There’s a common bond among many of the folks who come into the Ballard Community Center these days.
“I see more people who walk through the door with their head down,” director Dianne Ensminger said. “They won’t look you in the eye.”
More often than not, that’s a telltale sign that someone is asking for help for the first time.
Nonprofit services that help those in need are feeling the squeeze from both ends — more people need aid, but there’s less money to provide it.
“I think folks are absolutely worried” about providing needed services, said Erika Dvorske, president and CEO of United Way of Douglas County.
Ensminger said her organization started seeing a marked uptick in requests in summer 2008. In June and July of last year, 1,200 people who the organization had never served before made requests.
Ballard Community Services, which operates four sites, provides a variety of help to those in need, including early education, clothing and food pantries, energy assistance, work development and commodity distribution.
In the past, it has served 20,000 to 25,000 Douglas County residents on its budget, which this year is about $2 million. But Ensminger said the needs will grow this year, and funding from the city and county likely will decrease. Other funding sources — including United Way, donations and other grants — are tough to predict looking into the future.
“We’re looking every single day for additional funding,” she said.
But if it doesn’t come, she said, “You have to look at cutting services to people. We have to turn people away, and they don’t have any other place to go.”
And because so many of the agency’s services are designed to keep people in their homes, as a temporary bridge until they find employment, she knows the people Ballard can’t serve will end up at another type of nonprofit agency — those that provide homeless services.
It’s an SOS signal Dvorske is hearing from many of the 18 member agencies of the county’s United Way.
The 2008-2009 United Way campaign raised $1.7 million, just shy of its $1.72 million goal. Continued fundraising success, both for the campaign and individual organizations, will depend on reaching more people — and not asking more of those already contributing — according to Dvorske.
“We’re trying to connect to more and more people,” she said. “The usual suspects get tapped a lot.”
That might mean having more fundraisers targeted to specific audiences. It also means sending the message about increasing needs in the bad economy.
“We hope that anyone with a job thinks of themselves as a philanthropist,” Dvorske said. “I think this is an opportunity for those of us who think, ‘It’s just the wealthy who give, right?’ Most of us are feeling pretty wealthy if we can go to the grocery store and not think about it.”
And if all else fails, Dvorske said, getting people to donate their time often leads to monetary donations.
“Once they’re involved and they see the impact, they might be more motivated to write a check,” she said.
These are messages Michael Maude sends to his clients on a regular basis. The Lawrence resident owns Partners in Philanthropy, a consulting firm for nonprofits. Tough times tend to separate those organizations that have been doing a good job connecting to their donors from those who haven’t.
“Basically, those organizations that have been doing a good job of stewarding donors, and specifically major-gift donors, and communicating with all their constituents, aren’t seeing much negative impact,” Maude said. “And in fact some are seeing increased contributions — people realize times are tough, and they’re making up for it.
“For organizations that typically have not had development staff and haven’t developed those relations, when times get lean, people step up their donations to organizations they feel a little more connected to.”
But he added: “I don’t think it’s ever too late to start communicating with your constituents, and to involve them in a more substantive way.”
Maude said it’s more important than ever for nonprofit agencies to show their impact on individuals’ lives, and to show their vision for the future.
“Everybody wants to think their gift has impact,” he said.
Nonprofit leaders say bad financial times tend to force creativity that’s not seen in better times.
One example is a the Lawrence GiveBack card, honored by 17 restaurants that allows you to donate 5 percent of your purchase to a charity designated on your card. Checkers grocery store also is participating at 1 percent contribution level. Estimates are that $30,000 could be split among participating agencies in the next year.
“We’re obviously hoping to get more business out of it,” said Doug Holiday, an owner of Bigg’s BBQ, who helped organize the local restaurant group. “We’re hoping it will generate more repetition and more loyalty, and give people a reason to dine at the local restaurants instead of the national chains.”
The bad times also can help organizations see ways to consolidate and streamline efforts they haven’t seen in the past, according to Maude.
And it means reaching more people. Marcia Epstein, director of Headquarters Counseling Center, said her organization ended with a $35,000 shortfall last year. This year, with a cutback in government contributions but an increase in clients, it will hold five different fundraisers, including a brunch, motorcycle rally and golfing event. The past several years, the organization has organized only one fundraiser. She’s hoping the plan works.
“The only way we can cut out a big chunk of money is to cut out a staff position,” said Epstein, whose agency’s budget is around $240,000. “To cut out a staff position with this financial crisis doesn’t seem possible.”
Glimmer of hope
The bad news already has meant cutbacks at Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence, where leaders are expecting a $197,000 budget shortfall this year.
Last month, the organization, which serves 1,200 children daily on a $1.2 million budget, announced it was increasing fees by $10 for the 2009-2010 school year. Leaders also were expecting to lose state grant funds for the West Junior High School site but said they would work with the school district to find a site to serve students from all four junior high schools.
“The kids need us more than ever right now, and yet we have to, at the same time, make sure that we are balancing our budget and doing the best we can,” said Janet Murphy, the organization’s executive director.
Back at the Ballard Community Center, Ensminger paused when she was asked if she’s seen any news that gave her hope at this point.
“I think probably the biggest glimmer of hope I have,” she said, “is that I’ve been in the community for 10 years. And even in difficult times, this community steps up and takes care of its own.”