Executive Q&A: Else Pedersen, Bridge House/Grace House, New Orleans

Submitted by: 06/11/2012 by Maureen Fitzgerald

Bridge House was started in 1957 when a group of alcoholics trying to recover realized that alcoholics and addicts living on the street had little chance for recovery.  Since then it has grown into a long-term intensive addiction treatment center, with three facilities providing housing, treatment, and vocational support for adult men and women, regardless of their ability to pay.

Bridge House/Grace House

Staff Employed







Fund Development


Thrift Stores


Used Car Lot


Under the guidance of Richard “Buzzy” Gaiennie, who served as director of Bridge House from 1984 until his death in 2011, Bridge House developed a unique business model: Today, 77% of its operating budget comes from donations from the community.  

“This has been our business model for 20 years,” says Else Pedersen, current Chief Executive Officer of Bridge House. “After making several long drives to the Baton Rouge (Louisiana’s state capital) back in the 80’s to appeal for more funding for substance abuse treatment, Buzzy realized Bridge House would have to develop other sources of income if we wanted to serve more people.” 

Figure 1

Today, Bridge House operates a used car lot and two thrift stores.  With the residential facilities, businesses and other housing, Bridge House actually looks after 10 properties.  “In 2011, the thrift stores combined generated 1.7 million in revenue, and the used car lot generated 1.1 million in revenue,” says Pedersen.  “The side benefit to operating these businesses is that we can also provide job training and employment to clients who may not have ever held a job before.  And they take pride in knowing that they are raising funds for treatment for themselves and others. The entire community benefits.” 

What advice does Pedersen have for other treatment organizations interested diversifying their funding stream through increased donations and contributions from the community?

Patience. To replicate the Bridge House business model, organizations need “time, faith, and sometimes, an upfront investment,” says Pedersen.  The used car lot and two thrift stores required staff time and salary to get off the ground.  “It can take a while to see a return on these investments, but patience and persistence showed us the it was worth the effort.” 

Keep donations coming. In addition to moving slowly, Pedersen recommends that organizations set up a system for keeping donations coming.  “We do phone solicitations for donations, and the trucks that we send out to pick up donations are plastered with information on how to donate.” Bridge House also has an advertising budget, 70% of which is allocated for soliciting donations to the thrift stores and used car lot. 

Cultivate contributions. The Bridge House business model owes its success in part to its focus on community spirit. “We make a big deal out of locals helping locals,” says Pedersen.  Contributions from foundations and individuals account for another 30% of the Bridge House operating budget.

“We are always thinking of ways to retain our steady contributors and attract new ones,” says Pedersen. “We invite potential donors to lunch and give them a tour of our facilities so they can get familiar with what we do,” she adds.  And Bridge House “special events,” such as the Recycled Fashion Show (featuring clothing from the Bridge House Thrift Store that have been “tweaked” by local designers to cute fashionable outfits) also generate donations and community support. 

Adds Pedersen, “We offer special events targeting different demographic groups-from the Mr. Legs Contest for a more youthful crowd, to the Women of Substance luncheon for a more traditional audience.”

Bridge House mails five appeal letters and a quarterly newsletter.  For steady donors who may not want so many mailings, Bridge House has offered to “bundle” the mailings. “This allows a donor to make pre-reserve seats for our special events and has been very successful,” says Pedersen.

Connect with local media. Bridge House and its special events get regular coverage in widely read monthly New Orleans Magazine and the Times Picayune, the daily newspaper. “We also get coverage for our special events on the morning shows of the local TV stations.”

Be creative. Pedersen adds that Bridge House has a long history of reaching out to the community. “While we have a lot of experience, we continue to look for ways to generate more revenues and reach donors we have not approached in the past. As state budgets and other traditional sources of funding continue to shrink, it’s really important to keep looking for new revenue sources.”

Else Pedersen will be serving as the co-chair for the 2012 SAAS National Conference and NIATx Summit. 

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