Give us a hand: Five local nonprofits worth your attention

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Give us a hand: Five local nonprofits worth your attention

The term nonprofit belies some big numbers: According to a joint economic report from Johns Hopkins University and Virginia Commonwealth University, the state’s nonprofit sector employs 235,100 people, collects $40 billion in revenues annually and spends $38 billion per year. Charlottesville is a critical part of that landscape. Nonprofit expenditures per capita in the city are close to $33,000, according to the report, among the highest in the state. And the variety of organizations within Central Virginia drives home the fact that tax-exempt status applies to much more than charity kitchens and community foundations. We’re talking about a piece of the local economic pie that includes local theater groups (The Ash Lawn Opera Festival Foundation, which took in a total of $710,695 in revenues in 2013) and booming medical centers (Martha Jefferson Hospital, which brought in $252 million during the same year). Of course, understanding the local nonprofit world is much more than a numbers game. Here, meet five organizations working in Charlottesville and Albemarle that highlight the diversity within that arena—and the impact these groups can have on all our lives.


Burnet Commons III: The Park, on Elliott Avenue, is currently Habitat’s biggest project. When it’s completed (within a couple of years), the new mixed-income neighborhood will feature 18 Habitat owner-occupied homes and 28 market-rate homes. The development is a collaboration between Habitat, Southern Development Homes and the City of Charlottesville. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Burnet Commons III: The Park, on Elliott Avenue, is currently Habitat’s biggest project. When it’s completed (within a couple of years), the new mixed-income neighborhood will feature 18 Habitat owner-occupied homes and 28 market-rate homes. The development is a collaboration between Habitat, Southern Development Homes and the City of Charlottesville. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

Here comes the neighborhood

Charlottesville’s Habitat for Humanity leads in program innovation

Sheron Sinclair minces no words about how Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville has changed her life. “I would never have been able to afford a house in Charlottesville,” said the 39-year-old assistant manager at Family Dollar. “I could barely afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment. My family has security it never had before.”

Sinclair lives in one of the 150 Habitat-built homes in Charlottesville, and including Southwood, around 2,000 people live in Habitat homes or trailers.

Within the international Habitat organization, the Charlottesville branch is a powerhouse, the first to look at neighborhood revitalization rather than building one home for one family at a time. “We are considered one of the primary innovators,” said CEO and president Dan Rosensweig.

An architect, Rosensweig had always been interested in affordable housing, and before he signed on with Habitat in 2009, he watched “from a distance with admiration” when the nonprofit bought Sunrise and promised to transform the trailer park without displacing the residents. “That was an incredibly bold move,” he said.

The old way of community development is to look at what’s broken and what’s wrong, said Rosensweig. “We ask, what’s working? What are the strengths of a community?” he said. And one of Habitat’s strengths is cultivating partners and leaders in redevelopment.

Looming ahead is the organization’s next major project: Transforming Southwood Mobile Home Park with its 342 trailers holding roughly 1,500 people into permanent housing and a mixed-income community with market-rate homes. The plan is to follow Albemarle’s neighborhood model with some commercial property and double the density to approximately 700 units, said Rosensweig.

Neighborhood revitalization is “the new paradigm that originated here and is now central to Habitat International,” said Rosensweig.

The group’s first mixed-income project was Paton in Fifeville, with 22 Habitat homes, 12 market-rate houses and one group home. This past year, Habitat finished its third mixed-income neighborhood, and plans to finish three more in the next one and a half years. “We like to think our impact is increasing exponentially,” said Rosensweig.

What’s remained consistent is the premise of partner families putting sweat equity into their homes. Sheron Sinclair couldn’t drive a nail straight when she was handed a hammer in April 2013. Now in the Cleveland Avenue duplex she moved into in December, she said, “To know I helped build it is not something everyone can say.”

Sinclair said she “absolutely” plans to continue volunteering with Habitat. She believes putting low-income families into home ownership is going to change Charlottesville for the better. “When you own your home,” she said, “it changes how you feel.”—Lisa Provence


For April’s artist educator performance, Robert Jospé Express Trio (Jospé pictured above) took the stage at Tin Whistle Irish Pub. The show included tunes from the group’s current repertoire and a talk about how the music is put together. Photo: Tom Daly
For April’s artist educator performance, Robert Jospé Express Trio (Jospé pictured above) took the stage at Tin Whistle Irish Pub. The show included tunes from the group’s current repertoire and a talk about how the music is put together. Photo: Tom Daly

Noise makers

Charlottesville Jazz Society brings the beat in

The motive for founding Charlottesville Jazz Society was pretty selfish, its founders admit. “There wasn’t that much jazz happening in Charlottesville and we wanted to hear more,” said Marty Phillips, who helped start the 501(c)(3) in December 2005 with about half a dozen jazz lovers who showed up.

Ten years later, it’s possible to hear jazz somewhere in town almost every night, judging from the society’s calendar. Its monthly e-mail list has around 1,100 subscribers, said Phillips, and 1,500 people like it on Facebook. “We act as a conduit of information and promotion through the newsletter, Facebook and the website,” said Phillips.

While the desire for performance spurred its creation and the group brings in between six and 10 outside performers each year, its educational aspect is key for an original American art form that some consider is dying.

In March, the society brought in Matt Savage, a 22-year-old pianist from New York who taught a master class of 100 students at Western Albemarle High. The autistic savant musician was part of a collaboration with the Virginia Institute for Autism, said Phillips.

Gary Funston, who organizes the out-of-towner performances, said Savage was able to connect with the students. “The kids get a lot out of it,” he said. “The educational part is really important to us. High school kids go to college and form groups and come back and play, so it must be working.”

This month’s artist educator performance featured drummer Robert Jospé with a program on rhythm sections and how they work. Local jazz singer Stephanie Nakasian did a program on Ella Fitzgerald, said Funston.

Among his favorite performers the society has brought are two Dutch musicians: drummer Han Bennick—”amazing!”—and trumpeter Eric Vloeimans.

“Charlottesville Jazz Society puts on great shows on a shoestring,” said Reggie Marshall, a jazz booking agent who used to work at WTJU, which partners with CJS. The society’s annual revenues are less than $50,000, according to the IRS, and all the board members are volunteers.

Fellini’s and Tin Whistle owner Jacie Dunkle is on the Charlottesville Jazz Society board, and she got involved through legendary pianist George Melvin, who died in 2010. Every first Wednesday of the month, she donates 10 percent of her sales to the George Melvin Educational Fund, which is distributed to kids who need a little financial aid to carry on their music career, like the 8-year-old piano player who was going to have to stop his lessons without help, she said.

Albemarle High band director Greg Thomas said the performance clinics give students an up-close look at some top music practitioners at no cost to the school, and the intimate presentations are the best way of passing jazz along to the next generation.—Lisa Provence


Charlottesville Tomorrow’s Executive Director Brian Wheeler was hired in 2005, shortly after the organization’s founding. Since then, he’s helped launch a partnership with other local news outlets and earn the organization numerous awards from the Virginia Press Association. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Charlottesville Tomorrow’s Executive Director Brian Wheeler was hired in 2005, shortly after the organization’s founding. Since then, he’s helped launch a partnership with other local news outlets and earn the organization numerous awards from the Virginia Press Association. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

Press on

Ten years in, Charlottesville Tomorrow offers a model for making nonprofit news work

When Michael Bills and Rick Middleton came up with the idea for Charlottesville Tomorrow in 2003 and 2004, they were thinking about closing gaps. Middleton, founder and executive director of the Southern Environmental Law Center, and Bills, founder and president of Bluestem Asset Management, felt that people in their growing city needed more and better information about crucial quality of life issues: growth, development, resource use.

“When a big or small issue came up, I would struggle to follow it in a complete or comprehensive fashion,” said Bills. Coverage of small issues with potentially big impacts on residents—sign ordinances, for instance—rarely made it into the local news.

From the start, they envisioned a community-supported nonpartisan nonprofit that lived on the Web, which was still a brave new world when former SNL Chief Information Officer Brian Wheeler joined them at the start of 2005. Eight months later, they had a board, $250,000 in pledged startup funds and a blog set up to provide purely objective information on a handful of topics, including transportation and the community water supply. The philosophy: To foster public participation in government, you need reliable information about the issues.

They were, in fact, some of the first people in the country to launch a nonprofit online local news site—such sites are now operating in virtually every major media market in the country—except that in the beginning, said Wheeler, they didn’t think of themselves as journalists. They did realize right away that they were important to reporters.

“A light bulb went off at our launch event,” he said, which took place in September of 2005 at The Paramount Theater. In a presentation to show off the fledgling organization’s blog, he shared a post about the rusting Charlottesville Oil storage tanks on Route 250 west of the city. Over the next couple of days, news stories popped up on NBC29 and in The Daily Progress about the tanks, with background information that had been supplied by the non-journalists at CT. “That quickly became a recurring thing,” said Wheeler.

