Nonprofits: Sustainability Depends on Innovation; Campaigns, Marketing Can Make a Significant Impact on Success

Article excerpt

Byline: DEIRDRE CONNER

It was a task that would seem daunting for any fundraiser:

In the depths of a recession - and with the well-being of homeless families at stake - boost attendance at a charity gala and raise more money than in previous years.

But it happened last month for Community Connections, a Jacksonville charity that works primarily with women and children. Chief development officer Greg Frazier credited an intense social media and Internet campaign for the 28 percent increase in funds raised at the annual Mardi Gras party.

Marketing on social media is just one of the innovations that local nonprofits are employing in a struggle to survive the economic downturn. At stake: Their role in helping the community survive the recession.

At Community Connections, the demand for such services increased so much in 2009 that "we thought there was no way we were even going to break even," Frazier said. They did.

Not everyone has done as well. Two local mid-size nonprofits, Learn to Read and Grove House, shut down last year. Experts say this year could be worse as the sector's three main revenue sources - charitable donations, government funding and fee for service - falter.

"I think it's a real threat," said Rena Coughlin, chief executive of the Nonprofit Center of Northeast Florida. Nationally, she said, forecasters say that as many as 100,000 nonprofits will be gone by the end of the recession.

This year will be a crucial test, with unemployment high and economic recovery uncertain.

Already, almost every local nonprofit is showing signs of strain, according to an October study from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund. It showed that 20 percent of Jacksonville agencies had cut back programs and services. Another third had reduced staff, and nearly half had cut or frozen salaries and benefits. Another duPont analysis of 22 mature nonprofits - both local and in other parts of the country - showed that in 2008, they operated in the red for the first time since at least 1999.

CHARITABLE DONATIONS

Individual giving and grants make up a big portion of many agencies' budgets, and a few are entirely funded that way.

A Florida Philanthropic Network study estimated that statewide, charitable donations were down $381 million in 2008. In a state survey, 35 percent of respondents said they gave less than in 2007; 41 percent gave the same amount. This year and next are also certain to be tough, with high unemployment and competition for public support from political campaigns in 2010 and 2011.

One tactic many groups are taking is to increase the number of people giving small amounts. The United Way of Northeast Florida, for instance, has aggressively marketed its "Give Five" program, which asks people to donate $5 each.

The United Way has worked to increase participation among businesses and individuals. President Connie Hodges said even companies that have had deep cutbacks have been active. She called the campaign this year "inspirational."

"We were hoping to stay flat," Hodges said. "Early figures show we're going to be down a little bit."

There is also evidence that volunteerism is up. A recent Jacksonville Community Council poll found that more people are volunteering than in 2008. Nikos Westmoreland, a spokesman for the YMCA of Florida's First Coast, said 300 people showed up to build a playground for the nonprofit's charter school last week.

Grant-makers such as foundations and corporate charities, too, gave less last year as their assets took a hit in the stock market. (In 2007, they gave about $1.4 billion per year, which is equal to one-tenth of individual giving.) Yet the outlook is more hopeful: Most grant-makers interviewed in the Florida Philanthropic Network survey said they planed to increase giving in 2010. …