Out of Focus: Longtime women's support org folds

The same year Congress gave its blessing to the Equal Rights Amendment, a team of Charlottesville women launched a new support group to assist what were then quaintly called "displaced homemakers." Forty years later and despite creating a well-known flea market and nurturing a mediation center, the Focus Women's Resource Center has quietly ceased operations, perhaps a victim of a faded era– or of its own success.

"If there's a woman going through it, there's another woman who can help her," says co-founder Ellen Vaughan, of the nonprofit's philosophy.

The group would sponsor special counseling programs, financial management classes, legal advice nights, and help for pregnant and parenting teens. The mediation center that carried its name for over a decade grew so popular that it's now a separate organization.

Vaughan explains how Focus efforts would often find mainstream acceptance– as when Piedmont Virginia Community College began offering a financial management course– so the group would move on to other services.

Before Focus, the Junior League was the major women's volunteer organization in Charlottesville, and some Leaguers saw the upstarts as a bunch of intellectual "bra-burners," according to Vaughan, who was a member of both organizations.

"People in Focus looked at Junior Leaguers as unwilling to get their hands dirty and do what was needed to be done," says Vaughan. "[Focus volunteers] didn't wear little black dresses and pearls."

It turns out there were plenty of "closet" Focus members in the ranks of the Junior League, says Vaughan, and the two organizations collaborated to create what is now called SHE, the Shelter for Help in Emergency.

Lila Lasseter was hired as the first executive director in 1978 and served for two decades as Focus grew to an eventual staff of 26. In the 1990s, when still a powerhouse, it purchased a mansion on Grady Avenue as its headquarters, and it later moved to rented space downtown in the Ix project.

The Focus Flea Market, a shop most recently located on West Main Street, helped fund myriad services by selling used clothing and end-of-season apparel donated by retailer J. Jill. For many years, women needing business attire could count on Focus to help them dress for success.

"It served a purpose," says Lasseter. "It was heavily covered by volunteers. I thought the volunteers got as much out of it as the clients."

Focus got its start in 1972, when many married women were more likely to volunteer than hold a job. The founders gathered in one of the Sunday school classrooms at Westminster Presbyterian Church.

"Everyone was hopped up on the Equal Rights Amendment," remembers Jim Baker, now the pastor at the Rugby Road institution that also helped incubate the Jaunt transit service and the Jefferson Area Board for Aging.

Though the proposed Constitutional change failed to garner sufficient state support to become reality, Focus found ways to help displaced homemakers– "divorced, widowed, mistreated women who needed community support to get into the job market," Baker says.

"In my 30s, I was a gangbuster volunteer," recalls co-founder Vaughan. But even she later joined the non-Focus workforce. "I didn't have time to volunteer in my 40s."

Ultimately, a lack of volunteers combined with funding woes to sound the death knell. Without fanfare or even a public announcement, Focus ceased operations this fall.

"[It] is heartbreaking to have to close in our 40th year,” board chair Hobby Parent says in a statement prepared after a reporter calls for comment.

"Times change, and the world changes," says Vaughan. "I think there was a time for Focus."

20 comments

So, where are all the female activists? (This includes wusses.) The real problem is that females are essentially lazy and don't want t exert themselves very much. Sitting behind a monitor in a nice heated office is more their thing. Now, go blame the males. - as usual.

It's not the 1920's anymore and women marching is not what brings change.

The Women's Center failed to change with the times. The issues for women in Charlottesville require real effort in the areas of legislation - and people don't want to volunteer to work on bills and legislation - and perhaps female lawyers don't want to donate real effort and time... something that no one is willing to give. So sad. Lily Ledbetter laws, rape laws, and abused women laws don't come about unless these women's groups utilize the right resources. Their focus is soft - and in fact they do more damage than good when they don't do what they are supposed to do - support the issues of the modern woman.

I think the Woman's Initiative is what ended Focus . Does anyone know the back story ?

http://www.thewomensinitiative.org/

Not getting much,, eh Max?

Focus folded because it was horribly mismanaged by its Board. City resident is right. There is a back story to Women's Initiative, which was founded by a woman who once served as the clinical director of counseling services at Focus. She founded her own organization and took a staff member or two with her. Focus ceded the ground in providing counseling services to women and instead chose to reorganize itself, focusing on programs for girls and teens. The problem was, there were already a lot of programs out there for teens and girls and Focus wasn't really doing anything new. The Board relied almost entirely on grant money to fund its operations which was really short-sighted. They did very little fund-raising. They also couldn't articulate a vision for the agency anymore. No surprise it's folded.

