Melissa Ohden

Melissa Ohden was our keynote speaker last night for the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia‘s 36th Annual “Stand Up For Life” Dinner. This was my sixth consecutive year attending the dinner, and I think Melissa’s talk may have been the best in my experience.

Melissa Ohden is a survivor of an attempted saline abortion, a now-banned form of abortion wherein a toxic salt solution was injected into the womb to strip the skin of a child before ending its life by causing organ failure as it seeped into the body over the course of 72 hours. As difficult as that is to read and write, Melissa’s wit, verve, and joie de vivre made her talk both emotionally moving and downright encouraging because of the love she radiates. That’s probably the only appropriate response to this barbarism of our time. Melissa’s story was shared on EWTN’s Pro-Life Weekly earlier this year:

And Melissa’s Congressional testimony a few years ago conveys so much about the spirit of our age on this human rights issue:

We also celebrated Edel Finnegan’s many years as the Pro-Life Union’s leader, and welcomed Tom Stevens as our new President & CEO who takes over next month.

Appreciation Dinner

I visited St. Anthony of Padua Catholic parish in Ambler, Pennsylvania tonight for the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia‘s Annual Appreciation Dinner for Christian volunteers.

As a board member wrapping up my sixth year, it’s particularly gratifying to be a part of events like this and see the oldest and the youngest generations coming together for fellowship and celebration for the mothers, fathers, and children who have been served over the past year and helped in difficult times.

This was a somewhat bittersweet year in light of Edel Finnegan’s impending departure as executive director after more than a dozen years. She and Fr. Chris Walsh and others spoke eloquently on the issues facing us, and the ways in which we can all witness to a culture of life that respects the dignity of all persons.

Raiding endowments

When we created the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadephia‘s “John & Harriet Stanton Culture of Life Endowment,” we intentionally established it through the independent Catholic Foundation of Greater Philadelphia. At the time we did this, some board members asked, “Why not create it and manage it ourselves?” A great answer to this question came in the news last week. Peter Dobrin writes:

The Philadelphia Art Alliance, the venerable but long-struggling arts gem just off Rittenhouse Square, is to be absorbed by the University of the Arts under a deal approved by the boards of both groups.

The acquisition gives the university a gracious formal parlor a few blocks from its Broad Street campus in a neighborhood populated by many of the city’s most generous arts donors. The school expects to renovate the Art Alliance building, the former Wetherill mansion, and to establish a committee to help determine its long-term use, said University of the Arts president David Yager.

Its new name: Philadelphia Art Alliance at the University of the Arts. …

Established in 1915 as a small but ambitious artist-run arts center, the Art Alliance moved into the current Italian Renaissance-style building at 251 S. 18th St. in 1926. It traditionally presented the art of the day – often from opposite sides of the popularity spectrum. In the 1930s, it hosted Vladimir Horowitz and Nelson Eddy, Gertrude Stein, and Walt Disney (in 1932, in what was believed to be the first museum exhibition of animated art).

It was the venue, in 1936, for Andrew Wyeth’s first show. “I was 17. I was thrilled,” said Wyeth in 1989 upon accepting with son Jamie a shared Medal of Achievement from the Art Alliance. “I didn’t sell a thing.”

Horace Pippin was recognized in 1947 with a major exhibition. In the 1950s, the Art Alliance brought in W.H. Auden, Dorothy Parker, Aaron Copland, and Dylan Thomas. There, in the 1960s, Merce Cunningham danced and Edward Albee spoke.

Although the Art Alliance’s first significant shortfall came in 1969, according to its own written history, it continued to function as a locus for the arts community.

I had heard of the Philadelphia Art Alliance before, but wasn’t actively following them. Their trajectory tracks with Philadelphia’s waning prestige in the latter half of the 20th century, and in that sense their story isn’t unique. They’re one of many institutions that faded as people (and their money) moved away from the city. So how have they been surviving for so long?

Art Alliance board chair Carole Price Shanis said that keeping the books balanced had been difficult and that while the small arts center might have been able to keep going as it has, it would not have been able to realize its full potential.

“We’ve been in the black some years, and not so much reddish but pinkish in others, and when it’s been pinkish we’ve had to raise more money to make up the difference,” she said. …

The Art Alliance has been eating through its endowment, which was about $900,000 a few years ago, according to tax filings, but little is expected to be left by the time the deal is made final. “Clearly we needed an additional $150,000 a year in operating income to build this into a going concern,” said Thora Jacobson, the art club’s executive director.

