Junior Achievement: The little nonprofit that could

TRAVERSE CITY – How many nonprofits could survive several months without a leader? Or, miss out on the "bread and butter" of the fundraising year – the end-of-year ask?

One thing is certain, you don't do it without a passionate board. Just ask Junior Achievement of Northwest Michigan – it did both and lived to tell about it.

The nonprofit brings volunteers into area classrooms to teach lessons in financial literacy and the fundamentals of entrepreneurship. Last year, its own entrepreneurial spirit was put to the test after its district manager Leland Michaels left for a new job opportunity.

After a thorough search and interview process, a new manager was on board as the 2010 -'11 school year got underway. Six weeks later, though, she was gone. Back to square one.

This kind of upheaval is hard on any organization, but while there often are other staff members who can pick up the slack when the paid leader departs, that wasn't the case for JA. Though there was a part-time volunteer coordinator, leadership fell squarely on the shoulders of the board – all of whom had full-time positions elsewhere.

Under normal circumstances, board chair Kevin Endres would have passed the chairmanship to vice chair Mike Meindertsma on July 1, the start of the organization's fiscal year and right after Michaels left. But, he says, it just didn't seem right to step aside so he offered to serve an additional year.

"I felt that through this period to try and transition to a new board chair was going to be a strategic mistake," Endres says. "There were some structural things I wanted to see done. I really wanted the organization to be run more like a business, to practice what we preach."

Spoken like the JA alum that he is. Endres is also owner of Three West LLC, a local commercial real estate and business consulting firm.

Some might call it fate, and some might just call it lucky. Regardless, the second search for a leader turned up Lianne Somerville. At the time, she was living in Indianapolis and was the executive director of a domestic abuse nonprofit. But she had connections to the area and was intrigued when she saw the job posting.

"I showed the organization's strategic plan to some of my colleagues and said, 'Do I want to work this hard?'" Somerville recalls. "But who doesn't like a challenge? I'm not looking to retire yet. I'm a little older, have experience to add and am not looking over my shoulder for my next job. I'll give it a good run."

As far as Endres is concerned, things happen for a reason. And if this is what the organization had to go through to find Somerville, it was worth it and the organization is much stronger for it.

Somerville officially took over as the local JA district manager on December 1. At her former position, she managed a $1 million-plus budget and a staff of 16. Here she had an $80,000 annual budget, a part-time volunteer coordinator as the only other person on payroll and six months to raise its $30,000 fundraising goal.

When the last penny was counted on June 30, it ended the year just $6,000 shy. The deficit meant there were some school programs it was not able to fund.

"It was a bumpy road but we were never going to go under," says Endres. While the Traverse City office of JA is run locally, it is part of a national organization. "It was a tag team effort. We kept the board together, raised some money and got through it."

In some ways, Somerville says, she couldn't wait for June 30 to come along so she and the organization could start fresh. But through it all, there was always a plan.

"We had a direction," says Somerville. "We weren't rudderless. We just needed someone steering the ship."

Building up the board was one of Somerville's first actions as its new leader. In the last few months, the formerly eight-person board has grown by five. New members include Mark Eckhoff of Fifth Third Bank, Brian Taggart of Larkin Insurance, Chris Lambert of Northern Title Agency, Lynda Wheatley of the Traverse City Business News and WTCM radio host Ron Jolly.

The program operates in nine counties across northwest lower Michigan and taught 127 classes last year. It hopes to increase that to 200 this school year. Schools are asked to donate $100 toward the cost of each class ($500) and JA contributes the rest.

Here is just one way businesses can get involved: Fifth Third Bank adopts a school for the year ($5,000) and then supplies all the volunteer teachers. Other supporters provide just the financial support or just the volunteers.

"There are more entrepreneurs per square foot here than in most places," says Somerville. "If you want young people to stay here, you have to expose them to what it means to be an entrepreneur." BN