Every once in a while, for one reason or another, a Pregnancy Center is forced to close its doors. I once worked with a center that was serving its community to the best of its ability when the director suddenly had to move to another state. The new executive director sadly shirked their fundraising responsibilities and the board of directors was not properly fulfilling its role of managing the executive director. The center ended up running out of money and had to close its doors. What little money remained was used to pay the centers' outstanding bills, the building was vacated and the sign removed. The center was closed.
Thankfully this wasn't the end of the story. Recently someone recognized how much the center's closing had cost the community and they are in the process of reopening the pregnancy center.
Centers can close for numerous reasons - and not all are avoidable. Sometimes an executive director is suddenly called away due to a spouse’s work relocation and there is not someone to fill the role. Sometimes a different organization may acquire a pregnancy center and choose to move it to another location. Other times, a domineering executive director or an ineffective board can cripple a center by creating a hostile work environment or not fulfilling their leadership responsibilities.
Whatever the reason for a center closing however, the end result is always the same - there is now an unmet need in that community - the need for Christ-centered compassionate care for those making pregnancy decisions. God often calls someone - or a group of people - in these communities to meet this need by reopening a pregnancy center.
The good news is, many aspects of reopening a pregnancy center are far simpler than establishing the first pregnancy center in a community. However there are unique challenges and pitfalls that come along with trying to reestablish a center. Here are three important keys to remember when reopening a pregnancy center.
Be Forward Thinking - Don't Dwell on the Past - While you may see your work as that of reopening or restarting a pregnancy center, don’t use that language when communicating with others. Instead, talk about opening a center, starting a center, building something new in the community. You want a clean break with the previous center, making it clear you are doing something different. This is an important strategy for multiple reasons.
One, depending on the circumstances surrounding the last center’s closure, it may be a source of pain or negativity for community members or other would-be supporters. Reducing the amount of time you spend openly dwelling on the previous center goes a long way in smoothing out relationships.
Second, if the community, church supporters, or past employees and volunteers feel you are trying to recreate what once was, that may lead to unrealistic expectations about how things will be done or who will be involved and in which roles. This can create unnecessary friction when you make different decisions or choose different leaders.
This forward-thinking mentality should extend to the center’s name as well. Even if you are able to reactivate under the previous center’s 501(c)3 status,* you should always choose a new name. While some may object on the grounds that the previous center name retains brand awareness in the community and would therefore be more well known at first, this can lead to the same pitfalls of creating unrealistic expectations or bringing up past hurts.
In short, keep your actions - your language, name, etc. - forward-thinking, focused on what’s new, not what is in the past.
Involve the Community - As you move forward with your plans, be open about them! Host community meetings to not only recruit supporters but inform the community as a whole about what you are doing. I recommend those who are restarting a pregnancy center hold at least three community meetings, then form a steering committee of interested, passionate, on-mission people to further help build the center. The steering committee is responsible for planning and executing all the practical aspects of opening a center, such as establishing by-laws and writing the mission and vision, etc.
Through these first days, the board of your new pregnancy center must be a working board. You need to meet every two weeks. This is the period where you are doing the really nitty gritty work - building your mission and vision, spreading the word about your center far and wide, asking everyone for support, compiling a list of future volunteers, etc.
Your board members should attend and be active in all your community meetings to build the community’s confidence that there is a dedicated team of people intent on making this pregnancy center a reality.
As you host these meetings, there will likely be questions from the community about the previous pregnancy center. When addressing these, keep in mind my first point - to be forward thinking and not dwell on the past. If the previous pregnancy center closed under dubious circumstances, avoid discussing particulars. Reassure the community you are on the right track by demonstrating your competence, not by putting the previous center down.
If the last center closed or left the community on good terms, feel free to commend the work of the pregnancy center. But again, be careful to demonstrate you are doing something fundamentally new, not just recreating the past.
One potentially sticky situation is when a pregnancy center moves to a community that is close, but too far to effectively meet the needs of its previous community. In these situations, when you start going through the process of opening a center in the original community, those at the nearby center may feel a certain degree of wariness. They may fear you are trying to “take’ their clients or run them out of town.
In these situations, it’s best to approach the other center and make them aware of your intentions before going public in your own community. That ensures they hear the news from you, not through the grapevine. It also gives you an opportunity to thank them for their contributions and possibly even partner with them or ask for their support in working together to better serve both your communities.
Choose Your People Wisely - No matter the circumstances that surrounded the last center’s closing, there will always be people from the previous center who want to be involved in the new center - whether that be past board members, an executive director, staff members, volunteers, and/or supporters.
Some people may be naturally inclined to welcome these people into the new center without question. After all, the fact that they served in the last center means they’re passionate about the life-saving, life-transforming work that takes place in pregnancy centers.
Others however may view previous center personnel, especially leadership, with wariness. After all, something went wrong along the way that led to the center closing. If it was a leadership failure, then previous center leadership could easily bring those same failures into the new center, resulting in the same outcome.
There are merits to both these positions. After all, you don’t want to be blind to potential risks, but you also don’t want to exclude people who could be strong assets to the new center. My first recommendation is to pray and seek God’s guidance. After all, He is the one who gave you the vision for this center; He will also give you the wisdom you need for the decisions that must be made.
Second, I’ve personally often found that those who have been involved in a center that closed are often highly motivated to get things right the second time around. As long as a person has the knowledge and expertise for the role they are being considered for and has demonstrated an intention to learn from past mistakes, don’t feel that you have to rule them out solely because they were involved in the previous center. This of course does not apply to anyone whose personal moral failings contributed to the center’s closing - whether it be dishonesty, creating a hostile work environment through demeaning, pride or arrogance, etc.
In conclusion, emphasize the new exciting things you are doing far and wide. Make your presence known in the community and enthusiastically welcome involvement from new people and former pregnancy center leaders, provided they demonstrate the competence and humility to lead well. And of course, don’t forget to apply for Care Net affiliation!
*There are many situations in which it makes sense to reactivate the last center’s 501(c)3 status. If you are able to find the original 501(c)3 documentation for the last pregnancy center, you can cut down your wait time by reactivating the previous nonprofit status rather than applying and waiting for a whole new one. This generally involves contacting the original executive director or board chair. However, in some situations you may still need to apply for a new one. For example, if the center has been closed for more than three years, if the center merely relocated to another location and is therefore still operating under the original documentation, or if the original founders exhibited harmful or immoral leadership and should not be involved in the new center. I encourage everyone interested in restarting a pregnancy center to start by finding out if the original 501(c)3 status can be reactivated. It not only makes the restart process simpler, it also cuts down on the wait times, as reactivation generally takes less time than a first-time application.
To find out from the IRS if a reactivation is possible, you need to find the previous Federal Identification Number, which you would then use when you contact the IRS to ask if the 501c3 can be reinstated. You can find this information either from the previous leadership, or on guidestar.com. Whether or not you use the previous 501(c)3, always choose a new name for the center, either by filing Doing Business As (DBA) paperwork after the 501(c)3 is reactivated, or filing under a new name.