By Michael Jacobs
michaeljacobs@reporternewspapers.net

Charities are hopeful of ending this year without a significant decrease in fundraising from 2007 but are fearful of deeper effects on donations and service requests in the year to come.

The recession, particularly since September, has forced organizations such as the United Way of Metro Atlanta into crisis mode, and donors appear to be responding. In many cases, people aren’t giving as much to their preferred nonprofit groups, but more people are deciding to donate if they have avoided layoffs and foreclosures.

“We all have a lot of worries and stresses, but giving to someone else can put things in perspective and give us a little joy,” said Dudley Franklin, the development director of the Buckhead Christian Ministry (BCM).

The bigger issue for some organizations is what happens in 2009 if the economy doesn’t bounce back.

“This year is a cakewalk compared with next year,” said Gary Miller, the CEO of Dunwoody-based Jewish Family & Career Services (JF&CS), which has a satellite office at Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs and serves all of metro Atlanta.

Feeling the squeeze

Groups such as BCM didn’t need to look at their fundraising to see the impact of the recession.

“Before Thanksgiving, the number of people coming to us and asking for help had increased by at least 25 percent. From Thanksgiving on, it’s been even more than that,” Franklin said.

That jump applies to the ministry’s food bank, its assistance with rent and utility bills, and its thrift store, Buckhead Thriftique. Franklin said the requests for financial help would be up more than 25 percent if not for the limited number of phone lines. She also said the ministry gave away more clothing in the first two weeks of December than in the whole month last year, and Thriftique’s stock is critically low.

More than 100 people a day are getting food from the ministry’s pantry, peaking at 140 recently, but Franklin said, “The donations of food we have had this Christmas season have been wonderful.”

The ministry assisted 9,142 people in 2007 and will top 10,000 this year, Franklin said. Maj. Jim Seiler, the Atlanta-area commander of the Salvation Army, is seeing an unprecedented demand for services because of the bad economy. “People who previously were donors have come to us and said they can’t even pay the rent,” Seiler said. “We helped them, knowing full well they’ll be supporters again once they get back on their feet.”

But that situation has put a financial squeeze on the Salvation Army. Seiler budgeted for an increase in the annual Red Kettle campaign from $1.5 million to $1.6 million, but it looks as if the bell ringers won’t even match last year’s total.

Miller said JF&CS is bringing in less revenue for its services as more people who are unable to pay turn to the agency. At the same time, requests for emergency financial assistance from September to November rose 300 percent from a year earlier, and requests for employment assistance rose at least that much.

In a survey of its recipient agencies, the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta found that 80 percent were seeing an increase in the number of people in need of their services, but only 24 percent of them could meet that demand. The United Way also has seen a 20 percent rise in calls for financial assistance.

In response, the United Way launched a critical-needs campaign Dec. 10.

“The economy’s affecting everyone,” United Way spokeswoman Malika White said. “It’s causing some to give a little more. It’s causing some people to hold on because of uncertainty.”

While some companies have extended or delayed their annual United Way campaigns, the umbrella organization is asking people to give whatever they can now to the emergency campaign.

The need hits close to home at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip in Buckhead, which always devotes about a quarter of its annual stewardship campaign to charitable outreach.

“We’re taking care of each other — our members are losing jobs and need help — as well as taking care of our community,” said David Rocchio, the cathedral’s director of charitable giving and stewardship.

He said the 6,786-member congregation is on track to match or exceed last year’s campaign total of $3.6 million, more than $1 million of which goes to charity in the community.

Adjusting the appeal

Nonprofit groups find themselves telling a complicated story to longtime donors and potential givers, making a case for their increased need while showing they are dependable resources in tough times.

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, whose facilities include the Scottish Rite hospital in Sandy Springs, issued a statement that it is financially strong but faces immediate, critical needs that can’t wait for an economic turnaround. Children’s noted that rising unemployment could increase its costs for unreimbursed care, which totaled $98 million last year.

The Cathedral of St. Philip doesn’t have to convince its parishioners of the value of giving but still has a message to convey, Rocchio said. “We’re out there talking with folks about trying to grow their spirituality and trying to grow the practice, whether giving or praying or doing good works.” The church meets with members in small groups encouraging them to pledge together to prevent them from feeling lost in the crowd.

“We’re trying to really communicate with our donors,” the Buckhead Christian Ministry’s Franklin said. “We know that so many people are asking them for help. We want to let them know we’re in a strong position but still have a great need.”

With 10 paid staffers and some 240 volunteers, the ministry has ample opportunities for nonfinancial giving, from food and used clothing to time.

In addition to individual donation losses, JF&CS has lost nearly $500,000 in government funding since July 1 as Georgia has made cuts. When those grants go, the jobs they fund also go.

JF&CS kicked off its annual campaign in April and had raised $886,000 by mid-December. Miller said donors aren’t responding to phone calls now as they did eight months ago. “Donors say, ‘If you force me to talk now and make a gift, it won’t be what you want to see.’ ”

Looking ahead

This is usually the time of year when nonprofit organizations focus on a strong fundraising finish as people donate to get tax deductions.

One problem, Miller said, is that the sharp decline in the stock market has reduced the motivation for donors who typically give $5,000 or more to make an end-of-year donation. Smaller donors, however, are maintaining or even increasing their gifts. The number of donors to the annual campaign is up about 20 percent, from 2,000 to 2,400.

But Miller is worried about 2009. Current reduced funding levels will serve as the basis for the next state budget, and deeper cuts are likely as Georgia’s tax receipts slide.

JF&CS also is a major beneficiary of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and United Way, and both are having trouble collecting on pledges.

St. Philip is confident that parishioners will rise to what figures to be an increasing need in 2009.

The cathedral crafted a zero-growth budget with community charity as one of three priorities, and Rocchio said the early pledges for 2009 are well ahead of the usual pace. “The congregation has responded extraordinarily well for next year.”

The Buckhead Christian Ministry just hopes financial donors can catch up with the efforts of people giving food and time. “I want people to know that this agency is serving their community,” Franklin said. “There are people right here in Buckhead who have lost their jobs and are losing their homes… People can strengthen the community and the people living down the street.”