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Breaking Down Barriers

by Jennie Robinson, ELM Board Secretary

When I met with my friend John Nolan in 2012 to talk about his interest in starting a private foundation, I don’t think either of us ever dreamed what ELM would become. John and his wife Helen had been helping people for years one check or bag of groceries at a time. When they sold their consulting company, they wanted to continue that work in a more meaningful way. They had both benefited from assistance given to them when they needed help. They considered that assistance “little miracles” and wanted to create similar miracles for others. As we talked about their vision, I knew I wanted to be part of making that vision a reality.

As I began to work with John and Helen to build The ELM Foundation, we had some growing pains. We figured out quickly that simply writing checks to meet immediate needs wasn’t helping people in the long run. While it made us feel good about ourselves, it also made those we intended to help become dependent on that assistance. Our board read Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts and recognized that we needed to change the way we administered charity. So, we focused on the mission of “creating little miracles that break down barriers and help develop individual capacity for self-sufficiency, stewardship, and service.”

We began working with our participants to create development plans—measurable goals that would result in independence. Those plans created "little miracles" through referral to our community partners or through grants to individuals who simply need a little help removing barriers to success. Whether the grant is for education, housing, transportation, or childcare, our focus has been to help each participant earn enough money to support themselves and their families, to be free from government assistance, to pay their bills on time, and to save money for the future. In other words, we started asking our participants “What can we do to help you so you don’t need us anymore?” That was a turning point in the way the ELM board and staff worked with clients. In fact, we stopped calling them clients and started referring to our grantees as participants. Missy Hanks was our case manager then and she told participants, “I don’t expect to work harder than you do.” She wanted them to understand that they would actively participate in their own development. As a result, they became part of their own little miracle.

When we saw how well this partnership approach to case management worked with our participants, we created the Pathway to Sustainability training to replicate the ELM model. Pathway provides training for nonprofits who want to find more effective ways to help clients move from crisis to abundance and target root causes of poverty. ELM provides training for boards and staff and the Community Foundation manages an incentive fund made possible through the generosity of Cintel, Inc., TVA, and Huntsville Utilities.

In 2021, we joined the True Charity Initiative, and we are using the True Charity curriculum to help the community find better, more intentional ways to fight poverty and help people in need. Our partnership with True Charity is one more way ELM is helping build the capacity of our nonprofit agencies to focus on outcomes and address the root causes of poverty.

Almost twelve years of miracles have been made possible because John and Helen Nolan, the ELM founders, had a desire to help others. They also had the wisdom to realize that they needed to find a better way to help. And now ELM is helping agencies continue to practice more effective, smart charity. I am grateful to be part of that process.


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