A Look Back: John Rex Endowment

A Transformational Change in Nonprofit Funding

In July 2008 Armstrong McGuire was four years old and growing as a firm. Our future looked bright, but there was worrisome economic talk all around us. By December nonprofits were reeling after a dismal response from donors at year end. The Great Recession arrived.

In January 2009, nonprofits were facing increased demands and significantly decreased funding. We were all looking for answers.  

Co-founders Bert Armstrong and Tom McGuire invited a group of Triangle area nonprofit leaders and funders to a conversation over breakfast, to talk—to search for answers in the uncertainty.

The gathering of more than 30 Triangle nonprofit and philanthropic leaders yielded an honest conversation about current challenges facing our sector. Nonprofit leaders talked transparently about the challenges of restricted funding during a time when client needs were evolving rapidly. The funders in the room listened intently and were partners eager to find flexible solutions for strengthening nonprofits in ways that offered greater sustainability.  

An early adopter of new solutions was the John Rex Endowment (JRE), a Wake County, children’s health, and education foundation. Their solution was to shift from a singular focus on programmatic funding to a mix that included nonprofit capacity building. Kevin Cain, the President and CEO of JRE at that time was one of the foundation leaders who participated in that January breakfast meeting.  

By the end of the first quarter of 2009, JRE put in motion its first capacity building grant initiative. Cain said, “What I heard loud and clear at that breakfast meeting was yes, these nonprofits needed dollars to deliver their programming, but in the midst of a crisis what they needed even more were better systems, more staff, better tools.”

Cain continued, “To the credit of our board, they agreed to shift from a major emphasis on program investment to nonprofit capacity building.”

Armstrong said, “John Rex was a catalyst for change during a very uncertain time in our sector. It took courage to forge a new path and it has paid tremendous dividends in our community.”

In fact, SAFEchild, featured in our February newsletter was one of the first JRE capacity building grant recipients. That investment propelled them through an organizational assessment, a succession plan, and a new leader when long-time Executive Director, Marjorie Menestres, retired.

And Then Came Covid

Like January 2009, March 2020 was full of uncertainty. In hindsight 2009 was not nearly as unsettling. We had seen recessions in our lifetimes, but a pandemic? This was new territory for almost everyone on the planet.

Once again JRE was among the first to respond. JRE President and CEO Kellan Moore reached out to Bert Armstrong in the initial stages of the pandemic looking for ways to support nonprofits.  

Armstrong said, “Kellan recognized that strategic plans and funding strategies were largely compromised by the realities of the pandemic. She asked us and other consultants to come alongside their grantees to help.”

Moore said, “We were literally walking in the unknown. Armstrong McGuire was a strong strategic partner for our grantees who were really unsure of what to do.”

JRE gave their grantees the flexibility to engage with consultant partners in whatever way was most helpful to them. Many opted to partner with Armstrong McGuire to refresh their strategic plans given the dramatically different landscape. Others chose to engage our firm to revise fundraising strategies. And in some cases, organization leaders leaned into Armstrong McGuire’s individual and team coaching as they struggled to maintain operational and financial viability while caring for the well-being of their teams.  

Haven House Services, a Raleigh nonprofit focused on empowering youth to thrive and be safe, supported, and successful was one of JRE’s grantees that chose to work on a strategic refocus of their goals and of their fundraising plans.

Chief Executive Officer Michelle Zechmann said, “We were in the fourth year of our strategic plan and our resource development plan and things had changed dramatically since those plans were created. We had postponed fundraising events, and we were unable to implement many of our action items.”

In June 2020, Senior Advisor Mendi Nieters partnered with Zechmann, her Development Director and Board to analyze their current fundraising position and create new strategies to propel them forward.  

Nieters said, “The most important thing we did was renew the commitment of the board to keep moving forward with their fundraising. It had to look different than the original plans, but it had to continue.” Together Haven House determined which fundraising activities needed to shift in format or message. They decided to stop some strategies altogether and added new ones to strengthen their fundraising position.”

“It worked,” said Zechmann. “I will always be grateful to JRE for making this support possible during a tremendously difficult time.”

JRE Commits to Its Own Hard Work

Even before the murder of George Floyd, JRE board and staff members committed to a racial equity and justice journey. At the same time, they were planning for the retirement of two long-term employees. They turned to Armstrong McGuire to help them conduct a structural assessment of their team to determine overall organizational structure and specific job responsibilities to align with their racial equity focus and strategic roadmap.

Moore said, “Our staff and goals were changing, and we needed to get clear on how each position supported our new roadmap. Armstrong McGuire’s Senior Advisor Staci Barfield’s analysis of our team was critical to help us evolve into a structure that propelled us forward.”

Once the new structure was identified, Moore turned to Barfield to help recruit leaders to fill new or modified positions. Moore said, “Staci absolutely understands us—our goals, our culture. She is not only a tremendous judge of talent, but she has a unique ability to understand the personal alignment of a candidate to our values and goals.”

Thank you, John Rex Endowment, for your unwavering commitment to the children of Wake County and for your partnership throughout our 20 years!

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