After looking at their most recently available 2014 tax return, their contributions were roughly ~$115,000, and it looks like they made most of the rest of their revenue from renting the Wetherill Mansion where they’re headquartered. They made relatively small amounts from program revenue. The Philadelphia Art Alliance was cannibalizing its endowment to pay for its immediate expenses in order to avoid closure. Carole Price Shanis’s assertion that their budget wasn’t “so much reddish but pinkish” is a very charitable way to look at recent annual deficits of $70,000 and $250,000 in the past two years. I’m not criticizing the Philadelphia Art Alliance for eating its endowment to stay alive—I’m assuming that they did what they felt was necessary, and it was within their right to do so. But every time one dips into an endowment, that endowment’s capacity to generate annual income is diminished and its purpose as an endowment is compromised in providing for the organization’s mission. The moment that dipping into an endowment’s principal is necessary for a nonprofit to stay alive is the moment that trustees or directors should be looking to do what the Philadelphia Art Alliance ultimately did: reorganize or merge.

If the Philadelphia Art Alliance’s endowment had been protected through investment with an independent community foundation (like The Philadelphia Foundation), it arguably would’ve forced their board to make the same difficult decision much sooner—and instead of the University of the Arts getting the Wetherill Mansion, they’d also be receiving a $1MM endowment to fund a basic program budget.

At the Pro-Life Union, we intentionally created our endowment with the independent Catholic Foundation because it makes it impossible for any future Pro-Life Union board to “raid” the endowment’s principal to do what the Philadelphia Art Alliance did. If and when that moment of fiscal crisis comes for the Pro-Life Union, those endowment funds raised by generations of pro-life donors will be safe from being spent in the blink of an eye. Indeed, the John & Harriet Stanton Culture of Life Endowment is designed to outlive the Pro-Life Union, while at the same time continuing to perpetuate its mission by funding similar culture of life efforts in perpetuity.

The larger an endowment becomes, the more at-risk it is in being seized upon by the human tendency towards short-term thinking. I remember reading something that Peter Lynch once said: “invest in businesses any idiot could run, because someday one will.” That’s not a charitable way to think, but absorbing that principle can be a practical way to protect a nonprofit’s assets from the apparent necessity of misusing those assets in the future.

Executive transitions

Since joining the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia as a board member more than five years ago, I’ve seen firsthand how Edel Finnegan has proven herself to be a practical and warm-hearted ambassador for pro-life people across the area as our executive director.


I’ve seen her impact in fostering a culture that’s more welcoming to life, and specifically to one that’s meaningfully supportive of women and families vulnerable to abortion through Guiding Star and alternatives. I’ve seen the humble and powerfully empathetic way that Edel speaks the truth with love on topics that our culture and so many of us would rather just not hear. I’ve seen Edel make our annual, 1300+ guest “Stand Up For Life” dinner a success, and her work in the areas of education, public affairs, and outreach in addition to managing a staff of roughly six, encouraging positive board reform, and ensuring that the mission is executed within the bounds of a responsible annual budget.

Edel’s been a great leader for the Pro-Life Union. After more than 12 years she has felt called to move on from her role as leader, and we’ve shared this message today with the Pro-Life Union’s supporters.

unnamed.pngThe Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia is excited to share that we’re kicking off a search for our new President & CEO. We’re sharing this with you in the hopes that you’ll spread the word among your friends, member organizations, and the wider pro-life community as this search gets underway.

After more than 12 years, Edel Finnegan has felt called to move on from her role as the Pro-Life Union’s leader. Naturally, this is a bittersweet time for all of us who have seen firsthand how Edel Finnegan has helped foster a Culture of Life across the Philadelphia region, and specifically in the ways Edel has witnessed to the sanctity of life through the Pro-Life Union’s efforts in alternatives, education, outreach, and public affairs. We are tremendously grateful to her for so many years of service and sacrifice to women, children, and families in need of a caring heart.

At the same time, we are eager to build upon the legacy that Edel will be leaving, and are asking for your help in spreading the news of our search for a new President & CEO for the Pro-Life Union to continue our mission of service.

