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Nonprofits feel the pressure

Many of the nonprofit organizations that form a safety net for Rogue Valley residents are struggling in their fundraising, cutting staff, working harder and trying to keep their programs strong as the still-sluggish economy cuts into their donor support.

While some reports say the economy is nosing up, you don't hear that from the nonprofits. Tom Cole, executive director of Kids Unlimited, noted that in February, the Medford organization's worst financial month ever, not a single user fee or contribution came in.

The nonprofit had to let go two full-time and seven part-time workers and look for more volunteers.

"That's when we realized things weren't bad — they were real bad," said Cole. "It forced us to devise a whole new strategy, if we're going to continue. Things are different now with the climate of giving and the financial realities. Foundations used to have two (granting) cycles a year; now it's one and the amounts are down about a third."

To pronouncements about the recession being over, Cole says, "We've not seen any real change, no sign of recovery that gives strong encouragement ... . I don't see a miracle cure. There isn't that necessary level of confidence with the board and in the world, but out of the gloom we're looking at what we can control. We seek to intervene at an earlier age, 6 months old, to make a difference earlier."

Cole has consolidated an after-school site and is reviewing a variety of operations.

"We had to scratch our heads and ask if we can be as expansive as in the last 10 years," he said. "We're not closing or anything but we've been impacted by the drought — and families are in more difficulty than ever and trying to make it on menial wages."

While groups working on medical or drug-alcohol issues get state or federal subsidies, Cole said that's not available for many nonprofits.

"We have to depend on foundation grants or donations and that part has been significantly impacted," he noted.

The Grants Pass-based Boys and Girls Club has reported a decline in donations and grants. In December it closed its Shady Cove center, but contrary to persistent rumors, there are no plans to close the White City and Talent branches, said Diann Gilbertson, interim executive director. Her predecessor resigned in May, and fundraising difficulties were cited as a contributing factor.

"We're ramping up for the full summer program and our committees are pursuing scholarship funding, summer user fees and annual $40 memberships," says Gilbertson. "But it's absolutely harder. Donors just don't have the dollars. Fundraising is not as good as last year but we still get money from private donations, program fees and grants — none from governments, except the USDA food. The donor base understands our need."

Are they getting their message out?

"No, I don't believe we are. We need to concentrate on that, with more social media and news coverage," says Gilbertson. "We've heard so many people say they didn't know we had a club, but there are 180 kids at White City and 140 at Talent. We're not visible."

The Addiction Recovery Center in Medford operates primarily on government funding, with donors and foundations accounting for less than 10 percent. Foundation dollars, says Executive Director Chris Mason, have declined by a fourth or more in the economic downturn, but "our fundraising has stayed consistent, just gone down a little."

As with all social service nonprofits, demand for services goes up steeply as the economy declines, she said.

"We've really had to scramble to not cut staff," she said.

The Rogue Valley Family YMCA in Medford reported a "very successful" fundraiser, netting $165,000 on a goal of $150,000, but Executive Director Brad Russell said every dollar is needed.

"The difficult part is that this year, more people are asking for financial help, more than in '09, when we set a record for that," Russell said.

Child care is the most expensive — and most requested — form of financial assistance at the Y, he noted, adding that despite all the rollbacks and pay cuts in the valley, the organization has been able to avoid layoffs.

To survive in the leaner economy, nonprofits have to strategize, partner, "bring services to where the people are" and "show that you're doing important work," says Dee Anne Everson, executive director of the United Way of Jackson County.

"Donors, corporations, foundations are a lot more discerning now," she said. "They want to invest for impact. We're emerging from an extended period of challenge and they want their dollars to make a difference."

Everson said there are signs of hope.

"We've been bumping along the bottom an awfully long time," she said. "The malaise and fear are lifting. We're coming off the most successful year (of fundraising) in our (the local United Way's) history — $1.1 million from 8,000 donors."

Everson said fundraising is no simple task and requires outreach through every available medium.

"It's still spotty out there among nonprofits if you're not getting your message out. You have to use every form of media and get newsworthy events out there on social media, TV, news, all media, focusing on issues of concern to the broader community.

"We might have some (nonprofit) closures. We had a lot of layoffs, but we didn't have the shake-out I thought we'd have among the nonprofit community. A lot of people stepped up at the last minute."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Savannah Sitzer, 7, of White City, goofs around with a friend at the White City Boys and Girls Club Monday. The club serves 180 kids at the White City site, and like many nonprofits is feeling the strain of the sluggish economy. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch