously delinquent bills," she said.

The organization wants to save money by decreasing its 3,500-square-foot office space now that less space is needed for projects. Thomsen said she wants to cut back to about 2,500 square feet, which would mean lower rent.

Thomsen anticipates that the three organizations that have long been FIRN's primary supporters - the Howard County Community Partnership Grants Program, United Way of Central Maryland and Columbia Foundation - will continue their grants. For this fiscal year, the community partnership program contributed $120,000, United Way $36,000 and the Columbia Foundation $16,000.

FIRN has shifted its fund-raising strategy, focusing more on recruiting dollars from individuals instead of generating grants, Thomsen said. The group plans to build better relationships with the public by reviving its newsletter and holding more fund-raisers.

For the past two years, individuals have contributed about $6,000 annually, and Thomsen would like to see that raised to about $10,000.

"Every dollar that we get beyond our budgeted amount helps us to stabilize," she said. "We want to tell our story to the community about our services and what contributions we make to the community."

Donations from civic groups, philanthropies and corporations have totaled about $10,000 annually during the past two years. Thomsen wants to increase that figure to about $15,000.

Betty Myers, president of FIRN's board of directors, said the group is facing the same challenge that has faced many nonprofits since Sept. 11 - trying to get people to donate after they have contributed generously to foundations working on relief efforts after the terrorist attacks.

"We're a very stable organization," Myers said. "We have identified what the basis of our financial income is, and we have structured our organization to meet that. We still have challenges, but who doesn't in this era?"

Thomsen noted that the community has been generous to FIRN during its transitional time. A fund-raising effort in December brought in $21,000 that will be used to hire a job coordinator, a position that had been cut in the fall because of a lack of money.

The Horizon Foundation - Howard County's largest philanthropic organization - has also helped FIRN, providing $25,000 to be put toward Thomsen's salary as interim director and $36,000 for an office manager, which the organization has not had before.

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