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Finding the Right Solutions: Friends of Disabled Adults and Children on Managing Growth Through Strategy

From a two-person operation out of a family garage to a cutting-edge warehouse in Stone Mountain, GCN member Friends of Disabled Adults and Children has grown into an organization providing its services across the state, country and the world. Learn more about how they dealt with tough growing pains caused by their own growth and success by remaining faithful to their strategic plan.

Executive Director Chris Brand (right) with a FODAC client and his families during their Run, Walk, 'n' Roll event.

The story of Friends of Disabled Adults and Children (FODAC) begins with the same spark that alights so many nonprofits worldwide: the passion of a small group of people to make a difference where they see a deficiency.

In FODAC’s case, it begins with founders Ed Butchart who first made wheelchair out of spare parts in Vietnam for a little girl during a tour as a U.S. Marine. Her legs had been amputated after an IED explosion. Fast forward to 1978. Ed’s work in medical sales put him in contact with people with disabilities on a regular basis. He occasionally volunteered with Mount Carmel Christian Church service projects to help people with disabilities with repairing their equipment and tasks around their homes. Wanting to make a bigger difference, the Butcharts (Ed and Annie) transformed their garage into a workshop and began to refurbish wheelchairs, specifically for people who needed them, but couldn’t afford them.

Jack Ballard, senior pastor at Mount Caramel Christian Church, saw the work they were doing and the passion that fueled it, and came to them with an offer of financial support. In 1987, they received their incorporation as a standalone 501(c)(3).

Since then, FODAC has grown from a two-person home project to an operation with 25 staff members and a 65,000 square foot building in Stone Mountain, and has given away more than $100 million in medical equipment to date. The organization is thriving and impacting the community more than ever.

But with growth, FODAC has also needed to evolve in the ways they provide their core services. Executive Director Chris Brand shared with us three major areas that they have focused on to manage the organization’s strategic growth in the past 15 years: finances, processes and technology, and investing in board leadership.

Scaling back, building up

When Brand took over as ED in 2001, he immediately had to begin restructuring the way FODAC met their mission. His motivation: finances.

“We were either going to go out of business, or I was going to bring on a bare bones staff and we would carry it forward,” Brand said.

To do this, FODAC had to cut back some of the services they were offering. In addition to their core medical equipment recycling program, they had added vehicle modifications, home modifications and computer refurbishing to provide jobs and greater community involvement for the unemployed and isolated. For the organization to continue, however, Brand had to put all options on the table.

“We said, ‘You know what – we’re struggling. We’re going to let that go. We’re going to let someone else do that who does it better, and we’re going to focus on our core recycling program, which is what we’ve been known for all these years” Brand said. “We eliminated or reduced all of our other services and just focused on keeping that core program alive. Our vehicle lift and home modification programs felt severe cuts while our computer program was eliminated”

After that, FODAC focused on strengthening its core mission and continuing to meet the most pressing quality-of-life needs of their constituents, people of all ages with any type of illness or physical disability.

In 2013, twelve years after letting the computer program go, Brand and his staff were approached about once again housing the computer refurbishing program. Now a stronger organization, they agreed.

“We said sure—we have capacity and we’ll do it a different way,” Brand said. “We put it in our thrift store, and provide it as a service for people with low income or disabilities.”

According to Brand, housing that program now makes more sense than ever, as much of the latest assistive technology is now run by home computer or tablet. Users can now purchase an iPad app (for between $2 and $200) that provides many of the same services that, not long ago, could only be achieved with thousands of dollars for the same assistive technology (AT).

FODAC has grown from a two-person home project to an operation with 25 staff members and a 65,000 square foot building in Stone Mountain, and has given away more than $100 million in medical equipment to date. 

Beyond refurbishing and selling computers, FODAC created an AT demo center that’s become central to fully meeting the needs of their clients. Through monthly classes and individual consulting sessions, clients can explain what assistance they need in their daily lives, and—chances are—FODAC can provide the device or point to an app for that.

“So many people are newly injured,” said Brand. “Seventy percent of our clients each year are new to our organization. That’s a lot of people who are struggling with the question, ‘What do I do now?’ With the staff now running the computer refurbishing program in-house, and managing the assistive technology area, this has been a win-win for us.” (Read about Tasker and Proloquo, two apps Brand mentioned as the most impressive.)

 

Now accepting all donations

From its inception in the Butcharts’ garage, FODAC’s core mission is collecting, refurbishing (if needed), and distributing medical equipment to the low-income or uninsured constituents who need it most. Central to those efforts are a dedicated supply and delivery chain.

As they continued to grow, and this supply chain became larger, FODAC did not initially add staff to keep up with the influx of donations and customer service needs. This soon became a major impact-limiting issue.

“We saddled one staff person with way too much as we grew over the years,” said Brand. Valuable donations were being left by the wayside: FODAC was inundated with calls from people looking to donate equipment, but didn’t have the staff capacity to keep up with all the calls. A single staff member was scheduling pickups and driving, and unable to keep up with the supply.

After realizing the depth of the problem, Brand and his staff tried “throwing a number of solutions at it” that were less than effective. Through strategic planning, however, they came up with a solution that has served them well, creating a scheduling office with new staff members and a technology solution to help keep it all organized.

“We are getting more donations in than ever, which means we are getting out more than ever and reducing our waiting list,” Brand said. “We want the community to know that if you’ve called us in the past, and we haven’t done well with giving you a quick answer, we’ve worked hard on developing this and we’re doing better than ever now.”

Getting the board on board

Meanwhile, Brand has focused his attention on developing FODAC’s board, which is paying dividends and will carry them into the future as a more cohesive unit.

With the help of individual coaching from GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group, and opportunities like Nonprofit University’s annual Board Leadership Clinic, Brand and the FODAC board have come together to create new by-laws, explicitly stated board requirements, processes around succession planning with defined on-boarding and off-boarding timelines, a revamped handbook, and an ad hoc board development committee. Ever since, Brand has noticed a more open dialogue and increased engagement from the board, and describes the new working relationship overall as “very healthy.”

“Our board is working more,” Brand said. “There’s more response when I delegate tasks, they bring issues to the table, and I can depend on their leadership. I also recognize when I am stepping on the board’s toes, and we talk about that.”

Most importantly, Brand is pleased with their efforts not just to take on the issue of the day, but to take a lead in the long-term strategic future of the organization.

“They’re getting more people involved with FODAC, and are very engaged with our plans for the future,” Brand said. “They are more engaged with our strategies than ever, and are true ambassadors for the future of our organization, because they’ve been a big part of developing those plans.”

 

Tom Zimmerman is Communications Manager at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

 

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