New Haven Community Action Agency leader turned organization around

CAFCA | May 07, 2014 |

 The Community Action Agency of New Haven was $5.2 million in debt for a variety of reasons before Amos Smith became the agency’s president and CEO.

Now, the agency serves more than 1,000 additional families.

Smith was hired when CAANH was in a tough spot due to fiscal mismanagement, but he did not let the reputation of the agency turn him away. He said he used it as motivation to make a change for the better for the agency’s programs, staff members, budgets and the overall investments available.

Smith believes the private nonprofit organization has changed to become one “that is designed to help the low-income working class families create stability in their lives,” he said.

“People should come to us if they are struggling with direction in their lives, if they are falling short with grocery bills or with finding support for their heating bills, or utility bills,” Smith said. “They should seek us out if they are single mothers feeling isolated and in need of a support group.”

The long-standing problems that existed when Smith started as CEO included financial issues, the agency had been hit by a federal raid seeking financial documents, it had double billing issues and programs were not helpful.

“When Amos started at CAANH, the agency was known for the scandal all over the media. ... It was the worst agency and the FBI rid (raided) our computers when we got there because of what the agency was,” said board of directors member Jeff Klaus.

Smith made many changes with a new board of directors who are familiar and had in-depth experience with managing money and working with the public. Having people that were competent with the community was vital in improving the agency.

Staff was reduced to 47, rather than the 105 previously working there, which makes it easier for families that are in need of help not to feel overwhelmed and they get to know staff more personally.

In previous years, the agency also would very rarely have volunteers, or stacks of applications of people wanting to work there. Now, because of the changes, the agency has people wanting to volunteer and help make a difference, Smith said. The nonprofit anti-poverty agency is largely funded through federal and state grants.

“When I started and came on board with CAANH, Amos and I started at an agency which had a lot of problems. At first people thought I was nuts for wanting to work there, with all the bad publicity, I came on board because of Amos’ enthusiasm and wanted to make change,” said CAANH board Chairman Larry M. Stewart. “We came on board to make changes, help people.”

Klaus said Smith also asked him “to help change the agency.

“The agency was in a situation where you have to go down before you go up,” Klaus said. “It took Amos a better part of two years to rid the (organization) of the corruption, both internally and externally. The board and internal folks were part of a cancerous agency. It took two years to get rid of unnecessary things we did not need.”

Fast forward, and in February 2013, Smith received a letter from a single mother who had been helped by the agency. The mother needed help getting financially stable again. Being part of the payment program, she was able to get back on her feet and have extra money for her family, rather than owing it, he said.

Smith said the agency’s debt has been reduced and it is working with the state to further repair those money issues. Previously, the agency lacked focus on fiscal resources, and staff were not good stewards of money and lacked strong planning skills, Smith said.

“Without Amos’s strength, visions and perseverance, the agency would not be as it is today,” said Klaus. “We rationalized the size and financing that were received. We (slimmed) the organization and cleaned the agency; we then set the path of growth and operational excellence.”

The current staff members are proficient with finances and planning accordingly for the agency, which is the areas that were lacking before. Rebuilding the system was Smith’s plan from the beginning, creating new experiences for the families that came in for help.

CAANH previously had 17 programs, but has decreased that to nine to increase efficiency. For example, S.M.A.R.T. Women — Single Mothers Actively Reaching the Top — enables mothers to learn about finances and financial help. It helps them save money towards something that they want, from a car to college courses.

Another popular program, “Manage Your Future,” for youths 14 to 17, helps them create a resume and work toward their dreams.

Smith said his aim was to create an agency for those who need a little help in their lives, and he finds a way to make their lives easier and not so stressful. CAANH is that it offers help for people to create results in their life, he said.

“At the end of the day, we ask ourselves are we making a difference in peoples lives? That is what makes a difference between the old organization before I was here, and the organization today. And that is what really created a change in the CAANH,” said Smith.

Stewart said he is “so glad” to be chairman of the CAANH board and “we have come a long way since the beginning.”

“Amos is big on training his staff, he has enhanced his staff on what’s going on. He is well-respected with his peers, as well as the national audience. He is asked to speak to groups of people throughout the states. He helps people less fortunate and empowers them with great things, his enthusiasm is great.” Stewart said.