Nonprofits in peril
Durango’s charitable organizations face challenging times

Ethan Bennett, 9, returns a volly to Christian Henry, also 9 (not pictured), while playing ping-pong at the Boys and Girls Club last month. Local nonprofit orgnazations are finding it harder to make ends meet as donors’ wallets close up and federal coffers run dry in response to worsening economic conditions. Unfortunately, the shortfalls come at a time when the services of organizations like the Boys & Girls Club are most needed, as parents work longer hours. /Photo by David Halterman

by Stew Mosberg

Charity, it is said, begins at home, and for Durangoans, home encompasses an inordinately high number of charities. The Colorado Secretary of State office lists more than 75 of them operating within local city limits. Many people involved in the human services sector in La Plata County say that real number is closer to 200. Evidence of the not-for-profit proliferation can be found in Durango’s omnipresent fund-raising events and calls for volunteers. They are pleas that rarely go unanswered by local citizens.

When the economy is strong, and discretionary income is available, most willingly support the request. But with the nation’s economy at its weakest level in decades, many who typically contribute to their favorite charities are now finding they themselves are in need of assistance.

Government funding for not-for-profit organizations has been curtailed; many businesses who willingly gave of their services and products can no longer afford to do so; and people who were quick to write a check now have to cut back on giving because of the demands on their household budgets.

Times are tough for everyone, and charities are no exception, creating a dangerous paradox. At the same time organizations are cutting back on services, more people are in need of those very services.

Al Spungen, president of Manna – The Durango Soup Kitchen, recently met with a woman who came into his office in need of assistance. “She started sobbing, and I told her there was no need to cry, then she told me she was crying because two months before she had been volunteering here.”

Spungen went on to say that donations of both food and money are down at the soup kitchen by 30 percent. At the same time, however, the soup kitchen’s costs and operating expenses have gone up.

When asked how the kitchen was going to continue supporting the community’s growing need, Spungen raised concerns shared by many other not-for-profit organizations. “We plan to increase our (request for) grant money and add one event in December,” he said. “To be more effective, we’re trying to work out a system with other, sister type organizations.”

Volunteer Ruth Guarino wraps presents for the less fortunate at Manna Soup Kitchen last week. Donations of both food and money are down at the soup kitchen by 30 percent./Photo by David Halterma

Sarah Smith, director of the Durango Food Bank, said her nonprofit is facing more than a drop in donations. “Even though emphasis is placed on the decrease in donations, we have experienced a decrease in volunteer hours,” she said. “People are struggling. Volunteering is not something that people even consider when there are so many pressing issues in their lives. Without volunteers, it isn’t possible to get the food to people, even if our shelves are overflowing. We appreciate anyone who gives of their time to any nonprofit – they all make a difference!”

Thirty percent is a figure that comes up in many discussions about the economic impacts on the human service sector, and not just in La Plata County. A recent Associated Press story noted that the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, for example, has seen a 30 percent increase in those needing food. That increase could lead to rationing of food supplies at the food bank for the first time in 26 years. In another example, Moody’s Investor Services has projected an overall loss of 30 percent for college and university endowments this year.

Katie Tiernan, executive director at the Women’s Resource Center (WRC), said she has not seen a downturn in attendance at fund-raisers or in membership, but business has gone up. In the June-July period alone, resource referrals tripled, with an average of 150 calls coming in per month. “There has been a definite increase in the number of people coming in the door needing financial, medical and food assistance,” she said.

Tiernan pointed out that with fewer finances available, drastic measures need to be taken to offset the center’s reduced revenue. “The WRC hopes to remain open 40 hours a week,” she said. “But in order to do so, a budget cut of about $15,000 will come from a staff layoff that I hope to fill with volunteers.”

All this comes at a time when Colorado is experiencing the fastest growing level of children’s poverty in America. In addition, most nonprofit directors anticipate that available grant money for 2009 will be way down from previous years, and obtaining business sponsors for fund-raising events might be more difficult.

Vaughn Morris, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of La Plata County, said he expects to see greater member enrollment as parents work longer hours and or cannot afford day care. With 370 children ages 6-18 years of age in the Club’s afterschool programs, he commented, he is prepared to reduce the projected budget. “We will be looking at a grant-writing push for foundation money but recognize that money comes from the foundation’s own endowments, which depend on investment trusts, so there won’t be as much available,” he said. “We’ll have to work twice as hard for half as much.”

However, Morris remained optimistic and noted that the Durango community has been known to do amazing things. “I believe when times are tough, people in Durango come together,” he said. •



In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows