Saturday, December 13, 2008

Economy squeezes Dallas-area nonprofits

Thanks to the Dallas Morning News for their report, "Economy squeezes Dallas-area nonprofits":

Economy squeezes Dallas-area nonprofits
By DIANNE SOLÍS / The Dallas Morning News

Already, there are fewer classes on diabetes prevention, checks for emergency rent assistance and runners at the biggest cancer race in Dallas. In Mesquite, there are 286 applicants hungry to get their high school equivalency diploma, but there's no money.

These are the front-line challenges for nonprofit agencies working to provide services to the most vulnerable as the recession deepens and worry spreads.

"People are scared," Florencia Velasco Fortner, chief executive officer of the Dallas Concilio of Hispanic Service Organizations, said in a statement echoed in Texas social service agencies.

The Concilio offers health and parent-education programs and provides consulting services for more than four dozen other agencies. Ms. Fortner started the year with a $1.1 million budget – down roughly $200,000 from the previous year – and a decision not to hire three full-time staffers.

That meant the Concilio didn't expand its network of walking and nutrition clubs. The agency now uses more college interns and what amounts to a "seasonal" social worker.

One payday from crisis
Mesquite Social Services has seen a 20 percent increase in clients so far this year compared with the same period last year, executive director Alex Priakos said. Already one pot of money is dry: a one-time rent-assistance program that provides up to $250 per family.

Ms. Priakos is particularly worried because more than half of her agency's clients lack a high school diploma and are living paycheck to paycheck. "One crisis could tip them over," she said.

The agency provides food and rental, mortgage and utility assistance to 10,000 people a year. It planned to launch a high school diploma equivalency program and even had applicants, but the funding didn't come through, she said.

In October, 80 fewer runners turned out for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. The entry fee was $30. But it was in April that worries really mounted for Chris Packard, executive director of the race's Dallas County event, which draws 25,000 participants. Nearly a third of corporate sponsors said they doubted they would participate.

"We kept getting this, 'No, no, no.' " It was the fallout from the housing tailspin, said Mr. Packard, who eventually found new corporate sponsors.

Faced with the sour economy, a standing-room-only crowd turned up three weeks ago for a public tutorial called "Continuing the Good Amid an Economic Crisis," sponsored by the Center for Nonprofit Management. In fact, in the last six months, enrollment at all of the center's classes has nearly doubled.

"Folks just begged us to come and stand in the back of the room," said Cynthia Nunn, head of the center. The free tutorial will be offered again in January.

'Uncharted waters'
Grim news on the economic front has been arriving at a steady pace. Last week, the Federal Reserve in Dallas said the Texas economy had finally hit the brakes. And the nation's unemployment rate catapulted to 6.7 percent in November.

"These are uncharted waters not only for our country and but for our nonprofits," said Jan Pruitt, the chief executive officer of the North Texas Food Bank. "We are calling it a triple threat. Times like this can trigger a decrease in donations and increase in demand and rising operating costs."

The North Texas Food Bank serves 260 nonprofits that provide food at more than 900 venues. Programs include Friday distributions of backpacks stocked with four weekend meals for children.

At the start of its fiscal year July 1, the nonprofit began implementing a plan to double food distribution over the next three years. But Ms. Pruitt said the aggressive expansion is now a challenge, and in October, the agency did not meet its new goals.

"Where will corporate giving be?" Ms. Pruitt said. "Where will foundation giving be? Investments are down."

Many agencies aren't cutting services, though. But they aren't filling vacant posts either. Clients in need are likely to get service from volunteers and university interns. Other agencies are starting fee-for-services programs.

The Resource Center of Dallas, which serves gays, lesbians and the transgendered, has seen a jump in users at its free library, with its bank of computers and a librarian to assist in job searches. The center has operated a food pantry in the Oak Lawn area for years and must move by the end of January.

The unexpected expense put the agency into fundraising overdrive at a time when demand for services is peaking, executive director Mike McKay said.

Still, the agency hasn't cut services, though it will start charging fees for some of its diversity training programs, Mr. McKay said.

Likewise, the Dallas Children's Advocacy Center plans to launch fee-based training "webinars." The center, which serves abused children, is cutting travel by 90 percent but isn't scaling back services, executive director Lynn Davis said.

Domestic abuse fears
Hard times often cause spikes in domestic violence. Indeed, need is up at the Genesis Women's Shelter. The agency hasn't cut services even though donations have fallen, said Kristin Howell, the shelter's development director.

Genesis staffers remain worried. If women are assaulted, fleeing the abuse isn't easy during a down economy.

One bright spot: This year, for the first time ever, the shelter's thrift store reached $1 million in sales. The store's shoppers save money buying discounted clothing.