By Todd Cohen
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In 1973, in space donated by St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Leigh Derby began teaching five youngsters locked out of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools because of severe developmental disabilities.
That modest initiative has grown into a nonprofit organization that teaches, trains and employs 1,800 disabled North Carolinians in 30 counties.
LifeSpan, formerly St. Mark’s, has quadrupled its budget to $20 million in the last six years – and expects to double it again in the next four.
To support that growth, LifeSpan aims to raise its traditionally low profile and step up its fundraising.
Those are big challenges, says Derby, LifeSpan’s president and CEO, who says the organization is growing to fill a big gap in services.
“There are basically inadequate services throughout North Carolina for people with developmental disabilities,” he says, particularly those with severe or multiple disabilities.
LifeSpan’s 800 employees teach, train and assist disabled people ranging from infants to the elderly.
LifeSpan operates 50 facilities ranging from pre-schools to residential group homes. Its employees also work one-on-one with clients, visiting their homes to help them with daily tasks, equip them to take part in the community, or support family members.
The organization also faces growing demand for its services from public school systems, mental health programs and other organizations. LifeSpan, for example, operates special-education classrooms in 16 Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.
LifeSpan also runs its own packaging business, Ventures of North Carolina, which employs disabled people in six locations and will generate income this year totaling $1.25 million.
And the state Department of Transportation has contracted with LifeSpan to take care of buildings and grounds at five highway rest-stops. DOT voted one of those, off Interstate 77 at the Virginia state line, the best in North Carolina last year.
LifeSpan’s rapid growth — it expects to add 1,200 clients in the next four years – creates challenges.
With government funds accounting for 90 percent of LifeSpan’s operating income, the organization regularly faces cash-flow crunches.
Half the remaining income is generated by the packaging business, and the other half is donated.
LifeSpan has launched its own foundation to boost its image and raise money.
“Our number one job is going to be awareness and education,” says Nancy McEneny, executive director of the LifeSpan Foundation and former development director for A Child’s Place.
Her focus will be adding board members from counties served by LifeSpan to set the stage for future fundraising. And she soon will hire a development director for Greensboro.
Generating big planned gifts from family members of clients will be a key goal.
Derby hopes that strategy will build an endowment big enough to generate income to support 20 percent of the organization’s operating budget in five to 10 years.
“We’re just very hopeful that through planned giving we’ll have some million-dollar gifts that will mount over time,” he says.