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Star Tribune October 24, 1994

Faith, talent for persuasion help her help the homeless – Mary Jo Copeland by Dick Youngblood

Armed with a high school diploma, a rare talent for persuasion and a deeply ingrained distaste for bureaucratic flap doodle, she runs what amounts to a $3 million a year business. She’s won the ear of the Twin Cities corporate elite, raised millions in capital in pursuit of her latest ambitious goal and even gone to war with City Hall – and won. In fact about the only difference between her and your everyday entrepreneurial success is that she regards prayer as her most potent strategic weapon. She’s Mary Jo Copeland, 52, the founder and chief executive conscience of Sharing and Caring Hands, Inc. the all-volunteer outfit she started in Downtown Minneapolis in 1985 to help feed the very poorest of our fellow citizens.

There’s an excellent reason for talking about Copeland in business terms. Consider the explanation that business mogul Irwin Jacobs offers for why she was able to extract a $100,000 donation from him to help build a $6.5 million shelter for homeless families and vulnerable adults now under construction next to her headquarters on 7th St. in Minneapolis. “She’s a doer, not a talker,” Jacobs said approvingly. What’s more he said, “She has what it takes for success – common sense." Or contemplate the reason why Jim Binger, the former Honeywell chairman, figures Copeland is able to talk folks like him and his wife out of a $250,000 donation for the shelter: “She’s strong, she’s dedicated – and she’s tireless,” he said. Whether he meant tireless in her work or in pursuit of donors was not clear.

Perhaps the best rationale for including Copeland on the business pages, however, came from Jim Shannon, the former Roman Catholic bishop and retired executive director of the General Mills Foundation. “Mary Jo proves what Peter Drucker was talking about when he said that the non-profit sector has more flexibility and creativity than either the business or the government sector.” Shannon said. Besides, he added, Copeland is effective in her dealings with corporate bigwigs “because everyone wants to be associated with success,” Shannon said. “And Mary Jo is phenomenally successful.”

The object of this attention is a motherly, congenitally cheerful woman who mixes an engaging smile with iron persistence and an intense, rapid-fire way of expressing the urgency of her mission. She’s also an unabashedly devout Roman Catholic – she attends mass and takes communion at 5 every morning – who believes utterly in the power of prayer. She is motivated, she says, by “a compelling passion to serve God.” The product of “a dysfunctional family” that made her childhood a high stress nightmare of physical and emotional abuse, Copeland said that she “promised God as a young child, that I would devote myself to helping others the way He helped me through that horrible life.”

Although she tends to count her success in terms of the 12,000 poor people a month who receive crisis services from Sharing and Caring Hands, her financial books tell and equally imposing story: In fiscal year ended April 30, Copeland raised $2.9 million in operating funds, up 43% from $2 Million in fiscal 1993. The growth was not a fluke: In the past five years, she has boosted contributions to her operating funds by an average of nearly 30 percent a year. None of it has come from the government, which Copeland regards as hopelessly bureaucratic and inefficient. “There’s no love or compassion in government,” she said with what sounded like a lady-like snort. “They spend too much money on task forces.”

Here’s the best part: Only about 3 percent of the operating funds she collects – a pittance compared with many other charitable organizations – goes for management and fund-raising expenses. Copeland, who works four 10-hour days a week and then makes fund appeals at church services on Saturday and Sunday, has never drawn a salary (her husband, Dick, is a buyer at Rainbow Foods). All staff members are volunteers, as well, and she can get downright indignant at the notion of charities that pay their executives six-figure salaries and back then up with large, expensive staffs. I don’t expect everyone to volunteer,” she said. “But paying someone $145,000 a year to distribute money to poor people? That’s ridiculous. Those executives don’t need more than $50,000, if that. And they could do with about half as many staff people too.” Copeland’s distaste for red tape started in the early 1980′s with volunteer work for a prominent charitable organization that she considers to be weighed down by “so much unnecessary policy, procedure, paperwork and bureaucracy that there was never enough money for the poor people.”

In 1985 she won $2,200 as one of KARE-TV’s “Eleven Who Care.” She gave half of the award to a local church and used the other half to rent some space on the edge of downtown Minneapolis and founded Sharing and Caring Hands. The mother of twelve children, Copeland has never regarded the growing operation as a burden. “After raising that many kids, this is a cakewalk,” she allowed.

In addition to the growing stash of operating funds, she has also raised $5 million in the past three years to build the 57-room 200-bed shelter on which construction started in May. She actually justifies the expenditure as a cost saving. As the homeless problem has grown, she said, so has the cost of providing emergency shelter for homeless families at eight hotels and motels in the area. “I spent $400,000 on that alone last year,” she said. One of the most relentless and effective networkers this side of the Minneapolis Club, Copeland raised the money for the shelter from some of the most prominent business names in town: Burt McGlynn, chairman of McGlynn Bakeries, chipped in $500,000; Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad matched the $100,000 that his pal, Jacobs contributed; the McKnight Foundation donated $300,000, the Bush Foundation added $200,000 and the General Mills and Cargill foundations gave 150,000 apiece.

Despite the need and her prominent support, however, the Minneapolis City Council tried for a time to derail the shelter project on the grounds that it didn’t belong in the area zoned for industrial use. However, our city fathers and mothers reckoned without Copeland’s secret weapons – prayer and a warm relationship with talk show host Barbara Carlson, a Sharing and Caring volunteer several years ago. Outraged by the city’s cockeyed position, Carlson moved her show onto the roof of the Sharing and Caring Hands headquarters one morning, implored her listeners to make their objections known to the council members and even provided the member’s telephone numbers – all in the interest of smoothing the communications process, you understand. Hundreds of telephone calls later, the council voted to give Copeland a zoning variance.

She’s still about $1.5 million short of covering the full cost of the shelter project, but Copeland figures to raise that with her Christmas appeal. “The odds are, she’ll get it too.” McGlynn said with a chuckle. “She’s a helluva salesman,” he cracked. “To get that much money out of me she’d have to be.” Then, more seriously, he added, ”She’s the Mother Teresa of Minneapolis as far as I’m concerned. Look at what she does without any bureaucracy whatsoever. Everything she brings in goes right to the people who need it.” Copeland tends to agree with McGlynn’s assessment of her sales abilities. “God has given me the gift for (public) speaking.” She said matter-of-factly. In fact, she confided, she’s so good that the churches she visits for weekend fund appeals do not welcome her during the Christmas season, on which many of them rely for a significant share of their own income. “They know I’d tap out every dime available,” she said with a grin.

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