Jan. 4 began, like every other day for more than 40 years, with Linda Lassen still working at Penn House in Lawrence. By the time night fell, Lassen's time at Penn House was over.
That may seem a sudden end to a decades-long career. But as other Lawrence nonprofit leaders can tell you, social service agencies can never be sure that what's there today will be there tomorrow.
Leaders who spoke with the Journal-World were careful not to comment on or speculate about the decision by Ballard Community Services to lay off Lassen and another Penn House employee last week. But they said life at an area social service agency is always uncertain, and they can never be sure they won't experience a day like Ballard just did.
"I could face that tomorrow," said Joan Schultz, executive director of the Willow Domestic Violence Center.
Social service agencies are under financial pressure for a number of reasons, including the poor state of the economy, feared cuts in state and federal funding and the agencies' chronic budget tightness. In Douglas County, changes in the United Way's funding philosophy also have changed the landscape for certain agencies—and the local United Way fell short of its initial fundraising goal for this year.
In Willow's case, state and federal grants make up about three-fourths of its annual budget. But any group that's dependent on grants or donations to survive operates at the whims of economic trends, she said.
"A precarious financial position is the nature of nonprofits," Schultz said.
Management at Ballard Community Services, which oversees staffing at Penn House, told the Journal-World earlier this month that the layoffs were a budgetary necessity.
Ballard officials this week directed the Journal-World to president and CEO Dianne Ensminger for comment for this story. Ensminger replied, through another administrator, that she could not comment on the layoffs because it was a private personnel issue. Later in the week the Journal-World requested comments on the general state of the Ballard Center, but Ensminger could not be reached.
Lassen, too, declined a full-scale interview. She had been at Penn House since it opened in 1969, and even held her wedding there.
Reached by phone this week, she said the situation surrounding her departure was "sad," and she didn't wish to draw more attention to it.
Lassen did confirm that she had posted a comment under the online version of last week's story, which drew more than 250 comments in all. In the LJWorld.com comment, she thanked others for their support, and encouraged them to still consider donating clothes and food to Penn House.
"We have families that come to Penn House that have no money to buy clothes," Lassen wrote. "We are the only free clothes pantry in town. I am sad I won't be working and talking with you as often."
When the United Way of Douglas County adopted a new funding philosophy in 2012, Ballard faced the greatest funding cut of any agency: about $102,000. Other organizations received funding increases as the United Way focused on programs that fit under one of three community goals: education, self-sufficiency and health.
Erika Dvorske, executive director of the local United Way, said 2012 was a "challenging year" for fundraising, both around Douglas County and elsewhere.
Through December, the United Way's annual giving campaign in Douglas County lagged behind the previous year's pace. Officials announced this week, however, that they projected the campaign would at least match last year's total, $1.7 million.
Dvorske said that in conversations with United Way leaders in other parts of the state — Topeka, Hutchinson and Dodge City — they'd told her they were experiencing similar difficulty. And community needs have not gone away.
"The awareness that we're not able to meet everyone's needs is a constant pressure on social services," Dvorske said.
She noted that the number of tax-exempt nonprofit organizations across the country, after booming during the 1990s and part of the 2000s, actually declined in 2011 for the first time in 20 years. According to a report by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, that was partly because the Internal Revenue Service had begun to revoke tax-exempt status from groups that hadn't filed proper paperwork. But the number of groups applying for charitable status has also been in decline since the economic downturn in 2008.
Dvorske said Douglas County had followed a similar pattern.
Jeremy Farmer, CEO of Just Food, said the hunger-fighting program had remained stable and avoided cuts recently.
"But we understand the tension that exists there, and the fact that could go away at any moment," Farmer said.
The way for service agencies to succeed, he said, is to specialize in a single area where they can work efficiently and cooperate with other organizations to reach people. After the proliferation of organizations during the past two decades, he said, things are different.
"Whether or not people want to admit it, we're all in competition for resources, because we all want to do the same things," Farmer said.
Just Food wants to serve as the county's central resource for sustainable food distribution for low-income people, he said. That's why it recently announced it will stock the food pantries at the Ballard Center, Penn House and Salvation Army to allow those places to focus on other responsibilities.
The Douglas County Child Development Association is another agency that has fared well recently, said executive director Anna Jenny. Its early-childhood programs have grown in the past three or four years.
But even Jenny has reason to be nervous: She's concerned about state funding for early-childhood services, which could decline in 2014 as a result of reduced settlement payments from Big Tobacco companies. She'll have a close eye on the upcoming Kansas Legislature session.
State grants make up about half of the Child Development Association's $1.7 million budget.
"There will be a number of classrooms that serve low-income families that will have to close," Jenny said, if those grants don't come through for 2014.
Jenny said she's also concerned about the impact of last year's large-scale state income tax cuts on future funding. Other leaders echoed that fear.
Though funding may be shaky, Dvorske said the Lawrence social service community should really be judged on its outcomes for residents in need. In that area, she said she would rate the area "high and improving."
And additional volunteers can help. Agencies could especially use passionate leaders and board members to help them navigate uncertainty, she said.
"If people really want to make a difference, I think being engaged in the leadership of these agencies is a great opportunity," Dvorske said.