In a controversial move that could save more than $1 million, the Salvation Army of Billings has abandoned some of its popular social programs and recycling operations and is returning to its core mission of feeding the hungry and operating its Thrift Store on Minnesota Avenue.
The organization's leader said the decision was driven largely by the nonprofit’s 2,000 donors who said they no longer wanted their contributions to support such programs. The philanthropists regularly make donations ranging from $10 to tens of thousands of dollars.
“We have to respect our donors,” said Maj. Edward “Duke” Markham, who heads the Salvation Army of Billings. “Apple orchards, bokashi composting programs and community gardens are great things, but they’re not what the donors said they wanted their money to go toward.”
The gardens and orchards were designed to serve several purposes, including an educational tool to help children learn about producing healthy, locally grown food. The idea was also to sell the harvest at markets to help disadvantaged youth pay for college. But the orchards produced no income.
Markham’s decision to ax about a half-dozen projects and partnerships was done in concert with his superiors in Denver and Long Beach, Calif., who had been reviewing the programs.
The Salvation Army, under Markham’s leadership, has closed or dissolved partnerships with the following:
— Mona and David's Place, a ¾-acre community garden in the North Park neighborhood on property owned by the Rimrock Foundation.
— An organic bokashi composting facility. Developed in Japan, bokashi composting involves the use of anaerobic microorganisms that break down kitchen wastes in odorless containers.
—An aquaponic/hydroponic lettuce and fish operation and accompanying warehouse and grow lights.
—A textile arts program at Garfield Elementary.
— Eva's Orchard, a 120-tree apple orchard, planted in 2011, located adjacent to the Salvation Army’s administrative offices across from North Park.
— A 35-tree orchard at the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch.
— A greenhouse operated in partnership with Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch and housed on the ranch.
Elimination of the programs is expected to save the organization at least $1.5 million in salaries, equipment and ongoing costs.
Many of the programs were started in the past three years under the leadership of Maj. Kevin Jackson, a fifth-generation Salvation Army worker. He was reassigned to territorial headquarters in Long Beach, Calif., in February for health reasons.
The ambitious programs were sanctioned at the national level on the condition Jackson and his wife made a commitment to stay in Billings at least 10 years, to make sure the momentum behind the projects was not lost. The Jacksons agreed to that, but Kevin Jackson's illness derailed the long-term plan.
During Jackson's tenure in Billings, the Salvation Army formed working relationships with the Rimrock Foundation, Montana State University Billings, the city of Billings, School District 2, the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch, AmericaCorps VISTA and others.
Markham, 53, a Montana native, was appointed to fill the position Feb. 1. His wife, Maj. Pam Markham, 53, also is helping lead the organization. Both are ordained pastors.
Markham said that while he has much admiration and respect for Jackson and his “great” ideas, they were unsustainable — especially at a time when nonprofit organizations throughout the community are strapped for cash.
Some of the programs, such as an apple orchard and a garden, were located on other agencies’ properties, and Markham said that gave him pause.
“In a matter of moments they can take it from you,” he said. “We ran that risk. They’ve all been nice and wonderful … but at what point will they want those back? I won’t have a legal leg to stand on.”
Lenette Kosovich, CEO of the Rimrock Foundation, said she was aware some of the Salvation Army programs were languishing and that Markham is refocusing the organization’s priorities. The Rimrock Foundation will take over the care of Mona and David's Place. She would not say whether she disagreed with the Salvation Army’s direction, only that she was disappointed.
“I thought what the AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers were doing was valuable,” Kosovich said. AmeriCorps VISTA worked for the Salvation Army to plant the gardens.
Mary Danly, of Danly Farms, a certified organic farm in Laurel, acted as a paid consultant to the Salvation Army to help launch its ag programs. She also worked with the VISTA volunteers on a Food Policy Council to promote locally grown organic foods, nutrition and food security. She has since been let go.
Danly said the apple orchards and gardens had significant value and purpose. While she has no ill will toward Markham, she is disappointed in his retreat from the programs. They were not given enough time to prove themselves, she said.
“Unfortunately, after spending a substantial amount of money, they didn’t allow for follow-through,” Danly said. “The well was dug, the irrigation was in. The money was spent. Why tear it all up?”
She also said Jackson tried to do too much too fast.
“Maybe if he had moved slower, he would have been successful,” she said.
Glenn McFarlane, CEO of the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch, said the dissolution of the partnership with his organization was amicable. The ranch will take over operation of the greenhouse and apple orchard, using them to grow Easter lilies and bedding plants and to use in the class curriculum. McFarlane said Markham was straightforward about his plans and believes he did what was in the best interest of both organizations.
“I fully understand and empathize with the struggles he’s facing,” McFarlane said. “I know how hard it is for every nonprofit these days, especially these past four years.”
Markham has also reduced the organization’s fleet of vehicles from 18 to seven, saving an estimated $200,000 per year. The nonprofit also will save an estimated $100,000 in utility costs after eliminating the electrical systems for grow lights in the warehouses.
At times, Markham said he feels like the fictional Big Bad Wolf blowing up programs and projects, but he makes no apologies for refocusing on the organization’s mission and working to build up other programs.
“I didn’t come with a bag of tricks,” he said. “It’s not supposed to work that way.”
On Oct. 1, the Community Table program, which provides an evening meal to about 400 homeless people Monday through Friday, will expand to seven days a week.
“I’ll bet the homeless are still hungry on Saturdays and Sunday, too,” Markham said. “When I have to weigh an apple orchard — or two more days a week to feed homeless people, the homeless win hands down.”
He is also reinvigorating the languishing Thrift Store at 10 S. 30th St. The store lost two of its largest retail spaces to make way for the bokashi composting and hydroponics composting programs. The store, one of the organization’s primary sources of revenue, was making about $100 a day, barely enough to keep the lights on, and employed one part-time person with one person on call, Markham said. It should make at least $1,000 each day, he said.
The store now has a cashier, a general manager and a truck driver to pick up collections, large and small, from throughout the community. Markham also plans to advertise the Thrift Store in unprecedented fashion.
He is also reconstructing the organization’s advisory board, hoping to tap into the expertise of community leaders.
The goal is to streamline the organization so it does best what it is capable of doing and that it fits with what the city needs it to do. Markham has met with Mayor Tom Hanel to get his ideas on ways the city and the Salvation Army can partner.
No decisions have yet been made, and Hanel said he was not in a position to comment.
Ultimately, Markham said, his responsibility is to be a good steward of the money given to the organization.
“I need to be accountable,” he said. “If I’m not, we will have problems. I want to keep Billings in the black, not the red.”