Matt Armbruster founded Ransom Cafe in 2010 as a Christian ministry to reach out to the poor and hurting in Mobile and Baldwin counties by serving a donation-only weekday lunch to those who otherwise would not be able to afford a meal at a restaurant. His life and ministry changed after he voluntarily spent three days living among Mobile’s homeless in 2012.

The first Ransom Cafe opened in 2010 at the Hangar at West Mobile Baptist, and additional locations followed. Today, Ransom Cafe is open in seven churches five days a week.

Armbruster said the additional locations — First Christian Church on Government Street, Trinity Family Church on in Trinity Gardens on Victory Avenue, Covenant Presbyterian on Springhill Avenue, Christ United Methodist on Grelot Road, First Baptist Theodore and Fairhope United Methodist  — allowed Ransom to reach people from different ethnic groups and socio-economic backgrounds.

“Every cafe is different,” Armbruster said. “You go downtown and sometimes it is mainly homeless people. You go to Trinity Gardens and there are people from that community. You can come to the Hangar and it is working-class people.”

From the beginning, Ransom Cafe, a project of nonprofit Ransom Ministries, has been more than a place for those in need to get a meal. Armbruster expects something in return, whether that means a small donation or an offer to wash tables and sweep the floor after the meal.

Armbruster said too often food pantries and clothes ministries offer handouts without expecting those receiving the donations to have skin in the game. He wants Ransom Ministries to offer people a way out of poverty instead of enabling them to stay where they are.

“As a Christian body we do a lot of good things, but we do more damage than good with handouts,” Armbruster said. “We think it is good and if we put the name of Jesus on it that makes it right. Clothes closets and food pantries do good work, but if that’s all we do then they can be an agent of hurt.”

Armbruster’s experiment with homelessness changed the way his ministry reaches out to those in need.

“Having never been homeless, I didn’t understand what it is like not knowing where you are going to sleep or where your next meal will come from,” Armbruster said. “I did that for three days and it changed my heart for the homeless. I came out of it, took a shower and stayed in there for about an hour.”

After the homelessness experiment, Armbruster felt called to build the “Clean Machine,” a 22-foot towable trailer equipped with washers, dryers, toilets and showers where homeless people can cleanse themselves and their belongings. They pull the trailer to Ransom Cafe locations during the week.

“You don’t know how important clean clothes and a shower are until you don’t have them,” Armbruster said. “We’ve seen people literally changed by taking a shower. If you’ve ever gone a long time without one, you know it is miserable. A shower helps people see themselves differently.”

As Ransom expanded, so did Armbruster’s ambition to reach people in Mobile. Last year, Ransom started ReProgram, a job training initiative pulling people from the donation-only cafes and teaching them how to succeed in the professional world.

ReProgram is an eight-week job training program teaching participants to overcome employment barriers. Ransom accepts 12 students per class, and those students are paired with mentors from the professional world who guide them through the program and mentor them at least four months after graduation.

ReProgram students spend three days per week working at Ransom Cafe or in Ransom’s Chickasaw wood shop, where they refinish furniture and learn woodworking techniques. Last week, students used pallets to build Christmas trees and fence posts to craft creative Nativity scenes. They spend Tuesdays and Thursdays in the classroom.

Often, students come into the program without driver’s licenses or Social Security numbers, or they have serious drug addictions or criminal records, which are significant barriers hampering their efforts to enter the job market. Some participants come from families stuck in generational poverty (that is, having been in poverty for at least two generations).

“We teach them the basics of securing a job, like how to look people in the eyes when you talk to them or how to share your story at a job interview without being embarrassed about how you became homeless or impoverished,” Armbruster said. “We also have people from the professional world who speak to our classes about what it takes to make it in their chosen field.”

At first, Armbruster said, it was difficult for Ransom to find donors and volunteers willing to help out. Ransom’s volunteers are expected to develop relationships and open their hearts to the people they serve, something Armbruster said makes some people uncomfortable.

According to financial disclosures, the nonprofit reported a total of $63,672 in total revenue from grants and contributions and $50,556 in expenses in 2011. The following year, revenue from contributions jumped to $156,193 and expenses to $148,419.

