Inspiration from Nonprofits Surviving the Recession

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August 17, 2011; Source: Tinley Park Patch | You can’t help but be touched by the stories of regular local nonprofits trying to navigate the recession. Across the country, nonprofits that we rarely hear about in the national press (or at meetings of national nonprofit infrastructure organizations) are trying to make do in at a time of reduced charitable giving. Our analysis here at NPQ is that raising money has been much tougher for these small, local nonprofits than for the big nationals, requiring local groups to be creative and agile in order to survive.

Take, for example, the Bridge Teen Center in the Chicago suburb of Orland Park, founded by Rob and Priscilla Steinmetz in 2010. To generate programming, the Steinmetzes draw on a variety of local resources that are free or don’t cost much money. For example, they recruited a Best Buy employee to volunteer to teach a 90-minute course on break dancing.

But volunteers can only go so far. Rob Steinmetz says the Teen Center is “desperate” for a full-time person to work on programming. He sometimes overhears conversations among kids at the center who talk about losing their homes because their parents are out of work. The Steinmetzes realize that it’s important to keep the Teen Center running, not only because it gives kids a place to go, but also because it is an island in a sea of social problems that an under-resourced teen hangout simply cannot address.

Note that the Steinmetzes picked the middle of the Great Recession to start up their nonprofit. Maybe that was because the economic downturn made existing needs more obvious and palpable. For example, teen unemployment among 16- to 19-year-olds this summer was 24 percent, compared to only 13 percent in 2000. The coordinator of the Orland Township Food Pantry reports an increase in the number of families coming for food. Goodwill Industries of Southwest Wisconsin and Metropolitan Chicago has increased the number of job-training centers it operates, apparently because more people are unemployed, both teens and adults.

Nonprofits that don’t necessarily focus on responding to the recession also face economic challenges. The Pediatric Oncology Treasure Chest Foundation (POTCF), also based in Orland Park, sends toys and gift cards to some 7,700 young chemotherapy patients in 13 states. The founder, Colleen Kisel, reports that donors “are definitely scaling back.” The patients’ fathers help raise money for POTCF, and typically bring more in each year, but Kisel reports “our dads brought in $6,000 less than the year before.” Still, she is making ends meet and finding ways to cover shortfalls, a point of pride for her. But the reality is that some of the most reliable charitable donors aren’t able to be all that reliable in the midst of a recession.

Nonetheless, there is no question that groups such as POTCF and the Bridge Teen Center exemplify the commitment of nonprofits in this nation to persevere and live out their missions no matter the economic challenges.—Rick Cohen