Special to the Philanthropy Journal
By Becky Gundrum
In the early spring of March 2019, Urban Peak Colorado Springs (UPCS) was faced with an organizational changing decision. A decision that no matter the outcome, would fundamentally and permanently change the organizational structure and how it operated. The decision – to stay Urban Peak or to break from the parent – Urban Peak Denver (UPD) – and go it alone. The decision to leave behind the comfort and backing of a caring parent organization for the freedom and independence to become the organization it felt it needed to be to serve youth experiencing homelessness in the region.
Every young person deserves to find their way home
The PLACE is the only licensed organization in southeastern Colorado serving youth ages 15-24 experiencing homelessness. It offers three pillar programs that support youth on their path from homelessness to self-sufficiency – Outreach, Shelter, and Housing.
The Outreach program connects youth on the streets with shelter, housing, and family reunification (if desired). The outreach team meets youth on the streets where they are offered key and important elements, such as gloves in the winter and water in the summer, and connections, such as the trust of a caring adult. Last year, the outreach team served 394 individuals.
The PLACE operates a 24/7/365 20-bed shelter. It provides meals, clothing, education and employment services, and connections to mental and physical health services. Last year, The PLACE housed 157 youth in its shelter. The PLACE’s housing program houses youth in a spectrum of housing solutions including rapid rehousing, transitional housing, and permanent supportive housing. Last year, The PLACE housed 97 youth in different housing programs across the city of Colorado Springs, CO.
In the last few years, and while the organization was still UPCS, The PLACE has been evaluating best practices in serving youth including housing and service options that work to meet its goal to skillfully guide every youth who comes to its doors to the right resources they need within 24 hours. The organization has focused on acquiring more housing units, better shelter practices, and youth engagement in policy and decision-making.
Becoming The PLACE
Urban Peak Colorado Springs was incepted in 2000 as a separate 501 (C)3 but under the administrative and service umbrella of its backer, supporter, and parent, Urban Peak Denver. In 2000, local and regional constituents recognized the need to bring services and support to youth experiencing homelessness to Colorado Springs, CO. Urban Peak Denver, the youth service provider in Denver, became both the literal and figurative parent of Urban Peak Colorado Springs and much like a parent, UPD fed and cared for UPCS by providing the financial, programmatic, and administrative resources and expertise that allowed UPCS to grow into a flourishing, innovative, and dynamic organization serving more and more youth in more substantial and more localized ways.
In 2017, UPD and its child UPCS developed a comprehensive strategic plan that outlined each organization’s commitments and vision. For UPCS, this needs-evaluation led to the determination that what was critically needed in the city was (and still is) a low barrier drop-in center with accessible laundry, showers, meals, and resources to serve youth either not ready or able to enter housing and/or not ready or wanting to be in the shelter. With the help of community partners, and in service to its mission and vision, the organization (UPCS) was provided the opportunity to purchase space for this critical need. However, as a child to the parent organization, this was not a decision the organization and board leadership could make on its own. The parent, the sole oversight member of the affiliation, would have to approve. In short, it didn’t and in the fall of 2018, UPCS leadership and the board evaluated their future as the affiliate of UPD.
Like many of the youth we serve, and like most teenagers, as UPCS approached its 18th birthday, it became clear that something had to change. The relationship with UPD was straining under the philosophical, financial, and administrative control exercised by UPD. Due to the legalities of the relationship, the UPCS board acted in an advisory capacity with no real power to make the decisions it felt were in the best interest of the organization. The two organizations recognized that each had different modes and methods for meeting youth needs in each community. UPD had stuff it wanted to do and UPCS had a different set of stuff it wanted to do, and it became clear that the affiliation, as it existed, made each entity less effective.
To address the growing dissent, In March 2019, UPD presented UPCS board and leadership with two options. One, merge with UPD and become one single entity nonprofit or disaffiliate – remove UPD as the parent organization and stand completely alone financially, administratively, and programmatically. At the March 2019 UPCS board meeting, (in which four of the 11 board members were new to the board), the decision was made to disaffiliate and go it alone. Like many of the youth we serve who decide that they want to go it alone, The PLACE didn’t know what it didn’t know. With 19 years as a child organization, it underestimated both the opportunities and the challenges of being a 19-year-old start up. And, like some of the youth it served, it did not always appreciate the support of our parent organization.
With less than 90 days to pivot to independence, and with the caveat of not using the words “Urban” or “Peak” in the new name, the board and the leadership began the work of becoming The PLACE. At the same time, Urban Peak Denver was preparing for its only child to leave home and figuring out what support was needed from both organizations proved to be more challenging than anticipated. After 19 years, systems, relationships, and programs were melded together in sometimes complicated ways and the untangling was often stressful for both entities.
