By Katie Callahan (Courtesy photo)
A decade after its founding, ACT for Alexandria stands astride the local nonprofit scene, a philanthropic giant serving the Port City’s plethora of charitable organizations.
What started as a plan to donate to a couple of a charities in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11 2001 soon grew into a more expansive undertaking: the creation of a nonprofit for nonprofits.
After the death of Alexandria resident Norma L. Steuerle during the attacks, her family banded together to give back to the community. In 2004, their generosity helped bring about ACT, a group that these days holds fundraisers, throws charity galas, organizes volunteer events and serves as consultants to other nonprofits, all in the name of increasing local philanthropy.
Steuerle’s widower, Eugene Steuerle, co-founder and chair of ACT, is quick to point out that a lot of people deserve credit for helping the foundation grow into a powerhouse. As part of its mission, ACT provides training and funds for local projects through a variety of events and initiatives, including ACTion Alexandria, Give Back Alexandria and the online day of giving known as Spring2ACTion, which recently raised more than $1 million for area groups.
“One of the principal ways that ACT tries to help the citizens of Alexandria is by empowering charities and individuals to follow their own dreams and provide their own support to others,” Steuerle said. “We do this directly through activities like capacity building grants and learning sessions, but of an even larger nature are the funds we help raise for the charities of Alexandria.”
Had the group’s startup money been divided back in 2004 and spent on separate efforts, the impact would not have been the same, said John Porter, ACT’s executive director.
“We wanted to see if there was a way that we could take that money and set it aside to do something good, to help in a larger way in Alexandria,” Porter said. “We explored a number of options, talked to a number of people, and found that a community foundation would be a way to do that.”
In those days, ACT was subsidized by The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, which has similar affiliates in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. In 2009, the foundation broke off to become the Alexandria Community Trust, which was rebranded as ACT for Alexandria.
While it’s come a long way, the foundation has weathered challenges, the recent recession chief among them.
Ken Naser oversees one of the organizations ACT has supported over the years. He said the group provided his organization, ALIVE!, with grants that helped with emergency food or financial assistance during the darkest days of the recession. ACT for Alexandria also helped make ALIVE! run more efficiently.
“Most of what they focus on is helping nonprofits succeed in what they do,” Naser said. “They do that by offering grants. They’ve helped us develop our donor database, going from a homemade one to one that is an online database that’s accessible from anywhere, so some of my staff can operate it from home. It’s really a lot more conducive to fundraising and acknowledging our donors. They’ve also helped us bring on board a development person for the first time in ALIVE!’s 45 year history.”
Naser praised ACT for bringing together the Alexandria Council of Human Service Organizations, a joint effort between ACT and the city department of community and human services. The initiative more closely aligns City Hall with local nonprofits in the hopes of increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of their efforts.
Lisa Odell, executive director of Space of Her Own, a mentoring program for low-income girls, also sings ACT’s praises. The group gave her nonprofit the tools it needed to succeed, she said.
“If ACT for Alexandria did not exist, neither would SOHO-Space of Her Own, Inc,” she said in an email. “The capacity-building support that the organization and its donors have provided to [us] has been invaluable, enabling us not only to stay afloat, but to thrive. This year we will expand to two new locations and pilot a second year of our boys’ Space of His Own program.”
While Odell and Naser give thanks to ACT, Steuerle heaps praise on the residents and community leaders who embraced — and continue to support — his organization.
“I think what sticks with me more than anything is what a great city we live in and the engagement of people in this city,” Steuerle said. “We’re very lucky that we’re small enough to be where a lot of people know each other, but large enough that we can take advantage of individuals in this city who have a high level of education and knowledge.”