Nonprofits struggle as donations decline

Fundraising efforts are likely to get more aggressive as charities try to catch up

Posted: Thursday, April 09, 2009

United Way of Juneau's executive director Brenda Lee Hewitt pored over her budget numbers.

"If we don't get some dollars in, I'm really hurting," she said.

Corporate gifts to charities and nonprofits are down, with some exceptions. Grant funding is down, as are individual gifts.

The new mandate for many local nonprofits that rely on the kindness of others: Hustle and adapt, or else slash programs and staff.

It's the same story nationwide, and many places are worse off than here. Flip through an issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the nonprofits' newspaper, and it's all about coping: "Strategies for Survival," says one headline. "Amid melting endowments and widespread layoffs, the charity world makes adjustments."

At the Juneau office of the American Red Cross, Reed Bowman said he's seeing a "definite decrease" in donations, which are about 85 percent of his funds. About four-fifths come from individuals and the rest from businesses.

"I think everybody's a little frightened right now. They're certainly not donating at the level we've seen before," he said, especially on the business end.

Fundraising efforts are likely to get more aggressive. United Way's Hewitt said she'll target lapsed donors. While the nonprofit used to campaign mostly in the fall, it now plans to hold fundraisers year round, trying to tap the good natures of seasonal workers as well as all-year residents.

Jeanne Pedersen, executive director of Juneau Jazz and Classics, said she has had to prove her organization's worth.

"Fundraisers now have to know what they can offer their donors," she said.

While Juneau may never fall out of love with raffles, nonprofits have new media and new channels to reach people. There is the "Pick. Click. Give." campaign, through which more than 5,000 Alaskans donated about $545,000 of their Permanent Fund dividends to specific groups. Wells Fargo just added a "Donate to Charity" button to its ATMs.

Hewitt is looking to embrace new technology and online networking.

"I'm trying to learn how to use Twitter. We're a Facebook group now," she said.

Perseverance Theatre is perhaps an exception in Juneau, according to Merry Ellefson, associate managing director. The theater's fundraising suffered some last year from a management transition, and this year business donations, as well as attendance, are up.

"I'm not saying we're steady-Eddie at all, but we're really aggressive about seeking funding," Ellefson said. "People are strapped, but they still give."

Another exception was the Juneau Community Foundation, founded by Ken Leghorn. He's not asking for annual gifts, but is asking for longterm endowments and bequests in wills.

"I think it may in the short term affect the size of funds that people establish," he said. "But if anything, I think (the recession) will compel people to be more generous and more aware of the need for creating charitable funds."

Dennis McMillian, president of the Foraker Group, which analyzes nonprofits' financial records to help them, says he expects to see nonprofits under pressure to merge or narrow services to those that are most important.

There have been no cuts yet in the Red Cross' two-and-a-quarter-person office. But the potential effects become tangible when examining services provided.

For example, the Red Cross in Southeast teaches CPR, helps victims of fires and other disasters, brings troops home to deal with family emergencies, connects the occasional exiled refugee with family across the world, and teaches residents how to sustain themselves in case of a disaster.

If Bowman can't make up the money, the disaster training will be the first to go.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or

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