Area Charities Struggle to Cope with Hard Times

December 22, 1991|By LAURA LIPPMAN

Christmas dinners, adopt-a-family programs and toy drives seem to survive in the worst of times, but 1992 looks dismal for the non-profit agencies that serve the state's needy. It's rewarding to present a gift to a homeless child. Writing a check so a shelter can have enough towels doesn't provide the same psychic lift.

Meanwhile, the state's economy has put non-profits in a double bind: The money dwindles as the need increases.

Because corporations and individuals are hurting, fund-raising drives have been lagging much of the year. The United Way of Central Maryland already has lost hope of reaching its $33.2 million goal and wants only to match last year's $31.9 million. If it raises less, it will mark the first time in the agency's history that donations have decreased from one year to the next.

Other groups also have lowered their expectations and given up the lavish events they once used to raise money. For example, the Baltimore-area March of Dimes' "Gourmet Gala," was canceled after only three companies agreed to donate $5,000 each, compared to 12 in 1990. Lifesongs 1991, an AIDS benefit, found itself $25,000 short when Maryland National Bank cut back on its charitable giving.

At the same time, the economic woes that have made fund-raising so difficult have created greater demand for the services these agencies provide. As more and more workers lose their jobs, benefactors turn into clients.

Finally, the state's proposed cuts to social service programs, such as family welfare and general public assistance, are expected to strain non-profits even further. Some feel government takes charities for granted, expecting them to provide what the state will not.

"I think the community at large does not realize the import of non-profits and how many services are provided through a non-profit organization," said Esther Reaves, director of Midtown Churches Community Association, which operates soup kitchens and homeless shelters.

"If every non-profit didn't operate for a day, what would happen to the city? There would be thousands of people who wouldn't eat, thousands of people who wouldn't have shelter, thousands of people who wouldn't get shelter of any kind."

At the United Way's "First Call for Help," a 24-hour hotline, telephone calls are up from an average of 2,000 a month to almost 3,000, said director Joan Biegeleisen. Many of the calls are for what Ms. Biegeleisen calls "staff of life" help -- food, clothing, shelter, counseling.

"The phones are literally ringing off the hooks," said United Way spokesman Mel Tansill. Last month, WMAR-TV broadcast the telephone number on a Saturday afternoon, in connection with a fund-raising drive for the Maryland Food Bank. The lone volunteer was overwhelmed by the huge volume of calls -- 300 in one afternoon.

There is some good news, however, that could melt the heart of the steeliest Scrooge.

At the United Way, 26 companies participating for the first time gave more than $35,000. Sixteen companies whose staffs are smaller this year increased their per capita giving. Forty companies posted significant increases overall, from 5.1 percent Anne Arundel Medical Center to 280.4 percent at Alliant Techsystems.

The Maryland Food Bank has raised $111,000 in its annual Bags of Plenty campaign and is hopeful of making its target of $150,000. At Midtown Churches, "donations are just fine," Ms. Reaves said.

What accounts for such largess in hard times?

"Whenever the economy has been sluggish, people respond more than they would normally," Mr. Tansill said. "They become aware of the needs in their community."

The problem, Mr. Tansill said, is that these people cannot make up for the 14,000-plus jobs lost at the campaign's top 50 companies. The pool of possible donors is just too small.

Ms. Reaves has enough donors and volunteers, but too many clients. "The people are really wonderful, fabulous, exuberant. The problem is, that with all the wonderful, fabulous, exuberant people, we have twice as many people who are needing services."

There is no slowdown in sight, Ms. Reaves said. By Jan. 1, 1992, she believes there will be another wave of homeless people because of the Dec. 1 reductions in welfare and general public assistance.

Meanwhile, soup kitchens will continue feeding thousands of people every day. Last month, on an average Wednesday in Baltimore, almost 6,000 meals were served at soup kitchens throughout the city.

It sounds hopeless, said Frank Gunther of the Baltimore-based Partners for Giving, but the trick is to give what you can, in time or money. No one will turn down a donation because it's too small, he said. Even $1 a week can make a difference.

"We feel pretty good when we see the thousands of people who get a good Thanksgiving meal, but we forget those people have to eat every day," Mr. Gunther said. "People are not cold one day, they're cold every day. The governor asks, 'Am I my brother's keeper?' Well, yes I am."

@4 Laura Lippman is a reporter for The Evening Sun.

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