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February 20, 2017 2017 Business Leaders: Nonprofit Business Leader of Year

Strully grows NECC by running it like a traditional business

PHOTO/FILE Vincent Strully, founder and former CEO of New England Center for Children

When Vincent Strully founded the New England Center for Children in 1975, he hoped it would eventually grow into a small but excellent program for kids with autism with its own building and a respectable center for research.

He could have never predicted that the nonprofit he founded would eventually become one of the leading autism education and research centers in the world, employing more than 1,200, serving 680 students between the ages of 18 months and 22 years, and granting more than 1,300 master's degrees to staff through an in-house graduate school for its employees.

“We learned a long time ago that if you run a nonprofit like nonprofit, you're going to be in big trouble,” he said. “To grow successfully and to help more students learn the skills they need to be independent, you have to use tools of modern capitalism. You have to borrow and create tax-based financing. You have to be able to do traditional fundraising and generate new sources of income.”

Now, 40 years later, Strully likens the center he founded to a small Mayo Clinic or Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for autism research.

“We produce tremendous numbers of qualified trained personnel going out into the world,” he said.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to the 680 students it serves -- including 265 at its its 123,000-square-foot facility in Southborough, 4,620 students around the world in public school districts and various agencies use NECC’s Autism Curriculum Encyclopedia, an educational software the nonprofit developed using the applied behavioral analysis method.

The Middle East connection

Its reach is global: In 2007, NECC opened a school for children with autism in Abu Dhabi, where 184 students are enrolled, and the center provides educational programs to students in Kuwait, Bermuda, India, Qatar.

NECC faculty have published more than 250 research articles in peer-reviewed academic journals.

NECC has had to grow to keep up with the growing number of children diagnosed with autism, said Strully. Shortly after it opened, awareness about autism and the number of children with the diagnosis grew, and today, one in 68 children are on the spectrum, according to NECC. A lot of the nonprofit’s success can be chalked up to good money management.

John Kim, the chair of the board of directors at NECC, said Strully possesses business skills akin to CEOs at for-profit companies. Kim and his wife Diane gifted NECC with $2.5 million towards a new facility at the Southborough site – the John and Diane Kim Autism Institute – which was fully financed after the completion of a $10.9-million campaign. The institute, a research, professional development and technology center, opened in August.

“As a nonprofit, you’re not in business to make money. The nuance is you can’t lose money either, and that’s why so many [nonprofits] are unsuccessful -- because they lose money. He knows how to manage the revenue and expenses side to either break even or have enough surplus to reinvest in the organization,” said Kim. “He would have been very good in a for-profit company too, because I think that’s his natural orientation. Not too many nonprofit people have that ability.”

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