by Shari Finnell, editor/writer, Not-for-profit News
For decades, Freetown Village, a small nonprofit organization based in Indianapolis, had been focused on educating its audiences about a unique period in America’s history — specifically 1870, when freed African American slaves experienced a series of firsts, according to founder Opehlia Wellington.
That distinct period served the organization well, according to Wellington. “When I first started Freetown Village, I decided to focus on that period since there were so many things that happened after the Civil War to benefit African Americans,” said Wellington, referring to the passage of the 15th amendment, which granted African American men the right to vote, as well as the 13th and 14th amendments, which abolished slavery and provided all U.S. citizens, including former slaves, equal protection under the laws. “It was an unusually safe period of time for African Americans.”
About 15 years ago, Wellington decided to modify and expand that focus — among the many steps she has taken to ensure that Freetown Village maintains its resilience. “After research, I decided we need to expand beyond that era — after 1870 and even before 1870,” she said. “It allowed us to talk about a more inclusive history of African Americans in Indiana. It gave us the liberty to do something different.”
While expanding an organization’s mission can have advantages, it also comes with disadvantages, according to Wellington. Although Freetown Village has put on numerous productions since modifying its mission, the organization continues to address questions related to its productions set in other time periods. Another consideration is determining how to repurpose or address previous marketing materials, she said.
“A lot of people still think we’re only making productions in 1870,” she said. “Many of them are surprised. It requires a significant amount of marketing to inform people.”
Maintaining sustainability as a small nonprofit
With the nonprofit organization celebrating its 40th anniversary, Freetown Village has avoided a statistic that haunts many other nonprofits. According to the National Center on Charitable Statistics, more than 30 percent of all nonprofit organizations will fail within the first 10 years. And, the fallout from the global pandemic will likely result in even higher numbers of failures.
Wellington, a former educator who first conceptualized Freetown Village in 1982, notes several lessons learned as a small nonprofit that has been able to sustain itself after numerous decades. One of the key factors is ensuring that you have a mission that excites you, as well as addresses a need that is not being met by other nonprofits.
“Do you have an audience?,” she asked. “Are other people excited about seeing the value in what you’re doing?”
The next step is determining how to make the nonprofit sustainable. “It’s really about the planning,” she said.
As part of determining whether others see the value also lies at the heart of fundraising because you will need to solicit support at numerous levels. “There are many nonprofits that get money from foundations as well as individual contributions,” she noted.
However, Wellington noted, smaller nonprofits, including grassroots organizations, have traditionally had challenges with the fundraising aspects of sustainability. Even small nonprofits that have been able to sustain themselves often are not able to generate enough money to do the things they had envisioned, which has happened with Freetown Village.
“There are many things that we had talked about doing but just never got the funding to make it happen,” she said. “There are some inequities in the amount of money that is distributed. Only recently have foundations realized that only about 2 percent of their funding is granted to organizations led by African Americans.”
Wellington said she is hopeful that trend is changing as numerous foundations have intentionally sought to make funding more equitable in recent years. “Within the last two or three years, with some of the DEI funding, we’ve been able to pick up some new supporters,” she said. “Some of them I would never have wasted my time submitting a proposal because the amount we would have received would have been insignificant.”
“It’s hard to do the same quality of programming and services when other organizations are getting significantly more,” she said. “That’s not to say that all white-led organizations are flush. It’s just that a majority of black-led organizations are experiencing similar problems with fundraising.”
As she looks to the future, Wellington said she will continue to explore options to expand Freetown Village’s mission as she did with the recent production “Sign of the Times,” a one-woman show that shed light on the women’s suffrage movement in the mid-1920’s.
“Knowledge changes the world,” Wellington said. “With every program we do, regardless of the year, we try to make a current connection to it. For our recent show, we were talking about women’s suffrage. Now, in 2022, we see a resurgence of people trying to keep not just women from voting, but black people and Hispanic from voting. It can be eye-opening to see that the same playbook is being used from 100 years ago.”