Ten years later, there’s no denying the nonprofit is an important local news source in its own right—just take a look at the two dozen Virginia Press Association awards the staff of six took home last month. It also entered a partnership with The Daily Progress in 2009, unprecedented on a national level, that puts a few CT stories a week on the front page of the paper. But it’s still informed by a non-editorial, citizen-centric philosophy that sets it apart. Reporters regularly attend the kind of small-potatoes public meetings that other outlets skip, and post “gavel-to-gavel” audio of public meetings online so anyone can listen in after the fact.

And, of course, they still rely heavily on community support. Some of the organization’s $400,000 annual budget comes from grants, but Wheeler said it’s not easy to secure foundational support for the kind of work they do.

“It’s harder to raise money for a nonprofit that’s not advocating for certain outcomes,” he said.

It’s also a crowded scene in Charlottesville. But Bills said that’s a good thing.

“I love the Charlottesville not-for-profit ecosystem, and the richer the better,” he said. “Yes, it can make funding challenging, but this is a fair price to pay to know so many are working on important issues. We try to do things others are not, otherwise we just happily link to, fill in as needed, or compile what they do.”

That spirit of collaboration keeps the organization looking forward, too, said Wheeler. 

“Somebody’s going to knock on my door and say, ‘Have you thought about working with us on X?’” he said—some new and different way to get the public engaged in the community. “I think we have a role to play facilitating that.”—Graelyn Brashear


Two of Madison House’s mentoring programs, Bridging the Gap and Big Siblings, co-hosted an end-of-year social for mentors and their  mentees at Lambeth Field at the end of April. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Two of Madison House’s mentoring programs, Bridging the Gap and Big Siblings, co-hosted an end-of-year social for mentors and their mentees at Lambeth Field at the end of April. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

Strength in numbers

Madison House is uniting communities through service

Stroll down Rugby Road on any given day and you’ll see students shuffling to class while others fling Frisbees and play music as they socialize in Mad Bowl, the grassy field at the northeast corner of Rugby and University Avenue. College life may look relaxing to a passerby, but many of these same students also dedicate hours to service outside of the classroom on a daily basis. Between Beta Bridge and the University Grounds lies Madison House, an independent nonprofit organization that connects student volunteers with more than 100 nonprofits and other programs across Charlottesville.

From providing free tax preparation services to tutoring local elementary school students to assisting with construction projects through Habitat for Humanity, Madison House has closely tied University of Virginia students to the greater Charlottesville community since 1969, when it was founded by the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and named after UVA’s Madison Hall.

“I feel like students learn more outside the classroom often by getting outside the bubble of a university and getting to see what’s happening around the town,” said Jennifer Walker, director of programs for Madison House and one of six paid staffers who help organize the nearly 3,000 student volunteers. While students don’t receive any academic credit for their volunteering, Walker says there’s ample value in the programs offered.

“I think a lot of personal development can happen in volunteering. A lot of times people will find interests and passions they never knew they had before,” she said.

Students agree.

“Volunteering with the Big Siblings Program has made a hugely positive impact on my UVA experience,” said UVA third-year Maria Mencini, one of Madison House’s 220 student program directors. Madison House’s Big Siblings Program pairs a UVA student with an at-risk local child, and Mencini’s been working with the same girl for two years. “Every week, I look forward to being a kid again with my little sib, whether we are seeing a movie, going bowling or making cupcakes at my apartment,” she said.

Children aren’t the only beneficiaries of Madison House volunteers.

“My insightful, interesting grandmother is 97 years old and blind, yet she lives life to the fullest!” said third year Neale Walton, who volunteers through the Adopt-A-Grandparent program.

For some of these students, volunteer work may even become a career. Yousaf Sajid, who was a Madison House volunteer as a UVA student prior to working at the organization full-time as director of program development and engagement, said it was the rewards of his time as a student at Madison House that inspired him to stick around.

“It’s been very enlightening and meaningful knowing that we have that impact in the community,” he said.—Amanda McDermott


More than 250 protesters gathered at the Albemarle County Office Building on April 21 to support Medicaid expansion in Virginia. Photo: Virginia Hamrick
More than 250 protesters gathered at the Albemarle County Office Building on April 21 to support Medicaid expansion in Virginia. Photo: Virginia Hamrick

Rallying point

Virginia Organizing celebrates two decades in the trenches

On a bulletin board in Virginia Organizing’s headquarters in Charlottesville’s Rose Hill neighborhood is a sticker that’s been there as long as anybody can remember. It reads, “The most radical thing we can do is introduce people to one another.”

It’s a fitting motto for the nonprofit, which has been pushing for progressive change in communities around the Commonwealth for 20 years. Charlottesville is home for the organization, which claims about 1,000 members, largely because founder and executive director Joe Szakos and his family live here. A left-leaning city might seem like a natural headquarters for a group with a statement of beliefs that includes the establishment of a living wage, protection of workers’ rights and the elimination of the death penalty. But the organization is firmly nonpartisan, and much of its work takes place in corners of Virginia not known as blue strongholds.

