by Pia K. Hansen
Last year, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Inland Northwest rose to the occasion, giving more per capita than many other communities in the rest of the country. The Red Cross especially benefited from this generosity, but so did the Firefighter's Scholarship Fund and countless other sub-organizations. There was a crisis, a common enemy, and people dug out their checkbooks.
This year, one of the most amazing local outpourings of philanthropic support had the Spokane Interplayers Ensemble theater at the receiving end. No, there were no terrorists involved in this impeding disaster -- just a dilapidated old building in dire need of new electrical wiring, a sprinkler system and many other updates. For some time it looked like Interplayers would have to cancel its upcoming season -- but last week it was announced that the theater had received $190,000 out of the $275,000 needed for repair. Maybe civic engagement is at a low, but Spokane stepped up to the plate, and the season was saved.
Across the region, hundreds of nonprofit organizations depend on people's willingness to give money and time to continue helping their causes. Those who do fundraising for a living have never had an easy job. This year, as the stock market fell to a lower low every week and businesses laid off people across the board, the nonprofits began to worry. Where is the funding going to come from?
Giving After 9/11
It's hard to spot a trend among the level of charitable giving this year -- one organization is doing well; the one right next door, perhaps not so well. Overall, it seems that human services organizations encounter a higher need. Combined with a small drop in donations, that can spell disaster by the end of the year.
"Spokane is a generous community, but don't get me wrong, raising money is always hard," says Sheryl McGrath, regional director of development at Lutheran Community Services. "In a nutshell, what we are seeing is that people aren't as free in giving their dollars as they used to be -- but when they do give, there's not a huge difference in the size of the contribution." Overall, Lutheran Social Services' donation levels are about the same as last year.
Faced with tougher budget choices at home, many families cut their charitable donations -- and as jobs get cut and companies file for bankruptcy or leave the area, more and more people show up at social service agencies looking for help.
"What's happening right now is like a double whammy. The stock market has had an impact on individuals, too, so people worry about their future," says Peter Jackson, president and CEO of Foundation Northwest, a community foundation that holds about $35 million in endowment funds. "What we call checkbook giving is the first thing to go when you have to come up with a new financial plan. The first thing people do is stop making charitable donations."
Foundation Northwest is a bit different from most of the other volunteer organizations -- they are not the ones out there doing car washes and selling baked goods -- because they work with philanthropists and donors on a long-range basis.
"It's different for us, you know, when you work with people on donating maybe $20,000 out of their estate -- or even $500,000 depending on the individual," says Jackson. "If people have the money, it's relatively easy to get them to give $50 or $100. Just look at what happened at Sept. 11." Still, Foundation Northwest has had its best year since it was founded in 1974.
"We did so well last year. Most of our money come via bequest, like a portion of an estate that's given to charity or maybe people get old and want us to manage their charitable giving," says Jackson. "Those assets are then invested, and we make grants to the community based on the earnings that come from those investments. Yes, the stock market has had an impact, but we have a balanced portfolio, so it hasn't been as bad as it could have been."
Other organizations are paying a severe price for what happened on Sept. 11.
"Chapters across the country have taken a hit. Donations to us are way down. I think a lot of people feel like they gave around Sept. 11 and that sort of took care of that," says Pat Moseley, executive director for the Inland Northwest Chapter of the Red Cross. "We don't get any money from the national office, and we don't have any government funds either -- we depend totally on the local community."
The controversy surrounding the September 11 Fund and the allocation of the money donated to Red Cross last year has no doubt hurt the organization's goodwill as well. When not focused on larger national disasters, the Red Cross provides local disaster relief, often in connection with wildfires, flooding and house fires.
"It's been hard. We have had a lot of single-family home fires, and in February we had already gone over the budget for disaster relief," says Moseley. "We have a staff of eight and we serve nine counties, so not only are we in need of money but we are also always in need of volunteers."
If there's a wildfire, Red Cross comes out and sets up an office trying to coordinate the relief effort and distribute aid to the families that are impacted. Moseley worries if the organization is ready for the challenges ahead.
