“Making a Way Out of No Way”: Bridging the Gap in Rural North Carolina

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I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land, so I would not have to destroy it…
—Ezekiel, 22:30

Charitable works in African American communities, whether performed by faith-based or secular organizations, frequently confront the necessity of “making a way out of no way.” This is particularly true for the rural South, where traditional patterns of history, politics and economics can pose daunting, though not always insurmountable, barriers to change and development.

In a period marked by considerable social, political, and economic retrenchment, the story told by Lois Watkins, founder and executive director of Bridging The Gap (BTG), has become all too familiar. In the first quarter of 2002, the organization was informed that North Carolina would be unable to meet its obligation for the state’s share of federal matching funds, resulting in the evaporation of roughly $110,000, or 65 percent of the organization’s revenues. (The other 35% of its budget came from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, local corporations, and organization fundraising activities). Almost overnight, BTG was forced to shift from planning for program expansion to contemplating deep cuts in budgeted overhead—paid staff in particular. “By the end of April, everyone was off the payroll,” Watkins recalls.

Most organizations would respond to these circumstances by focusing on immediate questions of survival and the mad scramble to plug the deficit. Instead, leadership approached their remaining primary funder, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, and found that this organization stood ready to support them as they began to take a long, hard look at their program. In addition, the foundation allowed the remaining funds, time, and attention to be redirected toward developing long-term organizational capacity and sustainability. Along the way, Watkins, her board, and volunteers learned to appreciate the rigors of strategic thinking, the meaning of sacrifice, and the power of faith.

Bridging The Gap is based in Rocky Mount, a city of 55,000 sandwiched between Edgecombe and Nash counties in rural eastern North Carolina, 50 miles from the state capitol in Raleigh.

“There’s a railroad track that physically divides the town and the ‘twin counties,’ separating residents by race and class as well,” Watkins explains. “Crossing the tracks you will see tremendous poverty on one side and a thriving community on the other. Our name, Bridging The Gap, comes out of the recognition of these disparities and the need to deal with them as a ‘community.’”

Incorporated as a nonprofit in March of 1995, BTG started life as an all-volunteer leadership development initiative, offering problem-focused seminars to the city’s black community. In the process, they encountered a number of strong black men who nevertheless exhibited what Watkins calls “father hunger,” related to the absence of a meaningful male figure in their lives. Subsequently, themes of family and fatherhood were woven into the dialogue on male leadership in the community.
For Watkins, BTG was literally “birthed through prayer.” She says an August 1998 seminar on responsible fatherhood, titled “Nurturing My Seed,” represented a turning point in the life of the organization.

“After the seminar, a representative from the local department for social services approached us about getting involved in former Gov. Hunt’s fatherhood initiative, ‘N.C.: Helping Dads,’” she explains. “They encouraged us to apply for funding, and in January 1999, we became an organization.”

Confronting generations of discrimination and racist paternalism, BTG’s mission involves “moving families from dependency to self-sufficiency.” To this end, they collaborate with other local organizations on delivering a range of supportive services to parents, with a special emphasis on reaching young fathers.

BTG quickly grew to a budget of $110,000 and a paid staff of three full-time workers and one half-time worker, performing intake, assessment, and life-skills training. Board members and former program participants augmented staff efforts as volunteers. When the state funds were exhausted, BTG cut costs by cutting programming and personnel. The fatherhood program shrank accordingly, dropping assessment and case management functions, and leaving only its peer-support groups.
The budget crisis unfolded just as the organization was experiencing a period of dramatic growth, and was in the midst of an extensive strategic planning process. Suddenly, with a real threat to the organization’s survival, dry discussions of “operational systems” took on a whole new significance.

“The budget crisis crystallized the need for this planning process,” Watkins confides. “We were young, moving kind of fast, expanding the program into the community…and yet, had only begun to work on building internal structure. We marched forward depending on government funding. That all changed with the cuts, and the process of becoming self-sufficient had slowed to a crawl.” 

BTG’s board decided to temporarily cease operations and focus on reorganization and reducing overhead. They determined that restructuring, fundraising, board development, and marketing and public relations became top priorities for the next 12 months. Board members were bluntly asked to either step up to participate in a full working board (ensuring financial viability, promoting the organization, maintaining accountability and effective management, etc.), or step back to an advisory position. Three individuals elected to resign; yet even they have remained close to the organization, taking up a variety of short-term projects. “Boards usually have a core group that actually does most of the work for the organization,” explains Watkins. “The grassroots board members do a lot of volunteering in the organization while the professionals on the board give their expertise. This includes the maternal grandmother who shares her issues about noncustodial parents not providing adequate support, and the attorneys on the board who advise about resolving legal issues; both are needed.”
The organization closed its doors for roughly three months, which generated a flurry of calls and letters inquiring about its plans for reopening, thus validating its importance to the community. At one point, there were discussions of a possible merger with a larger organization, but, according to Watkins: “Response from the community helped us to decide against that idea.”

BTG reluctantly gave up its office space and reduced its staff to three part-time positions, including Watkins’ and eventually leased a smaller office space.  Watkins says she felt depressed and overwhelmed while dealing with the loss of government funding. There’s a certain amount of shame that comes with running a program with high visibility in the community and then “finding yourself in a position where you’re unable to pay your bills, and having to shut your doors.”
Asked about how she survived the experience, Watkins credits the support of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, community support, and strong board support. “Bringing on a board chairman with experience in nonprofit boards, and a finance chair with a strong background in finances have made the transition smoother,” she says. “We are rebuilding our budget and moving forward—slow but steady. We are drawing on many emerging resources, including volunteers, affiliate relationships, and in-kind services from local professionals.” Added to this are the letters from young dads in jail, words of support and encouragement from the community, and the patience and material backing of the Mary Reynolds Babcock

“One of the gains (from this whole process) is that we are much smarter now, resilient and focused on becoming independent and self-supporting. We were surprised by the attitude of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation. While we were looking at our weaknesses, Babcock was looking at our strengths,” Watkins continues. “The Foundation’s support helped us to see ourselves as winners in a time of what appeared to be loss, affirming the board’s determination to move forward.”
Even after the layoffs, staff members chose to continue working to complete projects without pay,” she says. “This level of commitment revealed to me that my desire to bridge the gap in families was shared by others as well. More than ever, I am convinced that children need both parents in their lives.  This work is priceless, this fatherhood initiative. If it were possible, I would do this work without money.