Also, the issue of messaging became a point of contention for both organizations. From a fundraising perspective, UPCS wanted to launch the name – The PLACE – at its annual fundraising event, the Off the Street Breakfast in July 2019, however, because the disaffiliation would not be complete until the end of September 2019, and to avoid possible donor and funder questions and confusion about the relationship between the organizations, UPD felt a launch at the event was not wise. From that point on, both organizations worked diligently on a careful, thoughtful, and thorough communications plan to ensure that donors, foundations, government funders, and other constituents for both organizations were informed. This was a sensitive process and one that was not always easy to adhere to. This issue highlighted the differences between the organizations and highlighted potential consequences of the disaffiliation, including loss of donor support for one or the other. Coordinated messaging to various groups of constituents were crafted with a strict timeline for delivery and although UPCS (The PLACE) agreed with the strategy, The PLACE suffered name recognition issues and the inability to discuss the name change at its fundraiser, in front of 1,000 constituents, had an unquantifiable affect especially when coupled with the COVID-19 Pandemic that struck just eight months later.
Because The PLACE could not announce at its annual breakfast, it had to pivot to a strategy that met the needs of both organizations. For The PLACE, this included subtle messaging in various formats to plant the seed for the new name. For example, at the annual breakfast hung a banner that stated, “The PLACE to belong.” And it was concerned that supporters might feel betrayed that they gave money and support to Urban Peak Colorado Springs which no longer held this name, although everything else remained the same. The PLACE had some work to do to assure all its constituents that the organization they knew as UPCS was still the same organization but nimbler and more effective. As 2019 came to a close and as it was making its way through the holiday giving season, The PLACE was getting some traction. Its youth were being served and the board took up discussions about creating a drop-in center and other housing and shelter solutions – ideas that could be pursued freely. The board and the organization leadership felt empowered to make lasting change in the community.
COVID woes for a seasoned but new entity
Like every other human service organization, March 2020 upset the fledging PLACE in tantamount ways and some strategic priorities were shelved as it evaluated the impact of a global shut down on an already vulnerable population of youth – some might argue, the most vulnerable. The PLACE had to pivot and reimagine every program. How to keep youth and staff safe in a congregate shelter, how to keep youth and staff safe and still serve youth on the street, what to do with youth attending school, and what to do in the case of a COVID outbreak (of which there were a few). Obviously, most providers were dealing with the same challenges but for The PLACE, they were managing it as a nineteen year old NEW organization – still working through the financial and administrative separation, still working through human resource, payroll, and benefits issues, still figuring out the most effective staffing model, and still working to launch The PLACE for name recognition and reputation. In addition, the board, as now a full-fledged nonprofit board, was still figuring out what policies and procedures to implement, update, change, or discard. It was still developing the board and board orientation as The PLACE and defining what board member gaps and responsibilities should be in their new configuration, dealing with senior board member departures due to personal and health related issues, some tied directly to the pandemic. The PLACE board was still trying to figure out how to be an effective board.
What The PLACE realized was that the name change, although problematic, was mitigated by the stellar reputation of the organization (formerly known as Urban Peak Colorado Springs), and as the staff worked through safety measures, applied for the PPP loan, and collaborated with other nonprofits and the Public Health Department, funders came to the table. Spring is also the season that The PLACE development office plans the annual July fundraiser, gathering sponsors and securing the location. The team began planning for an in-person July 2020 event thinking, as most did, that things would be back to normal by summer. At the same time, the board was finding its footing. The executive director hired a facilitator and in April 2020, the board and leadership team developed a Rallying Cry and a 90-day action plan to address the most pressing issues. The Rallying Cry – Forge stability at The PLACE to prepare us for meeting the future with precision and strength – gave the board and leadership a common theme to guide decisions. From this rallying cry emerged three defining objectives.
- Financial reporting and stability.
- System review and identify strengths and challenges based on the organization’s life cycle.
- Hire the right people, at competitive salaries, to fill gaps and build capacity.
Although not every objective was met in the 90 days, and The PLACE is still evolving, this process provided the backbone and structure to guide not only the summer of 2020 but also in guiding board decision making throughout most of 2021.
