Photo by Mark Robinson
Jody McWilliams presses his face to the glass panes of the locked front door and peers into the lobby of the William Byrd Community House. Scattered boxes of odds and ends are left over from the closing sale a few days prior, when news broke of the 92-year-old nonprofit’s demise.
The news prompts McWilliams, the nonprofit’s retired executive director, to venture to the Oregon Hill building. He wants to make sure the organization’s records, a trove of institutional memory and neighborhood history, don’t get lost in the shuffle.
He knocks half-heartedly and waits in the building’s looming archway. No answer.
“I feel like part of my family has died,” he says, turning away.
McWilliams headed the Byrd House, an institution committed to serving local poor families, from 1971 to 2004. When he retired, the board had more than 20 members and the organization was financially stable, he says. In the decade since his departure, staff turnover, diminishing contributions and a gentrifying neighborhood sapped the one-time community staple, known largely for its highly rated early childhood education programs. In October, Sheila Givens, the organization’s third executive director since McWilliams retired, announced the nonprofit would close.
The closure was a long time in the making, Givens says. From 2008 to 2014, the organization’s revenues fell by half, from $2 million annually to about $1 million, financial disclosures filed with the IRS show. Between 2011 and 2014, its federal funding dropped from about $1.1 million to less than $300,000.
Dependable donors died, or their interests changed, Givens says, and increased competition from new nonprofits for funding also hampered fundraising.
“People like new,” Givens says. “A lot of [grant] proposals will ask ‘What are you doing new and innovative?’ I understand that, but what about, ‘What have you been doing a long time that’s been working?’ ”
Since 2000, about 550 nonprofits have incorporated in Central Virginia, 200 more than were incorporated in the 15 years prior, according to a running list compiled by The Community Foundation. Of those 550, nearly half have incorporated in the last six years. The surge has occurred at a time in which charitable giving is bouncing back from the Great Recession, which hit the Byrd House hard, says Christopher Cleveland, who served on its board since 2007, most recently as its chair.
“I don’t know if it’s more nonprofits or a smaller pot for all of us to compete for,” Cleveland says.
The growth in nonprofits has created competition, not only for funding, but also for board members. In the decade since McWilliams retired, the Byrd House’s board membership fell from more than 20 to eight, limiting the nonprofit’s fundraising network.
To slow its decline, the Byrd House scaled back its programs and laid off staff. When Givens arrived as director of operations in 2008, the nonprofit employed 45 people and boasted a social work department that offered case management, a food pantry, an elderly-assistance program, an after-school program and one of the city’s best early childhood education programs. The latter earned a coveted four-star rating from the Virginia Star Quality Initiative, an accreditation agency. Pre-school was the only remaining program the nonprofit offered in the months before its closure.
“To operate a program of that quality over all those years really leveled the playing field for Richmond’s families,” says Ana Edwards, the Byrd House Market manager.
Most recently, Givens says, the preschool enrolled more than 50 children ages 3 to 5. The majority of families relying on Byrd House were referred to the agency through Head Start, a federally funded pre-school program for low-income families. In 2013, the $8 billion program suffered a $400 million cut.
Most poor families have moved – or been pushed – out of the immediate neighborhood as VCU students have moved in, drawn to its less-expensive rentals and proximity to campus. Busing children to the nonprofit from around the city increased overhead costs, Givens says. Last November, the nonprofit rushed to raise $200,000 to avoid closing. During that time, Givens says, the staff went unpaid for weeks.
Mary Katherine O’Connor and F. Ellen Netting, both professors emerita at the VCU School of Social Work, studied 24 charitable organizations that survived in the Richmond region for more than 100 years. The study, published in 2011, found that those organizations often had to adapt to survive, either by restructuring services or relocating entirely, to accommodate the changing needs of the people they served. In the Byrd House’s case, that may have meant moving elsewhere, O’Connor says.
“This agency probably did not go out of business because it was no longer needed,” O’Connor says. “It probably went out of business because it could not adapt to where the needs were located.”
Givens and Cleveland say they approached partner organizations about a merger, but the nonprofit has a six-figure debt. That debt is largely comprised of what Givens estimates is $170,000 in back payments Byrd House owes to the United Way for a pension fund the nonprofit once drew from, she says.
Any organization that absorbed Byrd House would have to absorb its debt, as well. Cleveland says a loan was out of the question, too; the nonprofit had no assets to use as collateral (Byrd House rented its Oregon Hill headquarters from the Saint Andrew’s Foundation. What will happen to the building is still unclear).
Weeks after Givens announced its closure, she was still working to sell off remaining supplies. That the struggling organization is finally closed is both a relief and hard to fathom, Givens says.
Standing in the shadow of the institution he shepherded for three decades, McWilliams is wistful. “Times change,” he says.