In the wake of the Great Recession, Pierce County’s nonprofit charity organizations would not seem to have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving season.
The recession tested the limits of nearly all local social service agencies — public and private – and the pressure is just now beginning to ease.
More than one-third of Pierce County residents still qualify for assistance programs provided by the state Department of Social and Health Services. Because of cuts in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also called food stamps, demand at local food banks is going up, not down. The county’s unemployment rate is still close to 8 percent.
But surprisingly, many local charities report their finances are healthier than ever. Donations are up, and in many cases total assets are higher than before the recession officially began in December 2007.
Even some whose bottom lines suffered say they regard the recession as a strengthening experience, one that made their organizations more efficient, more tightly focused and more likely to cooperate with other groups to reach common goals.
“While the Great Recession has been the most challenging period in the history of our organization, for us it has actually been a blessing,” said Mark Starnes, president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of South Puget Sound. “It caused us to get very clear and focused about our mission. It taught us how to do much more with much less.”
By no means did all nonprofits do well during the recession.
In general, funding for children’s programs and food banks grew, while programs for housing and homelessness suffered. Contributions to religious organizations stayed strong, and contributions to organizations dedicated to helping animals went up, in some cases dramatically.
Overall, the fortunes of Pierce County’s charities fit with national trends.
According to the Urban Institute, the revenue of public charities that are dedicated to human services increased 16 percent between 2005 and 2010, the period that encompassed the recession years. Funding for food banks increased throughout the recession, according to surveys supported by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality.
One of the most dramatic recession success stories among Pierce County nonprofits is the Peace Community Center, a group dedicated to supporting needy children in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood. Its budget has nearly tripled since the recession began, said executive director Bill Hanawalt.
“We had a strong base of private support from individuals, foundations, churches and businesses that did not rely too heavily on any single source, so when the recession hit, we were in a strong position to grow,” Hanawalt said. “By focusing on our strategic plan goals, as well as continuing to engage private donors and adding a few public sources to the mix, we were able to grow substantially.”
Nonprofit leaders credit the growth to a combination of more creative fundraising efforts, sharpened focus and the generous response of a community moved by the suffering of those less fortunate than themselves.
As needs in the community soared, Starnes said, the money the Boys & Girls Clubs received from government sources dropped by half. To compensate, he said, the clubs amped up fundraising efforts, creating “a culture of fundraising” that began with board members. Each commits personally to raising $10,000 a year.
The Boys & Girls Clubs cut administrative staff, Starnes said, while boosting the number of workers who interact with children.
“Today,” he said, “we have more program staff in the clubs than pre-recession. This is absolutely necessary because we’re serving 1,500 kids every day — 50 percent more than in 2009.”
At the Humane Society of Pierce County, administrators avoided laying off staff members or cutting programs. In fact, executive director Kathleen Olson said, the organization has added programs to help low-income pet owners pay for food and veterinary care, and it increased programs that provide medical and dental treatment for homeless shelter pets to help them be adopted.
“We’ve seen a healthy increase in individual donor support,” Olson said. “This will allow us to address some needed facility upgrades.”
The number of animals turned in to shelters fell during the recession, Olson said, even though more people gave up pets because of job losses and other economic difficulties.
UNITED WAY HIT HARD
United Way of Pierce County, an umbrella organization that collects worker donations and distributes them to other nonprofits, was hit hard during the recession. Contributions dropped from a record $13.7 million in 2006 to just $8.86 million last year, forcing the organization to cut six of its 33 staff members.
“It’s been a really tough five or six years,” said Rick Allen, United Way’s president and CEO. “It was the worst I’ve seen in my career.”
Allen is retiring next month after 20 years at United Way. News of his replacement is expected next week.
Despite the decline in dollars, Allen remains positive about the effects of the recession years, saying they forced tighter focus and collaboration. United Way is more effective than it was, he said, because it’s smarter about how it spends.
Rather than a scatter-gun approach of funding nonprofits throughout the community, regardless of their charitable purpose, United Way now zeroes in on programs it believes are most effective.
Next year, 75 percent of United Way funds in Pierce County will go to programs designed to help young children, a decision based on studies that show intervention at that age is most effective.
United Way used to measure its success with mock-ups of giant thermometers with the annual goal in dollar signs at the top. That metric no longer makes sense, Allen said, and probably never did.
