Green Opportunities faces financial crunch

IN THE RED: Nonprofit Green Opportunities reveals that an over-reliance on grant funding and an inability to fill and maintain the its leadership positions has left the organization with years worth of accumulating debt. Photo courtesy of Green Opportunities

After more than 10 years of providing job training and placement services to Asheville residents who face barriers to employment, Green Opportunities now finds itself confronting an uncertain future. Current and former staffers and board members say that various factors — including a reliance on program-based grant funding, a lack of consistent leadership and accumulated debt — have contributed to the nonprofit’s financial woes.

“In a way, we’re suffering from our own success,” says Rachel Larson, who’s served as co-chair of the organization’s board of directors since 2018. She cites both the number and variety of programs offered and a high level of community expectations.

The stakes are high: With more than $210,000 in long-term debt and no executive director in place, the organization is facing the very real possibility of being unable to meet its financial obligations in the not-too-distant future. Nonetheless, says Larson, Green Opportunities’ board, staff and community supporters haven’t given up the fight to save it.

“We’re looking at what we can do to stay open, and having conversations around another interim [director] coming in to manage things temporarily,” she reveals. “We’re going to be continuing conversations with our partners, making sure that we’re being transparent with everyone.”

Over the course of a month, Xpress interviewed more than 10 people with past and present connections to GO in an effort to understand how an organization with broad community support, a track record of serving hundreds of local residents per year for more than a decade, and significant success in obtaining grants has ended up in this position. The picture that emerged includes a lengthy struggle with the kinds of technical and oversight challenges familiar to many nonprofits, as well as some dynamics specific to Green Opportunities’ mission: supporting members of marginalized local communities.

Go for it

In 2008, GO founders DeWayne Barton and Dan Leroy envisioned a job training program focused on local youths and adults who face significant barriers to employment, such as a criminal record or living in poverty. That vision became an organization that connected trainees with career opportunities and offered hands-on instruction in such fields as green building, weatherization for energy efficiency, sustainable landscaping and culinary arts.

GO participant-turned-staffer Anna-Marie Smith now works as a certified financial counselor at OnTrack WNC, an Asheville-based nonprofit that helps people build credit, reduce debt and become homeowners. During those early days at Green Opportunities, she recalls, the organization focused on serving as a support network for clients, in partnership with neighborhood associations and community leaders. “We’re not on the job site to swing the hammer: You can figure that part out,” she remembers, referring to the nonprofit’s approach. “It’s more like, can you fit in with other people?”

But that began to change, Smith believes, as GO began having success, with high enrollment and completion rates. Increasingly, the nonprofit started eyeing bigger and better programs and facilities to benefit Asheville’s most vulnerable populations.

“We were heavily grant funded, even from the very beginning,” remembers Leroy, who’s now the president and CEO of United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County. “After the Great Recession, philanthropic giving was down in general, but what was up were government grant programs that were designed to get people back to work, and that was what we were doing: job training and job placement. … Our growth during that time was exponential.”

In 2012, the organization announced an ambitious multiyear plan to partner with the Asheville Housing Authority in renovating the W.C. Reid Center, a former city recreation center that the Housing Authority was purchasing. GO students and graduates were hired to help install geothermal heating and cooling systems, water-conserving restrooms, new windows and energy-efficient lighting. The building would be renamed the Arthur R. Edington Education and Career Center and would house Green Opportunities’ job training programs as well as other community services.

Even back then, says Leroy, the organization knew that it needed to diversify funding sources and took initial steps in that direction, but in the meantime, it continued to rely primarily on grant funding. “Did it happen fast enough? Probably not,” Leroy says in retrospect. “I don’t know what the breakdown looks like now in terms of individual revenue versus grants, but I agree that it’s always been one of the challenges.”

Early warning signs

And as the renovations were getting underway, GO continued to expand its reach, providing job placements, technical certifications and paid apprenticeships to more than 500 people in the 2011-12 fiscal year, according to the annual report. In 2014, the nonprofit moved into the newly renovated facility and began to develop a new training model and programming. But even as it celebrated those accomplishments, financial concerns sometimes stole the spotlight.

“The rapid growth GO experienced between 2009 and 2012, with a budget largely funded by reimbursable grants and little in the way of unrestricted funds, resulted in a tremendous strain on working capital, the greatest of which occurred during the 2012-13 fiscal year,” Leroy and Christopher Joyell, who was then the board’s treasurer, wrote in a February 2014 letter accompanying the the previous year’s audit report and explaining the cash flow issues it highlighted. “The actions we took, combined with a successful fall fundraising campaign, allowed the organization to repay our entire $50,000 line of credit, pay off credit cards and replenish our cash reserves to a new high for the organization,” the letter continued. “The organization’s financial footing is more solid than ever, and we are well positioned to sustain our impact in the community.”

A few months later, in June 2014, both Leroy and Barton announced that they would step away from GO. In September of that year, Kendra Penland was hired to serve as interim executive director while the organization conducted an extensive search for a permanent hire.

“I won’t speak for DeWayne because he might have his own way of revisiting that history, but we determined with our board that the organization would be better served with a single executive director instead of co-directors,” Leroy explains. “Neither scenario — of DeWayne stepping down and me taking over, or me stepping down and him taking over — were scenarios that we felt like were going to work. I thought, and the board also thought, that the organization would be best served by us both stepping down and hiring someone new. … In retrospect, it hasn’t worked out very well, because there’s been a lot of turnover in that role. But that was the thinking at the time.”

Barton declined to comment on the change.

Too much too fast?

Settled into its new facility and now managing a budget of over $1.5 million, GO began applying for and receiving larger federal, state and local grants, fueling additional hires and increasing its operating expenses.

“That was success to some of the leadership at Green Opportunities at that time,” reflects Tony Beurskens, who worked for the organization from 2008-2014 as the training team program director. “They measured it by how big of a grant they could get, who they were partnering with. GO got successful, and everyone knew it, but to me, I was cringing because I was like, ‘We’re going too fast. It’s changing us.’”

From his perspective, the emphasis on pursuing larger grants hampered GO’s ability to give program participants personal attention and support. Because many of the grants relied on an outcome-based system, the nonprofit had to meet minimum enrollment and graduation requirements in order to receive funding, and GO case managers found themselves spread increasingly thin as they took on larger caseloads, says Beurskens.

“The language that one of my colleagues used was that it turned us into a puppy mill as opposed to serving,” he notes.

Larson, the board co-chair, disagrees, saying that while meeting the grant-required minimums was “sort of a necessary evil,” quality programming has always been the nonprofit’s top priority.

Ally Sloss, the organization’s current Youth Corps case manager, also disputes the idea that enrollment quotas necessarily get in the way of building supportive relationships with program participants. “Yes,” she says, case managers “want to enroll folks, but that doesn’t stop them from being careful with who they are responsible for, because they want to make sure that they succeed. It doesn’t stop them from having really personal, authentic, individualized relationships with their clients.” 

Grant restrictions

In 2015, George Jones was tapped as executive director, replacing Penland. According to a July 2015 newsletter, Jones’ previous work had focused on economic development initiatives, growth strategies for small businesses, government procurement and workforce training.

Larson, who was serving as the organization’s treasurer at the time, says that she and other staff began noticing an increased reliance on restricted grant funding — money that could be used only to support specific programs — as opposed to unrestricted grants or donations, which can help cover administrative and other operating costs. And while GO’s various programs did continue to pull in funding, the cost of administering the larger federal and state grants the nonprofit was now applying for was higher. In addition, Larson explains, “Sometimes there was grant revenue included in the budget when it wasn’t 100% guaranteed.” When some of those grants failed to materialize, the organization was forced to borrow to meet its commitments, she says.

In September 2016, Jones abruptly resigned after less than 14 months on the job. Dewana Little, who was co-chair of the organization’s board at the time, characterized the move as “blindsiding,” according to previous reporting by Xpress.

Jones, who’s now senior conservation manager at the Triangle Land Conservancy in Durham, declined to be interviewed, but in an Oct. 31 email to Xpress, he said he’d “enjoyed my work experience at Green Opportunities and worked very hard to lead, support and encourage the residents of Asheville to foster collaboration in support of social enterprise and workforce development solutions with anchor institutions across the region.”

Revolving door

A month after Jones’ departure, GO Student Development Director Joseph Hackett was named the organization’s interim leader; he eventually rose to the top of a pool of 89 candidates to fill the permanent position, according to a Feb. 10, 2017, press release.

