More local charities look to Internet as donors hesitate

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter



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If you go

• What: Annual holiday party for Share clients, staff and the whole community.

• When: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15.

• Where: Fraternal Order of Eagles, 107 East Seventh Street.

• Cost: Free and open to the public.

• Donations and gift items gratefully accepted: New clothing for men and women, all sizes; board games and books; gift cards for groceries, clothing, bus passes, gasoline; cash. Deliver gifts to the Share Fromhold Service Center, 2306 N.E. Andresen Road.

• On the Web:

Cash donations are only slightly down — about three percent from last year to this — at Share, Clark County’s flagship provider of services to the hungry and homeless. Share operates shelters, soup kitchens, subsidy programs and lots more; it’s probably the leading local brand when it comes to tending the poor. That may be why the donation drop hasn’t been severe.

Share works hard at keeping that brand in the public eye though high-profile fundraisers like “Hoops on the River,” a public basketball tournament that drew so many participants and fans, it won a Clark County Tourism Award.

And then there’s the Internet.

“We do so much social media,” said spokeswoman Jessica Lightheart, who keeps busy with Share’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, and through them community partners interested in helping out — from supermarkets hosting benefit sales to families holding bike trips and flea markets. “It’s just easier for people to ... feel a little more engaged,” she said. “A lot of the people who donate through the Internet are giving very small amounts, but every dollar matters.”

The Internet is the wave of the fundraising future — but it can be a tough nut for some to crack, said Jeanne Kojis, executive director of the Nonprofit Network of Southwest Washington. You can jazz up your website and add a big red “Donate” button, she said, but if your clients and fans tend not to be Internet browsers, it’s not going to help much.

Slowing trend

In the period from Oct. 1 to Nov. 30, 2010, just over $11,000 in cash donations came to the Children’s Center, a private nonprofit mental health agency. This year, during the same two-month period, just under $2,000 came in.

“That’s a dramatic change,” said development director Kim Hash. “We are definitely noticing a slowing trend.”

The need is booming for the Children’s Center, with a client load of nearly 1,000 children and families, but the government grants and contracts that fuel the agency have been shrinking and coming with more strings attached, founding therapist and executive director Pat Beckett said. Some insist no more than 10 percent may be spent on operational overhead, she said.

“I’m sorry, but you cannot sustain a well-run agency on that,” she said. Like many other nonprofit agency managers, she is bracing for the worst with a new round of budget cuts expected out of Olympia.

All of which has prompted the Children’s Center to hire a development director, raise its profile and diversify its income sources — looking more than ever to its home community for help.

That’s what every struggling charity and nonprofit agency is doing, Beckett said. “What blows my mind is that every nonprofit in town is knocking on the same doors,” she said.

Bigger asks, fewer answers

“People who are known to be generous in the community are facing more and larger ‘asks’ from organizations,” said Kojis of the Nonprofit Network. “If you are known to be someone who’s very supportive of the community, then you’re on everybody’s list. That’s got to be a challenge. If you’re somebody who cares and you see the need expanding and deepening, it’s got to be disheartening.”

That doesn’t mean those folks aren’t giving as much as ever, she pointed out — it just means the need is outpacing their considerable generosity.

Businesses, meanwhile, are looking to get marketing mileage out of their charitable gifts, she said.

“It’s a little more strategic than it used to be,” Kojis said. “People didn’t used to think it through, but now they’re thinking, ‘How do we want to be perceived as a community partner? What’s the best way to support the community that’s in line with our values, and in line with who we want to market to?”

The Community Foundation for Southwest Washington, a major local clearinghouse for millions in charitable funds, had a record year in 2010 thanks to some major donations aimed at big community projects — the new library, the new food bank — but this year, large-scale giving definitely softened, executive director Rick Melching said. The creation of new funds at the foundation has slowed, he said, and some of his reliable deep-pocketed donors have delayed giving now, opting instead to set up bequest gifts that will pay out after they’re dead.

That’s the mark of an aging population newly worried about its own solvency, he said. “A lot of people figured the economy would have picked up again by now,” Melching said.