"It's been a real tough year for us. We have done some staff layoffs," she says. "With homeland security still a major issue, my goal is that every family will be trained on how to respond to an emergency -- I guess that's one thing we did learn last year. You never know when there's going to be an emergency."
The Second Harvest Food Bank is also hurting. "This summer we have seen a decrease in donations, both when it comes to money and food," says Susan Faltermeyer, executive director of the food bank. "There's a perception that maybe the community is tired of hearing about the needs. Getting people excited about a food drive is hard to do, and at the same time we are seeing an increase in need. We serve 15 percent more clients within Spokane County.
"We have less than four percent in operating costs, so if food and funding is down, we'd have to cut the amount of food each family can take home with them," Faltermeyer continues. She also worries about state funding being cut -- because of Washington's ever-increasing budget deficit -- and about federal funds being cut equally as much because the government is focused on spending on homeland security. "I do have confidence in the community. People come through for us -- they always do -- but we have a long road ahead of us."
The North Idaho Food Bank and Outreach Center in Coeur d'Alene has also seen a large increase in the number of clients it serves.
"In two years, our need for food boxes is up by 50 percent," says Mark Haberman, food bank program manager. "The donations, both of food and money, are pretty much in the same place as they were a year ago."
So far, the United Way agency is dealing with the high demand.
" We get more food from the USDA, and we are being very creative with how we store that so it lasts us as long as possible," says Haberman.
A combination of community service block grants from the federal government, private donations and support from United Way is what's keeping the pantries full so far. Haberman is a little worried about the federal support the program gets, but he maintains a positive outlook.
"I think the need has leveled off a little this year. We are pretty resourceful folks, and we're doing okay," says Haberman. "Our volunteers are a great help, and we continue to pull in new people. We always need to work on getting private donations, and we are concerned about the slow economy -- but we're not in a crisis mode."
There's also a real sense among arts organizations that last year's focus on human services giving has made it harder for them to pull funding together.
"Sept. 11 has absolutely had an impact on how we are doing," says Joyce Cameron of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. "My feeling is that individuals gave a lot of money to the Red Cross and the Sept. 11 Fund last year that they would normally have given to museums. I know our counterparts on the East Coast are really struggling.
"We are feeling the impact of the stock market and of the state budget -- we need to raise half of our budget [$1.7 million] locally every year -- but things are going really well for us right now," Cameron continues. "We had an extremely successful capital campaign where we wanted to raise $8 million and ended up with $10 million instead."
A recent survey conducted by The Chronicle of Philanthropy paints a bleak picture of corporate giving. Where the nation's biggest companies were very generous last year -- especially around Sept. 11 -- The Chronicle predicts that corporate giving will remain flat this year. And yes, it's blamed on the faltering stock market and a general loss of profits. Among very large corporations, there has also been a clear tendency to start charitable programs outside the country, as the companies aim to align their philanthropic work with their business deals.
For instance, writes The Chronicle, Exxon/Mobil introduced a program last year to fight malaria in West Africa, an area where the company has increased its oil and gas development. According to The Chronicle's survey, the amount of money and products donated overseas grew by a median rate of 17 percent last year. At the same time, half of the companies that volunteered the information for the survey spent one of every 10 philanthropy dollars overseas.
That makes it even harder to be a local charity fighting for that same budget.
"It's gotten a lot harder to get corporate money, and when you look at the stock market, I guess that makes perfect sense," says Merilee Roloff, CEO of Volunteers of America, a group that serves about 4,800 clients a year. "We also have another problem here in Spokane: There are fewer and fewer big corporations located here, so we are sending our proposals and letters to businesses located in San Francisco and many other larger cities. And they of course have many local programs, right there where they are located, that they'd rather support."
But there is generosity among local businesses, and Roloff says she understands these are difficult times.
