The profit of nonprofits

Volunteering at charities such as Loaves & Fishes is a good way to help the needy this Christmas.

Volunteering at charities such as Loaves & Fishes is a good way to help the needy this Christmas.

The faces passing down the line at the Loaves & Fishes dining room proved that poverty doesn’t discriminate. All colors and ages waited patiently for their tray of hot food. Humble thanks were uttered to the volunteer servers and hosts who doled out the grub and kept the tables clean and the water pitchers full.

Like most places where food is shared, the general mood was light. While some guests sat alone at the small window tables, most at the larger tables chatted and exchanged greetings with friends. Several regulars got on Earl the cook’s case about the underdone rice, but it was a light-hearted criticism tempered with laughter. Earl stuck his head out the kitchen door and laughed with them, saying, “It wasn’t me! It wasn’t me!”

This is not to romanticize or belittle the sufferings of the working poor and the homeless. With winter coming, one can’t help but wonder how these people will survive. And with the downturn in the economy, nonprofits like Loaves & Fishes are under greater pressure to provide services to larger numbers of people. Tim Brown, Loaves & Fishes executive director, says the number of guests they serve is up 11 percent from last year. Peter Berghuis, director of the Sacramento Food Bank, says that his organization has seen a 20 percent increase in people coming in for services.

Coupled with rising numbers of unemployed and underemployed are reports that September 11 funds have diverted monies that normally would have been given to local groups. The Sacramento Emergency Housing Center, which provides shelter and food to families in crisis, has received less in donations this year than usual, while the numbers of families coming for help has gone up. “We’re very concerned,” said Ibra Henley, associate director of the Center. Loaves & Fishes, St. John’s Shelter for Women and Children, and Francis House all said their donations were down as well.

Whether Sacramento will suffer as severely as San Francisco Bay Area nonprofits remains to be seen. A recent SF Chronicle article described many Bay Area charities as “teetering on the brink.” The article cited a rise in the homeless population, in unemployment, notably in the tourism industry, and a sharp decrease in individual, corporate and government funding as being the major factors in the plight.

Most nonprofits in the Sacramento area don’t know yet how difficult the holidays will be. As Major Oliver Stenvick, of Sacramento’s Salvation Army, put it, “We’re flying blind like everyone else.”

The Salvation Army’s kettle drive, in which Salvationists stand in front of businesses ringing bells and collecting money, goes from the day after Thanksgiving through the New Year. Major Stenvick said they weren’t far enough into the season yet to know if September 11 has detracted from local giving.

There are some signs that local giving may actually be higher than normal. Peter Berghuis noted that the Food Bank saw an increase in donations in September, after the World Trade Center attack, and though there was a slump in October, the numbers for November again put them above their goal. Both KXJZ and KVIE did better than expected in their fall fundraising drives.

David Hosley, president and general manager of KVIE, thinks September 11 raised people’s awareness of giving in general, although while noting that individual contributions had gone up, he did say that corporate underwriting had declined. Nonetheless, KVIE hopes to be over their goal for this season.

Jan Stohr, executive director of the Nonprofit Resource Center, agreed that “it would be premature to say what effect 9/11 or the economy will have” on local charities, but she too believes people may be more cognizant of nonprofits because of September 11.

One good sign of the vitality of the charitable sector is a recent study of the economic impact of nonprofits on the Sacramento area. The Committee on Philanthropy, an executive round table whose goal is to increase awareness of the impact of local nonprofits and to promote regional philanthropy, sponsored the study, which used data from 1999.

David Wilcox of Economic Research Associates, the firm that conducted the study, said the results indicate that for every dollar initially spent in the nonprofit sector, at least another dollar of spending is generated. This doubling of the initial amount spent estimates the value of what the study calls “induced effects” on the economy. The total induced economic impact of nonprofits on the six-county regional economy is about $7.1 billion. And that is a conservative estimate.

This means, explains Jan Stohr, that nonprofits are now known to be a viable part of the economic health of the region. The hope is that, knowing this, corporations will be more inclined to support nonprofits.

“Corporations know,” said Stohr, “that if they want good workers, you need a vibrant community.” Presumably, corporate managers see that nonprofits are a big part of that, and therefore would perceive that supporting these institutions can contribute to the bottom line, albeit indirectly. Nonprofits contribute to education and the arts as well as doing a large part of the social service work in the community, providing a rationale for enlightened self-interest on the part of corporations who deign to be generous.

Whether or not corporate givers perceive economic advantage in giving to nonprofits, few question the growing perception that they are effective agents of social change. Stohr says the most notable role of nonprofits is their involvement in the communities they serve. Their involvement in itself can be profoundly beneficial.

In her book Visions of Charity, Rebecca Anne Allahyari, UC Santa Barbara professor of religious studies, shows some diverse ways that nonprofits can change communities, focusing on Sacramento as her prime example.

Allahyari did ethnographic research for the book here at Loaves & Fishes and The Salvation Army. While trying to address the broader questions of who should care for the poor and how, the book examines how the emotional culture of two very different charity organizations arises out of their respective politics.

“Loaves & Fishes,” Allahyari writes, “offers its ‘guests’ dignity and choice, whereas The Salvation Army focuses on honor among and rehabilitation of its ‘clients.’ The morality implicit in each of these charitable relationships imposes its own distinctive emotional and behavioral expectations on the volunteers, not only in their relationship with the urban poor, but also in terms of their own sense of virtue.”

Allahyari goes on to examine the effects of charities on the individuals who give and receive help through them. What Allahyari calls “the phenomenology of crafting a moral self” may be more simply described as “the things people do to become better people.” Individuals and organizations go about it differently.

She ties this together and concludes that these individual and organizational attitudes dovetail. “Personal and social redemption are inextricably linked in the moral communities of charitable organizations,” says Allahyari.

What is valuable about nonprofit charities, Allahyari adds in a recent interview, is that the differences among them offer a choice both to those who need help and to those who seek to better themselves and/or their communities by volunteering.

While the politicians and hucksters are telling us to save our economy by shopping this season, Allahyari implies that the best way to help improve our economy, our communities and ourselves is by giving time and money to our local nonprofits.

What a novel idea: Forget the mall; keep that over-charged credit card in your wallet this holiday season. Instead, go down to Loaves & Fishes or someplace like it and give yourself and your community the gift of giving. Wait a minute. Isn’t that the idea of all this in the first place?