Need rises as giving falls

Amid economic slowdown, Maryland charities fear that fundraising will fall far short of goals

August 15, 2008|By Lorraine Mirabella and Julie Scharper | Lorraine Mirabella and Julie Scharper,Sun reporters

More people than ever are calling the Salvation Army's Baltimore offices this year, asking for help paying their utility bills or for food to feed their families. And contributions from individuals, the charity says, are down $100,000 from a year earlier.

Around the state, nonprofits are seeing donations fall and pleas for help increase. Their costs to supply food and other assistance are soaring. And they worry that fundraising will fall far short of goals this year, with even the most steadfast of donors, from individuals to foundations, tapped out in light of the economic slowdown.

"Never in 40 years have I seen the number of negatives out in the community that we have no control over, that not only impact our ability to raise funds ... but also has an impact on agencies providing services to the community," said Larry Walton, president of the United Way of Central Maryland.

Though food banks are seeing unprecedented numbers of needy people, some are reducing hours and the amount of food distributed because big grocery chains and individuals alike are giving less.

Sales are up at some of its thrift stores, the Salvation Army says, yet donations are down. In the Baltimore area, the charity has received 35,147 requests through July for help with utility bills, up from 16,240 at the same time last year. Meanwhile, donations from individuals are down.

"A lot of that is ... the $25 checks," said Maj. Roger Coulson, an area commander for parts of the Baltimore region. "Part of that might be concern about what the economy will show in the next six months, the uncertainty of whether they will continue to have a job.

"When you decide where to cut, charitable giving is one area where you may have to curtail or decrease temporarily," he said.

Last year, charitable giving from individuals, foundations and corporations rose 3.9 percent from 2006, to an estimated $306.39 billion nationwide, according to the Giving USA Foundation, which tracks public charities. The group noted that a strong stock market in the first half of the year helped lift giving, despite worries later about rising gas prices and the housing and mortgage crisis.

"In the last quarter, we saw a very serious cooling of giving at all levels," said Bob Evans, a consultant to nonprofits with EHL Consulting Group in Philadelphia. "We need people to feel that they're well-to-do, regardless of where they are on the spectrum of income."

Some experts and nonprofit directors fear that the worst is still ahead. It could take until the end of the year, after fundraising campaigns are concluded, for some groups to assess the impact and whether they need to seek new funding sources or cut services. Some foundations that invest in the stock market are finding that they might have to become more selective or decrease their giving, said Trudy Jacobson, development director for Maryland Nonprofits, a statewide association.

"Appreciated stock gifts are a tremendous funding source," said Walton of the United Way. "People who pledge annual gifts pay with appreciated stock, and it's a good tax write-off. But right now, appreciated stock is hard to find because the market has taken such a dip. There will be some that cannot give at the level they did before."

Walton said that the United Way, which supports groups such as the American Red Cross and Meals on Wheels, has not yet begun its annual workplace giving campaign but that the charity expects support to be down, especially among lower-wage earners.

Moveable Feast, which delivers meals to homebound patients with AIDS and breast cancer, says the cost of preparing and delivering 3,100 medically nutritious meals a week in the Baltimore area has risen up to 15 percent, or about $3,000 a month. So far, the group has avoided cutting services, instead scrambling to find farms and bakeries to donate food.

In the Baltimore area, the Salvation Army has been able to provide some help to most who contact the agency through its busy telephone switchboard, Coulson said.

"My biggest concern is that those that are having difficulty getting through and give up and those who aren't accustomed to asking for help are still sitting there with cutoff notices or putting it on their credit cards, and the crisis will come into play in November or December," Coulson said.

Richard Spencer, 56, a self-employed painting contractor from West Baltimore, said that the high cost of heating bills over the winter caught him by surprise and that before he knew it, his BGE bill grew to $1,800.

"Work has been a little slow and I got behind," Spencer said.

He thought he qualified for a social services grant of $600 but was later told that no money was available. After he called dozens of agencies, the Salvation Army said it could offer two $500 grants if he could come up with the rest.

The wave of people looking for help includes those across the financial spectrum, not just low-wage earners or the chronically unemployed, nonprofit directors say.

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