Published on 8/14/2012
by Warren Bird
The New England Dream Center is an exact 1/5 replica of the Cathedral of Notre Dame and is listed on the National Registry of Historical Sites.
George Cladis would strongly recommend the kind of public-private funding partnership that is helping underwrite ministry in downtown Worcester, MA—and he thinks the model is highly reproducible as well.
Two social programs at the Dream Center are financed through state and local public funds. That same public financing also covers a portion of the church’s operating costs, creating a win-win-win for the community, the church and the people it serves.
“It has taken years to strip away some of the prejudice we initially received in the city because we are motivated by our faith,” George says. “We are trusted now because we’ve proven our good motives and intent: to love people to life, and not in a coercive way.”
“We offer a gift to the city: to bridge gaps, repair breaches and reconcile people back to God,” he says. One of the many ways they do this is through the “Dreams and Wishes” gift giveaway that impacts thousands of people annually, as the video below demonstrates.
The Dreams and Wishes extravaganza gives foster familes and other underprivileged families the Christmas of their dreams.
Liberty Churches got its feet wet in the public-funding arena when the original campus in Shrewsbury, MA, made the decision to open a new campus 8 miles away in Worcester and simultaneously launch a faith-based, nonprofit Dream Center.
Lead Pastor Will Bard landed an “architectural wonder” for the Dream Center and their Worcester City Church campus—a one fifth-scale exact replica of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris that had sat abandoned for several years. Months before the facility was scheduled to be torn down, Liberty Churches partnered with the Preservation Worcester organization to purchase the historic building, restore it and repurpose it for the Dream Center’s mission of serving “the neglected, abused and displaced.” The $1.5 million price tag was also subsidized by $7,000/month in parking revenue from weekday use by the business community and a restaurant, roughly covering the building mortgage.
The Dream Center is a highly audited public charity, with one third of its operating budget coming from public funds, and another $1.5 million coming from donations for special projects. Liberty City Church underwrites the remaining $500,000 of the Dream Center’s annual budget.
“The building now stands as an impressive monument to the power of giving and a perfect example of the rejuvenating work going on inside its walls,” according to Liberty City Church’s website.
Funding the Dream Center
The Dream Center offers three primary ministries. The first two are publicly funded, and a third is church-funded:
The elderly participants in the Dream Center’s Social Day Care program are encouraged to engage in social interaction and cultural activities.
• The Social Day Care program, which averages about 30 elderly adults per day for activities such as nostalgic discussion groups, exercise class and walking group, arts and crafts, outings to local parks, museums and shops and a baking group, is funded primarily by the public entity Elder Services of Worcester.
• The Adult Day Health program offers nurses and social workers on staff for about 50 people a day. State funds cover the program, and the state also pays for gas, maintenance and drivers for vans purchased by Liberty City Church.
“We knew that elder care and adult daycare could both get public funding,” George says. “When being a social service provider or providing a social entrepreneur product or service, the goal is to provide the best so that people want to participate or purchase your service because it is the best, not just because it is faith-based.”
• The Master Tradesman employment program primarily serves people with criminal backgrounds. It trains them in skills, offers them experience, and then helps them find employment in the construction trades. The Dream Center is also preparing to launch a second workforce training program in food service for returning veterans.
The Dream Center also provides counseling, salon training, English language classes, and interview preparation.
The combination of strong financial support from Dream Center alumni who have found employment, and the partnership between private and public funds has made the Dream Center virtually self-sufficient—a rarity in the non-profit sector.
The Master Tradesman program imparts skills in electrical, carpentry, plumbing and all aspects of building as well as craftsman training.
Learning the Ropes
To get its Dream Center initiatives up and running with public funds, George says Liberty leaned on the expertise of organizations that were already in place and that understood the nonprofit landscape in the community.
Liberty hired an outside consulting company that was aware of the needs being addressed by the State of Massachusetts, and that knew about available funds for service providers. Liberty also hired a director for one of the state-funded programs who was well-versed on running the program according to state regulations. “The director we hired was out of our church and part of our culture.” The church also found another social program that already existed but had lost its lease and needed space. “They were not part of our church, but over time, many of the employees became part of the church including the director. It is important to keep the culture consistent.” George says.
This same consulting company established the Dream Center as a 501(c)3 nonprofit and also provided initial management and financial services. Two years later, George Cladis was hired to lead all operations, manage the programs and expand them.
“This way of creating the nonprofit is frankly easier than hiring grant writers and trying to find the right grant,” George says. “It’s better to hire people who already know the nonprofit organization business and can partner with a church.”
George recommends the model of hiring an outside firm to set up the nonprofit and to seek out public funding, but adds that he affirms the model that Liberty City eventually assumed leadership and oversight of the programs. “Now it matches our culture rather than being an ‘add on’ from outside service providers,” he says. “Sometimes, churches become a mall of social services that seem disjointed from the church’s culture and central mission. We avoided that.”
George offers several lessons learned from Liberty City and the Dream Center’s experience—including:
- Put a strong business model in place when launching social outreaches: costs, target community and services needed, marketing, other area programs that are similar, financial metrics and goals;
- Hire according to the business plan for the needed skills and experience (e.g. program directors and staff) with clear and measurable performance standards and goals.
- Understand that the social service community can be protective of its funding, so it’s important to come alongside them with complimentary rather than competitive services. It also helps to secure funding that does not take away from local service providers and to avoid being a threat to them.
- Build trust with the local community that might be suspicious of a church’s motives. “In time, your fruit of good works will speak for you,” George says.
- Strive for excellence. “Our programs have attained a reputation of high quality,” George says. “Make your social service programs and endeavors the best, so they are known for quality and love, thereby being a witness to the God we serve.”
- And perhaps most importantly, always put the “client” first. “As a Christian, this means to put the needs and concerns of God’s children before that of any other,” George says. To George and his leadership team, that means always making decisions that are in the best interest of those being served over the concerns of the organization. “When any organization begins to put its institutional needs before the clients’ needs, it loses its focus and effective witness,” George says.