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Jim Kenyon: Appreciating Merilynn Bourne and Her Tell-It-Like-It-Is Style

  • Copyright © Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

    James M. Patterson—Valley News - James M. Patterson Test">Copyright © Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

    James M. Patterson—Valley News - James M. Patterson Testing ">

    Merilynn Bourne, of Cornish, is retiring after 20 years with Listen Community Services, 15 of those as executive director. Bourne talks with Listen Board Chair David Brooker in her Lebanon, N.H. office Wednesday, March16, 2016. Bourne said one of the prime goals of the organization is to teach the working poor to have a voice and speak up for themselves. "The other half of that is teaching people to listen," she said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Copyright © Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

    James M. Patterson—Valley News - James M. Patterson

Published: 7/31/2016 12:11:52 AM
Modified: 8/1/2016 10:52:06 AM

I recently got a call from a reader who thought prices at Listen’s thrift stores were running on the high side and that was driving away some regular shoppers.

Last Wednesday, I broached the subject in a sit-down interview with Merilynn Bourne, executive director of the Lebanon-based nonprofit social service organization that operates three thrift shops and a used furniture outlet in the Upper Valley. Not one to mince words, Bourne responded, “People say to me all the time, ‘You’re charging too much.’ Well, good luck finding a place in the Upper Valley where you can get better deals.”

After 15 years at Listen’s helm, Bourne, who will turn 70 in October, retired on Friday.

I’m missing her already.

Bourne’s tell-it-like-it-is style stood out in the social services world, which, with all its well-intentioned do-gooders, can seem a little Kumbaya at times.

She didn’t kowtow to elected officials in charge of doling out the public dollars that many nonprofits rely on for survival. She didn’t tip-toe around controversial issues so as not to offend potential donors. She wasn’t afraid to take on the United Way — a charitable fundraising powerhouse — when she thought it was headed in the wrong direction.

“One of the things that I always appreciated about Merilynn was that you didn’t get any fluff,” said David Brooker, chairman of Listen Community Services’ governing board. “She’s outspoken, but her integrity is tremendous.”

Along with a passion for helping people in need, Bourne brought “life experiences” to the job, said Brooker, who has served on Listen’s board for nearly 20 years.

In 1977, six years after moving to the Upper Valley, her husband, Edward, was killed in a farming accident. Overnight, Bourne became a 30-year-old widow with three young children to raise and no life insurance policy to fall back on.

She honed her business skills during 20 years in retail, before starting at Listen in 1996 as its retail director. Listen had been in the people-helping business since 1972, but by the late 1990s, business at the thrift stores wasn’t going so well. The organization’s bank account was down to its last $40,000.

Listen’s governing board promoted Bourne, who brought a new mindset to what it means to be a nonprofit. “It’s a tax status. It’s not a business philosophy,” she once told me. “If we don’t make money, we can’t survive.”

Her approach is simple: The more money that Listen’s stores bring in, the more money the organization has to feed the homeless, send kids from needy families to summer camp and provide heating fuel to cash-strapped elderly residents.

Last year, the four stores rung up nearly $2 million in sales — up from $675,000 when Bourne arrived and Listen had three stores.

But it’s not just about turning donated clothing and goods into cash. Families who have fallen on hard times and can’t afford back-to-school clothing shop for free. As do homeless couples who have just moved from their car to an unfurnished apartment. “Nobody is going to sleep on the floor or sit on the floor to eat,” Bourne said.

In 2013, Listen opened a new $2.2 million complex at River Point in White River Junction, just across from the bridge that crosses into West Lebanon. The one-story building features a thrift store, teen center and community dining hall that’s open five nights a week. Last year, Listen served 28,500 free meals in White River Junction and its other dining hall in Canaan.

Listen’s business model gives it something many social service organizations lack: independence. “We’re not beholden to the government for funding,” said Bourne, explaining that retail sales covered 85 percent of Listen’s $2.2 million in expenses last year.

With the government out of the funding picture, Bourne felt she had the freedom to speak out when the need arose — like earlier this summer, when the Lebanon City Council was considering a proposed ordinance that critics argued would criminalize homelessness. “If you’re going to make homelessness illegal, you’d better be ready to give out a lot of free housing so people have places to live,” Bourne said.

The council has backed off. A nine-member task force, on which Listen has a seat, is now starting to look at ways to address homelessness in the city.

Talking with Bourne last week brought back memories of her battle with the United Way. In 2010, the United Way’s Upper Valley chapter was, in essence, taken over (officially, it was called a merger) by Granite United Way, which has its headquarters in Manchester.

The United Way’s bigger-is-better mentality didn’t sit well with many nonprofit leaders in the Upper Valley. But since they depended United Way for funding, there wasn’t a lot they could do about it.

Except Bourne. She persuaded Listen’s governing board to stop accepting United Way funding, which at its peak was about $35,000 a year, and step up its own fundraising efforts. Cutting out the middleman, she called it.

Last year, Listen raised nearly $200,000 in private contributions, more than enough to make up for what it lost by breaking ranks with United Way. “I’m glad that I walked away,” she told me last week.

It made more work for her, though. Bourne, who earned $85,000 last year, not only had to devote more time to cultivating donors, she also had to write more thank-you notes.

It didn’t matter if a check was for $5 or $500, every Listen donor received a handwritten note from Bourne, usually within a couple of days.

“In the technological age that we live in, it’s a lost art,” said Brooker, Listen’s board chairman. “But Merilynn is old school.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com




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