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What recession? Nonprofit Open Arms expands services

Even with a fragile economy and human services nonprofits bracing for cuts, here comes Open Arms of Minnesota planning to build a new facility and to double a roughly $1.5 million operating budget in two years.

Open Arms cook Asei Tendle and executive director Kevin Winge in the kitchen.
MinnPost photo by Scott Russell
Open Arms cook Asei Tendle and executive director Kevin Winge in the kitchen.

Even with a fragile economy and human services nonprofits bracing for cuts, here comes Open Arms of Minnesota planning to build a new facility and to double a roughly $1.5 million operating budget in two years.

Open Arms is sort of a Meals on Wheels for the chronically ill. It began in 1986 delivering free, nutritious meals to people with HIV/AIDS. In 2005, it started serving breast cancer patients going through disabling treatments, and then people with multiple sclerosis and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

When I first got the press release about Open Arms’ groundbreaking for this Saturday, I nearly chucked it. I don’t do groundbreakings. But I was curious. How does a human services nonprofit plan for rapid, sustained growth in a crummy economy? How does Open Arms decide which new diseases to cover? Why breast cancer but not lung cancer? Why MS but not liver failure?

First, a quick snap-shot. Open Arms operates a small storefront in south Minneapolis. It will prepare approximately 250,000 meals this year from a relatively small kitchen with a single stove. It has 16-plus full-time equivalent staff, but 1,400 volunteers. It has maxed out production capacity, serving 500 clients weekly (lunch, dinner and breakfast snack, Monday-Friday.)

More than half the people it serves live on less than $10,000 a year.

Open Arms is in the middle of an $8.1 million capital campaign ($5.6 million raised) to build a new 23,000-square-foot facility with a much bigger kitchen on the former site of the Commodore Bar, 2500 Bloomington Ave. S. It’s slated to open in late 2009. The organization wanted to stay in the Phillips neighborhood because many clients live there. The site has good freeway access and it’s central to its I-494/694 loop service area.

Where’s the money tree?
Executive Director Kevin Winge said its top three money sources, in order, are individuals/special events, private foundations and corporations. Government grants are only 15 percent of the budget.

Open Arms’ plan is ambitious, Winge said. “We are rolling the dice on this and trusting that the community will support it.”

Part of the growth gamble comes from believing that Open Arms has a mission that people get. “You don’t have to have cancer, you don’t have to have AIDS, to understand what Open Arms does,” Winge said. “We have all had the flu or been sick at some point and not been well enough to go grocery-shopping or to cook meals for ourselves. The difference is that most of us have a family member to get us through that illness. The majority of our clients don’t.”

If empathy doesn’t raise enough money, Open Arms is counting on its expanded kitchen.

Like many nonprofits, Open Arms is trying to support its mission through enterprise. Winge is talking with Meals on Wheels programs about selling them meals. Some Meals on Wheels programs have their own kitchens, but many don’t, he said. Some buy from nursing homes, schools or corporate operations. So Open Arms could be an option.

Open Arms wouldn’t need to turn a huge profit but it couldn’t underwrite Meals on Wheels meals, either, Winge said. Any deal would have to be win-win. Meals on Wheels would receive more nutritional meals at the same price and Open Arms would get a revenue stream that fits its mission.

Who gets served and who doesn’t?
Open Arms has long faced an ethical quandary. When people with other diseases call for help, they find it tough to say no.

Boiled down to simplest terms, the answer is: “Sorry, you have the wrong disease.”

It’s a quandary for many profits. Where do you draw the cut-off line? Open Arms chose to move that line — gradually — out from HIV/AIDS clients to include other chronic and progressive diseases.

In May 2005, it added women undergoing breast cancer treatment. Gender equity was important, Winge said. About 70 percent of the HIV/AIDS clients are men. Adding breast cancer patients brought more women clients. Anecdotally, Open Arms had received a disproportionate number of calls from women with breast cancer asking for help.

(Open Arms also hoped that adding breast cancer patients would help fundraising, but Winge said that was the last consideration.)

In September 2005, Open Arms added MS, a disease that also affects more women than men. Further, Minnesota has one of the highest MS rates in the country, so it seemed like a good choice, he said. Lastly, Open Arms added ALS.

Each new group added kitchen complications. Breast cancer patients had nutritional needs similar to those with HIV/AIDS, but they needed milder-tasting meals to reduce the nausea-inducing smells.

Some people with MS, a neurological disorder, struggle using silverware. The kitchen prepared offerings more easily eaten by hand. People with ALS also experience swallowing problems, so the kitchen developed a soft-food menu.

Choosing three different diseases with different diet challenges gave the kitchen staff the chance to learn, Winge said, putting it in a better position as the organization expands its services.

On a limited basis, Open Arms has already expanded services to people with lung cancer, Huntington’s Disease, liver failure and other diseases.

Seeking freezer space
Open Arms has limited freezer space. It’s looking for help storing 200 large frozen turkeys for Thanksgiving. Got a bunch of freezer space? Call 612-872-1152.