“There’s a difference between what’s possible in your budget and what your cash flow is telling you.” – Jody Nelson, Executive Director, Change Inc.
Top photo: Jody Nelson in her office next to a newspaper clipping of her shingling a roof as a young woman
Jody Nelson, executive director at Change Inc., has a newspaper clipping from decades ago hanging on her office door at the GAP School in St. Paul. It shows her as a young woman, smiling while perched on the roof of a building she’s shingling. “I keep it there to encourage the young women in our program, to show them that I’ve done this work, too,” said Jody. Her lightness of spirit and quickness to laugh, even on a freezing December morning, make Jody an approachable leader, and one who deeply embodies the work of Change Inc.
A New Entity with Deep Roots
Jody has been working directly with Twin Cities families and individuals for 40 years; 25 of those have been at Change Inc., which is a recent merger of what was Guadalupe Alternative Programs (GAP) and Change Inc. “I’m all about these young people and students we work with having a career pathway and reaching their highest potential,” said Jody. “That’s what drives me.” She’s joined by a dedicated team, including Jill Johnson, the associate director, who oversees operations and financial management. The community-based education and social service nonprofit works with families, youth, and young adults throughout the Twin Cities who face the effects of poverty, racism, crime, violence, and other systemic challenges.
Both organizations – GAP and Change Inc. – had equally deep histories of doing work with people facing poverty since the 1960s. Several of the staff and board also have ties dating back decades, similar to Jody and Jill. She feels it’s important as a merged organization that people familiar with one nonprofit or the other know that they are “more than just what you knew us as before.”
Change Inc. is working to change the future for those it works with primarily through the educational system. Core to its work is a belief that relationships are the key to change. GAP school, built by Sister Giovanni in 1967 to address the high number of secondary school dropouts, still exists in St. Paul as an alternative school for youth and young adults. Its YouthBuild/AmeriCorps program trains youth and young adults in the construction field, while rehabbing and building homes on St. Paul’s West Side to be sold as low-income housing. The Change Inc. team also provides school-based mental health services for K-12 students in dozens of Twin Cities schools.
Right-Sizing Operations, Strategy for a Larger Organization
While Jody is not new to the work, she is newer in the role of executive director. In 2019, she replaced the former executive director who had led the organization for 30 years. Her first lesson learned? “I learned where the boiler is!” she laughed. “I didn’t realize how long I’d always just thought, ‘That’s Allen’s [previous executive director] problem.’ And then our boiler went out last January in negative 30-degree weather, and I had to figure out how to fix it.” In addition to now overseeing short-term building, staff, and operations issues, Jody is also working with the team to be more strategic for the long-term.
The organization had gone through a period of fairly rapid growth to where now it has a budget of $5 million. But, as can often happen, most resources were going to programs and not to internal infrastructure and operations. Through a connection with the Council on Black Male Success, Change Inc. – then GAP – started working with Propel Nonprofits on strategic planning. A big part of the work was pairing strategy with financial forecasting to see what needed to change in its business model to reflect and sustain that growth.
Change Inc.’s strategic plan included a 3-year budget forecast that helped Jody, Jill, and the team think differently about the organization’s social enterprise of renovating and selling affordable housing. “In my previous role, I don’t think I appreciated enough that this good work that we’re doing – let’s say in the construction area – can be done in such a way that it can help us financially if we do it in a planful way,” said Jody. While the nonprofit has long had a YouthBuild program to train young adults in building trades, Jody said she hadn’t thought much about the timing of when they bought and sold houses. Now, by having a strategic timeline on an upcoming house renovation, the nonprofit will have the funds to move forward on a new construction project of four affordable houses on St. Paul’s west side this summer.
Change Inc. also partnered with Propel for a loan to bridge the sale of this home renovation. For Jody, that marks another shift in how she thinks about debt, from a thing to be avoided to a resource that can provide stability throughout a fiscal year. “There’s a difference between what’s possible in your budget and what your cash flow is telling you,” said Jody. “I’ll now look daily at what’s come in, at what expenses are coming up, and then also at the year ahead and beyond.” For her, the balance of short-term and long-term thinking has been one of the biggest learnings in her own shift from doing the work to managing it.
An appreciation for cash flow and the ability to predict ebbs and flows is especially important given Change Inc.’s business model, which relies in part on reimbursement through a government contract for its school-based mental health. Jody can now look ahead at when those repayment lags will cause a cash crunch and either pursue a bridge loan or look at other program income to offset it. “We’re no longer thinking about our programming as separate from finance,” said Jody. “I feel so much more resourced than we were at the end of the year.” Jill worked closely with Propel’s finance staff to learn to manage and interpret the nonprofit’s short-term and long-term financial reports.
Despite feeling like she and her team are in a more strategic, planful position, Jody embraces that nonprofit finance is filled with both puzzles to be solved and mysteries outside of her control, citing a recent Star Tribune article by Ross Levin. This framework releases her and the team from being too hard on themselves when unexpected things happen, from boilers breaking and government reimbursements being late to come in. Instead, they are preparing for those things as best they can; the nonprofit is working toward building a reserve fund, and Jody is excited about the potential of building an individual donor strategy to help with that.
The Why Driving the Work
After 40 years of doing this work, Jody continues to be motivated by the results she encounters: lives that are better because of Change Inc.’s early trust and belief in those who it works with. One example of that is Corey Byrd, who Jody hired to work at City Inc. when he was 16. “I first hired Corey there as a youth outreach coordinator because he said he was 18,” recalled Jody. “We were very involved in gang outreach, and we started a thing called United for Peace. Corey himself had been involved in gangs, but Jody could see he had the potential to apply his leadership skills in other ways. Now, almost 35 years later, Corey is still working with Jody, now at Change Inc. He also chairs the Council on Black Male Success, leads programs for Change Inc., and himself is setting young people up for success. “Watching his life grow and evolve has been so rewarding,” said Jody.
To learn more about Change Inc. visit its website: https://www.thechangeinc.org/.