Dr. Amy Blansit of the Drew Lewis Foundation: “Most people start a nonprofit out of passion”

Most people start a nonprofit out of passion. That passion can cause a leader to make poor choices. To be successful, you have to see a nonprofit as any other business. If you do not shift and adjust to your customer, you will not be sustainable. As part of my series about “individuals and organizations […]

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Most people start a nonprofit out of passion. That passion can cause a leader to make poor choices. To be successful, you have to see a nonprofit as any other business. If you do not shift and adjust to your customer, you will not be sustainable.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Amy Blansit.

Dr. Amy Blansit serves as program director for the Northwest Project, a poverty alleviation initiative in Springfield, Missouri. She is also chair of the Drew Lewis Foundation (DLF) and operates The Fairbanks, a renovated grade school that now serves as a center for community betterment programs in Springfield’s Grant Beach neighborhood. In addition to her leadership role on the Northwest Project, Dr. Blansit is a senior instructor in the kinesiology department at Missouri State University.

Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?

I got degrees in health science. I planned to be a lab rat. I loved science and studying human performance, and my education at Drury University and Adelphi University prepared me for that. However, I also learned I love social engagement and social determinants to health. So, in my mid-30s, I decided to get my doctorate in health sciences. I started my professional career with Missouri State University in the wellness department. I wanted to be in a clinical field and moved to Mercy Hospital once a position opened. I worked for Mercy for seven years in cardiopulmonary rehabilitation. I ran an obesity management and obesity education and surgical preparation program. I also worked with the cardiopulmonary physicians to perform medical tests to help with diagnostics on patients needing transplants. I liked the work, but I felt I had hit any advancements I would have with Mercy and wanted to explore teaching. I was hired by Drury University to teach a cardiopulmonary class and loved teaching. I worked for Drury briefly and helped them expand their wellness programming. During this transition, my husband, Drew, was diagnosed with colon cancer. It had spread and within 17 months of being diagnosed, he passed. I received custody of his two teenage children and became a single mom. Shortly after he passed, a position opened at Missouri State, and I jumped at the chance to be a full-time faculty member. At the same time as these career changes, and just prior to Drew passing, we had purchased the Fairbanks School. It was a dilapidated building that was about to be torn down. Drew and I envisioned him managing the commercial real estate while I oversaw the renovations. It was a dream we had that helped us see a future and not only focus on cancer and the horrible treatments he was going through. After he passed, my determination to make this building into a success story grew. Failure was not an option. My kids came and helped scrape the walls and mow the yard. It became a family and friends affair with thousands of volunteer hours. In the first year, a few local entrepreneurs rented the building. By the second year, we partnered with Life360 and opened the second phase. They began services on Sundays and launched a daycare. In order to see the vision through, I decided to donate the building to the DLF and expand our nonprofit services and resources. Over the following years, many nonprofits and organizations partnered with DLF to serve those in north Springfield. Missouri State, Drury and DLF partnered and were awarded the Northwest Project grant — a five-year pilot to test self-sufficiency programs that can move families out of poverty. We have completed our fifth year and have funding to continue into our seventh year. My love for social determinants of health and teaching have blended with my work for the Northwest Project. My kids are both about to graduate from university and they are thriving. The future is bright and I’m looking forward to writing many more chapters to my life.

Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start your nonprofit?

Drew and I had started the process to create the DLF after we had received so much support during his battle with cancer. We wanted to be able to make a difference with the slight Facebook fame he had gained through being so open about his disease. We purchased the building with the idea of changing one block, but we had no idea it would become what it is today. We were not 100% sure what the nonprofit would become. We wanted to address issues he had with being underinsured. We wanted to help spread the word about health and prevention. We did not have a plan to become a nonprofit that serves low-income families, but it quickly evolved into that after Drew passed and I realized focusing on his disease was not who Drew was — it was just one chapter of his life. The best way I could honor him was to create a success story with the piece of historic real estate we had both fell in love with. To save the building and move to the next step of providing services for those in need, the nonprofit had to grow in its mission as well. I organized a board of those in our community who were successful in their careers, knowing that I would need their expertise to shape a sustainable nonprofit. The board has continued to be a stellar group of professionals and passionate people who care about our community and our neighbors.

Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?

Our mission: To educate, empower and support underserved families through personalized programs and coaching to increase quality of life and build resilient communities.

Our history:I founded the DLF at the Historic Fairbanks Elementary school building in 2013 in honor of my husband, the late Drew Lewis. The Historic Fairbanks Elementary, a former public school built in 1906, had fallen into severe disrepair. The DLF is reimagining the Fairbanks building as a Community Hub housing a number of community betterment initiatives that work to improve the quality of life within the neighborhood. Original funding for operations came from Community Foundation of the Ozarks’ 2016 Northwest Project grant, which backed a five-year pilot project with collaboration among DLF, Drury and Missouri State.

Our goals: The DLF seeks to create the conditions where local families and youth can live active, productive, comfortable, secure, decent and happy lives. Our overall goal is to bring families from poverty to a state of permanent self-sufficiency. We do this through:

  1. Developing premier programming and services.
  2. Delivering pertinent educational topics and additional curriculum materials.
  3. Catering our curriculum and education to the specific needs of the communities we serve.
  4. Quality, evidence-based, data-driven programs: RISE (Reaching Independence through Support and Education), BHP (Blue House Project), HHI (Healthy Homes Initiative) and Community Hub
  5. Catering our programs to emergent needs in our neighborhoods and making them adaptable to any neighborhood or municipality that wishes to replicate them.

Our audience served:The agency’s programs originally focused only on northwest Springfield neighborhoods. However, as interest grows, efforts have expanded to other Springfield neighborhoods, as well as surrounding rural communities. We serve families specifically, to address the intergenerational aspect of poverty. To qualify for DLF’s programs, members must earn less than 200% of federal poverty guidelines per family size; be stably housed (not homeless); be employed or seeking employment.

Our services and programs:

  1. RISE — Our core program works through intensive case management and curriculum to improve sufficiency in a variety of indicators, including education, employment, debt reduction, quality childcare and parenting (previously called Northwest Project).
  2. BHP — We purchase low-cost homes and renovate them. We then select qualified members of RISE to live in the homes for two years while they pay rent and learn about homeownership, eventually purchasing the home.
  3. HHI — Through home visits and educational curriculum, we educate on the Healthy Homes principles and their relationship to physical and mental health of the home’s residents.
  4. Fairbanks Community Hub — A HUD-certified EnVision Center, the hub brings together a multitude of service agencies, co-locating them centrally in a distressed neighborhood where their services are needed most.

Our organizational structure: DLF is governed by a Board of Directors (12), and staffed by a chief executive, five full-time employees and three part-time employees.

Our key achievements:During the first four years of RISE in Springfield, Cohorts 1–15 included 111 graduates (representing 370 individual lives) from 97 low-income households. With rural expansion, two additional communities were added and had graduating cohorts in 2019, expanding the reach to 426 unduplicated lives. Households enrolled in the program saw an average increase in income of 25% or 633 dollars per month per household. Members report increased feelings of hope, confidence and self-efficacy.

Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?

