Mediation Center plans for future

Laura Jeffords
Laura Jeffords

[Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a series by PJ on how North Carolina nonprofits are adjusting their operations to cope with the lingering effects of the recession, and how funders are supporting that work.]

Ret Boney

ASHEVILLE, N.C. – When the recession hit, the Mediation Center in Asheville saw a predictable increase in the need for its services.

Requests for parent-teen mediation services spiked, as did requests from people with mental illness whose mental-health services had been discontinued.

“When families have the stress of not having enough money, that causes conflict,” says Laura Jeffords, executive director of the center, a nonprofit founded in 1983 to help youth, families and community members in Buncombe County deal with conflict.

Despite the increased demand, the Mediation Center emerged from the recession on sounder footing than many nonprofits, but not completely unscathed.

The organization cut non-essentials like travel from its budget and dropped a position to half-time from full-time, but was able to keep its services intact for a population in greater need than usual.

Now the center is embarking on a strategic-planning process to map out a course for the future, and received a grant to develop a fundraising plan to take it there.

With a budget of about $425,000, the center’s 11 employees, including a few part-timers, serve about 3,000 people a year, some of whom seek out services voluntarily and others who are sent by the courts.

The center’s Community Mediation Program helps local residents work through conflicts with the help of trained mediators, free of charge.

The Family Mediation program provides a structured environment in which relatives can navigate difficult topics like separation and divorce, parenting, supervised visitation and elder care.

And the organization works with youth to resolve conflicts, prevent gang involvement, navigate the juvenile court system and develop better communication with their parents.

While services provided on court order come with government funding, grants typically cover the remainder of the organization’s budget.

And that money is harder to come by when there are more people in need of services – an increase caused both by the economy in general and by cuts from other local service providers.

“Overall, our budget has grown, and yet we’ve grown, so we’re always looking for ways to lessen our stretch,” says Jeffords.

That growth-under-pressure has spurred the organization to look for ways to move forward in an organized, intentional — and funded — way.

“We haven’t done strategic planning in a long time,” says Jeffords. “How can we take the energy and enthusiasm and focus that ahead in a planned direction?”

The center turned to the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina for guidance and $4,200 in funding, which Jeffords matched with $1,000 from the center’s budget, to develop a two-year strategic plan and to hire a fundraising consultant.

In order to receive the organizational capacity grant from the foundation, the center was required to do a little work on its own, with the goal of being in a position to spend the grant funds well.

First the center conducted a self-assessment that focused on its infrastructure, then met with a consultant, who was provided free of charge by Western North Carolina Nonprofit Pathways.

Together they identified, and strengthened, some gaps in the center’s staff and financial policies.

The formal strategic planning is wrapping up currently and the board and staff are preparing for implementation.

“What I’m hearing is that we want people to know we’re here when they need us, and we want to have the resources to help them when they come to us,” Jeffords says.

That means beefing up the organization’s infrastructure so it can conduct public-relations outreach and marketing activities, and developing a plan to recruit individuals donors, who to date have not been a significant part of the revenue stream.

“A lack of awareness of our services is probably our biggest barrier,” Jeffords says.

While the recession stretched the organization in some uncomfortable ways, it also served as the catalyst for some important internal work, she says.

“It’s such an important lesson for us not to see our resources as being scarce, but to look in another direction for the resources we need,” she says. “And there are other funders and organizations who have done this work and we can turn to them to get advice on how to make it work.”

Other stories in this series:

Nonprofits adjust to ‘new reality’

Rex Endowment aims to bolster local nonprofits

Recession spurs change at environmental group

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