“We really had to get very realistic,” said Deborah Barber. A board member of Women’s Initiative for Self Employment for the past five years and board chair for the past two months, Barber said, “We are out of options for keeping our doors open.”
The nonprofit abruptly announced it was suspending all programs and placing staff on furlough on April 7. “Everything happened so fast and so unexpectedly,” said Executive Director Danielle Franklin. Oakland Local interviewed Franklin and Barber at the group’s now-quiet offices in downtown Oakland on April 21. “That week of silence was getting a grip on what’s going on,” she said of the organization’s lack of communication after announcing the closing on its Facebook page.
Barber said the financial difficulties started five or six years ago when Women’s Initiative expanded beyond its original locations in San Francisco and Oakland. “Our confidence in the program was well-grounded,” she said, noting the high success rate of graduates.
In hindsight, Barber said, the organization underestimated the infrastructure needed to sustain additional locations and was overconfident in its revenue stream. In 2012, Women’s Initiative retrenched, closing offices and reducing staff, leaving only Oakland, San Francisco and New York City hubs open. Although New York is a relatively new location, the group has found success there and the New York office may remain open in some form.
“If you’re shrinking and pulling down,” said Barber, “you get to a point where you can’t cut anymore” and still deliver the quality services.
Concerned that “our leadership wasn’t bringing the right kind of attention to the operational side,” Barber brought in an advisor to review the nonprofit’s financials and suggest solutions. The advisor told the group that “this is a very serious situation and you’re in the middle of a crisis.” She added, “It was like POW! – we’re in an untenable situation.”
Major funders that had worked with Women’s Initiative for almost 20 years had pulled back in recent years and the nonprofit had lost Small Business Administration funding, a significant percentage of its budget.
Still, the board and management hoped that the annual gala, a major fundraiser, would give the group enough breathing room to get through the next few months and organize a fundraising push. “We still thought we could pull it off,” Barber said.
Two years ago, the gala brought in about $1 million. In 2013, revenue from the fundraiser was just $500,000. This year, the March 5 gala fundraising was down by half yet again. Once it became clear that revenue would be even less than projected, the choice to close became unavoidable. “It was the worst of all circumstances, the worst of all actions and we had no alternatives,” said Barber. “We had backed ourselves into a corner.”
Franklin is blunt: “I think it was just poor leadership. We have to just ‘fess up to it. Poor leadership and poor management.”
Franklin, Barber and other board members are currently in negotiations with other nonprofits to take over Women’s Initiative’s programs. “That is our overriding priority right now,” said Barber. The Women’s Initiative offered services in both English and Spanish and also helped graduates gain micro-financing, so it may be necessary to partner with multiple groups to find homes for all the programs.
“I’ve never had this level of passion about an organization and the work it’s doing,” Barber said of the mission to help low-income women raise their economic status through business ownership. “That’s why we are so passionate about getting through this transition.”
Barber added, “There are many of us on the board who are making this our primary focus, our jobs, because we are so committed to the work we have been doing.
The ultimate goal is to find a successor to provide services women have already signed up for, such as SuccessLink and Simple Steps 11-week business classes. Ideally, Barber and Franklin would like to have a new partner or partners by May.
For those who want to help out, Franklin says the best way is to donate funds, which are needed to complete three classes that had to be suspended at the time of the closure and to assist with the transition. Checks to Women’s Initiative can be mailed to its office at 1814 Franklin Street, Suite 200, Oakland, CA 94612. You can also donate online here.
For anyone with additional questions, Franklin asks that they leave a message at 510-287-3102 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Both email and voicemail are checked every day.
Asked what it would take to get Women’s Initiative back on its feet, both women say the group would need at least $2 million in new funding to resume operations. Franklin adds that the organization would also need very strong leadership to keep it on course, observing, “You can’t succeed on passion alone.”