A young woman who had two children joined our program. She had been homeless only a few months before. She was staying with friends and working to secure an apartment and a place of stability for her children. She created friendships and connections over the course of a year. She developed increased self-worth and interpersonal communication skills. She created enough stability that she was able to complete a six-week EPA funded program that gave her skills in environmental cleanup. She applied for a position with a locally owned company, maintained her employment and has grown with that company. We were able to celebrate her buying a home a few months ago. This mother of two went from being homeless to being a homeowner because she was diligent and worked hard to take control and improve her quality of life and that of her children as well. It’s amazing what will happen when someone believes in you and sees your potential.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Oh goodness. This question gets me in lots of trouble in my state. I’m often frustrated with the policies and beliefs of the politicians in our state. There are many policies that could be changed to improve the potential for all citizens in our state. So, I will leave that one alone and fight the fight through my votes and education of others who vote. So, number one is voting. Through DLF, we invite nonpartisan organizations to answer questions and educate families about voting options and bills that are being passed. Being educated about what is happening in our state is extremely important and so easy to ignore in our very busy lives. Second, at the local level, we can increase the knowledge that most of Springfield is considered low-to-moderate income. We have a wage issue that is compounded by high rent rates. We have families living in conditions that most would be horrified by if they simply had the time to see what is really going on in our city. Crime is high, child abuse is high, mental health problems are high … these are all linked to low wages. I cannot sit back and be silent when someone in our community says that people are just lazy and don’t want to work. Our average income is 35,500 dollars and that is a poverty wage for anyone who has one dependent. I’m not sure what has to get worse for people to open up their eyes and begin to be part of the conversation that changes these conditions. Finally, volunteer. Get to know your community. Get to know the people who are in need. If we can reduce the stigma of what poverty means in our community, people would realize the person sitting next to them at church or even a coworker is living paycheck to paycheck, and using food banks and rental assistance to exist.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I prefer servant leadership. You will find me cleaning toilets and taking out the trash. There is not a job at the Fairbanks that I would ask someone else to do if I’m not willing to pitch in and do it as well. I enjoy manual labor. I enjoy having my hands dirty — physically and metaphorically — in the management and development of the organization. I want to know how all things work and how to create efficiency in them. If I’m not willing to do the job next to someone to see how it can be done better or to create better conditions, then I’m just throwing ideas at someone and forcing them to do a job my way. This creates resentment and lack of enjoyment in everyone’s job regardless of how menial that chore may be.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a nonprofit”. Please share a story or example for each.

1.) Most people start a nonprofit out of passion. That passion can cause a leader to make poor choices. To be successful, you have to see a nonprofit as any other business. If you do not shift and adjust to your customer, you will not be sustainable.

Drew and I started out with our passion about healthcare — or lack thereof — and colon cancer. However, that was not who Drew was. He had a passion for real estate and for Springfield. If I had kept the course and only focused on healthcare access for colon cancer patients, I would not be living the life I am today.

2.) Nonprofits are easy because you can get free money — this is so far from the truth and getting even tougher as tax laws change and now encourage fewer incentives for giving. Funding a nonprofit is not sustainable through grants and donors alone. To create sustainability, a nonprofit should consider value added products or social enterprises. Nonprofits can sell things; it is the management of the surplus of income that is different.

DLF has created online education and consulting to help other communities launch RISE.

3.) Your board should be made up of people more successful than you are. A board provides advice from experience. Board members provide connections to potential grantors and they help you make wise decisions. If your board says no — listen and learn why the members are making that decision. It just might save you in the long run.

I was terrified to ask the people I saw as giants in their careers to join my board. That is how I knew I was asking the right people.

4.) Like any start-up — whether for-profit or nonprofit — it will own you for some period of time.

Many people I know have started a nonprofit thinking their board is going to be their staff. That is rarely the case. You are the person with the passion. Your board members are simply advisors who expect to put in an hour or two of time here and there. If you are not willing to stoke the fire day and night to get the nonprofit from an idea to a stable company, don’t start it.

5.) If #4 scares you, then instead of starting a nonprofit, create a program under an existing nonprofit. So many small nonprofits would have been better off as a program within a successful nonprofit instead of starting a new company.

I wish I would have known more about this as an option when I started growing DLF. I would have been more likely to start as a program under another nonprofit. I had the option through a friend of mine, but I thought it would limit what I was able to do. Now DLF has several programs under our nonprofit umbrella that complement what we do and allow the people with a very specific passion to keep their hands in their program and projects, and not have to worry as much about the accounting and management.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your nonprofit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Are Bill Gates, leaders of Kellogg Foundation or other major grantors an option? We’re looking for large funders to help us take our program nationally, so we can serve as many communities wanting to do something different to change the face of poverty in their community.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?

Many people have been quoted saying, “If you aren’t living on the edge, you are taking up too much space.” I believe Jim Whittaker is the most often quoted. He was a mountaineer and the first American to reach the top of Mt. Everest. I love this quote because it is all about living and action. It is about adventure and exploring life. I don’t simply want to take up space in life. I don’t want my understanding of the world to be what I get from a TV or social media. I want to be alive, living it for myself.

How can our readers follow you online?

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/amyblansit

Twitter: https://twitter.com/amyblan

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.

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