Red Cross in the red, other non-profits struggle too

July 10, 2009



After Becky Thomas broke the news last month, the words may have been forgotten, but the impact drags on. 


The Tenn-Tom Chapter of the Red Cross is operating at a $5,000 deficit, Thomas, the chapter''s executive director, said at its 92nd annual meeting June 25.  


It was, she said, the first time in many years the chapter had faced a deficit. The last time was in 2002, she would say later.  


"This lets you know how the economy is causing non-profits to suffer," she told the crowd. 


Now, half a month later, the chapter is still in the red, because donations are down. And since the onslaught of disasters does not let up, more people than ever are vying for fewer dollars and support supplies.  


"There is more need for charities and noprofits now than there would be in good times," Thomas said. 


The Red Cross chapter is far from being the only institution struggling to keep afloat amid rough and tough economic conditions. The recession continues to pummel local organizations -- not to mention ones around the country and the rest of the world -- leaving more people in need of fewer resources and widening the gap between supply and demand. Besides the local Red Cross chapter, the Columbus Salvation Army and United Way of Lowndes County are also struggling with the conundrum. 


Thomas said the Red Cross chapter draws 20 percent of its funding from United Way of Lowndes County. (Other sources can include donations from individuals and city and county governments.) This year, United Way''s contribution was less than what it had been in past years, because of the recession, she said.  


Jan Ballard, executive director of the county''s United Way, said the increasing string of layoffs has caused many contributions the organization had gotten through payroll reductions to cease.  


In February, the organization tapped its reserve funding, in order to continue to pass money to agencies like Dial-a-Bus, the Greater Columbus Learning Center and the Red Cross.  


Since then, Ballard and her colleagues have been cutting back on expenses, so as not to make a bad situation worse.  


"I know we''re doing a lot more e-mail things, less printing," she said. "We''re watching our thermostats. We always have, but we''re making it more important. We''ve reduced our staff development training. We''re seeing more Webinars than traveling ... for training." 


And with the organization''s annual Pacesetters campaign scheduled to kick off at the end of the month, they are preparing to bolster the programs they support through ardent fundraising.  


"We''re working very hard to bring new industries and new businesses to support the agencies under the United Way umbrella," Ballard said. 


"If you can give," she said later, "now is the time. Our agencies are in more financial need than ever, because of the numbers of people they''re seeing and trying to assist." 


The Salvation Army of Columbus is one such agency. While it is not in the red, it is close to dipping into its last funds, said Capt. Bert Lind, its commanding officer. Donations are down, as was this year''s allotment from United Way of Lowndes County, Lind said. 


"Things are very, very tight right now," he said.  


The agency has been cutting back on spending. Its West Point store closed, hamburgers have replaced catered meals at functions and its character-building programs can accommodate fewer children for fewer hours. 


Lind expressed sympathy for the swelling crowds of people seeking help.  


"When you think about it," he said, "if we are feeling the pinch ..., just imagine what the families (in need) are feeling right now -- families who have been meeting their expenses but because of the economy being the way it is they need help. And so they''re coming to us. But can we help them? We are struggling ourselves, so how can we help these people who are coming in? It''s very difficult for us.  


"So we have to go scraping around and cut other kinds of programs -- sort of rob Peter to pay Paul, as they say -- so that we can find ways to help these people." 


Yet, despite the organizations'' struggles, optimism is aflutter. 


"We always get through a slow economy," Thomas said.