The former board and it's chair killed the program. Several years ago Focus owned a huge house near UVA and then sold it for 500k or more. Rather than raising money they used this money to fund the operation until the money was gone. Out of money, with no vision or leadership from the board they had no choice but to close. And yes, most or the brain power saw the sinking of the program and jumped ship to the Woman's init...

This is too bad...and the store was such a great source for J.Jill items...

I'll see your link and raise you another....

http://hotair.com/greenroom/archives/2010/08/01/8-ways-fascist-feminists...

Its quite simple... women voted to have the government raise taxes and provide for them so they don't "need" a man... that is fine... if you don't "need' a man then don't be mad when he has sex with you and then leaves without offering anything of value to your life beyond the sex itself (truth be told, most men WANT it that way as we don't like doing all the chores your ex-husband used to do before he left either)

Snarky remarks re: the Junior League of Charlottesville--maybe that attitude of looking upon other women volunteers as women who wore "little black dresses and pearls" had something to do with the later downfall of Focus. I was a member of the Junior League in the '80s and '90s and believe me--we volunteered, we contributed, we worked, we donated. As I recall, we were not threatened by FOCUS but grateful that there would be a support organization providing services the Junior League could not and should not provide. And, if I'm not mistaken, the Junior League of Charlottesville is still thriving, still contributing to the community and probably quite disappointed that FOCUS will be closing up shop. One thing I learned at the Junior League was not to make unkind remarks while wearing my little black dress and pearls (or any other time).

Nonprofit organizations that switch missions inevitably fail. There is a saying in the nonprofit world: "No mission, no money; no money, no mission" . When a nonprofit strays from its original or founding mission, it is doomed to failure. People who support the founding mission of an organization tend to drop support when the mission changes. These changes are frequently done without public or donor input. If you are a nonprofit board or executive leader you must work with your constituents to gain their support before you do a mission switch. At a minimum, an organization planning change should hold a strategic planning meeting to gain community input and buy in. Failing to do this will be the death knell for an nonprofit.

The nonprofit junkyard in Charlottesville and Albemarle is littered with the detritus of failed nonprofits in this geographic area. There are many, too many nonprofits around here. These days and times call for cooperation, collaboration and mergers. Look around and see who else is doing what you are doing or serving the same need and start to talk with other nonprofits. Two organizations are always stronger than one. Be the change that you want to see!

PDL,

Your statement following your link only reminds us of why the GOP lost, and why the tent can be defined as the world of angry white males that blinds you from the glare. Women did not vote to raise taxes so they could sleep around, and it's takes two to tango. If a guy wants to be a deadbeat then I guess his taxes go to making sure that they kid gets an education. History of full of men siring bastard children, and somehow women are still at fault.

You are everything the feminists are preaching against, because when women have choices for meaningful lives and careers, they are far less likely to spread their legs for some loser of a guy.

As to the article, the fact is sexism is still out there, easily witnessed in the last election by men saying things like 'legitimate rape'.

@Old Timer...sexism--like that other -ism so called "oppressed" people like to cite--is on both sides of the fence. "Men siring bastard children?"...it does indeed take two to tango.

BTW, what is a feminist? I know NOW is about as irrelevent an organization as you like to hint the GOP is.

The GOP did not lose the presidency by a lot of votes (or percentage points); you act as though it was a 60/40 split and some huge mandate. The GOP lost because Ohio was bought a few years ago with the automobile bailout.

Now, for "Nonprofit Guru"...you are spot on. This town has too many nonprofits because of idle people who need to do something with their time. They have a few bucks, a sugar daddy or mama, and voila...we have a cause! If FOCUS saw its core mission unneeded, then it should have dissolved then. But a lot of nonprofits in this town exist merely to exist. Makes people feel better.

R.I.P.: Carroll O'Connor

Nonprofit Guru has a very good point - there are too many nonprofits in this town and they do need to start collaborating and merging. Unfortunately, the egos at the head of the various non-profits are too big and they all hold too many grudges against each other. Try getting SHE and SARA to merge, for example. They both work to end violence against women but a merger will happen just after pigs fly. Mergers were suggested to FOCUS but met with suspicion and/or ridiculous demands. People who run non-profits build their own kingdoms and don't want to give up their power even when it's clear that the realm is burning.

Liberalace,

""Men siring bastard children?"...it does indeed take two to tango. "

Sure does. but I am not the one saying that men are suffering at the hands of women raising taxes on men to pay for their illegitimate children. Or fathers that walk out. If men have to pay higher taxes as a result of the children they sire and don't provide for or abandon, it's not just the woman at fault. Seems PDL thinks that a guy shouldn't have to pay taxes to support their children.

