Day One: Cornerstone and the Morristown Neighborhood House get acquainted

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By Kevin Coughlin

It felt like the first day of school, when the principal welcomes all the nervous first-time students.

Except this time, it was the “principal” who was the newcomer.

Patrice Picard, c.e.o. of Cornerstone Family Programs (formerly Family Service of Morris County) visited the Morristown Neighborhood House on Monday to get acquainted with its employees on the first official day of the nonprofits’ merger.

The Neighborhood House, which has assisted immigrants and working families since 1898, retains its name and a small board but now is a subsidiary of Cornerstone, which has local roots stretching to the War of 1812.

Patrice Picard, CEO of Cornerstone Family Programs, meets employees of the Morristown Neighborhood House, a new subsidiary. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Patrice Picard, CEO of Cornerstone Family Programs, meets employees of the Morristown Neighborhood House, a new subsidiary. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The move is designed to shore up finances at the Nabe, as it’s known in town, and to enable the combined organizations to compete more efficiently for funding.

“We think the programs here are excellent,” Patrice told Neighborhood House staffers. “What does that mean? In the future, we would like to see more of these programs, and serve more of the community.”

WATCH VIDEO FROM MONDAY’S MEETING

Responding to questions from Nabe workers, she said there is little overlap of programs so no layoffs are anticipated at the moment. Administrative functions will be consolidated, however.

Over the next three months she plans to solicit ideas from employees; then she will spell out a vision for the joint operation.

For most full-time people at the Nabe, health benefits should improve slightly and they also will gain a pension program, starting in January, Patrice said. Vacation policy will change–vacation time won’t carry over from year to year anymore.

MAKING AN IMPACT–AND MAKING IT COUNT

The biggest change, she said, will be a greater focus on documenting the impact of the Nabe’s programs, which include pre-school and after-school activities, a summer camp, career counseling and recreational sports leagues.

About 1,500 people are served daily by 80 staff people at Neighborhood House branches in Morristown, Morris Township, Denville and Dover.

“I think the summer camp is amazing. And that you do it in a building with no air conditioning is even more amazing,” Patrice said at the Nabe’s Flagler Street headquarters, on a steamy June morning.

“The story we’re going to tell everybody is that 200 kids come to summer camp, and if they were not in summer camp, it might cost the community hundreds of thousands of dollars. What’s the impact of us NOT being here?”

In a tough economy where philanthropic institutions are being asked to shoulder more costs of social services as the government cuts back, foundations are seeking more bang for their buck.

“There’s a growing recognition that organizations must not only do more with less, but do better with less,” said Polina Makievsky of the Alliance for Children and Families, in an interview.

“It’s a matter of who provides services that the community really needs, and how do you measure that impact?” Chris Daggett, president of the Morristown-based Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, said in a separate interview.

Dodge was among several foundations, including the Community Foundation of New Jersey and the F.M. Kirby Foundation, involved in the merger process, Chris said.

“The constant challenge is how you measure the impact in a way that’s effective, but also not onerous on the grantee,” Chris said. “We want them to do their work, not spend all their time impact-managing.”

ELEVATOR PITCH

Fact sheets, complete with an “elevator pitch” summarizing the merger, were distributed on Monday to Neighborhood House employees. They already had been briefed by their interim director, Brian Cavanaugh, and most expressed cautious optimism about the future.

“At the beginning, it made us all a little nervous when David Walker left,” said Neighborhood House Director of Operations Zoila Gonzalez. “But he left a good foundation.”

She referred to the Nabe’s former executive director, who left in April after a decade in Morristown to assume leadership of a Somerset County program for troubled adolescents.

Morristown-based Cornerstone offers a range of pre-school-, senior citizen- and military family programs, serving about 7,000 people a year across northern New Jersey with 100 employees and an annual budget of $3.6 million. The Neighborhood House has about 80 staffers and a budget approaching $3 million.

“We’re looking forward to working together. We’re hoping it strengthens our programs,” Zoila said. “We’re hoping this brings us better stability.”

Marie Palumbo of Cornerstone Family Programs and Lewis Garay, who has performed maintenance for the Morristown Neighborhood House for 20 years, talk on day one of merger between the Morristown nonprofits. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Marie Palumbo of Cornerstone Family Programs and Lewis Garay, who has performed maintenance for the Morristown Neighborhood House for 20 years, talk on day one of merger between the Morristown nonprofits. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
The Neighborhood House brings to the merger about $700,000 in debt, in the form of a mortgage on the 27,000-square-foot Flagler Street facility to help cover program costs, said Brian Cavanaugh, who also served as interim director 10 years ago.

“Maybe their eyes were bigger than their stomach in wanting to help the community,” said Brian, a business owner from Mendham. “The programs operate efficiently. Nobody gets rich at the Neighborhood House. They do a lot of good for kids and adults.”

Jo DeBolt of LaPiana Consulting in Pittsburgh played a role in the merger discussions. She thinks the odds for success are good. Board members from both sides were committed to the concept, she said.

“There was a lot of confidence about what could be accomplished, and the value it could have for the community. Frankly, I don’t always see that. Board members can be protective of their organizations,” Jo said in an interview. “In this case, they were rigorous and thorough and thoughtful, but all were focused on how to benefit the community and what they had to do to make this happen.”

That spirit seemed present among Neighborhood House employees at Monday’s pep talk.

“You’re always unsure of what you don’t know. That’s our first challenge,” said Rosa Chilquillo, who oversees a job placement program called Pathways to Work at the Nabe.

She expressed excitement about the merger, and relief that the Neighborhood House name lives on.

“It’s been around a long time,” Rosa said. “Everyone in the community knows the Neighborhood House name.”

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