The Jeremiah Program of Minneapolis is now just weeks away from opening a new building where 35 more families will live while going through the nonprofit’s intensive, “two-generation” program that gets single parents and their kids to permanently leave poverty behind.
What’s most interesting about it is that it’s in Austin, Texas, about a 17-hour drive down Interstate 35 from where Jeremiah got its start. This project represents the kind of national expansion that small, social-service nonprofits like Jeremiah aren’t supposed to be able to pull off — or even try.
The people running Jeremiah have long been thinking about how best to expand, as “literally when we first opened our doors in 1998 we were getting calls” from other cities, said Gloria Perez, Jeremiah’s longtime CEO.
The organization has refined its thinking since then — what they once called criteria they now call “the rubric.” The expansion strategy boils down to just one powerful idea: The product has to be the same wherever Jeremiah goes, but the details of how it is delivered can be easily worked out with the supporters brought on board in new locations.
While a lot of organizations are tiny and stay that size, the idea of national expansion crops up a lot in nonprofit circles. Whenever a program starts demonstrating good outcomes on a really tough problem, a government official or philanthropist will ask if it can be “replicated” and plopped down somewhere else.
It’s easy to understand the appeal of doing that. It’s the same thinking that gets entrepreneurs to plunge into the restaurant business by buying a franchise. Yet it’s just that kind of thinking that can lead to trouble in nonprofits.
Figuring out if there is a need for what a social service agency does is rarely the challenging part. The answer almost always is yes. Far more likely, a nonprofit eager to serve more people hasn’t given enough thought to how it will keep itself funded at a new location.
Beyond having to build new relationships with local donors, the whole structure of the nonprofit fundraising market could be different in a new metro area. And organizations surely can’t count on more money from their hometown. Local foundations might not be thrilled about seeing time and money go to a national rollout.
So with that in mind, “We only go where we are invited,” explained Susan Sands, a Twin Cities consultant and philanthropist whose long history with Jeremiah includes chairing the board and leading Jeremiah’s expansion committee.
“I remember thinking, ‘OK, how do you define that? What constitutes an invitation?’ ” said Glenda Holmstrom, a technology executive in Austin, Texas, and an early champion of Jeremiah there. “One person saying, ‘Come to Austin,’ well, that’s not really a community invitation.”
That critical tipping point, she learned, is finding local funding. She said it’s a bigger challenge in Texas than it is in the Twin Cities, which has a richer tradition of corporate and personal philanthropy. She realized it also had to be “new money,” that funding sources in Texas were encouraging yet didn’t want to cut off the successful programs they were already supporting to fund a new idea out of Minnesota.
Eventually, financial commitments were rounded up. “That’s an invitation,” Holmstrom said, “when you get the community putting their money in.”
This whole process took years. Holmstrom, now chair of Jeremiah’s local board in Austin, said she first met Perez more than six years ago. Just a half-hour into the conversation she concluded that Austin needed a program like Jeremiah’s — its results in the Twin Cities were so promising.
Jeremiah only does one thing, and that’s lifting families out of poverty and putting them on a path to stay out of poverty. It’s based on the idea that you have to help the kids and the parents at the same time, an approach I had not heard before my family became a small donor some years ago. The program typically has a single mom with young kids live in Jeremiah housing with other participants, while all of them go to school.
About half of its program graduates have earned a bachelor’s degree, the rest receiving an associate degree or professional certificate. Of 2014 graduates, nearly half were unemployed when they started, and the rest had jobs that paid on average about $10.50 an hour. Once they graduated from Jeremiah, three-quarters of them had jobs, and the average wage had surged to more than $16 an hour. The other quarter were continuing their education.
People interested in starting a new Jeremiah program hear from Perez about five key tenets Jeremiah will insist upon. The list starts with families being able to count on a safe and stable place to live.
The housing is what leads to another feature — forming a community of mostly young moms who get together all the time, learning from each other how to become working parents. The kids also need to be in a high-quality child care center or school while the moms progress through an education program that should lead to a middle-class career.
The last of the nonnegotiable features is what Jeremiah calls empowerment and life skills training. Perez called this “helping a person change from the inside out.”
Young single parents often feel powerless to make their lives better, seeing themselves as victims of bad families or bad luck. In time, they learn that it’s really up to them to change the direction of their lives.
Jeremiah works out all the other details with local staff and supporters in its expansion programs now underway in Rochester and Fargo in addition to the big project in Texas and work in Boston. Jeremiah doesn’t insist on owning the apartment building for families, for example, if a local housing developer volunteers to join forces.
“We are nothing if not flexible,” Perez said.