“Our idea is to go places where other people aren’t,” said longtime development director Michele Mattioli. The first target community back in 1995 was in Lee County, she said, and what happened there is a model for chapter starts ever since. In hundreds of conversations with individuals about what they wanted to see change in their government and their lives, the group found an issue it could push on: A tradition of all-white juries, apparently a result of white jury commissioners tapping only people they knew to be “upstanding citizens” to serve, she said. The newly organized members went to each of the county’s five commissioners and had a conversation about changing their selection process to a random one. It worked.

“They didn’t need to make a big fight,” Mattioli said. “Sometimes people just need it brought to their attention that what they’re doing might not be the fairest thing.”

Now there are nine chapters across Virginia that work in the same way, all connected to the nerve center in Charlottesville: They learn from people without much voice what they want, help them figure out which people and institutions can make it happen and get everybody to work asking.

Dell Erwin, a volunteer leader with the Charlottesville-Albemarle chapter for years who has helped with efforts to institute a living wage and restore the rights of felons, said the organization inspires commitment from people because it offers routes to real change.

“I found the things I care about in one place here,” she said, “and they not only talk about it and study it, but they actually do something. Protests, rallies, marching, writing letters, going to visit our legislators. We really put feet to our words.” Or wheels, in her case; she’s nearly 80 years old, she said, and the last time she attended one of the organization’s annual all-chapter meetings, a neighbor pushed her there in a chair.

This spring, the group was able to mark a major victory in a campaign Erwin and many others have poured years of effort into. Known as “Ban the Box,” it aims to convince localities to stop including a spot on job applications for individuals to check off if they have a felony record. Organizers around the state got 15 local governments on board, and then last month, the Charlottesville office got a call from Governor Terry McAuliffe. He was signing an executive order for state agencies to “Ban the Box,” too, and wanted some members of Virginia Organizing to join him for the announcement. The next day, Charlottesville staff joined a van load of volunteers and drove to Richmond.

One Danville volunteer proved that the 20-year-old sticker that bears the group’s unofficial motto about introductions still holds true. When the woman met McAuliffe, Mattioli said, she asked him point blank if he’d send a letter to the Virginia’s top private employers asking them to follow the state’s lead on “Ban the Box.” He agreed.

Sandra Cooke, chair of Virginia Organizing’s board for the last five years, said longevity for a nonprofit like theirs requires them to foster that kind of willingness to step up to the plate, to ask for what’s needed and not back down.

“After you’ve been around for a while, you realize what works and what doesn’t,” she said. “We don’t just come in and then move on. We stay.”—Graelyn Brashear


Giving good

While the nonprofit spectrum is as diverse as the causes out there to support, all tax-exempt 501(c)3 organizations have one thing in common: They’re required to provide a detailed accounting of their finances to the IRS each year via something known as the form 990. It’s a publicly available record—the website Guidestar.org provides PDFs of recent filings for most tax-exempt organizations—that can offer insight into a nonprofit’s operations. Some information you can glean:

  • Where does the money come from? In Part I of the 990, a summary offers a breakdown of the last two years’ worth of revenues and expenses. The organization must report how much of its revenue comes from grants, program revenue, investments and other sources.
  • Where does the money go? In Part III, the organization’s top three program expense areas are detailed with a description and an accounting of expenses and revenue for each.
  • How much do they pay their top staff? Part VII shows the compensation of directors and key employees.

The form can’t tell the whole story of an organization, however. “While the 990 is one place that the public can go to learn more about a nonprofit, we don’t recommend it as the sole source of information—because it wasn’t created for that,” said Cristine Nardi, executive director of the Charlottesville-based Center for Nonprofit Excellence.

For one thing, a simple breakdown of expenses—so much for salaries, so much for program expenses—doesn’t actually tell you a lot about the health of an organization, Nardi said, because those numbers can vary widely depending on the size of the organization and the kind of work it performs. The best way to judge how well a nonprofit is living up to its mission and how efficiently it’s run, she said, “is to get to know the organization and its leaders—go on a tour, volunteer, check the website, sign-up for their annual report.”

Another good resource is CNE’s Effective Philanthropy toolkit, a guide that walks would-be givers through learning how to be an educated giver.

Want to learn more about the sterling members of the local nonprofit sector? CNE is hosting its annual Celebration of Strong Nonprofits from 5-7pm Tuesday, June 9 at Second Street Gallery, where organizations and donors will come together to give it up for good governance.