As the board gelled and leaders grew, the pandemic was unrelenting, and The PLACE was forced to pivot once again. In the spring of 2020, The PLACE board development committee and The PLACE development team were working hard to build attendance at the annual breakfast to rival 2019 attendance of 1,000 people. The teams felt it important to solidify The PLACE’s reputation and name recognition in the community, given the challenges with initial launch and the pandemic. The PLACE waited with bated breath for the public health orders regarding large gatherings to expire however, by early June, it became apparent that was not going to happen, and the possibility of 1,000 people gathered under a bridge, next to the railroad tracks, was remote. The development committee and team asked itself, how do we do what we need to do? The breakfast was (and still is) one of the largest sources of revenue and exposure for the entire year. Cancelling the event would have been consequential and could have left The PLACE in a financially vulnerable position.
Pivoting again and again
So, with about 7 weeks to go, The PLACE pivoted to a virtual event. The development team researched what platforms, tools, and tricks other local and national nonprofits were doing in this space and successfully hosted a virtual event that included both synchronous and asynchronous components. Although The PLACE reached 57% of its goal, the platform forced the team to get much more involved with individual donors and other constituents. As a bonus, the videos stayed on the website throughout the remainder of the year and The PLACE realized a trickle of individual donations throughout the months that followed.
The PLACE’s only other fundraising event – The Night Out – was planned and held virtually in November 2020. Instead of participants spending the night outside in a church parking lot, teams and participants slept in their yards and some livestreamed their experiences. To raise awareness for the event The PLACE created yard signs with a QR code for participants to display. Passers by and interested parties were able to learn about and donate to the Night Out through the QR code and The PLACE was able to raise awareness with a population that might not have known about them.
The COVID-enabled Prototype
As the pandemic dragged into late 2020 and into 2021, and Colorado started to see its biggest spikes in positive cases with no end in sight, The PLACE collaborated with a partner nonprofit, Inside Out Youth Services, to meet one of its priorities – a Drop In Center. Inside Out provides a safe space, education, and resources for LGBTQ+ youth in Colorado Springs, CO. Their space remained closed throughout the pandemic due to the public health risks gatherings posed. The two executive directors, concerned about their respective populations and the intersection of LGBTQ+ youth and homeless youth, pivoted. They worked with the city and opened a temporary drop-in center in the Inside Out space throughout the coldest months of the year and until Inside Out was able to resume operations. The PLACE used the temporary drop-in center as a prototype. In essence, it was able to test out whether a drop-in center should remain a top priority – it should. This experiment exposed the real need for a fully equipped drop-in center with laundry, showers, meals, and services. In the 4 months the drop-in center was open, The PLACE placed six times more youth in housing over the same period the previous year. Youth used the drop-in center even though it did not have showers, laundry, computer lab or access to mental and physical health provers. The community felt the loss of this space and The PLACE, through creativity and grit, opened a more permanent drop-in center in December 2021 – more than 3 years after the need was identified and prioritized in the strategic plan.
The PLACE then and now.
As 2021 draws to a close, The PLACE is continuing to work on its “Way Home” strategy. And, it has become nimbler than ever before. With the launch of the drop-in center, and the collaboration with a developer working to build a 50-unit Permanent Supportive Housing complex for youth, to address this growing need. And our vision does not stop there. We are imagining and reimaging housing and service to youth in this region to include more housing options and better shelter services to meet the needs of every individual youth who needs to find a way home.
What the board of directors, past and present, and the leadership and staff learned through this transition is that knowing our community’s needs, opportunities, and challenges in deep and complex ways, and crafting our mission to meet those needs, was key to moving forward in the face of adversity. This understanding and commitment allowed The PLACE to pivot when it needed to and still be successful. The board and leadership were willing to step into the unknown and although not always comfortable, the organization grew in dramatic ways. We learned that we could not prepare for every scenario and that there are factors beyond our control, but we can, and did, prepare to be nimble. We prepared to pivot. This is something our youth do every day and we have a new respect for their creativeness and resilience.
The PLACE has become more introspective considering the challenges we faced from March of 2019 through 2021. We better understand ourselves, our youth, our donors, and our constituents, and we have a greater appreciation for what is really important in our work. From a development perspective, The PLACE has a new appreciation for how difficult and yet how rewarding it is to ask for money when crisis happens. The pandemic has forced organizations like The PLACE to look deeper in terms of both fundraising and services and many times we had to ask ourselves, do we keep doing things this way? One could surmise that in the wake of 2020-2021, many nonprofits, particularly human service, education, and arts nonprofits, will find themselves in new territory. The question will be, how do we navigate this new space.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Becky Gundrum is the Board President for The PLACE. She is the Business and Finance Operations Manager for the University of Colorado Colorada Springs School of Public Affairs. In this role, Becky maintains the fiscal responsibility and management of all funds in the School.