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Opinion/Todd Cohen on change – Nonprofits scrambling

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By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — This year, through the network of 16 food pantries it operates in Mecklenburg County, Loaves and Fishes has distributed one week’s worth of food each to more than 70,000 poor people, nearly double the total in 2000.

“Our pantries are working much harder,” says Beverly Howard, executive director.

To help cope, the agency recruited more volunteers for extra shifts, and saw total volunteers hours grow to 46,346 for the fiscal year ended June 30, up 4 percent from a year earlier.

Like Howard, officials of social services agencies in Mecklenburg County say they must do more with less to meet rising demand for services from people feeling the sting of the sour economy and cuts in government services.

Agencies are stepping up fundraising and enlisting more volunteers, and funders are looking for ways to boost charities.

“The need is going through the roof, and the need alone has made available funds constrained, without the fact that donors were also impacted by the recession,” says Carol Hughes, chief executive officer of Crisis Assistance Ministry.

In the fiscal year ended June 30, the agency interviewed 24,281 people needing emergency housing and utility assistance, up from 20,881 a year earlier.

Yet private funds the agency raised fell 9 percent to nearly $2.2 million.

And while aggressive recruiting helped increase the number of donors to 6,800 from nearly 5,200 a year earlier, the average gift fell to $135 from $232.

Community Health Services of Mecklenburg County, which provides preventive health-care services for 10,000 people a year, has seen a big increase in demand for primary care, says Jen Algire, executive director.

“People have been losing health insurance,” she says. “They’re looking for a place where they find can low-cost or free primary care.”

That has strained the group’s five nurses who work in 25 neighborhood clinics, and two staffers who field phone calls.

“It’s forcing them to do less and work longer hours,” she says.

The agency also helped offset a decline in United Way support to 45 percent of its annual budget of nearly $1 million, from 65 percent three years earlier, with more aggressive fundraising that generated $75,000 in individual giving in the year ended June 30, up from $1,500 three years earlier.

“We just started asking,” Algire says.

In the third quarter of this year alone, the number of calls fielded by the 211 phone line operated by United Way of Central Carolinas for information and referrals involving basic subsistence grew to nearly 1,000 from nearly 800 a year earlier, while the number of calls for which needs could not be met grew by more than half to 162.

Agencies are flooded by people hurt by the economy, says Diane Wright, vice president for marketing.

At Love INC, for example, the share of clients who are older adults nearly doubled to 70 percent in 2002 from two years earlier.

And the Family Center, which provides a school-based intervention program for children with behavioral or emotional needs that interfere with their school performance, has seen an 83 percent increase in referrals from teachers in 16 elementary schools.

Wright says people wanting to volunteer for agencies also can call the 211 line.

In the face of the declining stock market, the value of discretionary funds at the Foundation for the Carolinas fell this year, reducing the value of grants, says Don Jonas, senior vice president for community philanthropy.

Grants from the largest discretionary fund, created with a $35 million gift by Lucille Giles, who died in 1995, fell to just over $1.4 million this year from $2.2 million in 2002, Jonas says.

As a result of the economic slump on local agencies, he says, the foundation this year set up three mini-grant programs to support priority needs it had identified

For just one of those funds, $80,000 to support out-of-school programs for children, the foundation received 30 grant requests.

To help offset its reduced grantmaking, Jonas says, the foundation has looked for other ways to support agencies.

This year, for example, it made a $25,000 grant to help kick-start NPower Charlotte Region, a new affiliate of a Seattle-based network of nonprofit groups that provide technology support to local nonprofits.

The foundation also made a $30,000 grant to launch a Charlotte affiliate of the National Executive Service Corps, a national group that puts senior-level executives to work as volunteers advising nonprofits on their operations.

The foundation also has launched an online “Philanthropy Marketplace” that highlights local nonprofits and their needs, and is about to launch an online tool that grantees will use to track their impact, resources that Jonas says will help donors learn about and assess causes they care about.

“The idea of this foundation is being a civic switchboard for the community,” he says. “Where this foundation is moving is way beyond just being a grantmaking institution.”

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