‘We’re touching more neighborhoods with families in need’: A conversation with Stronger Nonprofits Initiative participant Christa Hamilton

Christa Hamilton is not one to not shy away from challenges. In 2014, after serving as the Director of Workforce Development for Centers for New Horizons (“Centers”), she became the organization’s second Executive Director in its 47-year history. She had a lot to live up to; Centers is a mainstay of Chicago’s nonprofit community, known for providing a full range of vital programs – from early childhood education, to workforce development, to senior services. She also faced significant hurdles when she took the reins, including funding setbacks stemming from Illinois’ budget crisis.

Fast forward five years. Centers has grown from 150 to 250 employees. It has also branched out from its Bronzeville roots to serve Chicago communities from North Lawndale through Riverdale.

Hamilton’s success is mainly attributable to her commitment, leadership, and passion for Centers’ mission. Plus, she is someone who embraces learning opportunities and continually pushes herself and her organization to new heights. Most recently, she was selected as a Leadership Greater Chicago Class of 2020 Fellow.

She also participated in the Stronger Nonprofits Initiative (SNI), a program that provides loans, financial workshops, one-on-one coaching, and real estate consulting services to Chicago nonprofits led by people of color or serving communities of color.

IFF, in partnership with financial training company Fiscal Management Associates (FMA), launched SNI in 2017. So far 20 outstanding Chicago-area nonprofits, including Centers for New Horizons, have participated. The program is funded by JPMorgan Chase as part of its $40 million pledge to connect Chicago South and West side residents with economic opportunity.

IFF sat down with Hamilton to learn more about her achievements at Centers and experience in SNI, and how the two intersect.

IFF: You stepped into the Executive Director role at Centers for New Horizons about five years ago. What was that like?

Hamilton: It was exciting, but there were definitely some challenges. We had been operating in the red for about four or five years. And there were some government funding issues that came with the new governor at the time [Governor Rauner], which made our financial situation even tougher.

I remember looking at my predecessor and saying, “So what happens now, when we’ve gotten a new governor and everything changes?”

He was like, “I don’t know – you’re in for a ride.”

IFF: How has that ride been – where is the organization today and how did you get there?

Hamilton: We’ve been in the black for the past four years. Our budget, which was $8.5 million when I started, is now $14.5 million.

We got there by coming up with a strategy to save and grow each line of business. We also worked to supplement government dollars with different revenue streams. For example, through our workforce development programs, we advertise and recruit job candidates for other organizations.

It feels great, especially with our 50th birthday coming up – we are 47 years old. We now have approximately 250 full- and part-time employees, up from about 150 when I started as ED. So, we’ve been able to create more jobs and more leaders. And while we continue to serve Bronzeville, the community where we were founded and have operated in historically, we’re growing throughout the city, touching more neighborhoods with families in need – from North Lawndale all the way through the Riverdale community.

IFF: What role have the loan and real estate consulting services you’ve received from IFF played in your journey? 

Hamilton: Centers’ relationship with IFF started with Vickie Lakes-Battle. We had been looking to refinance the mortgage on our main building through our bank for a couple of years. We’d been unsuccessful. I was introduced to Vickie – I sometimes call her my “nonprofit fairy godmother” – and she came to our site. Like a lot of people at IFF, she was very familiar with childcare centers, which are a big part of our organization.

After about a year of working with Vickie, we were able to refinance. We had been paying about $20,000 a month for the mortgage. I believe it’s down to $9,000 now. Having that cash flow released was a huge pressure taken off. It saved us more than $100,000 a year – money we were able to use for better salaries, repairs, and emergencies. We also paid off a bank line of credit, which lifted a big burden, and as part of the refinance received a $500,000 loan for development and capital costs. Having that emergency fund available for capital improvements – if a heater or something goes out – has been a relief.

As part of the Stronger Nonprofits Initiative, we also benefited from a facilities assessment. It was amazing. One of IFF’s real estate experts, Dennis Marino, came out and went through all of our buildings, some of which we’d been in for 47 years without any repairs or renovations. It gave me and my board of directors a clear understanding of what to focus on – from immediate concerns we were unaware of like electrical issues and code changes, to longer-term projects like the $5 million renovation we’re planning for Elam House, a piece of property donated to us to help protect women and children.

IFF: You mentioned Elam House the last time we spoke as well. Where do things stand with that project now?

Hamilton: It’s one of my personal goals as Executive Director to make the Elam House – which has been abandoned for almost 25 years – operational again. We worked with Dennis and the team to assess how much it would take to get the building back up to code.

What was really positive was the team didn’t just dump that $5 million number on my desk and say, “Good luck.” They brought ideas on how we would get there through different loans and programs we were unaware of. We had a chance to brainstorm, put pen to paper, and come up with a real work plan. I appreciated that support.

Now we’re in the process of securing architects. And we’re going to hold a community meeting to get input from residents and elected officials on how they would like the property to be used. We have some movement, which is much more than we’ve had in 20 years. I really feel like if we had not had that assessment and been part of the Stronger Nonprofits Initiative, the building’s development would still be stagnant.

IFF: You also participated in SNI’s workshop series led by Fiscal Management Associates. What are your biggest takeaways from that experience?

Hamilton: There are several things I got out of it. One was connections with other nonprofit partners doing the same kinds of work. I hadn’t known some of them before or was only vaguely familiar with them. Now, I can definitely call on those people for support or assistance.

For example, I met another leader running early childhood education programs in Albany Park. There are a lot of changes happening in that field and we’ve been able to be a sounding board for each other. She also needed some support in workforce development – her team hadn’t been in that area as long as we have, so we shared strategies to help them grow.

I was also very excited about the trainings because I’d been challenging myself to become closer and more connected to our financials. Without money there’s no mission. But I’m not necessarily a finance person. I knew the basics but had been relying on my director of finance to translate things like liquidity ratios and the balance sheet in laymen’s terms. It was important for me as the executive director to fill in those gaps.

The deeper dive we took into our fiscal management system opened the eyes of some of my staff who attended the trainings with me, as well. They learned how money flows through the organization. And we realized we needed to get a new accounting system – something we’re working on the funding for now.

We’d never done much long-term planning, mostly because things are so temperamental. But creating a multi-year financial plan was really helpful for us to do. We have a long-term vision now. We aren’t just living day to day.

IFF: Was there anything you changed as a result of the one-on-one coaching you received through SNI?

Hamilton: Our coach from Fiscal Management Associates helped us change how we rolled out our budgeting process. We were almost doing it backwards before, coming up with the budget in a silo within the finance department and then funneling it down to the program level.

Now we start at the program level and feed that up into the budget. We’ve gotten the program staff directly involved, so they understand why some expenses are a no. They’re also able to influence the budget in ways that are both specific to their needs and much more current. Now we sit with the program directors and hammer out the changing needs of the organization – for example, maybe we’re serving a new population and need an additional employment specialist. The team loves it.

IFF: What else is new for Centers for New Horizons?

Hamilton: We’ve stretched ourselves to take on some violence prevention work that our community needs, becoming a trauma-informed organization. We’re helping people get work who have been impacted by violence and providing them with counseling. We’re also developing programming for kids to stop them from gang activities. Overall, we’re excited to be doing our part to rebuild Chicago and save lives.

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