More than 130 members of Union County nonprofits and government learned how they can be "Doing Good Better" yesterday at the 2015 Union County Nonprofit Consortium Networking Conference held at L'Affaire Fine Catering in Mountainside, NJ.

The day-long conference featured a panel discussion led by three executive directors of county nonprofits, a keynote address from Ella Teal, president and CEO of the Urban League of Union County, and roundtable discussions.

Sid Blanchard, executive director of Community Access Unlimited (CAU), opened the events discussing the purpose of the conference, which was sponsored by the Union County Non-Profit Consortium. The consortium comprises the leaders of 11 county nonprofits and Union County government.

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"We decided we needed to do something in order for our nonprofits to not only survive but thrive as they take care of the people of Union County," he said.

Mohamed Jalloh, chairman of the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders, also addressed the audience, while recognizing fellow freeholders Bruce Bergen and Bette Jane Kowalski also in attendance. Kowalski also heads the Union County Home Services Advisory Council that shares information with the county's nonprofits about available grants and services.

"Our presence here is a testament to the importance of the nonprofit sector to the county's economy and we're rooting for your success," he said, noting that New Jersey nonprofits spend $37 billion annually and employ 304,000 people, or about 10 percent of the state's private workforce. "We have to make sure nonprofits are thriving."

Teal spoke about the important role Union County's nonprofits play in serving the county's less fortunate. She said of the county's approximately 500,000 residents, 11 percent live in poverty, 8 percent are people with disabilities and 7 percent are unemployed.

"People have issues and when they have issues they don't always know where to turn to," she said. "Not-for-profits can play a vital role in addressing these issues. But nobody has all the answers. It's a constant job of reengineering yourselves to figure out how to do it better."

Blanchard led the morning's panel discussion that was intended to teach those in the audience just that. He was joined by Joanne Oppelt, executive director of CONTACT We Care, a crisis hotline and suicide prevention training agency, and Janice Lilien, executive director of the YWCA of Union County, which serves the women, children and families of Union County, including addressing domestic violence.

Blanchard reviewed CAU's growth and success during its 36 years, which he attributes to its structure and business model. Blanchard started CAU in 1979 out of the trunk of his car with a $90,000 grant to move 20 people out of the state's developmental centers into community living. Today the agency serves more than 6,000 people statewide, employs more than 1,200, has an operating budget of $68 million with less than $2 million in debt and a $10.4 million line of credit, and owns and operates 220 housing units in Union County.

Oppelt and Lilien shared their stories of how they turned around agencies that were struggling and in crisis mode when they took over. Today both agencies are thriving.

Their combined messages covered topics such as the most effective board model, funding, development of assets, leveraging relationships with outside partners such as banks, staffing and volunteering opportunities. They also talked about applying an entrepreneurial approach to services, both turning them into profit-drivers and selling them to other nonprofits, which all three of their agencies do. 

"Program collaboration is critical," Lilien said.

Most importantly, the panelists told the audience, nonprofits must revisit their mission regularly and pursue that rather than funding.

"You have to live and breathe your values every day throughout your organization," Blanchard said. "Don't chase the buck, sell the services."

Added Oppelt, "If you follow the mission, the money will come."

CAU is a statewide nonprofit providing support programs and services to more than 6,000 adults with disabilities as well as youth served under the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to enable them to live independently in the community, in areas including vocational and life-skills training, education, advocacy and recreation and in-home services. The money raised at the outing helps fund CAU's programs.

About CAU

Community Access Unlimited (CAU), celebrating its 36th year of success in 2015, supports people with special needs in achieving real lives in the community.  CAU provides support and gives a voice to adults and youth who traditionally have little support and no voice in society.  CAU helps people with housing, life skills, employment, money management, socialization and civic activities.  CAU also supports opportunities for advocacy through training in assertiveness, decision-making and civil rights.  CAU serves more than 5,000 individuals each year.  For more information about CAU and its services, contact us by phone at 908.354.3040, online at www.caunj.org or by mail at 80 West Grand Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07202.