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The Business of Giving

Exploring philanthropy, non-profits and socially motivated business, from the Gates Foundation to your donation. A fresh look at the economy of good intentions.

December 17, 2010 at 1:29 PM

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Non-profits counting on year-end fundraisers, volunteers corps

Posted by Kristi Heim

Stacy Noland knows that connecting environmental sustainability to jobs for disadvantaged youth in Seattle is a great idea, in theory. But with nonprofit organizations struggling just to keep their doors open, work that used to be paid is increasingly done by volunteers.


Stacy Noland is founder and CEO of Moontown Foundation.

Noland, who founded the Moontown Foundation train low-income young people for green jobs, said a lot of those jobs haven't materialized. Meanwhile, many small charities are hurting and may close. They're appealing to the same local foundations for help, and those foundations have all taken an financial hit.

"There's serious donor fatigue," he said. "Everybody and their brother is pinging them."

In talking with other nonprofit leaders, at least a dozen told him their organizations are "on the verge of going under because they just cannot raise the money to keep staff and build capacity," he said. "Their only option will be to go down to being volunteer based organizations."

As a result, end of year fund-raising has become a make-or-break activity.

"Everybody is essentially banking on their ability to raise funds at their end of year breakfast or dinner event. A couple folks said their faith lies with how philanthropic people are in coming to their event. If they don't raise a certain about of money, they won't have an office space."

Nonprofit mergers are also likely.

Sustainable Seattle, a 20-year-old non-profit that promotes urban sustainability, is "a beehive of activity" these days, but it's also surviving largely with volunteers, says board member John de Graaf.

The current financial crisis has severely affected its balance sheets so it's counting on new support for future operations, he said.

"I think times have been tough," de Graaf said. "Sustainable Seattle has been run essentially as a volunteer organization after many years in which it had a pretty good budget."

The good news is that the organization is seeing "an explosion of interest," he said, from people who want to help launch a new project called the Happiness Initiative and other efforts related to improving the environment and community health.

These days, it's easier to get volunteers because people have time on their hands and less money.

"People are unemployed, but they do want to contribute," de Graaf said. "People see the volunteer work as fun and meaningful also as a way to get something on their resumes and make contacts. "However, "It's tough to keep an organization functioning that way over time."

Sustainable Seattle held a major fund-raising dinner this week. Other organizations are campaigning for funds on the web.

A third of charities' online donations are made in December, and 22 percent of online gifts are made in the last two days of the year.


John de Graaf, board member of Sustainable Seattle and founder of the Seattle organization Take Back Your Time.

These challenges come at exactly the time when more people will be needing services because state funding for them is being cut. Gov. Chris Gregoire challenged charities to fill in the gaps.

The proposed budget eliminates subsidized basic health insurance by March 1 for 66,000 individuals, saving $48 million. Disability Lifeline and medical programs would also be eliminated to save $43 million for the state.

"For the functions government no longer will be able to provide, we must turn to neighbors, private charities, faith-based organizations, and other local programs," she said.

"We are deeply distressed about the potential elimination of the Disability Lifeline and Basic Health Program," said Richard Bray, director of donor & community relations at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. "The needy associated with these programs are some of the most vulnerable in our state."

St. Vincent de Paul has 53 all-volunteer groups who make home visits to the needy throughout Seattle and King County. The 2-1-1 community services line has referred about 50,000 calls to the organization this year, Bray said.

Eliminating the disability lifeline, the only source of income for many people who are unemployable because of physical or mental disabilities, is likely to increase homelessness, he said. Without health insurance, more people will require costly emergency room visits, Bray added.

Even more reason why Noland hopes that more nonprofits serving the poor will survive into next year.

"I really don't want to see these organizations go belly up," said Noland. "The people they serve are a lot of times between the cracks."

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