April 20, 2010; Modesto Bee | Maybe it’s the nature of nonprofit work. How else do you explain the fact that as organizations face shrinking revenues and increasing demands for services that are straining some to the breaking point, the people running them still find reasons to be optimistic?

Part of the answer has to be the kind of individuals that are attracted to this work and who see their job as much as a mission as a vocation. Also, it’s how the work they do and the people they help also bring out the best of others, even in the worst of times. As an example, the Modesto, Calif., Bee writes how nonprofits that “feed, clothe and shelter people and counsel them when they are in crisis have laid off staff, not filled vacant positions, relied more on volunteers, and reduced hours and services to make ends meet.”

Yet, in the same article, the newspaper notes: “But as much pain as the recession has inflicted across the region, nonprofit leaders say there are some bright spots. Many say they have been overwhelmed by the generosity of people who give what they can despite their own hardships.” Maj. Darvin Carpenter of the Modesto Salvation Army tells the paper, “I have groups and people calling every week. They want to help even if they can only give their time. ‘Can I paint a wall? Clean the shelter?’ They have time on their hands and don’t want to sit around doing nothing. And they are tired of looking for jobs that don’t exist.”

At the same time, none of the people running the groups interviewed for this article are minimizing how tough things are now, and many say things will get worse still. For example, demand for emergency food services is extremely high, and similarly requests for help paying rent is on the rise. Even the Salvation Army’s Maj. Carpenter says people who used to donate to his group are now coming to the agency for help. The paper reports that “former donors make up 5 percent to 10 percent of the people seeking help.”

One can only hope that when the economy turns, and people are feeling flush again, they remember those organizations that helped keep their communities afloat.—Bruce Trachtenberg