By 2013, Ransom reported $309,735 in contributions and $306,648 in expenses. Ransom spent $93,511 on cafe operations, $104,175 to develop and operate the Clean Machine and $68,620 on a partnership with Habitat for Humanity to create a neighborhood garden in the Hillsdale community. Ransom also reported $25,468 in donations to other churches and ministries.

“The more consistent you are with what you do and the more people see you aren’t just going to run off with their money, the more willing people are to believe in it,” Armbruster said. “We understand that not everyone is going to be called to do what we do, but everyone is called to do something.”

All seven Ransom Cafe locations will be open Thanksgiving Day from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m., inviting people without a home or those who are far away from home to join them for a Thanksgiving meal.

On Dec. 12 from 9 a.m. until noon, Ransom will open the Hangar at West Mobile Baptist Church for Candy Cane Christmas, a donation-only toy store where low-income families can purchase gifts for their children. Candy Cane Christmas is set up like a toy store, and parents shop for gifts while their kids take pictures with Santa, play games and make crafts.

Ransom Ministries is one of more than 1,700 nonprofits in Mobile registered on an online database compiled by GuideStar, an information service providing reporting on U.S. nonprofit companies.  

Area nonprofits generally report healthy income
Reported annual income figures for Mobile nonprofits are as high as $413 million, a figure reported by Mobile Infirmary Association. Seven of the top 10 nonprofit incomes in Mobile were reported by those in the health industry. Providence Hospital came in at second on the list with $215 million in annual income, while Gulf Health Hospitals Inc., a subsidiary of Mobile Infirmary, reported $171 million in income.

Recently Infirmary Health was named a Beacon Award winner by the Community Foundation of South Alabama. Community Foundation spokesperson Jessica Sawyer said Infirmary Health’s Pink Glove Dance video campaign, which raised $43,000 in funds for breast cancer research and an additional $15,000 donation to the American Cancer Society, was a factor in deciding to give the hospital company the award.

“When people give back to the community, they do it because they want to help and not to get credit for it,” Sawyer said. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t applaud and recognize organizations that go out of their way to help others.”

The Community Foundation of South Alabama is a 501(c)(3) that distributes grants and connects donors in Baldwin, Mobile and six other counties to needs in their areas of interest.

“We want to provide the tools necessary to make giving back easier,” Sawyer said. “We connect potential donors with needs in the community. We find a way to connect what donors are interested in with specific needs on the ground.”

Sawyer said the Community Foundation, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year, has three corresponding initiatives: engaging young philanthropists, implementing workforce training and establishing a veterans needs assessment, which will try to locate areas of need for South Alabama’s veterans. Without an adequate assessment, there’s no way to know what veterans need, Sawyer said. The foundation will use the assessment to connect veterans organizations with donors who can help fund their needs.

The foundation’s goal is to strip away barriers making it harder for people to give back. If an organization wants to create a scholarship fund, for instance, the foundation is there to remove administrative duties from the equation.

“We do most of the administration, like vetting and judging scholarship candidates, so it is easier for donors to focus on the giving aspect,” Sawyer said.

Fuse Project looks to expand reach of local nonprofits
The Fuse Project was founded in 2012 by a group of eight young professionals interested in making a meaningful impact on the lives of school children in Mobile and Baldwin counties.

At first the Fuse Project hosted a New Year’s Eve party to raise money for schools, but Executive Director Adrienne Golden said the $15,000 take wasn’t enough to make the kind of impact the project’s founders envisioned. So they looked for another way to raise enough for a sizable donation and found it in the Dragon Boat Festival, a competitive, charitable rowing event.

In its inaugural year in 2014, the Dragon Boat Festival raised $100,000, half of which was divided among five area nonprofits. This year the festival raised $151,000. Based on fundraising amounts from Dragon Boat events statewide, Golden said the Fuse Project aims to raise around $350,000 from the race annually.

This year’s biggest donation went to Big Brothers Big Sisters, which received $25,000 to fund new mentors for the program. The proceeds also funded an after-school initiative at Palmer Pillans Middle School.

Fuse Project gave another $5,000 to Soccer 4 Life, a nonprofit formed in 2000 by founder Zenzo Ndlovu to reach inner-city youth in Mobile. A former professional soccer player, Ndlovu hosts soccer camps throughout Mobile. Since 2000, Soccer 4 Life has served more than 700 children with 24 soccer camps each year.