"Many of them come with in-kind donations, with boxes of candy canes or what it is they have, and that's great. They give toothbrushes and other personal care goodies, that's great -- we need all of it," says Roloff. "There is a lot of unknown business giving of the kind that doesn't come with big banners and brochures. But it is harder to get into the smaller businesses. Not because they don't want to give, but often they don't have a procedure set up for giving like the big companies do."
And when the corporate sponsors fall by the wayside, it often hurts a lot.
"In the past, we have seen huge corporate support and we just don't see that to be as enthusiastic as it used to be," says the Food Bank's Faltermeyer. "I mean, we do still get support from many companies -- but the pool is limited and we have a large pool of need."
The MAC's Cameron is a little skeptical, too. "There was a lot more money coming out of local corporations. It has become a lot more difficult to raise money from local corporate sponsors," she says. "It was definitely easier 10 years ago."
Donors Wise Up
Another trend is that donors have become a lot more savvy. Gone are the times of impulsive check-writing and giving to any organization that has "Aid" in its title. Now more and more givers first consult the Better Business Bureau; some even check out the Secretary of State's Web site before calling charities.
"I have done fundraising for about 15 years, and for a number of years there was a trend to give where your heart told you to, to give to whatever pulled at your heart strings," says Lutheran Community Services' McGrath. "But over the past couple of years, there have been a number of incidents where dollars have not been used the way the donors believed they should be used."
Now McGrath and others are routinely being put through the wringer by potential donors.
"People are so much more savvy about who they are giving to," she says. 'They know which questions to ask, and for an agency that is not a bad thing. We have to be accountable for every dollar we spend and to have our facts and figures in a row."
Donors want to know how much money goes to administration and how much goes to the project they are looking to support.
"They also want to know if the money stays here in Spokane. That may not be huge issue, but people still ask," says McGrath. "Because many of the social services organizations have so many different programs underneath them, people also ask very specific program-related questions. They want to know what a sexual assault and family trauma program is and what that means, for instance."
That's true in the arts, too.
"I think it's a great thing that people ask so many questions," says the MAC's Cameron. "There are so many nonprofits that have stories to tell, it's a way of weeding the people out who are just using the money. And I believe that the more people know about what exactly it is they donate to, the more committed they become."
At the heart of every nonprofit organization is a committed staff of volunteers, and though every organization we talked to for this story said they needed more volunteers, they also praised the ones they already have.
"We do the single largest food distribution program in the area around Thanksgiving," says Richard Silva, business administrator for the Salvation Army. "We reach 2,000 households, and for that we use about 300 volunteers. They are amazing."
And of course the Salvation Army staffs its famous kettles with volunteers every holiday season.
"We have high school students who help us out with that, and we have families or adult volunteers who stand at the kettles with a child," says Silva.
The Food Bank has hordes of volunteers as well. "We have a myriad of volunteer programs: We deliver to the elderly and pack emergency food boxes, and there's the huge food drive we have in the fall. We always need volunteers for that," says Faltermeyer. "We take them from age 14 and up -- if you are younger, you can't work in the warehouse."
Volunteering a couple of hours for a favorite charity is a great way of giving if money is short. And don't feel like an hour here and there isn't enough for the organization to appreciate.
"We always have something that needs to be done," says McGrath of Lutheran Social Services. "We need volunteers for one day, or just for one event, and there are envelopes that need stuffing, and bookkeeping, and drives for stuffed animals to be organized -- don't worry, we'll find something for you."
Volunteers of America's Roloff perhaps says it best: "Everyone has a talent, everyone has something to give. We have about 700 volunteers here, because we have so many different programs. Some come all the time, some come rarely -- but they are all needed and all appreciated. So maybe the money is a bit hard in Spokane right now, but a lot of people have $25, and you know what? They give that, too."
Here's how you can reach the nonprofits referenced in this story. Foundation Northwest, 624-2606; Lutheran Community Services, 747-8224; The MAC,
456-3931; North Idaho Food Bank and Outreach Center, 208-664-8757; The Red Cross, 326-3330; The Salvation Army, 325-6810; The Second Harvest Food Bank, 534-6678.