FOR THE RECORD
Recently, an article was published as a front-page story in a local newspaper, with an attention-grabbing headline about how the historic Community House, a non-profit, charitable organization itself has left area civic organizations “reeling” while officials with The Community House implemented a post-COVID financial survival plan for the charity to stay afloat. Fact: It is true that as a direct result of COVID-19, TCH Leadership needed to establish and implement a necessary financial “survival” plan to keep its doors open. It is also true that as soon as we learned how dire our situation was, The Community House Leadership notified all civic group leaders – the groups that met regularly at TCH pre-COVID – 17 months in advance – advising them that TCH was struggling financially (directly related to the pandemic) and would need to urgently modify its decades-old business model to survive COVID-19. Fact: Each civic group, many nonprofit groups themselves (that can raise funds for their own mission, while also charging their own members’ dues) were given 17 months advanced notice.
Regardless of our efforts to give these groups as much advance notice as reasonably possible, most chose to wait out the pandemic to object, to plan or to react. Fact: Certainly avoidable.
Naturally, as delegated stewards, our priority must be to TCH. Throughout the last eighteen months, TCH’s Leadership’s overriding priority was to underpin the financial foundation and the mission of this treasured organization. Nothing in our 99-year history has challenged The Community House and its mission like COVID-19. Fact: The Community House has suffered 40-50 percent top line revenue losses for the last two fiscal budgets. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses. We were hemorrhaging. Half of our revenue generating streams were closed or partially closed – several still today. At the height of COVID, nearly 90 percent of our dedicated and loyal staff were furloughed or laid off. Many never returned, only to change professions, stay on assistance or worse. Unbudgeted sanitation and PPE costs now regularly exceed $5,000 per month. Fundraisers and events canceled. And our historic building in need of care. We were experiencing the perfect storm.
Incredibly, recently while we continue to struggle to keep our heads above water, one civic group president went so far as to call out (via the press) the said budgetary moves by TCH fiduciaries as “harsh.” Adding “they clearly don’t care about the community. They’re clearly geared towards profit.” Fact: These are irresponsible and harmful words that could have been avoided - if only the time was taken by this civic group and one other to be truly informed. Geared towards profit – nonsense. Responsible stewards trying to keep this nearly century old institution’s doors open – absolutely. These regrettable words have negatively impacted our mission, our donors, and our ability to recover.
Regrettably – these same two civic groups who used to meet at The Community House pre-COVID - supposedly “reeling” from the change in The Community House’s own business survival plan, grew louder and louder, insisting that they were to be treated exclusively at the exclusion of others – history entitled them (regardless of the pandemic, our situation and other groups and citizens in our community now needing help from TCH as well.) Fact: The Community House has not pushed any groups out – all remain welcome – we simply asked these few exclusive groups to pay a fair share (50 percent) of the retail cost to gather and break bread together post-COVID at TCH – with The Community House underwriting the other 50 percent of their actual cost (as part of our own non-profit mission, while we struggle.)
Many accepted our responsible offer. Sadly, these two groups did not and continue to loudly resist. And mischaracterize our conversations, our pleas, our transparency. Nevertheless, COVID-19 taught us that we must try to help more at the same time, the demand for our services exceeds our dwindling resources. We must also remember the poor, the hungry, the lonely, the sick, the disenfranchised in our community, county and region. We must stay the course. We will succeed. Fact: The Community House did not leave these exclusive groups reeling – COVID-19 did. The world has changed, so must we all. And as difficult as it has become – we will continue to deal in facts and truth, not harmful self-serving rumor or innuendo.
Our mission is to serve. Nothing less, nothing more. Short of an unexpected lifeline, we will continue to struggle. Unlike so many historical institutions, universities, medical centers, noble causes – many donors do not think of The Community House as a place to make large transformational gifts to. But we pray that they take a second look. We’re worth it. Community Houses across our nation are rare, cultural, educational and philanthropic gems. They fill a need; they fill a gap that so many depend upon. Pre-COVID, over 200,000 people entered through our doors annually. After nearly a century of service, we must have been doing something right. Yet help is needed now – than at any time before. Thank you. Stay safe, be well.
William D. Seklar is President & CEO of The Community House and The Community House Foundation in Birmingham.