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Project Open Hand Pulls Out of Rough Spot

by Seth Hemmelgarn
Thursday Feb 21, 2013
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A San Francisco nonprofit that prepares and delivers meals to critically ill homebound clients, seniors, and those living with HIV/AIDS is pulling out of a rough patch.

Just over a year ago, Project Open Hand, which has a budget of about $9.3 million, was facing a wide deficit, while longtime Executive Director Tom Nolan prepared to leave. Not long after Kevin Winge, 54, took over the top job last January, he announced four staff positions were being cut, and adjustments would be made to services for some clients. The nonprofit eventually had to pull $750,000 from its reserve in order to fill a budget gap in the 2011-12 fiscal year.

Since then, however, the fiscal outlook has improved for the agency, which delivers 2,600 meals a day. So far, the 2012-13 budget is balanced, and "December was the most successful single month for fundraising in our 27-year history," Winge said.

"The staff, our volunteers, the board - everyone seems really encouraged, and we’re ready to keep building on what Tom Nolan worked so hard to put in place," he added.

Along with delivering meals, POH also distributes groceries weekly to about 1,500 people, mostly in San Francisco, but also about 300 in Alameda County. The organization has over 100 staff, and there are more than 100 volunteers every day.

Positive signs

In a recent interview, Winge said the agency ended the first six months of the current fiscal year "slightly ahead of revenue projections and slightly below on the expense side."

Through December 31, projected revenue was $5.1 million, but actual revenue was $5.6 million. The agency anticipated $4.76 million in expenses, but spent only $4.5 million.

Additionally, December was Project Open Hand’s best month ever in terms of gifts from individual donors. The agency raised $645,193 from individuals through direct mail and email solicitations, which is up from the $527,209 raised in December 2011.

The positive figures are the result of "a whole lot of work," Winge said.

"I hope a part of it was being totally transparent about the deficit" the agency faced last year, which it seems "motivated the staff and our board of directors to really be proactive on watching expenses." He said that people "really being out there and raising money" was another part of it, and volunteers and donors "were really rising to the occasion to support Project Open Hand in light of the deficit," among other factors.

Service changes, combined with efficiencies in purchasing, have enabled Project Open Hand to reduce program costs by $300,000 for the first half of the fiscal year, according to the agency.

Last April, the nonprofit announced some programmatic changes, asking clients with HIV who were in better health to choose between grocery service and meals, rather than continuing to receive both. The agency began implementing the change in June.

The agency doesn’t plan additional service cuts.

POH client Sylvia Britt, 49, goes to Project Open Hand once a week for groceries.

Britt, who’s HIV-positive, has a job, but she’s on a limited budget. Going to POH helps "to make sure I have some healthy food in the house, and not have to worry about having money to get it."

Britt praised Winge. She said he’s met with clients and sought their input.

"You just don’t find that everywhere," Britt said. "... It makes a lot of difference. He actually cares about the services, and how service is being rendered to the clients."

Looking ahead

People at Project Open Hand are also looking ahead. The board is hoping to approve a three-year strategic plan in March. Winge talked about some of the highlights.

"We continue to be focused on providing the most nutritious meals possible," he said. The agency is working with more local farmers’ markets when possible, "trying to source local and organic ingredients."

The nonprofit is looking at improving clients’ experience, including by giving them a choice in the meals they get. In the past, they got a four-pack of meals that had already been packaged.

Now, "they can select the meals they want," Winge said.

He said the hours when meals are available are also being examined so that clients can have more chances to take advantage of other services, including meeting with caseworkers.

Winge acknowledged some recent complaints about bad produce, but "that’s just the nature" of such food. The agency does quality control and takes complaints seriously, he said.

The biggest challenge Project Open Hand faces involves the number of people who aren’t aware of the agency, Winge said.

He added, "Many more people aren’t aware of the fact we serve more people than people living with HIV/AIDS." As part of the strategic plan, the agency wants to launch an awareness campaign.

"The challenge becomes getting the message right and finding ways to do it that don’t cost a lot of money," Winge said.

Shortly after he joined the agency, Winge said he wanted to stop making bequests part of POH’s general operating budget. When someone will die and how long it will take to settle the estate can’t be predicted, so agencies can’t be sure when that money will come in.

Project Open Hand budgeted for $400,000 in bequests last fiscal year "and didn’t come close" to getting that much, Winge said. This year, there’s $200,000 in the budget, and the agency has received approximately $250,000, so it’s already exceeded that goal. No bequests are planned for the 2013-14 operating budget. Instead, that money will go into the reserve fund.

Winge said he’s "determined" that this year there won’t be a need to dip back into the reserve, which still holds about $1.9 million.

"Our plan is eventually we could start to put some money back in the reserve," he said. "We’ll see how this [fiscal] year ends" come June 30.

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