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Advertising, community outreach allow City Mission to fund work with homeless

Buffalo's City Mission used to be a source of discouragement for 100 women each month, as that many could not find placement at the mission's women's shelter, Cornerstone Manor.

Now the mission has beds for twice as many women, thanks to its new $15 million facility, as well as 40 more beds at its men's shelter.

In 1997, visitors to the mission would have seen 27 staff members handling the needs of the impoverished. Now more than three times that many staff members roam the facilities, some hosting 12-step recovery programs and adult education programs that did not exist 10 years ago.

The secret to this success? Lots of advertising and community outreach.

Due to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the last decade has seen many non-profits pleading with Americans to give more so they can stay in operation.

But the mission, which provides shelter and recovery programs for homeless men, women and children, saw donations increase -- not decrease -- during the weeks following both of those tragedies.

And according to a 10-year report, City Mission's funding sources over the last decade have doubled or tripled in almost every category.

"We have worked very hard over the past 10 years in proactively getting our message out to the community, Execu
tive Director Thomas McLaughlin said. "There is, at this point, close to 320 people a night who have nowhere else to go who are staying at our men's center and [the women's shelter,] Cornerstone Manor, and if the Buffalo City Mission is not where we are, those people have virtually no services at all. That's it. That story is an easy story to sell.

McLaughlin said the mission holds an annual "mail blitz," calls local businesses, places newspaper ads, posts billboards and targets electronic media, spending about $123,000 each year on advertising and marketing, or about 12 percent of its annual budget.

Before its mid-1990s scandals, the mission had operated with an annual budget of around $2.5 million, McLaughlin said. City Mission cut that amount by $1 million in 1997, but the mission's budget has almost tripled since then -- and its donor base has more than doubled.

"We were confident that if we could continue helping the most vulnerable people in the community and effectively communicate what we were doing to the community, that we could regain the stature that we had, McLaughlin said. "People respond to what they see, and . . . if you believe in what you're doing, you have the responsibility to get the word out.

In 1993, the mission faced allegations of sexual misconduct in Cornerstone Manor, as well as discriminatory firings and lack of accountability over cash donations that made up more than $2 million in bank account funds.

In addition, The Buffalo News revealed that the Rev. Darwin Overholt, then-mission director, was the legal owner of his house, even though the mission had originally purchased the house and was still claiming it for a religious organization tax exemption.

City Mission's troubles led to a split in its board and the firing of Overholt and his wife, Christine, who served as Cornerstone Manor's director. The mission saw a drop in donations as the public became aware of its problems, and budget and staff cuts resulted.

But City Mission's advertising strategies have proved lucrative -- more so than those of other missions in the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, of which City Mission is a member.

For instance, Open Door Mission in Rochester has seen income stay about the same, increasing 4.3 percent over 10 years, according to numbers provided by Mission Director Ronald Fox.

Nationally, the story does not change much. The association's 300 missions saw budgets grow an average of 112 percent from 1996 to 2006, while City Mission has seen a 186 percent increase in its budget from 1997 to 2007.

The Rev. Steve Burger, the association's executive director, said the 150 to 200 speaking engagements City Mission's staff take each year has helped lead to the mission's success, saying speaking to groups of prospective or current donors is second only to "eyeball-to-eyeball contact in building relationships with the community.

"I would say if they have 150 there, they get an A, and they're at the top of the class, Burger said. "I'm going to give Tom [McLaughlin] a crown the next time I see him -- make him do a seminar on it.

City Mission's growth is also impressive when compared with the financial stories of local nonprofits. For instance, the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County has seen its net revenue stay about the same over the past 10 years after a mid-decade increase of about 8 percent. .

Arlene Kaukus, president of the local United Way, said her organization currently has decided not to pay for advertising, like City Mission has done, but United Way might still consider it.

"We have often looked at the question from a budgetary standpoint again and how you use the dollars that you have and whether or not we are able to get our word out using . . . media outlets, she said.

Kaukus said United Way instead uses public relations, speeches to employee groups and the annual Day of Caring to raise awareness.
e-mail: cthompson@buffnews.com1

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