By Taylor Sisk
Itâ€™s not that Jay Miller doesnâ€™t like the government, or the tax dollars it sometimes returns to his community. Heâ€™s all for support from Raleigh and D.C. for social services and the arts.
But heâ€™s also a realist. When funds from without arenâ€™t sufficient to provide those social assets that define genuine community, we must look more within â€“ to â€œnatural supportâ€ for such community.
Itâ€™s a term Miller learned from state Rep. Verla Insko a few years ago, as she warned of diminishing governmental support.
â€œI didnâ€™t know then what she was talking about,â€ Miller says. â€œBut turns out what she was talking about was communities supporting the agencies and the work thatâ€™s being done within the communities, because there is less government money right now, and there may be for a long time.â€
At which point it falls upon individuals to more fully define community. Individuals like Jay Miller.
The right fit
The son of a savings and loan executive, Miller was reared on the edge of the tony Birmingham, Ala., suburb of Mountain Brook. He came to this community in 1977 to attend Duke.
Three years later, history degree in hand, Miller pondered law school and pursued a passion, landing a gig that was a natural fit: Heâ€™d long been a musician, and found employment in a fledgling instrument store â€“ a keen decision in a propitious moment.
â€œDave Lovett started this tiny little music store in a loft in Durham,â€ Miller says, â€œand he hired me to work there six months after it opened. And six months after that, he was like, â€˜Iâ€™m moving to Memphis. Would you like to have the store?â€™â€
The shop was called the Music Loft, approximately 300 square feet of floor space on Perry Street, off Ninth, at $54 a month. Under Millerâ€™s ownership, the business grew to six stores in the Triangle, Triad and Wilmington.
By the turn of the century, though, Miller had come to believe that you could be a mom-and-pop or you could be big business, â€œbut trying to get in between,â€ as he was, â€œyouâ€™re going to be in trouble.â€
So he sold, offering each shop to its manager. By 2002, his last store, in Carrboro, was under new but simpatico ownership.
Miller was 43, and had some cash in his pocket. Now what?
He reconsidered law school. â€œAnd then I thought, well, if I went into law, Iâ€™d go into nonprofit law, because I was already thinking nonprofit.
â€œI felt Iâ€™d been very fortunate. And I really kind of thought I wanted to do something fulfilling and give back â€“ all the typical stuff you hear.â€
He did volunteer work, at the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service and elsewhere, and took classes at Duke and online in nonprofit management.
â€œI decided thatâ€™s how I wanted to concentrate myselfâ€ â€“ on the business of nonprofits â€“ â€œand I wanted to concentrate on Orange and Durham counties, because I didnâ€™t have but so much time and money, and so I wanted to keep it tight, and also those are the areas where Iâ€™ve lived and worked.â€ (He and his wife, the visual artist Ebeth Scott-Sinclair, live west of Chapel Hill off N.C. 54; their three kids are now grown and gone.)
â€œSo I decided I wanted to be in the nonprofit philanthropist/service business â€“ hands on.â€
With Scott-Sinclair, he launched the Shared Visions Foundation, with a mission â€œdedicated to building the organizational capacity of and promoting cooperation among nonprofit agencies that directly benefit communitiesâ€ in Durham and Orange counties.
Shared Visions works closely with several mental health care and other human service agencies, cultural organizations and a few environmental groups. Among the nonprofits the foundation is providing with financial and developmental support are Club Nova, Mental Health America of the Triangle, XDS Inc., Freedom House, The ArtsCenter, The Womenâ€™s Center and Stone Circles.
The foundation also has renovated the Murphey School on N.C. 10, in rural Orange County between Hillsborough and Durham. The school, built in 1923, is now home to Just Right Academy, a nonprofit learning center, and also functions as a retreat center that can be rented dirt-cheap by nonprofits. It houses a performance space for fundraisers, like the Murphey School Radio Show, which features local luminaries and will hold its second performance at the school in November.
The bulk of Shared Visionsâ€™ work is assisting small nonprofits with the drudgery of finances and facilities, because, as Miller stresses, â€œthe business end is just as important for a nonprofit as it is for a for-profit.â€
Itâ€™s Millerâ€™s experience that, too often, nonprofitsâ€™ mission statements donâ€™t â€œsay anything about the facilities and the business end of things.â€
A nonprofitâ€™s first inclination when faced with an influx of money, Miller says, is to provide more service. â€œAnd that makes sense; thatâ€™s their mission. You canâ€™t find one that isnâ€™t interested in doing more of what theyâ€™re already doing and doing it better.â€
But sometimes it costs more to provide that service than the funds will afford.
â€œA nonprofit will go out and hire somebody new, and all the work that goes around that sometimes isnâ€™t considered,â€ Miller says. â€œThey actually do provide more service, which is good for the community, but they end up in a worse situation financially.
â€œSo we try to help. â€¦ Thereâ€™s often a gap between the needs they have and the resources they have, and we do what we can to bring that together.â€
â€œPromoting cooperationâ€ is there in the mission statement. â€œIn theory,â€ Miller says, â€œif you can work together, you can get more done. So Iâ€™d like to see more collaborationâ€ among nonprofits.
â€œI spent 22 years waking up every day and making decisions,â€ Miller says, â€œand itâ€™s a little bit hard to do committee work. I find board work to be pretty difficult. Iâ€™m on some boards, but more and more Iâ€™m trying to just do projects. â€˜How can I help you? This is what you need? Iâ€™ll help you this way.â€™
â€œI do sit through board meetings, and some of them are tedious, and some of the time Iâ€™m going, â€˜Gosh, we donâ€™t need to sit around and talk about this for two hours; letâ€™s just do it.â€™
â€œIâ€™m not saying itâ€™s the wrong way to do business. Iâ€™m not proposing a new model for nonprofits. I just personally struggle with it.
â€œBut, OK, sometimes the consensus reached is better than what I would have done.â€
Miller hopes to further develop the Murphey School, with plans to add a building when the permits come through. Heâ€™ll continue in his role as philanthropic handyman while also doing maintenance on the properties he owns, which are his source of income.
And: â€œWeâ€™ve got a little cabin up in Wilkesboro now,â€ he says, â€œand we want to run up there some.â€
Heâ€™ll continue to play music. He played bluegrass as a teenager in Birmingham, then succumbed to rock â€˜nâ€™ roll, by temperament and in vocation. Now, he says, heâ€™s back full circle, once again playing bluegrass guitar. â€œI put it down at 16 and back up at 50.â€
The Murphey School Radio Show is jazzing him â€“ engaging the artist within.
â€œWe want to do the radio shows on a regular basis. The first one, I have to say, was wildly successful,â€ meshing music, comedy and literature. It aired on WCHL and is available on podcast. The next one will be Nov. 12-13, with an as-yet undetermined cast, though local author Lee Smith is already on board. The beneficiaries will be Housing for New Hope, based in Durham, and the Community Home Trust in Carrboro.
â€œWhen we do these radio shows,â€ Miller says, â€œitâ€™s a drop in the bucket; but itâ€™s individuals making up the difference.â€
In fact, more than $10,000 was raised with the last show, â€œand people were glad to do it, and it was a lot of people giving a little money, which to me is the way to do it â€¦ because theyâ€™re familyâ€: the natural sources.
â€œI think thatâ€™s the only way out,â€ Miller says. â€œI wouldnâ€™t have wanted to be too dependent on the state and federal government anyway.
â€œItâ€™s a bummer that all this is happening,â€ he says of the curtailing of institutional largess. â€œBut where else is it going to come from?
â€œIf itâ€™s not going to come from them, itâ€™s got to come from us.â€