President & CEO role description and application process

Board of Directors
Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia

I’m hopeful we’ll find Edel’s successor before the end of the year, and that he/she will build upon Edel’s successes.

John & Harriet Stanton

John Stanton died three years ago.

John was a founder of the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia, but far more than that, he was a good man. I knew of him for years, and got to know him in his final years as a fellow Pro-Life Union board member.

John and his wife Harriet helped create the Pro-Life Union as husband and wife, and its continuing mission is imbued by their insight that the Culture of Life has always been larger than any single issue—their work began in the years leading up to the consequential 1971 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, and the Pro-Life Union’s work continues to impact lives across Greater Philadelphia through its efforts for alternatives, public affairs, outreach, and education.

I joined the board in January 2012 to assist in developing the Pro-Life Union’s governance structure, along with its brand, content, and communications. The history and depth of impact of the organization over the decades continues to impress me, and reminds me of the need and importance of personal action. Putting aside the intellectual and ethical debate over how America determines the worth of human life, there will always be people in need and in situations requiring real assistance.

In just the past few years, an enormous portion of our budget has directly supported men, women, and children in crisis situations. This sort of practical charity typifies the Pro-Life Union’s culture of witness and service over fraught ideological arguments—and John & Harriet’s personal, living example continues to guide how our mission translates into reality.

It was in November 2014 that Fr. Chris Walsh announced the John & Harriet Stanton Culture of Life Endowment Fund, a modest way we continue to honor the Stanton’s spirit. We endowed this fund with the Catholic Foundation of Greater Philadelphia, and continue to build it up. Its purpose is to support internships and training for new generations of servant leaders.

Tyhisha Hudson spoke in November 2014 about the Pro-Life Union’s impact on her family: “The Pro-Life Union was not just about preserving the life of the child. It also was about preserving family—husband and wife.”

Real communities support a robust family life, with parents at the heart of the home. It starts with a Culture of Life and is realized in practice through a real spectrum of choice.

Board retreat

This month marks the start of my fifth year with the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia as a board member.

The Pro-Life Union is one of countless organizations across the country that came alive in the years prior to Roe v. Wade, and whose mission and scope can basically be summed up as “proclaiming the sanctity of all life.” While a lot of the Pro-Life Union’s activity centers on providing mothers and fathers with alternatives to abortion (like housing, job opportunities, financial literacy, spiritual resources, etc.) it is just as much focused on promoting the basics for strong marriages and healthy sexual experiences and how to preserve the dignity of self and others throughout life, particularly at its natural conclusion. 

As vice-chair of the board for the past few years, I’ve been grateful to be a part of the Pro-Life Union’s evolution over the past five years and a number of key changes in its structure that have equipped it for the years and decades to come. I’m also looking forward to elevating new leadership later this year. 

I’ve been wanting to put together a board retreat for the Pro-Life Union for a while, and with much of the board having been refreshed in the past few years the right moment came to try this. We held a healthy and fruitful social retreat for ~4 hours in Mount Airy, Philadelphia—specifically at St. Raymond of Penafort church, where one of our board members is pastor. Afterwards, a number of people took me aside to comment that it was a great opportunity to get to know each other better. That’s exactly what I wanted to happen, and I hope this can be the start of an annual board tradition to ensure board members know each other as human beings, rather than just as peers who come together periodically to discuss/vote on corporate issues.

Why are you pro-life? What led you to the Pro-Life Union? What do you want to leave behind? What do you think is your greatest strength as a pro-life witness? What’s your greatest weakness?

Standing up for life

The Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia celebrated its annual “Stand Up For Life” Dinner in Center City, Philadelphia last night.

This was my fifth year in attendance, and this is also my fifth year serving on the Pro-Life Union’s board. It’s a critically important organization working in four vital areas: alternatives, public affairs, education, and prayer and witness/outreach. We had about 1,300 guests last night for Karen Gaffney, our keynote speaker who riffed on her experiences as a public advocate for anti-Downs Syndrome discrimination in a society that’s increasingly breathing in a eugenics mentality. If I remember correctly, something like 90 percent of Downs-diagnosed children are terminated in utero.

Edel Finnegan, our executive director, shared some of the practical perspective of the pro-life mentality in the short video above: women deserve options and love, not just “services” rendered on a cost basis at a local clinic.

