Economy, donors' budgets hurt nonprofits' fundraisers
After watching what the economy did to her now-defunct party business the past two years, Vickie Escalante of Rockford admits she isn’t the best person to hit up for a donation.
“Every now and then someone gets me but usually not,” the 33-year-old secretary said. “I just don’t have extra. I’m not going to turn my heater on until the last possible second. I pay tithe at church. That’s about it.”
With the nation’s economy on shakey ground and record high gas and food prices, feelings like Escalante’s are more the norm these days than the exception.
But that doesn’t change the need.
Every day in the Rock River Valley hundreds of nonprofit organizations operate on shoestring budgets made up mainly of donations and grant money. Most of the money comes from local residents, small businesses and major corporations. Then, there are the major projects like the $10 million Riverfront Museum Park expansion, the $12 million expansion to the conservatory at Sinnissippi Park and a host of other campaigns to support everything from homeless shelters and feeding children to arts and education. There are fundraising dinners, dances, buy-a-brick programs, raffles and collection drives. And it’s election season.
It seems everywhere you turn, there is ticket for sale or a check you could write to support a cause.
Recently, local museum leaders finally breathed a sigh of relief. The Connecting Our Future campaign officials reached the multimillion dollar goal. Just one day later, the United Way, which serves nearly 50 area social service programs and agencies, announced the resignation of its CEO and eight layoffs.
“The nonprofit sector is struggling, no doubt,” said Gloria Lundin, president of the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois. The foundation, which helped support more than 300 nonprofits in the past year, is the area’s leader of philanthropic services, distributing more than $33 million in grants and scholarships in northern Illinois in the past decade.
“This past spring, we took in requests for $890,000 in grants. We had only $350,000 to give away,” Lundin said. “We said ‘no’ a lot.”
What’s troubling for some goes beyond the obvious needs that aren’t being met: it’s organizations hurting for the basics.
“They’re coming in asking for operating costs rather than money for programs. That tells me they’re not making their operating costs on their own,” Lundin said. “We’ve also seen tax-supported organizations coming in and asking for help on things like buying equipment. The state and federal funds are not there for them. Donors are being bombarded. They are being asked over and over to give.”
Although many are calling the Burpee Museum-Discovery Center Museum expansion project a huge success, Burpee Director Alan Brown had another word: tough.
“It was tough. ... Tougher than we thought it ever would be,” Brown said.
And now, he has a new set of worries.
“Our annual operational campaign starts later this month. We have a lot of donors saying that they gave to the capital campaign, and they used up their allotment for giving,” Brown said.
“We’re going to be holding our breath.”
Burpee, which spent nearly four years working with the Discovery Center to raise the money for their joint expansion, is going to take an aggressive approach to pursuing grants from outside the community over the coming year, tapping national resources as much as it can. The museum cut four staff positions in the past year.
“The United Way was just the tip of the iceberg,” Brown said. “We’re going to see a lot of non-profits and 501-Cs not filling positions and laying off people because they can’t make their budgets.”
For many it’s going to come down to good strategic planning, Lundin said.
Agencies that have been looking at their administrative efficiencies and operational costs in the past several months will fare better than others.
“I can’t stress enough the importance of taking yourself out of the day-to-day and taking a good look your future,” Lundin advises. “For some, it’s going to be outsourcing. For some, it’ll be creating meaningful collaborations.”
At the newly opened nCafe, funds from the sale of bagels and lattes help fund a center that was built to serve area teenagers.
The nCenter, which opened in June, needs to pay the remainder of its remodeling costs by the end of the year, the deadline set by the city to pay back a $150,000 loan.
Adam Smith, the mayor’s director of education and lifelong learning who helped open the center, said he’s confident the money will come from somewhere. The total project cost was $1.5 million, much of which came from in-kind donations.
“One thing our community has always understood is investment,” Smith said. “When you start talking statistics — that four times more black students were arrested last year than graduated from high school, three times more Hispanic students — the community responds to those statistics. They know what we’re doing here, signing up 600 kids to the center in two months, they know that’s going to pay back in dividends.”
Smith admits donations are harder to come by today compared to three months ago.
“People don’t have any money. You find yourself going back to the same people and asking them again,” Smith said. “What I’ve been reminding people is we need to make sure we work together as much as we can. We can’t all be the hungry dog fighting over the same piece of meat in the middle of the room. We need to work together so we all can eat.”
Kim Bakke knows a thing or two about people not eating.
As executive director of the Rock River Pantry, Bakke has seen the area’s number of empty stomachs grow from 4,059 in March to 5,483 in August.
“We’re just basically trying to ride out the storm,” Bakke said. The agency operates on a budget of $250,000. That covers everything from salaries to the electric bill.
When economic times get tough, people have less to donate, Bakke said, and needs grow.
“I did a radio show over the weekend and as we watched the news about the banks going under, our donations came to about half of what they were last year,” she said. “Our donors are terrific. They just have less discretionary income. Some of our donors from last year are clients this year.”
Still, others are trying to stay optimistic. They point to things like the museum project and the Pennies for Peace project that raised $50,000 in a handful of months as signs that the generosity of Rockford’s populace tends to hold firm and flourish when times are bad.
“People are struggling and people are uncertain, but once people know what the legislative action is going to be and once the elections are over, people will feel comfortable,” said Elaine Harrington, deputy director of fund development for the Sinnissippi Park Nicholas Conservatory and Gardens project.
Rockford Park District Foundation leaders hope to break ground on the new 11,000-square-foot conservatory in the spring. The foundation has a fundraising goal of $12 million. They started in March 2006. They have about $5.2 million today.
“We’re chugging along,” Harrington said. “It’s been uplifting. We’ve had quite a few people take advantage of naming opportunities at the new center. We made sure to develop a lot of options for people to donate from buying a brick for $75 to a naming opportunity starting at $2,500.”
Corina Curry can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or (815) 987-1395.