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Good Work Network’s ‘back-office’ work will thrive

No two days have been identical for Phyllis Cassidy since she founded the nonprofit Good Work Network in 2001.

While her service has been challenging and exhausting – requiring 60-hour work weeks at times – Cassidy wouldn’t have had it any other way. As she prepares to step down from her work, she knows the positive impact her labor has had on the many small, businesses, owned by minority and females, she’s helped develop and grow over the past 15 years.

“This is a very dynamic organization, and it takes a lot to be ahead of the curve,” Cassidy said. “It’s a good time for it to move on to a younger generation and be headed by someone with a new vision.”

Led by Catholic values

After years as an accountant and CPA and teaching accounting at both Dillard University and the University of New Orleans, Cassidy began thinking back to her Catholic upbringing – “to whom much is given, much is expected” – when she created Good Work Network.

“I wanted to do something to give back to the community,” Cassidy said. “I had a great education (from the Mercy nuns who challenged her to strive to do better and live up to her potential at Holy Name of Jesus and Mercy Academy).”

Cassidy’s parents also were inspiring and “told me I could do anything I wanted.” Her mother was CEO of the former Sara Mayo Hospital and a St. Louis medallion recipient for service in the archdiocese, and her father was a Jefferson Parish councilman and businessman.

Cassidy’s initial idea with Good Work was to devote 30 hours a week helping small minority- and women-owned businesses. She realized that small business owners had the skills but often lacked the knowledge of the back-office procedures (accounting, paperwork, insurance, how to do payroll and invoices) necessary to run a business.

“They are doing something they do well but don’t have the finances to hire someone to do the back-office (work),” Cassidy said.

Her first office was in-kind space donated by the Mercy Sisters.

“Sister Rose (Marie Weidenbenner) gave me an office and desk” for several years, she said. The sisters also awarded the nonprofit its first funding – a $30,000 Caritas grant from money the Mercy sisters received after selling Mercy Hospital.

The Mercy sisters and a religious brother who ran nearby Hope House also lent her meeting space and provided the “street cred” she needed to get established.

“They had the trust of the community and nudged me into their system,” Cassidy said. “We couldn’t have started without them. It was not only the financial piece or the in-kind office space or the training space – it was the outreach to clients and getting people to show up” for what she had to offer.

She quickly learned what she had to deliver after a client told her, “You need to give us something that benefits us.” That client, like so many others in the minority community, had been left empty-handed many times by do-gooders offering empty promises, she said.

“It made me very aware that I remain conscious of the concrete benefits clients would receive in the short- and long-term,” she said.

Free credit reports were one of the first direct benefits to clients from Good Work.

“That was a $15 benefit that helped so many people, and the community saw this,” she said. “We structure our programs that way, and it must work. We get 500 clients a year.”

As client needs arose, Good Works established programs to meet them. The basics came first: credit counseling, personal financial management, developing business plans that work, group counseling where individuals can share successes and challenges, technical and capital access assistance and training.

One of those programs, ConnectWorks, started in 2010. It aligns clients with business contracts and various business-training courses. Another program, Shared Solutions, provides business and accounting services to nonprofits and small for-profits.

“We have different tracks for those who lack financial resources or have no education to tracks for very competent minority firms who just need to be connected to business opportunities,” Cassidy said. There are four tracks: child care centers, construction, artists and food service.

“It has been an incredible journey,” Cassidy said, as she’s watched the businesses succeed in each category.

Every service is infused with her Catholic values system.

“The Catholic values are there, in terms of caring about people, having passion and self-discipline,” Cassidy, 68, said, about Good Work Network. “We treat everybody with respect, and the staff relates to people with warmth and recognizes the unique worth of each individual. These values have permeated this organization.”

Growth, services
After Katrina, the need for what Good Work Network offered doubled its client base. Cassidy said one of her first successes – a partnership with the Harmony Neighborhood Development – netted valuable construction work for her clients.

“It’s an example of how ConnectWorks can work,” she said. She also did grant work with Catholic Charities to offer financial and business education to fishermen affected by the BP oil spill.

Today, Good Work has 14 employees in New Orleans and a Southeast Louisiana Women’s Business Center in Baton Rouge (opened in 2015). Since its founding, 4,700 individuals and nearly 1,900 businesses have been provided free services. Almost 70 percent have been women, 72 percent are considered low-income and 95 percent are non-white.

Cassidy’s client mix has been a goal due to her discomfort with racial and economic inequality as a teen. Good Work has tried to break the “good ol’ boy” network that often bypassed minority businesses and created a large divide in the local economy.

Cassidy developed relationships with anchor institutions, such as hospitals and banks, that have understood the importance of inclusion in the economy and have hired businesses that Good Work has trained.

“Together, with minority businesses that have a capacity, they start to break down the barriers,” Cassidy said.

Cassidy is pleased to have been part of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard’s revitalization, first buying the Franz building in 2009 and using historic tax credits and grants to renovate it. She also bought an adjacent property to create the Roux Carré restaurant collective and food incubator, with a covered outdoor seating and performance/entertainment area.

Now a Northshore resident who attends Mass mostly at Mary Queen of Peace in Mandeville, Cassidy knows she leaves Good Work Network in good hands and anticipates more time with her three children and seven grandchildren.

She knows the nonprofit will strive to be innovative and never rest on its laurels, cognizant that new services are just waiting to be born out of necessity. She gave as an example Credit Watchers, the business financial education course that will morph this fall into a monthly support group with flexible online training.

“I am proud of Good Work and tend to think of how much there is left to do,” she said. “It’s all been about taking deeper dives and getting close to the core issues of small business development and economic opportunity.”

Cassidy credits success to the collaborative effort of the nonprofit’s employees, board, community partnerships and the motivation she’s received from clients.

“You look at their struggles and challenges and try to make a difference,” Cassidy said. “If you’re not making a difference, you have to shift and figure out something else.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion

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