“A name cannot fully articulate what you do,” says Kirk Ray Smith, President and CEO of Hope Villages of America, “but it can start the conversation.” From Doctors Without Borders to Habitat for Humanity, he says, the right name can capture what is innovative and unique about a nonprofit, creating visibility and driving vital donor support.
Such was the thinking behind the recent rebranding of Hope Villages, formerly RCS Pinellas. Launched in 1967 by a coalition of 15 churches and synagogues in Pinellas County, RCS Pinellas (then called Religious Community Services Pinellas) was originally focused around providing housing for the community’s homeless, and it has since grown into an eight-site, multidimensional service that helps provide shelter, and food, as well as rental, utility, and mortgage assistance to approximately 130,000 clients each year.
Hope Villages is distinctive in its support for families, which, Smith explains, face particular challenges when it comes to homelessness. Many shelters will not admit children. As a result, families end up squeezed into borrowed spaces in others’ homes, living in their car, or placing children into the foster care system. Hope Villages provides half of the just 180 beds available for homeless families in Pinellas County, plus food, busing services that ensure students can stay enrolled in their schools, and support with navigating affordable housing applications and court appointments. Hope Villages also serves survivors of domestic abuse, elder abuse and human trafficking.
A common thread in much of the work the organization does is hope itself – providing clients with the support and stability they need to get back on their feet again. “We are hope restoration specialists,” Smith notes. “Every volunteer, staff member, and board member sees themselves this way.”
The concept of hope made sense as a focus for rebranding, especially as the organization shifted away from its roots in religious communities (which now provide just 2% of its funding) toward support from government grants and private donations. “We don’t have a religion,” Smith explains, “but we still address the things that many religions are concerned with, like caring for people in need.”
Putting hope first is important for describing the organization’s mission and as a kind of credo for staying engaged in work that can be difficult and demoralizing at times. But it is also important for engaging with donors, as evidenced by the 250 new donors the organization has gained since the new name became official in fall of 2020. “People support the concept of supporting hope,” says Smith. “People have helped us who wouldn’t have helped RCS.”
That support is more important than ever. When the pandemic hit, RCS had only just stabilized its historically volatile financial position. Then Covid brought with it a host of new challenges: grocery stores which had previously sold food and other necessities in bulk to the charity suddenly lost their surpluses; demand for RCS services increased by 300%; and the looming end of the moratorium on evictions means even more help will be needed soon.
Fundraising has become crucial for survival, and a new push yielded extraordinary results. Smith recalls, “I was shaken by how much people were supporting us. People were donating their stimulus checks to us.”
Hope Villages wants to keep growing in that direction, recruiting new business and individual donations to begin phasing out their reliance on government grants. Looking toward the broiling Florida summer ahead, the nonprofit plans to expand its utility assistance program, while adding to its number of affordable housing units available for clients.
The charity would also like to expand its services into Manatee, Polk, Pasco and Hillsborough counties, where there are many opportunities to partner with existing organizations and new donors that can help support its mission. “No margin, no mission” is Smith’s call to arms in the fight against homelessness and the struggle to thrive in a challenging marketplace.
For Smith, this work is personal as well as professional. Growing up in a single parent home in an underserved neighborhood in Cincinnati, facing learning challenges in the classroom and bullies outside of it, he recalls, “I had a lot of good reasons to fail.”
After seven years in the Army, he began a career in corrections that provided important insight into the many ways that early life challenges can thwart a person’s development in life-altering ways. “I realized that some of the best people I know are locked up,” he remembers. “And so, I began to ask myself, how do I keep them out of here?”
Smith’s answer, as it turned out, lay in human services. Before joining RCS Pinellas, he had a 15-year career in helping to turn around nonprofits that serve vulnerable areas, including multiple YMCA Associations in Florida and Massachusetts. He has also served as a professor in leadership development, social justice, nonprofit management and other areas.
Along the way, he has met many young clients in situations very like his own, and mentorship has become an important part of the work he does on the business side of nonprofits. “I want them to see themselves in me,” Smith explains. “If I can do this, so can you. Don’t let your background become and excuse,” he advises. “Instead, leverage it to become great.”
Ultimately, he says, supporting the work of Hope Villages and organizations like it is about recognizing not only that hope is powerful, but also that hope is a need we all share. “It’s my belief that there are only two types of people in the world,” he says. “Those in need, and those who can help meet the need. We will each be in both positions sometime in our lives.”
Keeping Hope Villages of America in a position to help is his daily and his ultimate goal, and, so far, he has many reasons to be hopeful.