I think that’s what real freedom to choose has to be about if it’s going to be authentic rather than just a political slogan.

Guiding Star

I’ve written about the Culture of Life, and I’ve written on the need for there to be a true spectrum of choice for men and women who find themselves pregnant with no options other than abortion. If choice means anything, there needs to be more than one viable choice in the face of a pregnancy.

Guiding Star in North Philadelphia has been providing alternative choices to abortion for women since 1992. The Christian Science Monitor explained Guiding Star’s mission in 1998 as “making motherhood an option,” and that remains a great way to describe it. Temple’s College of Public Health once highlighted the fact that “volunteers are paramount” to Guiding Star.

In a culture where Planned Parenthood is seen as the only authentic voice for family planning, Guiding Star represents a radically more authentic approach for women looking for affirmation and support.

But because the single-outcome politics of Planned Parenthood often starves authentic alternatives like Guiding Star from receiving public support, places like Guiding Star have always struggled to survive. The Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia has supported Guiding Star for many years, and we’ve always endorsed their vision, which is why their board of directors decided to merge their organization into ours to ensure not only survival, but growth. From the announcement earlier this year:

Guiding Star provides housing for expectant mothers and their children, as an alternative to abortion. This program is unique in the Philadelphia region in that it welcomes both pregnant women and their children. We are proud of our decades-long partnership and grateful for this opportunity to create an even stronger continuum of care for women and families in our city.

The Pro-Life Union regularly encounters abortion-vulnerable women through our sidewalk counseling, prayer vigils, and Pregnancy Hotline. With this change, we are already working to expand Guiding Star in several key ways:

  • Increase the number of women and children served with safe housing annually
  • Create a Family Center where Guiding Star clients in the community can receive baby supplies, gently used clothing, furniture, etc
  • Expand social services for residents and clients including counseling
  • Expand programming for residents and clients including parenting workshops, job training, and mentor support.

Why does a woman need a place like Guiding Star? It turns out, often because abortion is seen as the only option. Not by the mother, but maybe by the father, who says he won’t love her if she has the child. Or maybe by her parents, who threaten to kick her out of the house if she doesn’t abort.

These are the unacknowledged realities that Guiding Star exists to answer. I was grateful to be able to visit today for their Christmas party, and to be able to think through the future of this work.

Stand Up For Life

I spent last night in Center City, Philadelphia with more than 1,000 friends to celebrate another year in working to build a Culture of Life. This was my fourth time attending the Stand Up For Life celebration, and its 34th anniversary.

The short film above was shown during dinner and does a pretty good job capturing the work of the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia, which hosts Stand Up For Life.

I think the most important realization of the Pro-Life Union and groups like it whose mission concerns the Culture of Life is the realization that politics alone is not the solution to the Culture of Death that plagues this country. A focus on service to others can do more to meaningfully change hearts, and ultimately change our politics.

Service to people like Kendra—who was told by Planned Parenthood that she had a choice, when in fact they were really offering her one choice; which is no choice—are an example of that approach.

Strategic planning

I’ve got a board meeting tonight for the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia. We’re in the midst of the first strategic planning process in the nonprofit’s history, with the goal being to approve our Strategic Plan for 2015-19 at the next quarterly meeting.

It’s one thing for a nonprofit to have a firm sense of its social mission, but it’s an entirely different thing to have a specific plan for realizing that mission in a way that’s concrete and measurable. That’s where strategic planning comes in, which should be clarifying for the board as much as for staff and volunteers.

Because the Pro-Life Union strives to build the Culture of Life, most directly by supporting those making the choice for life, it possesses a mission that will always be relevant. There will always be people in unexpected situations who need tangible support, whether material, spiritual, financial, emotional, or some combination. Knowing that your organization needs to be resilient enough to live for a century or more, while still being agile enough to respond to a community’s changing needs, is helpful for guiding the strategic planning process. Every organization’s time horizon is different, but every organization should be proactive rather than reactive. Strategic planning is a hallmark or proactive organizations.

As we were drafting our strategic plan, a member of our Nominating, Governance, and Strategic Planning Committee also helped us think in terms of SMART goals to strike the balance between the extremes of goals that are either too general to be actionable, or too aggressive to be achievable. They’re SMART because they’re Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely.

I’ll write more on strategic planning in the future.