Nonprofit panic: The economy sucks. Are we doomed?

Do people give less when they worry about having less?How will nonprofits and charities, which rely on your donations, weather the economic downturn, which seems less about the effect on our wallets than the effect on our psyche?

The Austin nonprofit community – like small businesses, individuals close to retirement, parents about to put kids in college, young adults about to enter the workforce, presidential campaign managers, pet owners, European hair stylists, Chinese peasants, the astronauts on the space station, and just about everyone else – is worried: How are we going to survive in this economy?

I’ve been reading people’s assessments of the economy and who they think is going to come out on top, and they all sound like this:

“The organizations that always do well will continue to do well. Those that don’t, won’t. “

Also, here’s my summary of people’s plans for surviving it

“We’re just going to hunker down and keep doing what we do best.”

AND if you’re looking for advice,

“Prepare now for things to get worse by being financially responsible.”

Now, I don’t mean to belittle anyone’s fear, and I know ridiculously little about the economy… except that there doesn’t seem much we can do about it other than be our usual, “financially responsible” selves. Either we sink or we swim, and if we’re just barely floating now we might be looking at the bottom of the pool. There are a million ways to say it, but it all sounds a little like common sense to me. (Man, it’s so hard not to say “duh” out loud when I read these things.)

Barry Silverberg of the Texas Association of Nonprofits and the Center for Community-Based and Nonprofit Organizations told Andrea Ball this week, “There is so much we can be doing to strengthen our organizations and should not be using the economy as an excuse for all of our problems. Certainly our uncertain economic times has very real impact and I cannot overstate the importance of increasing financial support to an ever strapped sector. However, we must not panic or cry wolf.”

Earlier this month, Andrea wrote another story that mentioned one nonprofit that seemed to be doing well despite the economy, the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Capital Area, which told her, “We have not had to lay off any staff members, although we are watching our salaries very closely and being extra cautious about not overstaffing.”

Here are some other links to assessments, plans and advice for nonprofits:

TANO reports what 17 nonprofit leaders from around Texas have to say about getting through this economic crisis.

A San Antonio CPA reports from an nonprofit CFO forum with advice for creating next year’s budget, handling this year’s finances, and reassuring nonprofit staff.

In an article titled, “The Nervous Economy,” Ron Kessler says, In the bad there is often good.  And there are almost always opportunities.”

Convio, which sells software to nonprofits to help them solicit donations online, reported this week that a survey revealed that people will give more than $3 billion online to nonprofits despite the economy. (Convio, BTW, is an Austin-based company.)

On Thursday, Greenlights will host a panel discussion about this same topic. The event is a sell-out. GivingCity will also publish a story about local nonprofits and the economy, and we’ll focus specifically on your role as a board member and/or major donor. Stay tuned, and in the meantime, keep up the good work.

What the MS 150 looks like from the power chair

In our first issue, Elizabeth Eckstein wrote about her participation in the MS 150 and what the ride means to her. She’s done three at this point, and she tends to be the star, with random people handing her presents, slapping her high-fives and cheering her on.

She’s not a rider, though. She’s an observer from a wheelchair. She was diagnosed with MS three years ago and she’s made a point to attend the ride to show support for the thousands who bike from San Antonio to Corpus Christi. Her friend, Bruce, is one of the riders, and she’s often accompanied by her sister.

No doubt Mimi has star power. Once again at this year’s ride, she drew the attention of total strangers, one being a reported from the San Antonio Express-News. You can read the story here.

More importantly, you can show you support for Mimi and the thousands of Texans who ride for MS and live with MS by donating.

Food bank volunteering opportunities for the holidays

The Capital Area Food Bank receives more than half of its total donations for the year in November and December. That’s more than 635,000 pounds of food, people. And it will just stack up and get dusty unless you’re there to help sort it and get it ready for distribution.

Get a group together and sign up to spend time at the Food Bank. They totally take care of you, training you and making you feel like you know what you’re doing. It’s a great bonding experience with your group. Plus you get to see the food bank’s shelf of weird donated food items – lots of British foods, I think.

The Food Bank invites adult volunteers (18 and older) to accept donations from the public on the receiving dock and/or inspect and sort donated food in Product Recovery, Monday through Friday, through the end of the year.
Volunteers must be able to lift 25 pounds.
To sign up, email Paige DeLeon, Volunteer Resources Director, at or call 512-684-2544 to get scheduled, or visit

How to help put $26 million back into the Central Texas economy

Did you know that last year more than 400 Central Texans volunteered to do somebody else’s taxes? Thanks to those folks, more than 17,200 tax returns were prepared for low-income singles and families who received more than $21 million in refunds.

This year, Community Tax Centers wants 500 volunteers to put $26 million back into the hands of those taxpayers – and from there the local economy. You want to try it? You don’t have to be an accountant  – or even especially fond of numbers – to sign up. You just have to love the look on someone’s face when you tell them how big their refund check is going to be.

At the Community Tax Centers, volunteers help low-income families claim millions of dollars in tax refunds and credits. By providing free income tax preparation services, IRS-certified volunteers give working families a chance to build a financial future.
For the 2009 tax season, the Community Tax Centers need more than 500 volunteers to reach their goal of completing 20,000 tax returns and putting $26 million back into the pockets of those who need it most.
What it takes to volunteer:
No previous tax experience necessary
Complete 8 hours of new volunteer training
A commitment of just three hours/week, for a total of 36 hours, between January and April
CPE credits are offered for volunteering CPAs who receive their IRS-certification and donate the requested 36 hours
A desire to give back to YOUR community!
There are 10 tax centers conveniently located throughout central Texas, including Round Rock, Del Valle and Bastrop.
For more information, to learn about other ways to volunteer and to sign up to help, visit or email

A simple guide to what happened with the housing market and the big bailout

Everyone thought someone else was checking that the underlying mortgages were good loans.”

