“To see these guys go to work every day, earn a check, hold their head up high, and not be identified by a poor decision they made 15 years ago is an ongoing success that I see every day that keeps me grounded and motivated to do this work.” – Dr. Thomas Adams, President & CEO, Better Futures Enterprises
Transforming a nonprofit business model requires several things, but chief among them is a trusted leader. When Dr. Thomas Adams took the role of the nonprofit’s executive director in 2014, he knew he needed to transition Better Futures Minnesota from majority-philanthropy funded to a stronger earned income model. However, he thought he’d have three years to do it. When a major funder sunsetted its grant two years early, Dr. Adams had about 6 months to make some significant changes to Better Futures’ operations and long-term strategies.
Leading through Change
Five years later, Better Futures is a much different organization than when Dr. Adams stepped into leadership. He has proven himself to be the trusted leader the organization needed to make strategic pivots to carry out its enduring mission of fueling and guiding men’s desire to turn their lives around and walk a new path toward better health and success.
Better Futures is a nonprofit built on a deep belief in the potential of all people. It is an organization intent on changing the costly, ineffective systems and practices that perpetuate the cycles of dependency experienced by men who have faced incarceration. Better Futures offers men stable employment through its building deconstruction program, which helps divert building waste from landfills and also stocks the nonprofit’s ReUse Warehouse in South Minneapolis, where other participants are employed. Other men are employed through the organization’s property maintenance, janitorial, and appliance recycling contracts. It also provides stable housing opportunities to the men it works with.
Dr. Adams had plenty of executive-level experience coming into Better Futures, having been a previous Executive Director at Pillsbury Neighborhood Services, The Association of Minority Health Professions Schools, and most recently African American Family Services. He was specifically attracted to Better Futures because of its embodiment of one of its core values: self-determination. “Rooted in Better Futures’ DNA is the ability to work, contribute, and be a productive member of society and thereby take control of your own direction and your own prosperity,” said Dr. Adams. “That was extremely compelling to me then, and it is now.”
Shifting toward a Self-Determined Business Model
Better Futures started as a social enterprise, but its reputation helped it get significant philanthropic support over the years. However, Dr. Adams knew that this business model wasn’t sustainable, especially given how volatile foundation and even government contracts can be. He understood earned income leads to more autonomy of strategic decisions. “When you have unrestricted revenue, it allows you to put resources toward expenses or activities that may not always have been planned for,” he explained. “It allows you to be flexible and be nimble and cover activities you feel are vital to your organization but that may not fit into the prescriptive categories that many foundations support.”
Since Dr. Adams started in 2014, the nonprofit has seen a significant change in its income streams: foundation support went from 69% to 18% while income earned from its social enterprises went from 17% to 52% (the rest of its contributions come through government contracts). The transition was not easy, and Dr. Adams knows it wouldn’t have been possible without full support from his board. “It took a board that believed in me because we had several years of deficits as we were trying to right the plane as we were flying it,” he stated.
Dr. Adams also oversaw a complete transition of Better Futures’ executive team. “Our mission and values stayed the same, but I was clear that as an organization we would put greater focus on outcomes, metrics, efficiencies, and our return on investment,” he said. He urges other leaders navigating periods of change to be in constant communication with everyone, from board to staff, and to keep the vision and values front and center. They went from semi-annual to quarterly all staff meetings and made clear everyone knew the why driving the change: to fully insulate the organization from the volatility of its financial revenue streams and to fully embody the values it espoused to its participants. Dr. Adams also joined national and local social enterprise networks to fuel his personal growth.
To help with cash flow between the reimbursement period of its work contracts, Better Futures reached out to Propel Nonprofits for a line of credit. “Propel saw our cash flow issues but believed in our mission and saw that our annual deficits were decreasing each year…we were making progress and Propel was willing to bet on us,” said Dr. Adams. In addition to a loan, Better Futures is currently working with Propel’s strategic services team as they embark on further strategic planning. “Propel’s partnership was extremely helpful to my organization and it instantly increased confidence in myself, in my staff, and in my board that we were doing the right thing.”
Ongoing Wins through Meaningful, Hard Work
When you ask Dr. Adams what motivates him to keep doing this work, he’s less interested in “storybook moments” and more encouraged by the day-to-day steps that change a life. “To see these guys go to work every day, earn a check, hold their head up high, and not be identified by a poor decision they made 15 years ago is an ongoing success that I see every day that keeps me grounded and motivated to do this work,” he stated. “Statistically, 70 percent of these men would be incarcerated if not for an organization like Better Futures.”
This year, Better Futures partnered with Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative to open Great River Landing, a 72-unit supportive housing building in Minneapolis’ North Loop. For Dr. Adams, this is another embodiment of Better Futures’ mission. “One of our taglines is, ‘If you don’t have a lease in your name, you’re an argument away from being homeless,’” said Dr. Adams. “We’re excited to be able to offer men the ability to build a positive rental history from day 1.” Men who are coming out of corrections are 4-5 times more likely to be homeless than the general population, so Great River Landing is another way Better Futures is rebuilding broken systems that in turn allow the men it works with the opportunity to reclaim their lives.
For more information on Better Futures Minnesota, visit its website: http://betterfuturesminnesota.com/
Photos courtesy of Better Futures Minnesota.