November 28, 2010 in City

Nonprofit donations difficult to predict

Intentions, ability to give are in flux during hard times
Adrian Rogers The Spokesman-Review
 

When it comes to asking people for money to support their social, cultural and educational missions, nonprofit organizations face mixed signals.

On the one hand, a ranking of the nation’s 400 biggest charities released this fall shows donations dropped by 11 percent in 2009. It was the worst decline in the 20 years since the Chronicle of Philanthropy began keeping a tally. An earlier report by the Giving USA Foundation found overall charitable giving – including giving to private foundations and smaller charities – declined 3.6 percent.

On the other hand, leaders at some Spokane-area nonprofits say giving in 2010 is looking up – or at least steady. Many organizations do most of their fundraising during the holiday season. So, for now, as local Volunteers of America president and CEO Marilee Roloff said, “We’re hoping.”

Amid these signals embarks the Christmas Fund, a campaign by The Spokesman-Review to collect $500,000 to support the Christmas Bureau, a collaboration with Catholic Charities Spokane and the Volunteers of America that distributes toys and grocery vouchers to Spokane-area people in need.

Reports are widespread of discouraging economic news – long-term unemployment is setting records; poverty levels rose in 2009 for the third year in a row, according to census data.

A few recent indicators, however, might put people in a giving mood. The number of people applying for unemployment benefits fell to the lowest level since July 2008 during the week ending Nov. 20, and the stock market responded happily. Inflation is running low, at 0.9 percent in the 12 months ending in October. Consumers boosted their spending 0.4 percent in October.

Citing heavier shopper traffic attracted by early retail sales and promotions, research firm ShopperTrak upgraded its holiday growth forecast to 3.2 percent from the 2.9 percent it originally anticipated.

“If people see shopping go up, then I think confidence will be returning, and along with that confidence comes more giving,” Roloff said.

Another hopeful line of thinking among fundraisers: The prospect of losing one’s own livelihood, or even taking a real hit in the form of job loss or cut wages, sparks potential donors to consider the plight of others.

“People who are donors are realizing, ‘Hey, my job’s not safe. Hey, my 401(k) was reduced this year,’ ” said Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities.

He said that feeling of financial vulnerability gives donors a sense of what it’s like to be a client of the nonprofit, whose 15 programs include two homeless shelters, nutrition and other services for low-income seniors, and refugee and immigrant services.

“They have a very powerful experience themselves with being marginalized,” McCann. “It makes them want to donate more.”

Development and communications director Brian Holloway has witnessed a similar phenomenon at Arc of Spokane, which provides services for people with developmental disabilities.

On average, donors provide about $25,000 of the organization’s $5 million annual budget. Family members of Arc’s clients form the core of its donor base, Holloway said, and it’s a loyal core. Often, he said, “if people have a really deep commitment to an organization, they’ll give even when times are hard.”

Some of Arc’s regular donors have had to pass this year, citing their own financial woes. Giving declines during economic hard times, “but not as much as you might think,” Holloway said. People still give “simply because of their awareness of the plight of people in difficult circumstances.”

At the Spokane Symphony, ticket sales and fees cover 51 percent of this year’s $3.8 million budget (smaller by about $500,000 than 2009’s budget). Most of the rest – 45 percent – comes from donations. An endowment and money raised by a volunteer organization cover the rest.

With the economy in mind, symphony fundraisers set goals level with last year’s. Collecting donations has been easier this year, said development director Heather Beebe-Stevens, but tougher than it was before the recession.

Some donors apologize for giving less. Some, hearing that others are able to give less, step up with larger amounts.

“A lot are saying, ‘Ask me again in a couple months,’ ” when their own finances might have improved, Beebe-Stevens said.

A third of the ticket-sales income is yet to come for the year, from holiday concerts.

“At this point we have big goals,” said Annie Matlow, the symphony’s marketing director. “They are flat from last year, which we believe puts us in an attainable position. But you can’t take anything for granted.”

The economy hasn’t necessarily made fundraising more difficult at Gonzaga University, said development director Dori Sonntag, who added the university is “truly blessed” with a strong donor base of alumni and parents of students. But it’s made her more committed to securing funding in addition to tuition revenue.

“We see and hear students every day whose families are affected by the economy,” Sonntag said. “It makes our job that much more important, when you have families in need and students in need. The situation is very real.”

As for the Christmas Bureau, the VOA’s Roloff said, she and other coordinators don’t know exactly how many recipients to expect – and, therefore, exactly how much it will cost to serve them. Coordinators set the fundraising goal at $500,000, the same as 2009.

But about 4,000 more people showed up at last year’s bureau than organizers expected. This year, Roloff said, the number of people served “could go up 10 percent. There’s no question about that. A lot of people are not working that have not had to ask for help before. They’re just reaching the end of their rope.”

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