“Now we measure ourselves by changes in the community and how we leverage our strengths,” he said.
The decline in contributions to United Way was not caused by a decline in individual generosity.
Overall, workers tended to contribute the same proportion of their income through the recession years. Contributions from the wealthiest donors to United Way — those who pledged $500 a year or more — increased through the recession by almost 6 percent, said Maureen Faccia, the charity’s executive vice president.
Much of the decline was a result of changes in the local corporate environment, the effects of which echoed throughout the nonprofit community.
Russell Investments decamped for Seattle in 2010, reducing its employees’ annual donation of $1 million to $40,000; Intel left, too, and Weyerhaeuser continued its downsizing.
Boeing changed its charitable donation formula to send more money to the county where employees work, rather than where they live, Allen said. That cut workers’ annual contributions to United Way to $750,000 from $2.1 million.
More broadly, Allen said, the fates of various local charities during and after the recession were affected by a general change in attitude of those who give.
Donors increasingly want to know where their money is going and want proof it’s doing some good.
“People want to be more connected,” he said. “They’re not willing to just put their money in a pot and just say, ‘Do with it what you think is the right thing.’”
OVERWHELMED BY NEED
Overall, charities that help the Pierce County’s homeless population and people with disabilities did not fare well during the recession, leaders of those organizations say.
Helping Hand House, a Puyallup-based organization that helps find housing for homeless families, initially grew during the recession, said its director, Duke Paulson.
“The community that supports us actually increased its support,” he said. “People were very aware of homelessness and support was very strong.”
More recently though, he said, Helping Hand has been overwhelmed by the extent of need.
“The strain has really hit us and our community harder,” Paulson said. “It feels like we are still lagging behind the economic improvements.
“We’ve seen a reduction in funding for homeless in charitable giving, and it’s caused us to reduce staff in the last 18 months much more then we had to from 2008 to 2011.”
The Tacoma Area Coalition of Individuals with Disabilities, the organization that traditionally has offered most help to people with disabilities in Pierce County, suffered even worse. Ken Gibson, who took over as director in 2010, just months after the recession officially ended, said he found an organization in distress.
“A lot of important things were deferred and became expenditures we had to make by going into our reserves,” he said.
State programs were slashed and fundraising efforts foundered.
“What many people needed was rent assistance or help bridging gaps,” Gibson said. “Most agencies simply don’t have a surplus of funds to provide that, and private philanthropy won’t pick up the slack.”
This year, TACID eliminated programs that provided housing for the disabled, and it reluctantly shut down another program that helped older blind adults live independently.
TACID’s 2014 budget is half what it was in 2013, Gibson said, and it cut the jobs of six staff members.
The organization increasingly relies on volunteer efforts by its own clients, who are expected to provide nearly 20,000 hours of volunteer time in 2014.
The Tacoma-based Rescue Mission grew during the recession, said executive director Brian Sonntag.
The mission’s growth in revenue was slight (to $5.5 million in 2012 from $5 million in 2008), but Sonntag said there was major growth in terms of the number of people served, which he credits in large part to the community’s generosity.
The mission employs 65 people, “but on any given day we have 80 to 100 volunteers at our six facilities,” Sonntag said.
“People care,” he said, “and people want to help.”
Evidence of that caring, Sonntag said, was apparent last week.
With just a week until Thanksgiving Day — one of the biggest days for meals at the mission — there was just one turkey in the freezer. Sonntag put the word out, and the next day a parade of cars made their way through the mission’s parking lot on South Tacoma Way.
“People were pulling up with turkeys in their trunks,” he said. “By the end of the day we had 76 turkeys in the freezer.”
That goes a long way toward explaining what happened during the recession, he said.
“When people know about the need, they respond,” he said. “That’s really the key element.”
IF YOU WANT TO HELP
Contact information for the organizations mentioned in this story:
Boys & Girls Clubs of South Puget Sound
3875 S. 66th St., Tacoma
Peace Community Center
2106 S. Cushman Ave., Tacoma
Humane Society of Pierce County
2608 Center St., Tacoma
United Way of Pierce County
1501 Pacific Ave., No. 400, Tacoma
Helping Hand House
4321 Second St. SW, Puyallup
6315 S. 19th St., Tacoma
Tacoma Rescue Mission
425 S. Tacoma Way, Tacoma
Rob Carson: 253-597-8693