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Did the crappy economy lead to an increase in both donations and volunteers?

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Volunteers serve Las Vegas Rescue Mission’s Thanksgiving community dinner.
Photo: Mona Shield Payne

It’s an experience that many of us have had by now. A charity calls you up and asks for your help. In that apologetic tone you reserve for forgotten anniversaries and birthdays, you say, “I’m so sorry, but we just can’t do it this year. We don’t have any money to spare.”

It’s understandable, of course. More Nevadans are unemployed than ever before, and disposable income is quickly becoming a rarity for local families. The reality is that, nationally, things are very, very bad. According to the Giving USA Foundation, charitable giving across the country fell 3.6 percent in 2009, the second-worst drop since 1956, when the foundation started measuring. (The worst year was 1974.) And with so many Nevadans looking for work, who’s got the time or money to think about charity?

More people than you might imagine, actually. Charities throughout Nevada are reporting higher donations and volunteer rates than in years past, and, in some cases, record numbers. As hard as it may be to fathom, our horrible economy could be the reason why.

“Our volunteerism this year has been in record numbers,” says Linda Smith, associate executive director for Opportunity Village, one of Las Vegas’ most venerable nonprofits. A Las Vegas institution since 1954, Opportunity Village provides vocational training and life skills for the intellectually disabled. The nonprofit’s biggest fundraiser for the last 18 years has been its Magical Forest, about as close a re-creation of a winter wonderland as you’re likely to find in Las Vegas. The Forest makes money through ticket sales and company sponsorships of various attractions. “A few years ago we’d have 40, 50, 60 [volunteers] show up every night. Now it’s 100 a night,” Smith says. The nonprofit set a $1.4 million revenue goal with the Magical Forest this year, and Smith adds, “We fully expect to achieve that.”

John Fogal, director of development for the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, tells a similar story. Fogal says volunteer numbers are up considerably at LVRM, which provides a meal every day at 5 p.m. to anyone who needs it, along with overnight shelter for men, women and families and a 12-month addiction recovery program. The organization worked with 112 volunteers a week in 2009, but this year the number is up to 140 a week. And the same is true at Three Square, which partners with 570 programs throughout Southern Nevada to feed the area’s 250,000 hungry and starving. The charity recorded 29,000 volunteer hours in 2009, or the equivalent of 14 full-time positions. This year, volunteer hours are expected to top out at 60,000, the equivalent of 28 full-time positions, according to President and CEO Julie Murray.

Brittany Markarian, public relations and social media specialist for Three Square, noted that Facebook has played a very important role in expanding the number of volunteers. This is the first year Three Square has been on Facebook, and already it has 3,500 friends who respond quickly to appeals for help. “I put out the word one morning and within an hour had seven responses. It’s definitely a good way of getting people notified.”

Likewise, donations—and the number of those donating—are on the rise. Smith says many of Opportunity Village’s larger donors have either significantly reduced their donations or dropped out altogether, but that the charity has managed to keep donations high by getting more people to donate small amounts. “We’re out there trying to find every penny, going out to new companies that have moved into town, or those that are struggling and trying to convince them to participate in any way possible, whether monetarily or volunteering,” Smith says. “If we can’t get the $100 donation, we’re going to get 10 $10 donations. We’ve just found a way to engage more people by being strategic and telling our story.”

Fogal says he’s seen an 11.5 percent increase in general donations at Las Vegas Rescue Mission, a godsend given the ever-increasing demand for his shelter’s services. “In one year, the demand for meals has grown by 3,000-5,000 a month,” he says.

Three Square Chief Financial Officer Andy Schuricht adds that despite the down economy Three Square will be meeting its donation targets this year—perhaps even surpassing them. The charity’s total budget is $41 million, $11.5 million of which is a cash budget, the rest of which is in-kind food donations. “We measure food in pounds, and the target this year was 20.4 million pounds. I think we’re going to be somewhere north of 21 million pounds,” Schuricht says.

Still, Murray stressed the need for continued support, explaining that for every dollar donated to Three Square, 91 cents goes to food operations, one of the highest ratios in Southern Nevada.