Before being hired by the nonprofit, the press release noted, Hackett was convicted of conspiracy to commit health care fraud in 2012 and served 30 months in federal prison. According to a report from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Virginia, Hackett owned and operated a Richmond-based, in-home therapy service that had billed Medicaid for nonreimbursable services. Besides serving prison time, Hackett was required to forfeit more than $1.5 million and pay $1.5 million in restitution to the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services.

Chip Howell, the board’s co-chair at the time, acknowledged the conviction in the press release, asserting that Hackett’s “skill set and powerful life experiences lend a perspective that is uniquely tailored to our organization and training programs. His story affirms GO’s philosophy that providing opportunities — rather than barriers — to those in need creates stronger communities for us all.”

Meanwhile, however, the nonprofit’s debt was mounting, and there was still insufficient emphasis on attracting more contributions that could help cover operating expenses. Larson says efforts to consolidate the debt for its 2018-19 budget failed due to unrealistic fundraising projections. And when $150,000 in anticipated grant revenue failed to materialize, she continues, the situation grew more critical. “That [grant] program was not fully understood by the executive director or people running it, so we weren’t able to access that funding,” Larson explains.

In a Feb. 19, 2019, press release, Green Opportunities announced that Hackett was leaving to pursue “faith-based work.” He’s now the pastor of New Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church, which is next door to the Edington Center. At press time, Hackett hadn’t responded to several requests for comment.

Larson says that the organization’s staff and board, along with third party audits, have not found any indication of financial wrongdoing that led to Mr. Hackett’s departure.

Green Opportunities subsequently implemented a hiring freeze for administrative staff while it searched for a new executive director. In an Oct. 14 email to Xpress, Larson wrote that GO Youth Corps case manager Jeremy Lett had been chosen to fill the position. But just two days later, Lett resigned, saying that the issues facing the organization were more than he could tackle while also pursuing a graduate degree, says Larson. Lett did not respond to Xpress’ requests for comment.

Lett’s departure left GO without an executive director; the organization also has a vacant fundraising position and has no staff accountant, though the Platinum Group has stepped in to provide contract accounting services. Meanwhile, Larson says resources not tied to grant funding have been secured to continue paying the nonprofit’s 11 staff members, at least for now. “Our financial projections have alerted us to future issues with reaching payroll, which we have addressed through various fundraising goals and with different donors,” she says.

Leroy says that while the funding issues Green Opportunities is facing are not uncommon among nonprofits, the lack of consistent leadership hasn’t helped matters. “There hasn’t been the continuity in leaders to be able to form those relationships with individuals or foundations that, over time, would help support GO’s unrestricted dollars that the organization so desperately needs,” he maintains.

Meeting of the minds

Barton, the organization’s co-founder, says the specter of its closing after more than a decade of success has caused him “many sleepless nights” and that he, Beurskens and Smith (the former staffer who now works at OnTrack WNC) have spent the last several months working with GO’s board as well as current and former staff members to help identify and address the organization’s structural and administrative issues.

During those meetings, Barton says he presented board members with a plan to reorganize GO as a fee-for-service social enterprise that would still provide free job training to community members without having to rely on grant funding or meet specific enrollment targets.

“To me, there’s no excuse why they should be in that position today,” he asserts. “We started in a tent and one room in the community center, and then you see them in a position with trucks, vans, training programs, money and they’re like, ‘We don’t know what to do.’ That kind of makes me a little frustrated, and if I didn’t have a particular vision or an idea of what to do, I’d be real quiet right now. But I know: I have a clear idea of what could make that organization successful.”

Larson, however, says that Barton’s idea would require a complete upheaval of GO’s current operations and put a halt to crucial programs and networks. Calling him “brilliant,” Larson says, “I would love to be able to execute his vision. But in some ways, [he’s] speaking to what it was, and we’re trying to not repeat those same mistakes.”

