SUSTENANCE Volunteers pack frozen potatoes at the Food Bank for Westchester, in Millwood, which supplies pantries, shelters, soup kitchens and other programs that try to relieve hunger.
By KATE STONE LOMBARDI
TALK to people who are running nonprofit agencies in Westchester about how they are faring in this slumping economy, and the same phrase keeps coming up: “the perfect storm.”
Most of these groups — those that feed the hungry, serve children in need, provide medical care to the uninsured, protect victims of domestic violence, and more — rely on a combination of financing sources, all of which are threatened.
First, there is government money, and nonprofits’ administrators are keeping a wary eye on state and county budgets.
Next is corporate and foundation support, and with Wall Street’s troubles, many agencies say they have already received word from businesses not to expect the kind of financing they once enjoyed.
Last are individual donors, many of whom have indicated that in these leaner times, they cannot donate as generously as in the past.
Completing this gloomy picture is the growth of need at the same time financial resources are dwindling, nonprofit officials say. More people require help feeding their families. More people have lost their medical insurance. Financial stress creates more violence at home and more mental health problems in general.
“You’ve got to shrink your organization at the same time there are more people out there needing care,” said Lindsay C. Farrell, executive director of Open Door Family Medical Centers, which is based in Ossining and provides affordable medical care to the uninsured at sites around the county. “October was the busiest month we’ve ever had, and the doctors and staff are attributing it to anxiety due to the awful economy and job layoffs, which manifests itself in physical symptoms.”
Ms. Farrell said that many state grants that support Open Door’s programs have been reduced by 8 percent and that she expected further cuts. Earlier this month she got word that state funds were being reduced for a breast cancer screening program, leaving her scrambling to figure out how to handle scheduled appointments.
“Were we going to continue to do breast exams, and if someone has a suspicious lump, refer that person to a surgeon to determine whether they need a biopsy?” Ms. Farrell said. “What do we do if the patient has no money? Should we cancel the patient or tell them to bring $1,000 for a needle biopsy, which they’re probably not going to have?”
After intense lobbying by a coalition of advocates, the money for the screening program was reinstated. But potentially on the chopping block now is grant money that supports cervical cancer screenings, prenatal care and WIC, a federal nutrition program for women, infants and children. Ms. Farrell said she was particularly concerned about financing for uncompensated health care, which supports the agency’s sliding fee scale.
Amy Kohn, the executive director of the Mental Health Association of Westchester, is worried about the safety of children in foster care. The agency has a contract for roughly $900,000, now threatened by a cut of nearly half, to independently review records of children living in residential care and group homes. The agency’s charge is to make sure that all recommended services are in place and to alert the county when there is a problem.
“We read in one record that a mother is reuniting with a boyfriend and he’s coming to live in the home, and it’s being portrayed as a good thing because there’s more income and stability,” Dr. Kohn said. “Only our reviewer has read this record for a year or two and knows this guy is also a sex offender and has charges against him, and he should not be in a home with these children.”
Such catches are not uncommon, she said.
Christina Rohatynskyj, executive director of the Food Bank for Westchester, which supplies pantries, shelters, soup kitchens and other programs that alleviate hunger, said the agency, which has a $3.5 million operating budget, had deliberately shied away from relying too much on government and corporate financing because of potential fluctuation. Still, she is worried.
“We have heard from several corporations that they will not be providing in 2009 what they had last year,” she said. “They had been very generous in the past. Fortunately, the majority of our funding comes from individuals, but there’s a trickle-down effect.”
The government money the Food Bank does get is likely to be cut, she said. One state grant of nearly $1 million finances Kids Cafe, which helps provide hot nutritious meals for children after school, along with nutrition education and simple cooking skills, at six sites around the county. Meanwhile, she said that based on the number of calls the Food Bank is receiving, demand is increasing.
My Sisters’ Place, which serves victims of domestic violence, recently lost state financing for a program that provides women with legal services in Family Court. Karen Cheeks-Lomax, the executive director, is hoping to restore that money and avoid further cuts. But the outlook for her agency is worrisome.
“We’re looking at our forecast, and we’re seeing a downturn in terms of the foundation and the corporate support that we enjoyed last year,” she said.
Before the agency’s annual luncheon last month, donors said they would not be able to provide as much as they did last year, Ms. Cheeks-Lomax said. “Some gave 50 percent less and some even less than that from what they gave last year,” she said. “It’s really going to be important for us to pound the pavement.”
Directors of nonprofit agencies said they were drawing up contingency budgets in anticipation of less income. At the Westchester Children’s Association, an advocacy group based in White Plains, Cora Greenberg, the executive director, said she was preparing two budgets for next year: “The budget that we need to continue to do what we’re doing, and the budget that we need if we have to cut back 10 to 20 percent.”
Administrators said they were performing line-by-line analyses of their budgets and cutting back on everything from travel to supplies. Many are deferring capital expenditures. Most said they already run lean operations and could reduce little in terms of overhead. Executives at nonprofits said they were loath to cut programs and were hoping to avoid layoffs.
“When a not-for-profit starts laying people off, there are real ripple effects in the local economy,” Ms. Farrell said. “People get evicted. They spend less money on local businesses.”
Planning is made difficult by state budget uncertainties. Last week, legislative leaders and Gov. David A. Paterson were having trouble reaching a deal on closing the budget deficit, which will not be tackled until 2009. “My fear is when cuts do come, they will be of huge magnitude and they’ll be immediate, and that’s going to be really hard,” said Kathy Halas, executive director of the Child Care Council of Westchester.
James A. Krauskopf, director of the Center of Nonprofit Strategy and Management at Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs, is hosting a seminar for nonprofit agencies on Tuesday titled, “Capacity Building in Times of Financial Stress.” He said organizations needed to plan for what is likely to be a cumulative impact over time.
“Organizations are looking at what they can reduce without affecting their most important services,” Mr. Krauskopf said. “Executive directors are trying to deal with both their boards and their staffs to get everyone to try to develop a common approach, so that the organization comes through this as strongly as possible, but it’s a tough time.”
Agencies are also looking at revenues. Officials say they are considering more affordable events, instead of gala fund-raisers, hoping to make up for smaller donations by expanding donor lists and keeping pressure on government officials not to cut services for the poorest and most vulnerable.
In his Nov. 14 budget proposal, County Executive Andrew J. Spano kept contracts with nonprofit agencies at 2008 levels. But much government aid to nonprofits is allocated by the state and only administered by the county.
“New York State cannot cut their way out of this crisis, and I’m not going to be able to cut my way out of this crisis,” said Dr. Kohn, of the Mental Health Association. “It’s got to be about increasing revenue. We’re going to look for new ways of expanding what we do well, and we’re going to have to be smarter about capturing the dollars. Every time there’s a cut, there are real individuals getting hurt.”