“The $5,000 helped coach Ndlovu buy a van so he can pick up kids after school and take them to soccer practices,” Golden said. “He has reached kids in Mobile in a positive way by teaching them the game of soccer.”

Golden said Fuse has 10 board members, who are crucial in organizing fundraising initiatives and determining where the organization spends its money. According to Golden, the nonprofit earns approximately $300,000 each year through donations and the events it hosts. Aside from the Dragon Boat Festival, Fuse Project’s main sources of funding are grants and event sponsorships, according to Golden. It also has a group of 100 young professionals called the “Order of Fuse” that hosts three events where participants network and donate time and money to community causes.

Fuse Project’s eventual goal, Golden said, is to raise $1 million for schools every year.

”We are growing exponentially,” she said. “Our goal is $1 million raised per year. I don’t think that’s too crazy a number.”

In recent months, Fuse has made efforts to expand its reach by opening a nonprofit co-working space on the fourth floor at 200 Government St., which is leased by the city of Mobile for $1 per year.

Fuse is recruiting 60 members, smaller nonprofits with five or fewer employees, to share space in the office at a rent of $120 per organization per month, which Golden said is well below market value. Fuse hopes to open the co-working space in early April next year.

“We want to help some smaller 501(c)(3) nonprofits that are ‘out of the box’ thinkers,” Golden said. “We believe the co-working space will help those nonprofits increase revenue by 10 percent in the first year.”

While the Fuse Project’s primary focus is children, Golden said in the future it may evolve to support other causes, like investing in neighborhoods or other local nonprofits with needs.

“We always want to be be able to give back to school kids in Mobile and Baldwin counties, but we are open to helping any 501(c)(3) organizations, or a neighborhood that might need a new playground,” she said. “We are open to funding a lot of different things.”

Daphne Search and Rescue helps keep local waters safe
Daphne Search and Rescue, another local nonprofit, recently received a $96,000 grant from Impact 100 Baldwin County — an all-female fundraising organization — to help the team purchase high-resolution sonar equipment and safety gear to assist in locating missing persons and vessels in area waterways.

In 2013, Daphne Search and Rescue reported income of $39,733 and expenses of $39,798, and received $196,878 in tax benefits, grants and contributions between 2009 and 2013. A $96,000 gift can make a significant impact, with Dive Lt. Joshua Gibbs calling it the largest single donation the all-volunteer group has ever received.

The funds will be used in the group’s “Safe Waters” program, the bulk of which will go to developing the most sophisticated sonar system in the state.

“The MS1000 system can scan inside the 107-foot hole in the Tensaw Delta we couldn’t see inside of before,” Gibbs said. “We will be able to see inside all the black spots we couldn’t access in the past.”

Daphne Search and Rescue carries out rescue missions from the northern end of the Five Rivers Delta to the southern tip of Point Clear. The group is also able to respond to mutual aid requests for other areas on Alabama’s Gulf Coast and Mississippi and Florida.

The group receives a portion of the county’s smokeless-tobacco tax revenue, funding that benefits all-volunteer fire departments, as well as private donations. The city of Daphne also supports the group and donated a fully equipped search and rescue boat last year.

Gibbs said the new sonar system is the first of its kind in Alabama and isn’t used anywhere else between Houston, Texas, and Jacksonville, Florida. The team will be able to use it from the delta to the beach, and it will  help them to assist municipal and county authorities in the event of a natural disaster.

“Last time it flooded here there were a lot of vessels and cars and other debris that was pushed into the waterways, and sometimes they were so deep no one could see what hazardous debris was there,” Gibbs said. “This system will help us to scan for that debris, and we’ll be able to send the data to area agencies so they will know where the hazards are.”

Gibbs, a Mobile police officer, said Daphne Search and Rescue is always looking for volunteers willing to complete the group’s extensive training.

“We are always looking for new members,” he said. “Some of us are trained law enforcement officers, but we just want people who are willing to help others.”

Daphne Search and Rescue was one of four Baldwin nonprofits to receive a $96,000 grant from Impact 100, which divided $384,000 in grants this year among Daphne Search and Rescue, African Universal Church Resource Center, ARC of Baldwin County and the Baldwin County Adoptive and Foster Parent Association.