The nonprofit public policy research institute, The Century Foundation, makes it a big part of its mission to explain issues and challenges in the United States in plain language. One of their most recent discussion papers was about the housing market and the proposed bailout. If you’ve been trying to get your head around this issue, their downloadable PDF “A Guide to the Housing Crisis: Ten Questions and Answers” might help. Among the questions it answers….

“Why did the lenders finance this run-up?”
“Who will eventually own the real estate properties involved?”
“What will happen to the bankers and brokers who operated the institutions that created all these bad loans?”

On Board: 5 Great ideas for your next board meeting

Don’t go to your next board meeting without some of these great ideas in giving and volunteering. Below are some quick hits to consider….

1. The Candidates and Your Work-Life Balance

The presidential candidates were interviewed by the Families and Work Institute about their platforms on work-life issues. The Washington Post sums it up, but you can also get the full transcript here. One of the candidates is seems concerned about work-life issues from the standpoint of employees, the other seems more concerned with how it affects businesses. Guess who stands where?

[TAKEAWAY: Prepare your organization now for possible changes to the FMLA and how it might affect your clients.]

2. When Blogs Compete, School Kids Win

For the month of October, bloggers across the country are competing to see who can raise the most money for projects they’ve chosen from DonorsChoose. DonorsChoose, as you know, is the site that lets teachers request materials for their classroom and lets you donate money to for those materials. Bloggers like TechCrunch, Engadget, and some guy named Scoble are participating in the Blogger Challenge 2008. DonorsChoose is keeping tabs on who’s collected how much, and so far they’re at more than $200,000 in total donations. If you haven’t been to DonorsChoose before, check out the 47 Austin classrooms listed. Current requests include a projector, blocks, books, materials for kids with disabilities, and other items, with most of them needing about $200. OR choose a blog and give through them – to foster the spirit of competitive fundraising!

[TAKEAWAY: Ask local bloggers to compete to raise money for your nonprofit or charity.]

3. Great Idea for Thanking Supporters

The ASAE likes how the Alzheimer’s Association and DonorsChoose sent donors an e-mail with a link to an online “thank you” video, thanking them for their contribution and telling them exactly how the money’s going to be used. Nice touch.

[TAKEAWAY: Video is so easy and inexpensive, and video makes it a little more personal, I think. Of course, you could use the video to get more donations, too, but a special one just for donors can really strengthen that relationship.]

4. Let Donors Follow Their Money

USA Today ran a storyabout giving that was all over the place, but a couple of nuggets stood out. The first is that, “Millennials and Generation Xers, especially those 20- and 30-somethings starting careers, may not have the bucks to be major donors, but they are finding ways to help others and prompting big changes in the way charities raise money.” And a lot of this is via the Internet. Young donors are responding especially well when nonprofits let them track the impact their donations are making. “The group’s website tracks its projects through videos and written storiesfrom the field, Google maps and testimonials from donors.”

[TAKEAWAY: If your NPO has a website, why not create a page that shows progress toward some goal. A lot of the race sites do it already, and it seems to work.]

5. For the Sake of Argument

Are you the devil’s advocate on your board? Arm yourself with information from both sides of the argument at Debatepedia. It’s just what it sounds like: an online wiki of both sides of hundreds of issues, from the death penalty to education, the presidential candidates, wave energy, surrogate mothers, and lots more.

[TAKEAWAY: Okay, some of this stuff is weak. But it’s good to know wha the other side might throw at you. Plus it’s kinda fun to read.]

Greening low-income homes is good for environment, but even better for utility bills

When you’re strapped for income and doing whatever you can to stay in your home, you have to find a way to trim down any expense. The people who live in the 14 housing communities owned and operated by Foundation Communities spent $4 million on the water and energy bills last year, and despite the fact that the housing takes advantage of Austin Energy’s energy-efficiency programs, residents’ cost is increasing 10 perecent each year.

As owner of these real estate properties, Foundation Communities spent more than $750,000 in 2007 on water and energy costs, so you might guess it’s looking for savings, too.  That’s why they’re excited about the $50,000 grant from Bank of American Charitable Foundation, which will help them “green” their properties and lower energy and water costs to residents. It’s the first greening grant Foundation Communities has ever received.

My guess is Sunshine had something to do with it. Sunshine Mathon is Foundation Communities’ sustatainability project manager. Staff spent this summer performing energy- and water-usage audits of 11 Austin apartment communities and three North Texas properties. According to Mathon, staff is studying “how do we mitigate, or even reverse, the dramatic trend of rising utility bills for our residents who live on limited, and sometimes fixed, incomes?”

Foundation Communities engages in lots of other sustainability efforts, too. In fact, they have some really helpful and actionable ideas for the rest of us. I’m sure they won’t mind if you steal them. See especially what they did at Spring Terrace, which is a former hotel on I-35 and St. John’s that they turned into 140 efficiency apartments for single adults living on very low incomes. (This means 140 almost-homeless adults can now live in a healthy environment.)

Show your support for Foundation Communities. Take advantage of their regular monthly housing tours and/or go online to make a donation. Remember that every nickel helps.