HANG ON: Kitchen Ready chef instructor Karla Castillo (second from left) says that she and other GO staffers plan to stay on as the nonprofit works through its financial troubles. “We have this passion within us to help the community and impact people’s lives,” says Castillo.“I don’t want this to disappear; I don’t think anyone wants that.” Photo courtesy of Green Opportunities

Elephant in the room

Beurskens, who is white, maintains that many of those involved in the conversations about GO’s past and future are reluctant to talk about what he calls “the elephant in the room: about the fact that we’re functioning inside of a white world while trying to improve black lives. The white world is not cut out to do that.”

But while Larson, who is also white, acknowledges that perspective, she says that the struggle to maintain daily operations with minimal staff has limited the board’s ability to tackle fundamental racial inequities as it tries to keep the organization alive.

“GO means so many different things to people, and in the process of being successful in receiving grants and growing the organization, we had less and less time to do the deep work of addressing many of the challenges that exist around poverty, racism, gender and social inequities,” she says. “I hope there is a time when the board isn’t consumed with managing day-to-day issues and we can do what boards are supposed to do, which is guide the overall vision for the organization.”

Smith adds that amid the many changes Green Opportunities has weathered over the years, there’s been a breakdown of trust on the part of some community members.

“Our environment physically changed; our leadership was long gone and had changed several times in the course of me leaving. And ultimately, the pipeline that we had kind of created — from community into the organization and back out the other end into jobs — had become a really fast-paced pipe,” she says. “Metaphorically speaking, we blew the base of the mountain, which was the trust.”

Larson agrees, while also pointing out that other factors, such as the organization’s 2012 decision to partner with the Asheville Housing Authority, could have contributed to community members’ distrust of her organization. “It’s something that doesn’t happen overnight, obviously,” she notes.

But rebuilding trust, says Smith, requires time and a shared vision, and meanwhile the different constituencies have had a hard time agreeing about what the fundamental problems are. “Everybody said it was different things: The community says it was one issue; staff thinks it’s another issue. Some people think it’s funding; some people think it’s trust; some people think it’s something we haven’t even named yet,” she explains.

For her part, Larson maintains that not everyone recognizes the steps the organization has taken to get back to its original mission. “It’s challenging that there are these past demons and things in the closet that we’re having to say, ‘Yeah, that was true, and now we’re trying to not do that.’ We’re doing something different, but I think there’s still people that that’s what they saw, and they’re kind of stuck on that a little bit, unfortunately.”

Uncertain future

Despite the financial and administrative challenges, Larson stresses that GO’s core programs — Kitchen Ready, YouthBuild and Youth Corps — are funded at least through June, and longer in some cases. In the meantime, Kitchen Ready Chef Instructor Karla Castillo says that she and other new staff members are prepared to hang on as the nonprofit works through its financial troubles.

“We’re a new staff: We’re new, we’re young, we’re creative. We have this passion within us to help the community and impact people’s lives, Castillo says.“I don’t want this to disappear; I don’t think anyone wants that. But we also need people to step back and let us work.”

If the organization were to fail, “It would be a major loss, and people won’t understand the loss until it’s gone,” Barton predicts, adding, “I just think it’s very tragic.”

Leroy agrees, adding that GO will need to prioritize strengthening its leadership position to rebuild trust. United Way, he says, “has partnered with Green Opportunities as well, and we want to see the organization be successful. We want to see it get through this challenge.

“If the community really wants Green Opportunities to be successful, then people need to invest in it, either through their dollars or through their time,” he continues. “But at the same time, Green Opportunities needs to have leaders in place who earn people’s trust for that investment.”

Looking ahead, Larson says the next step may be a fundraising drive. Board members, she says, are also reaching out to their professional networks and community members to help the nonprofit get a better handle on its future. And while financial contributions are vital to GO’s survival, public encouragement and support for the organization’s staff and volunteers are equally essential, stresses Larson. In the meantime, she says that GO will continue to focus on helping the community.

“Part of what we talked about when we were trying to figure out how to tell our story is how do we talk about the challenges that we’ve had and still engender trust from the community that we serve,” she explains. “It’s like, yeah, we’re struggling. But we’re also here and we’re committed to being here to serve people, to offer community, and to offer a positive role in people’s lives. I think that, in some ways, that’s the most important thing.”

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One thought on “Green Opportunities faces financial crunch

  1. Jackie Simms

    What disturbing and tragic news! Green Opportunities has been such a positive force in our community! How can it’s mission be maintained on a financially stable basis?

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