David Bell, 14, has skidded across his share of rough patches, during which his misbehavior goes up and his grades go down. They seem to happen every time his father, Shawn Gould, lands in jail.

But for the past two years, David’s grades have been consistent A’s and B’s. Why? His mother, Nicole Bell, says it’s largely because his father has been working, staying out of trouble and becoming a better dad with help from God and Amachi Pittsburgh, an 11-year-old faith-based nonprofit that aims to give children of prisoners a loving, stable adult presence in their lives.

“Usually, [Gould] just comes straight home into the streets, has nothing else going on and ends up going back” to jail, Nicole Bell said. For 23 of his 47 years, Gould has been cycling in and out of prison.

“But being in this Amachi program, it’s like something for him to do with his son and with me,” she said. “It’s keeping him busy, as opposed to going out and doing something negative.”

When it began in 2003, Amachi Pittsburgh relied largely on money from the federal Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. When Congress eliminated that funding three years ago, many of the more than 100 grantee groups that were mentoring the children of prisoners either closed their doors or overhauled their approaches.

But Amachi persevered in its original mission and has steadily moved toward financial sustainability without the federal money. And the organization’s progress, slow as it has been, shows how a grass-roots, faith-based group can remain in operation while staying focused on a narrowly defined social need. Success has come through the honing of two fine arts: partnering without becoming dependent and broadening tactics without compromising mission.

Growing and sustaining the work

Some mentoring organizations broadened their mission to a more fundable demographic, such as at-risk children generally. But Amachi -- the name is a Nigerian Ibo word meaning “Who knows what God has brought us through this child?” -- has stayed focused on caring for the 8,500 Pittsburgh-area kids who know firsthand the struggles -- exacerbated poverty, anger and shame -- that come with having a parent behind bars.

Many of those who make up America’s prison population, which at 2.2 million is the world’s largest, have children. Some 2.7 million kids have an incarcerated father or mother, including one in nine African-American kids, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Such kids are six times more likely than other children to end up in the criminal justice system, according to research cited by the University of Pittsburgh’s Collaborative for Evaluation and Assessment Capacity, which filed a report on Amachi this year. The evaluation found most of Amachi’s mentees to be resilient, free of criminal records and successful in school.

Mike, left, and his mentee Anthony enjoy a
quick conversation in between takes during
the shooting of a video about Amachi
Pittsburgh with the Steeltown Entertainment
Since 2003, Amachi has served more than 1,300 children and families, including upwards of 900 youth mentees. Today it has a lean five-person staff and a budget of about $400,000 and is steadily working toward long-term sustainability.

One challenge is that it still relies on a hodgepodge of short-term grants and small individual donations to cover its bills. Another is that Amachi wants to become a stand-alone 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Currently, a fiscal sponsor receives contributions on its behalf and provides back-office support.

But observers say the organization is making methodical strides toward its goals. This fall, Amachi is likely to receive more than $200,000 from one of Pittsburgh’s largest foundations, which could help open doors to other foundations and bolster the group’s case for state funding as well. Its fundraising is getting more sophisticated, and training for an inaugural board of directors is ongoing.

“Because our agency is the only one in this region that has this particular focus, we determined early on that we would want to grow and sustain this work in the community,” said Amachi Pittsburgh Executive Director Anna Hollis. “Developing partnerships with foundations, governments and United Way -- all of that was really key to diversify our funding sources.”

Seeking new funding sources

The organization began building a lifeboat even before the cessation of federal funding rocked the mentoring world in 2011. Though mentors are not paid, funds are needed for matching mentors with mentees, as well as monitoring relationships and arranging group activities. For several years before 2011, Hollis was diversifying Amachi’s funding, especially by courting Pittsburgh’s corporate philanthropists.

As a result, federal cuts were painful but not devastating. Amachi’s budget dropped from $600,000 to about $385,000. Were it not for new revenues, the cut would have left Amachi with just $150,000 and little hope for continuing its work. But because the organization had sought out new funding streams in the years before the cuts, it was able to tap those sources to make up more than half the cuts.

But new private funding and staffing cutbacks alone wouldn’t be enough. Amachi would also need a new fiscal sponsor to receive grants on its behalf and handle back-office support. That’s because Amachi wasn’t ready to go it alone as a 501(c)(3); it would first need to stabilize funding streams, then adopt appropriate bylaws and governance structures. And its original sponsor, the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation, was cutting its sponsorship ties as it moved to focus resources elsewhere.

Some saw God’s hand at work in the challenge to find both a new sponsor and new funding streams.

“It was very much in God’s providence,” said Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation President Lisa Slayton. “The program wasn’t going to be long-term sustainable as long as the majority of the income was reliant on federal funding. So it forced Anna [Hollis] to really go into a mode of diversifying its funding models.”

In the Pittsburgh-based POISE Foundation, Amachi found both a funder and a fiscal sponsor, one that has brought a new dimension to Amachi’s work. Amachi’s clients are mostly African-American families; POISE channels grants to local African-American organizations that can advance its funders’ goals, including reduction of recidivism among Pittsburgh’s former inmates.

The two joined forces with a shared hope: that former inmates might find stability in civil society, and that their children might reap the benefits.

“In our mentoring, we realized kids were going back home to these broken families where there were multiple issues, and a lot of those issues would impact the mentoring relationship,” Hollis said. “The kids are going to be more successful when their families can strengthen and support their progress.”

