Nonprofits Gear Up for Recession Challenges

By Kristin McFarland
Thursday January 15, 2009 - 07:35:00 PM

As many private corporations are crumbling under the pressures of an economy in recession, Berkeley nonprofits are preparing to promote their strengths and make 2009 a productive year. 

“Even though it’s terrible, there is an opportunity as an agency to make sure our work is the most impactful we can offer and as a community to reprioritize and revitalize how we look at housing, health care and employment,” said Tirien Steinbach, executive director of the East Bay Community Law Center, which offers free legal services to low-income community members. 

Many organizations see the recession as a chance to show the merits of a business plan that gives back to the community, even as it relies on the community’s generosity. The silver lining, Steinbach pointed out, is that the recession will encourage innovation in how society takes care of its people most in need. 

“I tend to be optimistic,” said Amy Tobin, executive director of the David Brower Center, which will offer office and collaborative space for nonprofit organizations in downtown Berkeley. “I think this transition in how the world does business is an opportunity to collaborate more with our communities and constituents.” 

Tobin said the Brower Center has not yet felt any hesitation on the part of potential tenants and is about to launch a campaign to rent remaining space before the building’s opening in May.  

But in spite of the positive attitude, most organizations are taking a cautious, watchful stance. Most nonprofits use January to analyze donations from the previous year’s holiday season and assess funds for the year to come. 

“Although all of our funding sources have been hit very hard, we’ve been very surprised and pleased by the generosity of our donors,” Steinbach said. 

“We have a long-time base of supporters that we’ll be able to count on,” said Robin Woodland, the communications director for the Seva Foundation, which supports international projects promoting health and wellness, community development, environmental protection and cultural preservation. “In that sense, we feel very fortunate and blessed.” 

Woodland also said the organization is still analyzing the gifts received during their primary fundraising season and that it’s “too early to tell” exactly what the coming year will bring. 

Nonprofits like the Seva Foundation, the Brower Center, the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) and the Hesperian Foundation, a nonprofit publisher of community-oriented medical books, including the internationally-known Where There Is No Doctor, rely on the strength of their message to cultivate donors, even in times of economic crisis. 

“I think people are still giving to Hesperian because of its mission,” Karen Susag, the organization’s fundraising director, told The Planet in November. “Healthcare is on everyone’s mind and global health is going to come to the forefront.” 

“The work we’re doing right now is so critical to the people we’re serving,” Steinbach said. The EBCLC provides legal services in the areas of housing, welfare, healthcare, homelessness and economic development. “We’re directly serving clients hit hardest by the economic conditions.” 

Steinbach said the donations made, even if small, have heartened the organization by showing community investment in itself.  

“There’s a need for collaborating and sharing resources now more than ever,” Tobin of the Brower Center said. The “green” building will allow many nonprofit organizations to lighten their footprints and ease their needs by sharing facilities.  

“We’ll be happy in the long term to have built an efficient building,” Tobin said. “We can be the model we hoped we can be.” She hopes other companies will see the building as an investment in the future, a way of saving money in the long-term. 

Wariness about the future is shaping nonprofits’ business structure, if not their missions or hopes. 

“All nonprofits should be doing contingency planning,” Steinbach said. The EBCLC has put an emphasis on saving money in good years and cultivating a diverse funding base. For the coming years, however, “everything is on the table.”  

The organization has restructured the health plan for its employees and tweaked their contracts to save money.  

“Far down on the contingency list are things that will impact programming,” Steinbach admitted: things like cutting back on full-time employees and staff or closing an office. 

Fortunately, those things are all measures of last resort, and the organization has only just started working on its contingency plans. For now, the organization will continue doing the work it has always done but in a more amplified and urgent manner to help those most in need. 

The Hesperian Foundation, which recently received a three-year, $2.7 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, intended to help the organization expand and update Where There Is No Doctor, has likewise initiated an 18-month strategic planning process to help it weather the rough times ahead.  

The Seva Foundation is looking at similar cost-cutting options to help it operate more efficiently. 

“We’re going to have to get more creative,” Woodland said. The Seva Foundation recently celebrated its 30th anniversary and counts its long history and national donor base as points in its favor.  

Nevertheless, “It’s going to be a challenge,” said Woodland. 

The Brower Center faces a launch in the middle of an economic crisis. 

“We’ve always been fairly lean and entrepreneurial, and we’re going to have to get even more so,” Tobin said.  

Because of the economic downturn, the Brower Center is looking at ways to operate more frugally and with a minimal staff. Although the building’s expenditures are fairly constant, they face recruiting potential tenants who are leery of incurring more overhead costs. The center’s spring campaign will focus on convincing organizations that the investment in efficient infrastructure will reward them in the future. 

The new year offers a fresh chance for the organizations to promote their goals and for the community to put money back into itself. 

“It’s a fine line between despair and hope every day,” Steinbach said. “I know that some agencies will survive, some will close their doors, and some will find unexpected opportunities.”