Attitude adjustments

Can Sacramento’s Gay & Lesbian Center regain financial solvency and build community?

The Sacramento Gay & Lesbian Center’s new executive director, Wendy Rae Hill, says they need to do what any good financial planner would recommend: diversify.

The Sacramento Gay & Lesbian Center’s new executive director, Wendy Rae Hill, says they need to do what any good financial planner would recommend: diversify.

Photo By mike iredale

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It might be in a midlife crisis, but at least the Sacramento Gay & Lesbian Center didn’t drive off in a red sports car.

After a very close call, the center—originally known as the Lambda Community Center—is regaining its financial footing, regrouping and making plans. Along the way, the group hopes to expand its board of directors and recently named Wendy Rae Hill as the new executive director.

Still, it’s been a rough couple of years for the place. SN&R was contacted by a number of community members who felt that the center had lost its direction and was in serious trouble. Finances had gotten so bad that, according to interim executive director Bill Otton, the center was in danger of closing down last fall. “When I got here,” Otton told SN&R, “the organization was extremely fragile financially.”

The center had come to the end of a three-year grant of $50,000 per year from The California Endowment that had been its major source of funding, and there wasn’t anything to replace it. “We did not have the funding base,” Otton said. “We could not go to the community with any kind of history and say here’s what we’re trying to do, join us.”

It’s not, he said, a problem unique to Sacramento. A 2008 report by CenterLink, a national association of GLBT centers, noted that many are underfunded and overly reliant on government and private grants. In the current economic climate, that’s a recipe for disaster.

For some examples of how bad it might have gotten, take a look at Washington, D.C., where the city’s gay-and-lesbian center is about to become homeless. The DC Center for the LGBT Community had been relying on free use of a building owned by a local developer, who now plans to turn the space into condos. Plans for city funding of $1 million for a new building fell apart in the current economic climate, leaving the center facing homelessness.

While fundraising for Sacramento’s center was an immediate need, Otton was hired by the board to work with them on an interim basis, with a goal of expanding the board’s size and makeup to more accurately reflect the diversity of Sacramento’s GLBT community and to clarify the goals for the center.

“I immediately started working on a sort of ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ plan with the board,” Otton said. “We had a retreat with the board and several segments of the community, and tried to put together a set of goals. We’ve got a single piece of paper that I would take to anybody in the community and explain what we’re trying to do.”

And that is, quite simply, to serve as a clearinghouse, networking and meeting place for all the various parts of the GLBT community.

That community includes a wide variety of people, often with very different needs. And that’s where the conflict comes in.

George Raya has been active in the Sacramento gay community for four decades, starting with co-founding a gay students’ group on the Sacramento State campus in 1970. Until recently, Raya—who works in public relations for the Capital Crossroads Gay Rodeo Association—wasn’t very happy about the way the Sacramento Gay & Lesbian Center was being run.

“The members of the board don’t really know the community,” he said. “They’re not activists. They might be specialists in their field, but we don’t know them.” He was angry that the volunteer programs at the center were cut back (according to Otton, improvements have simply been delayed so that the new executive director can make the decisions) and that money had been spent on appearances at the center rather than on programming.

Bill Otten, interim executive director at the center, focused on helping the board of directors set priorities.

Photo By mike iredale

“It doesn’t need to look like an art gallery,” Raya said. “But it needs to have volunteers there to greet people when they come in. Information and referral, that’s what people come for, so there needs to be someone there to answer questions and make referrals.”

Raya, who supported Hill for the director job, also complained about the board of directors being too small, and said that board members should have been replaced as they resigned.

But Otton said that active board recruitment was ongoing, and that an open request for new board members had netted some interest, but very few actual applications. The center is still actively soliciting applications for board membership, Otton said, and is particularly committed to seeing that “the various segments of the community are represented on the board.”

Raya is a believer in securing grants and government funding. However, Otton doesn’t see government and institutional grant funding as sustainable over the long haul. “Funding is going to have to come from the middle-class individual,” he said, echoing the findings of the national group’s report that private donations are a more stable funding source than government grants.

New director Hill sees that as her most important priority. “First thing, we need to secure funding sources for the center,” she told SN&R. The days of relying on a single source of funding are long gone, she noted. Her goal is “to do what financial planners tell you to do: diversify.”

“To balance and diversify the sources of funding so that when one stream of funding dries up, then there are other places to go,” she said.

She also hopes to bring in segments of the community that have not been using the center and build relationships with those groups and individuals. “I definitely feel that the center should be a place where some services are available, but I don’t believe it should be a service center,” she said. “It should be a community center. It should be available for a wide variety of things, including meeting space.”

Among the items she hopes to add are a speaker’s bureau and some outreach to the larger community. Recent events like the passage of Proposition 8 have shown, she said, that GLBT people need to be more involved in the larger community.

If Raya and Otton can agree on anything, it’s that things are looking up for the center. A recent reception for the three finalists for the center’s executive director position drew more than 100 community members.

“I’m excited because of the turnout and the quality of the people that showed up” for the event, Raya said. “The backbone of the community—all segments were represented—all showed up. Those are the people who make things happen.”

Otton’s definitely in his corner on that one. “Of all the things I’ve been involved in in the community, that was the most diverse gathering in terms of viewpoints—political and social and business.” He said. “It was a very diverse cross section, and that to me was really helpful.”

Hill described what’s been going on as “a real watershed moment, for the people who have been critical of the center, to see how things can be changed.”

“There’s an opportunity for new leadership and new vision, and they’ve seen that desire for change accepted and welcomed.”

That’s certainly true for Raya, who told SN&R in an e-mail that he’s so pleased with the selection of Hill as executive director and the changes that seem to be coming, he’s working on a fundraising challenge for the center’s Century Club, which includes donors of $100 and more.

Maybe the center will manage to age gracefully after all.