Funding Cut Off

March 1, 2011       Mark Hrywna      

The Court Appointed Special Advocates of Los Angeles (CASA/LA) might be the canary in a coal mine for the more than 1,000 CASA affiliates around the nation as it begins a new course as a self-sustaining nonprofit.

The Los Angeles Superior Court last March eliminated its financial support of CASA/LA. Though it had scaled back funding the past two years as a result of California’s financial woes, CASA/LA relied on the courts for some $1 million, or about half of its annual budget. CASA’s fundraising arm, Friends of Children’s Advocates, stepped in and took over operations, converting the L.A. affiliate into a full-fledged, self-sustaining nonprofit.

“In some ways, we’re freer to have more aggressive goals,” said Executive Director Dilys Tosteson Garcia, adding that the program struggled in the past to expand. Historically, CASA/LA has served 500 to 600 children each year, but Garcia has a goal of serving a least 1,000 annually with long-term advocacy.

CASA’s 1,050 affiliates can be found in more than 40 percent of the nation’s counties. The only state where it does not have a presence is North Dakota. The national CASA office has an annual budget about $16 million, much of it funding that passes through to affiliates, said Michael Piraino, president of the national CASA. It derives much of its budget from contracts with the U.S. Department of Justice while private donations last year made up about 10 percent of funding.The “meat and potatoes” of CASA’s work is recruiting and training volunteers to advocate on behalf of individual children in the foster care system, according to Garcia. It’s labor intensive, with a huge need for staffing to support and prepare volunteers for court, she said.

“It’s a very exciting moment for the organization, but it’s a huge shift, in orientation, and how we run our business,” she said. Going from a quasi-government bureaucracy to a more nimble, entrepreneurial organization that’s more focused on effectiveness, efficiency and performance, and making sure donor dollars are put to optimal use, she said, will be a culture change.

After losing funding, CASA/LA laid-off staff, stopped taking new cases and redistributed existing cases among four employees. Volunteers continued to work with their children while the board put together a new strategic plan, hiring Garcia in July. The organization was running at half its regular budget and staff for about six months, she said, before starting to hire at the end of the summer, including a new director of development, John Charney. He previously ran his own consulting firm and for nearly 15 years was director of major and planned gifts at the American Red Cross of Greater Los Angeles.

Garcia estimates that about $1.5 million in funding has been secured for this year’s $2-million budget.

While there hasn’t been a rush to convert CASA affiliates into self-sustaining nonprofits, it’s been talked about, said Piraino. A third of its programs are government-administered, he said, and many already have established nonprofit arms with the move to the nonprofit side led by the Los Angeles affiliate.

Los Angeles County’s “cutbacks opened the door to step into something that could be very good for them. It’s exciting to see how they’re handling it,” said Piraino. While there are other affiliates that have a structure that could follow CASA/LA, they haven’t yet been pushed by a county’s finances to convert totally to a nonprofit. “We’ll probably see more of this over the next couple of years,” he said.

“It’s certainly something people are talking about. There are so many places where county and state budgets are so stretched. It’s a consideration in a good number of places,” said Piraino, adding that it also comes at a time when there’s much talk about consolidating structures.”The conversations we’re having are not so much how do we save money, avoid funding cutbacks, but how would we provide better advocacy services whatever the financial situation is. That’s a strategic rather than reactive approach to that question,” Piraino said. It might spark a conversation where perhaps there are multiple nonprofits in the same state or merge or share administrative costs across organizations.

“In our network, there’s a really strong sense of local ownership for those programs, which is really important,” he said. “We don’t want to lose that by losing the structure that makes them look more remote in those places,” said Piraino.

When CASA expands, it tends to go into smaller communities since it has a presence in most of the larger ones, and they’re primarily suburban, with some rural locations, said Piraino. In recent years, new CASA affiliates have emerged in tribal court programs, he said, and among the largest metropolitan areas without a CASA program is Cleveland, where one an affiliate could be forming in the near future.

The fact that CASA/LA is moving to a nonprofit structure that “can be so responsive to a community, and decision-making looks close to a community that you’re serving, is a smart thing to do.” “It could be interesting,” Piraino said. “We’ll see how it plays out in 10 years.” NPT

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