Beamer Struggling With Missions

February 1, 2007       Mark Hrywna      

The organization that rallied a nation after the September 11 terror attacks with the phrase “Let’s Roll” is looking for a rescue of its own. Faced with dwindling finances, the Todd M. Beamer Foundation will make a decision about its future in the coming weeks.

William Beatty, chairman of the board of the Todd M. Beamer Foundation, now doing business as Heroic Choices, expects the board to make a decision by the end of March from among three choices: continue as is, merge with a similar organization, or shut down entirely.

“There’s pluses and minuses on all three of the scenarios, and the real question is what’s best for everybody,” Beatty said. “What’s best for the children involved and what’s best for the organization and the use of the resources, not only defined as financial resources, but like any nonprofit, you have the volunteers and others involved in it,” he said.

“If you want to merge with another organization, you want to find one that has similar values, similar mission statements,” Beatty said. “Can you find one with a similar history? That’s probably very difficult to do.”

Renamed Heroic Choices some three years ago, the organization ended 2005 with $177,539 in net assets, according to its most recent Form 990, down from more than $2.7 million at the same time two years ago, while spending more on fundraising and consultants than program services or development. The past two years have seen more than a third of the nonprofit’s $2.8 million in total expenses go for “fundraising expenses” with less than $1 million listed for “program services.”

Asked whether continuing as an organization is still a viable option given the financial circumstances, Beatty said he believes it is, perhaps just a matter of what form. “It really is a question of, what does the board think is the best use of everyone’s time. Whether it’s volunteers, whether it’s paid staff, the resources, the decision, they all have an equal chance.”

The Princeton, N.J.-based nonprofit was named for the late Todd Beamer who died aboard United Airlines Flight 93 when it went down in Shanksville, Pa. Founded by Beamer’s wife Lisa and his friends, the organization provides programs to build resiliency in children who have experienced trauma, partnering with agencies to deliver free counseling services. About 50 kids ages 8 to 12 are served annually by the program, meeting four times a year for intensive resiliency training in addition to various retreats, CEO Alice Mae Britt said, adding that the year-long counseling costs almost $5,000 per child.

The foundation enjoyed total contributions of $1 million and $2.8 million for 2001 and 2002, respectively, as well as more than $900,000 in royalty income from Lisa Beamer’s book and other organizations that used the trademark phrase “Let’s Roll” that Todd Beamer used before he and other passengers engaged hijackers. The past two years, a little more than $100,000 has been received in public support. As in any 9/11 charity, Beatty said, “the farther you get away from the event, the more difficult it is to raise funds.”

Lisa Beamer continues to serve on the board of the foundation but declined a request for an interview. She also halted speaking engagements.

Changing course

“For us to have a more long-term viability, we had to turn the organization into focusing on the services delivered, not where the organization came from,” Beatty said.

Originally created to meet the long-term needs of children who lost a parent in the terrorist attacks, the nonprofit has been branching out beyond New York City. Heroic Choices recently issued a national paper on resiliency and post-traumatic stress disorder (A National Children’s Resiliency Response Initiative) and has been in contact about its resiliency training with Gulf states affected by Hurricane Katrina.

The foundation heard “loud and clear” from September 11 families that they did not want to be characterized as September 11 families anymore, Beatty said. “In our efforts to initially reach out to 9/11 families, what we found was, there were a lot who did not want to come forward and take advantage of the mentoring services that were being offered and we made a decision” to include but not be limited to September 11 families.

Judging by the financial documents, one might conclude that Heroic Choices hasn’t been successful. According to the organization’s Form 990s, fundraising expenses were just $54,841 in 2003 before jumping to $553,212 and $557,106 in the last two years, while direct public support dropped during that same period, from $416,059 in 2003 to $114,798 and $104,799.

However, transitioning the organization from where it started — solely focused on Todd Beamer and September 11 — and “focusing more on the idea about assisting children who’ve experienced trauma, I would say that we’ve been successful,” Beatty said.

“We hired professionals to help us build the program,” he said, as he and other founders were not experienced in the nonprofit world. Consultants assisted with developing the nonprofit’s programming, as well as donor strategy. They helped create a brand and image “that was consistent with what we wanted it to be and less consistent with what the world originally saw us to be,” Beatty said.

“The world tried to make it about an organization that supported Todd, and originally it was really supporting Lisa,” Beatty said, but Lisa Beamer quickly acknowledged she did not need financial support, and instead wanted to help children who needed it. Having lost her father at age 15, Lisa Beamer experienced mentoring in a positive way firsthand, Beatty said, and wanted others less fortunate than her to experience the same.

For as much as the organization has spent on consultants, their job was not to raise the money, though they introduced the nonprofit to “megadonors.” Raising money “was our job (the CEO and board),” Beatty said. “I would say the organization was not successful in raising the funds that it wanted to; it was not because of one consulting firm or another. They helped us build the program, but at the end of the day, we were the ones making the pitch; we were the ones sharing it with folks,” he said.

“The farther you get away from a charity created on a specific day…the harder it is for charities to create funds as a result of an event, as opposed to constantly delivering services,” Beatty said. “That’s the reality, so what we’ve done is said let’s focus on the service end of it, and tell people the good news. That has been more difficult because we don’t have as much of a track record.

“Mentoring is a very difficult thing to raise funds for, regardless of who you are,” Beatty said.

In August 2005, the nonprofit reduced its full-time staff of 12 to about three, reducing total compensation of officers and directors from almost $250,000 in 2003 to $144,000 in 2004 (only the CEO), according to Form 990.

Britt said she joined the foundation in March 2004 after a nationwide search for a change agent, succeeding Doug MacMillan, a founder and the CEO since its inception. “There were a lot of consultants getting paid,” Britt said of the time when she was hired, “which is not how most nonprofits work.”

Prior to becoming CEO, Britt was chief development officer for World Neighbors and director of development at the University of Central Oklahoma.

Asked why a CEO with nonprofit experience hadn’t been hired earlier, and whether that would have made a difference in the current financial situation, Beatty said: “The Beamer Foundation board does not second guess itself regarding decisions made. We are confident that we have been good stewards of the funds provided to us and many children have been helped. One can only speculate about an outcome if circumstances were different. We will not look back and say, ‘What if?’”  NPT