Local charities feel pinch as donor fatigue, economy take toll

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 
photoSalvation Army bell ringer Victoria Durham gets a thrill, and young philanthropist Amelia Gray gets a little lesson about giving, at Walmart near the I-205 offramp at Mill Plain. Volunteerism is up, local charities and nonprofits are saying, but donor fatigue has set in as the Great Recession grinds on.

(/The Columbian)

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How much coinage will clink in Victoria Durham’s little red kettle this holiday season?

It remains to be seen. Durham is thrilled just to get paid minimum wage to ring that Salvation Army bell and beam at Walmart shoppers.

“I’m enjoying myself,” said Durham, a drug court graduate who’s been clean and sober for six months. “My bucket is making money and I’ve got a job.”

But Debbie Daggett of Vancouver hesitated before she dropped in a dollar. Her sister is losing her home, she said, and that dollar could be useful handling that family crisis. “I do it every year and I will do it this year,” she said of her kettle contributions, “but times are a lot harder now.”

Kim Gray didn’t have to think about it. She fished out some change and sent over her daughter, Amelia, to make the deposit. It was a teachable moment, she said.

“I feel we’re very fortunate,” Gray said. “We don’t have a fancy car or fancy house by any means, but we are thankful for what we have. All our bills are paid. We can help other people who aren’t as fortunate as we are.”

“That’s Vancouver,” said Sally Burnham, a Salvation Army case worker who came by to see how things were going. “This is really a giving community.”

Clark County prides itself on generosity. Look no farther than Walk & Knock, our highest-profile charitable project, which once again deployed thousands of volunteers on the first Saturday in December to collect approximately 140 tons of donated food. Local food banks say Walk & Knock is their biggest boon of the year, providing months’ worth of storable sustenance for the needy.

But Walk & Knock’s 2011 spoils are down from the record-setting year before, which brought in about 166 tons.

The seasonal landscape is replete with toy barrels, giving trees, coat collections, benefit concerts, Secret Santas and other grass-roots efforts to help the needy. But a Columbian survey of local nonprofit agencies the week after Thanksgiving turned up many reports of sagging private donations amid rising need.

A few charities said community generosity is holding up despite widespread unemployment, budget cuts and belt tightening. More reported cash gifts shrinking but volunteerism exploding, as caring citizens substitute personal time and effort for the dollars they’d rather not give away.

And some charities said donations are way down, leading them to contemplate curtailed services and shortened operating hours — not to mention professional fundraising officers and techniques. Organizations that are already Internet-savvy, and have Internet-savvy supporters, are doing better than those who still haven’t joined the 21st century.

“We haven’t put a lot of effort into fundraising. We don’t really have the time or expertise in that area, and we’ve been blessed so far,” said Steve Rusk, business manager for the Salvation Army of Clark County. “But now, we’re going to have to work a lot harder.”

Cost effective

Donations are severely down at the Salvation Army, which cut a quarter of its staff and curtailed some after-school programs for children earlier this year. Unless something changes, more of the same is in store for 2012, Rusk said.

“We are down more than $10,000, year to date, in kettles alone and falling daily,” Rusk said. “Donations overall are down more than $40,000, year to date.”

The Salvation Army of Clark County has a budget of approximately $3.2 million, Rusk said, and with that money it provides everything from emergency food, utility and rent assistance to housing subsidies and case management for people who have been homeless — or who could be, without help. It’s seen a 24 percent rise in clientele over the past three years — up to 1,500 households last year.

What the Salvation Army does isn’t necessarily “sexy,” Rusk pointed out — providing subsidies and staving off homelessness — but it is effective, he said. “It’s not as attractive and ‘feel-good’ as giving to the shelter or the soup kitchen, but it’s more cost effective if we keep people in their own homes.”

Ringing bells

The agency’s budget is driven largely by the familiar bell ringers who stand outside of stores, politely pursuing shoppers’ spare change, during the holiday season. The other big revenue generator is direct-mail appeals to regular supporters. (Salvation Army Thrift shops don’t feed the local organization directly; they are a self-sustaining effort with revenues sent up the line to the national umbrella group.)

But for the last three years, Rusk said, proceeds from these individual sources have been sagging. So have a handful of big gifts from deep-pocketed local donors.

“We count on some large donations, and we’re not seeing them,” Rusk said. “We still have a large, faithful donor base, but the average donation is going down.”

The Salvation Army of Clark County has no development director, Rusk said, and its board isn’t big on hosting events, where costs can outrun benefits. But it recently has taken a marketing step it once reviled: telephone solicitations.

“We used to say, with confidence and pride, that we’d never do that. Times have changed,” Rusk said. Phone outreach is making sure to tap lapsed donors, he said, and getting great results from that.

In a way, he said, it’s too bad. “Who wants get to get those calls? I don’t like getting them either.”