"The GOP did not lose the presidency by a lot of votes (or percentage points); you act as though it was a 60/40 split and some huge mandate."

Not at all, but it sure as heck was by a much larger amount than the GOP wins in 2000 and 2004 wasn't it? 272 electoral votes and 286 with a loss in the popular vote in 2000. Razor thin races in 2010 didn't stop the GOP congress from starting their legislative sessions with attacks on women and civil liberties, did it? It's not a mystery why the ranks of minorities and women are disappearing from the GOP and landing with the libertarians or DNP.

"The GOP lost because Ohio was bought a few years ago with the automobile bailout."

I see. So, that much bigger bailout to Wall Street wasn't Bush trying to buy votes for the GOP? It's OK to bailout out cheats and frauds who don't create jobs, but it's bad to restructure and save an industry? Maybe the truth is the people in Ohio recognized that contrary to what the GOP was selling, Obama's use Big Government were a bit more useful to the nation's economy as a whole. What's more the GOP's hold on Ohio was very fragile in 2000, and stats suggest 2004 that it was never there when times were ' good.'

Thinking on NPO's, theya re a growing aspect in our economy and like any other they must be managed and compete for dollars. Over time the mission may well have changed enough for the group to die a natural death, just as the buggy whip industry did.

As someone who's spent over ten years working in the non-profit sector, I agree with Nonprofit Guru about the need for mergers and more collaboration, but can understand why orgs struggle with this issue, and I don't think it's all turf war/small town infighting stuff.

Using the SARA/SHE example (disclosure: I volunteer with one of these organizations), it's not turf battles that get in the way of merging the organizations (they are allies and they know it), it's also mission and funding. Although they both work on ending violence, they have different client bases, programs and needs. They make referrals to each other as appropriate. There's overlap in their client base, but not as much as some might think.

SHE and SARA are probably better off as separate organizations.Often when two organizations merge, they lose funding, rather than benefit from their combined funding, and that funding loss is not usually made up for by eliminating staff redundancy (one executive director vs. two, one receptionist vs. two) and overhead (one administrative offices vs. two). If I give $1,000/year to each organization, will I give $2,000 to the combined org? Probably not...and this is scaled across the donor population.

Could they do a better job collaborating? Sure...but part of the challenge with collaboration is coming up with the time to do it. I have yet to meet an executive director that has ample time to sit down with other executive directors about how they can work together to eliminate situations where there is true overlap in services or discover where there are opportunities to develop collaborative programs. It takes time to really hammer out the details of who will do what and work together, and it takes time to get boards behind this, too.

Know any funders who want to create collaborative opportunity grants for organizations to dedicate their time to this?

@nonprofit exec

Your points are well taken. Time is tough for all of us. It's about 8 PM were I am and I have been in three cities today and will now sit down and read dozens of emails.

If saving an organization isn't your priority, I must ask what is? I have been involved in dozens of nonprofit mergers. If you think egos are big in this town, try and work with a few hospital presidents or a nonprofit founder. Both breeds are very difficult. There is not a hospital in this country that will escape from a merger or a joining of forces with a healthcare system. Stand alone, independent hospitals simply are not rational financial models.

So, if two organizations need to merge, given similar missions or services, it is time for the board of each organization to make a merger a priority. Staff should not be the driving force stopping a merger.

The Foundation Directory lists legions of foundations interested in cooperation and collaboration. Hop over to the Jefferson-Madison Library on Market Street and ask the reference librarian to show you how to use the on-line directory or visit CNE and use their on-line directory. Another option, sell the idea to a foundation that supports your organization. A while back, I was at a meeting in Cville and was told by the speaker that there were 900 plus organizations required to file 990's in Albemarle County and Charlottesville City. From my point of view that is way too many organizations doing what logically must be overlapping work.

Good luck!

@Nonprofit Guru - I agree with you; I'm just playing devil's advocate. I have worked with large and small non-profits, both from the inside as a development director/executive director and as a fundraising and strategic planning consultant, and I hear this all the time, including with the organizations that I volunteer with.

Sometimes I wonder whether the proliferation of non-profits is a product of the need for decent paying (or interesting/rewarding) jobs in Charlottesville vs. the need for the organization itself. There are a lot of people working in low-paying jobs in this town, and if you have a good idea for a non-profit, raising $35K for a good cause (and your salary) is much more appealing than waiting tables.

Whatever ... do women really benefit from any of this???? I knew a few women who needed help and no one helped them. Women in crisis don't even know these places exist. I've never even heard of the Women's Initiative. Lousy marketing......