HELP of Southern Nevada, which relies primarily on government funding and grants to keep going, has even been able to increase its employee roll from 83 last year to 103 this year through some hard work. But, says Chief Operations Officer Fuilala Riley, “it’s always a struggle to meet the need. Last year we ended the fiscal year with an operating budget of $16 million. We’re projected to do about $24 million this year.”

HELP has its hands full with a laundry list of programs and services, including weatherizing homes, serving the chronically homeless, operating a homeless shelter for those 16-24, providing a work readiness program, offering rental assistance and much more.

Although private donations are a small part of the budget, 2010’s turnout has been incredible, says Riley. “Donations are up 20 percent this year. This year’s 12-day toy drive, which brought in $90,000 last year, brought in $145,000.” Furthermore, she described this year’s food drive as “record setting,” adding, “We provided 1,400-plus families with a Christmas turkey this year.”

Desperate times, disparate groups

Ï So what’s with all the giving? The consensus is that more and more Nevadans have either been directly affected by the recession or know someone who has. That heightened awareness has led to more giving from all income levels.

“I will tell you, everybody these days feels a bit more crunch, and I think it makes everyone a little more sensitive and willing to give and participate,” Fogal says. “I see a lot of that, where volunteers are coming out because they have more time on their hands. Maybe they were previously donors who can’t quite give the same way they once could, but they want to give their time. And yes, when disposable income is less, there’s an increased sensitivity for folks who say, ‘I can do something.’ Now they know someone losing their home or their job.”

Murray concurs. As more struggle, “the community is collaborating in ways I’ve never seen before. This recession is making us look at the way we function as a community. We are seeing a broader, more diverse group volunteer than before. There are more people who are unemployed but want to stay engaged and connected. Former donors are now coming to volunteer because they still want to help. Faces are changing, but the passion is the same.”

HELP’s Riley has talked to many of the volunteers this year, and based on those conversations, she agrees the worsening economy is directly responsible. “It’s a weird phenomenon, in that if people know things are bad, they tend to be more giving. And people have gone through two years of a horrible economy. They know others are hurting, and they just want to do something to help.”

For those with money, the purse strings appear to be loosening, as well. “People that gave $10,000 last year are giving $15,000 this year.” And for those without money, jobs or homes, volunteerism appears to be a solace of sorts, Riley says. “A lot of individuals who were able to give money in past years are giving their time these days because money is tight.”

Keeping the services going

Ï Even as the economy has tanked, Opportunity Village has taken a proactive approach focused on a belief in the generosity of Las Vegans. And it’s working. Yes, the major donations are starting to dry up, but resourcefulness has helped to fill that void. What makes Opportunity Village’s achievement all the more impressive is that it relies almost exclusively on community support. Only 20 percent of its operating budget comes from the state in the form of a fee for service—federally mandated funding that must be used to service those with intellectual disabilities. In addition, there have been no increases in that fee since 2005, and Smith says her organization doesn’t anticipate an increase until at least 2014. By not cutting staff or services, Smith says her organization saves taxpayers $15 million a year, diverting what it would cost to care for the intellectually disabled.

Now in its 40th year, the faith-based Las Vegas Rescue Mission is funded 100 percent through private donations. “Are we able to meet the need at this point? Yes, but that’s not saying we’re comfortable in our ability to meet the need,” Fogal says. “More help is desperately needed. For example, we have units within our property that are meant for one family, and in several cases families are having to share. The most significant increase for us is the number of families in need of help. I’m talking about a mom, dad and sometimes seven children, who were living in their car.”

Although Three Square is only three years old, it is able to feed 100,000 of Southern Nevada’s 250,000 hungry and starving population, all without relying on government money. (Less than 1 percent of funding is from government and grants.) And while its five-year plan doesn’t anticipate meeting total demand, as volunteer and donation numbers rise, so does hope. “As a lifelong Las Vegan, I’ve never seen the community rally around hunger the way it has this year,” Murray says, adding she agrees that perceptions are changing as the economy worsens. “We met one woman who was a homemaker with two children. First her husband lost his job, then they lost their home, then their car. She told us that if it wasn’t for the food bank distribution at her church, she wouldn’t have been able to feed her children.”

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Weekly's associate editor, having previously served as assistant features editor at the Las Vegas Sun ...

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