Nicole Bell and Shawn Gould with their son, David Bell.
Now, in addition to coordinating mentorships, Amachi increasingly works with entire families to strengthen bonds, including those between children and their parents who are either in prison or recently released. By offering case management and education in family dynamics, Amachi aims to foster strong relationships around inmates’ children, who might not always have a mentor in their lives.

For David Bell’s family, getting stronger has meant building habits, starting with work and attending Amachi events. It’s been a big adjustment for David’s father, Gould, who’s been out of prison for a relatively long time -- two straight years. Gould is now employed on a warehouse manufacturing line and spends much of his time off with his family.

With Amachi’s help, the Bell and Gould family has learned practical skills, such as how to play games together and what to do when they get angry with one another. They eat meals at a table together, which they never used to do, according to Nicole Bell. It’s all contributed to a home environment that’s helping 14-year-old David do well in school, she said.

“We’re doing things that families should do but we weren’t doing,” she said. “It feels beautiful.”

Broadening tactics, not the mission

With the addition of family-strengthening services, Amachi hasn’t changed its mission. The group still uses best-practice methods for mentoring, including one-on-one interaction, but now there’s less chance that the benefits of mentoring will be undermined soon after a child is dropped off at home. Rather than broadening the mission, Amachi has broadened how it carries out the mission, Hollis said.

Behind the scenes, POISE’s sponsorship involves technical consulting for Amachi and a $20,000 grant, plus back-office support that lets Amachi pour more of its resources into services and less into administration. That’s been an important dynamic as Amachi strives to maximize and document its impact.

“A nonprofit is a business, [but] most people who start nonprofits have no idea how to run a business,” said Mark Lewis, the president and CEO of the POISE Foundation. “So if you can find a partner who can help you more on the business side and let you focus more on the programmatic and the people-serving side, then I think you’re going to be a much more successful organization.”

Growing and growing up

Amachi is benefitting greating from the fiscal sponsorship of POISE, but doesn't want to be dependent on the organization. Amachi isn’t content to remain a sponsored organization forever.

For the past two years, funding from the Pittsburgh-based Program to Aid Citizen Enterprise (PACE) has been helping Amachi lay the groundwork to become a solid stand-alone 501(c)(3). Such a transition is a virtual precondition for working with the big foundations that can make Amachi sustainable in the long term, according to PACE Executive Director Lucille Dabney.

“There’s a perception around being sponsored that suggests you’re not really a fully grown organization,” Dabney said. “As you’re going after larger funds from these entities, they want to see you walking the walk of a big, grown-up organization.”

Hollis hopes coaching will help open new doors. With PACE grant funding, Amachi is contracting with the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh. Together, they’re assembling the key ingredients that potential funders are apt to expect to see before they’ll cut big checks for multiyear grants.

Anita Hollis
With guidance from Bayer Center Executive Director Peggy Morrison Outon, Hollis has been learning the art of big-league fundraising. Wisely using precious time with foundations is a major emphasis. Face time is well-spent, Outon said, when it includes gathering information about what projects a foundation has funded in the past and why.

“One of the mistakes that happens all too often is people take the whole time talking themselves, and don’t allow the person to interject a question,” Outon said. “They leave knowing only their own story -- nothing about what was particularly interesting to the funder or what questions remain in the funder’s mind.”

Amachi is tightening up its governance as well. The Bayer Center is helping map Amachi’s transition from a board of advisors to a full-fledged board of directors with fiduciary responsibilities. This means potential funders will know that directors bring a range of relevant skills to the table and know how to evaluate not only the chief executive but also the board itself.

Building a decade of support

Though Amachi’s progress has been more than a decade in the making, its core network has not faltered through all the transitions and growing pains. Evolving slowly has also had its benefits. Amachi still works closely with some two dozen of the city’s congregations, which supply a steady source of mentors as well as donations and contacts among families affected by incarceration.

Corey, right, and his mentor Tialy select toys to use
during the making of an Amachi video with one
of the Steeltown Entertainment crew members.
“This issue of incarceration is so pervasive that it’s not a hard sell to help people to understand the need” for what Amachi does, said the Rev. Dr. William Curtis, the senior pastor of Mt. Ararat Baptist Church, a Pittsburgh megachurch that has long supported Amachi with volunteers and donations.

Almost everyone in his community either knows someone who’s incarcerated or knows someone who has an incarcerated family member, he said.

Having passed the 10-year milestone, Amachi is welcoming long-awaited introductions to foundations with the means to sustain its work. Meanwhile, many supporters aren’t much concerned whether the organization’s 501(c)(3) status is another one, two or five years away.

As long as children of prisoners have stable, caring adults in their lives as a result of Amachi, the most important work is getting done -- and being shared with potential funders at every turn. The tenacity in Amachi’s track record is compelling, Outon said.

“When people have the opportunity to hear that story of how [Amachi has] persevered,” she said, “you can’t help but be moved and sort of on their side.”

Questions to consider

Questions to consider:

  • Leaders of Amachi Pittsburgh were determined to keep the organization going after it lost funding. Would you do the same for your organization? What makes it worth preserving?
  • Amachi was prepared when federal funding stopped. Could your organization withstand that kind of loss? Could you plan ahead for potential funding cuts?
  • Amachi adapted to new partners without losing focus. Are there potential partners in your community you could work with in this way?
  • Is your organization making methodical strides toward its goals? If not, why not? Are there ways you could broaden your tactics without suffering mission creep?