The nonprofit furthers its quest “to become Georgia’s most respected Servant Leader.”
By Alexandra McCray
MUST Ministries has always been a multifaceted nonprofit committed to improving the lives of others. Focused today on alleviating poverty and homelessness in Cobb and Cherokee counties and beyond, its efforts to aid those effected by these issues continue to expand.
From March 2020 to March 2021, the organization served 287 percent more people than the 33,547 it helped during its 2019 fiscal year. While meeting an ongoing increase in clients, MUST Ministries has simultaneously been building a new, $21.3-million campus that includes a shelter named MUST Hope House, which will replace the Elizabeth Inn. The nonprofit also launched its MUST Mobile Pantry, which debuted last October and has already brought nutritious items to thousands in so-called “food deserts” — geographic areas where residents have few to no convenient options for securing affordable and healthy foods.
Continuing to meet the need
The impact of COVID-19 catapulted many into crisis. However, MUST Ministries has been aware of the growing need for its food, housing, clothing, career and medical assistance programs — particularly among women and children, who made up approximately 84 percent of
the people the nonprofit served before the pandemic turned countless lives upside down. “Suburban poverty is the fastest growing segment of poverty,” says Dr. Dwight “Ike” Reighard, MUST Ministries’ president and CEO. “I think it’s because women and children feel safer in a suburban area than they do in an urban environment, particularly if they’re living in their vehicles.”
The organization will soon have the space to offer accommodations to more people without a home. MUST Ministries’ new shelter will allow it to provide 136 beds and 36 inclement weather shelter beds — more than twice as many as the 72-bed Elizabeth Inn. “This shelter will be one of the first of its kind in the country, as we have designed and built it from the ground up to serve as a homeless shelter rather than retrofitting or renovating an existing building,” says Falecia Stewart, MUST Ministries’ vice president of housing.
The consolidated campus also will make it convenient for clients to access other offerings provided by MUST Ministries, such as a community kitchen, job training, and health services. A shelter dedication is slated for April 2 as part of the ministry’s 50th-anniversary celebration. The campus will be completed in 2023 when renovations to a current building at the site conclude and the Marietta program and MUST Ministries headquarters can relocate to the revamped facility.
Because the organization reaches capacity at the Elizabeth Inn so quickly and frequently, its ability to give more people a place to rest their heads in the future and during the pandemic has been particularly meaningful. Though MUST Ministries’ Coordinated Entry staff members always work to find available beds at other facilities if MUST Ministries doesn’t have room, Dr. Reighard notes that because of the generosity of donors like Woodstock City Church with North Point Ministries, who both participate in the Be Rich campaign, MUST Ministries was able to ramp up its hotel/motel voucher and other housing programs. “We never said the words, ‘We’re full,’” Dr. Reighard states. Additionally, more than 1,700 renters were able to avoid displacement from July 2020 to June 2021 thanks to the Eviction Prevention program.
Secrets to success
In general, the organization found itself having little trouble acquiring the funds necessary to meet the demand caused by the pandemic. Dr. Reighard credits the accomplishment to MUST Ministries’ longevity and consistency. He says, “People know that when they give us funding, we’re going to be good stewards of that funding. And they can trust us to do what we say we’re going to do with it.” For example, MUST Ministries’ CFO, Ryne Van Gorp, reports that 89 percent of total expenses for the 2021 fiscal year went to direct client programming.
Since it was founded in 1971, MUST Ministries has established a reputation for putting its mission first. The organization has routinely earned the highest star rating offered by nonprofit review organization Charity Navigator. Over the decades, growth and an ever-expanding number of supporters, such as MUST Ministries’ 16,000-plus Facebook page followers, has occurred largely due to people seeing its work firsthand and the level of commitment of those behind the scenes. Clients become volunteers and volunteers become members of the board of directors, staff, and even the president and CEO.
The nonprofit also has been deliberate about how it spends the few funds allocated for overhead costs. “What happens a lot of times in nonprofits is that you are trying to watch your overhead, but sometimes you can be so fixated on saving money that you end up costing yourself money, and that comes down to being able to hire experienced, talented people,” says Dr. Reighard.
MUST Ministries has strategically brought on experts to aid it in achieving visionary goals and setting itself up for continued success. The nonprofit also has been intentional about the diversity of its team and board members. “Years ago, the board was made up of pastors,” Dr. Reighard says. Today, representation includes more women, millennials, and people of color who come from corporate backgrounds, who serve as judges, who are community leaders and other professionals.
Being able to look at situations honestly, not idyllically, seems to be another strength of the nonprofit. Not only does it understand the importance of a room filled with various viewpoints, but also the reality of the many barriers preventing a person from getting out of poverty. “I’ll tell people, ‘If you really want to understand MUST, and you were to put it into a picture for them, think about a high wire. All of us walk on a high wire every day,’” says Dr. Reighard. “Different things can knock us off the high wire — a health situation, the loss of a job, loss of a spouse. MUST is like the safety net underneath to be able to catch people when they fall, but we’re not a hammock.”
He says the organization’s “secret sauce” is building trust and staying connected with clients through its wraparound services, addressing various factors that can contribute to poverty. Comprehensive wraparound services like food, housing, jobs, healthcare, clothing and so forth, statistically lead to better outcomes. So, it’s no surprise that Dr. Reighard, the board, and MUST leadership team continuously look for future ways the organization can further provide assistance, such as incorporating dental services and replacing its Smyrna Client Services facility. Dr. Reighard routinely brainstorms and looks to other nonprofits for inspiration, saying “The idea of tiny homes intrigues me, for instance, working with people in the business community to possibly create a tiny home community connected to a business where clients can be employed.”
Supporters can help MUST Ministries make grand visions for the future a reality by volunteering, donating, and attending events such as the upcoming MUST Giving Gala on April 30, which is themed around its 50th golden anniversary. Visit mustministries.org for more information.