Charities, nonprofits struggling

Giving down 'substantially' across peninsula

Posted: Thursday, February 27, 2003

As the nation has struggled with an economic downturn and the growing threat of war, many Americans have cut back on the amount of money they're giving to charities. And, perhaps, nowhere is that trend more apparent than here on the Kenai Peninsula.

According to Kenai Peninsula United Way Director Evy Gebhardt, charitable donations have taken an alarming downturn in the past year.

"We're down substantially," Gebhardt said Tuesday.

When Gebhardt says "substantially," she's not talking about chump change. She said donations to the United Way over the past year are down roughly $200,000 -- almost 30 percent -- from last year's total.

That's not good news for the peninsula's largest charitable organization.

"It's very, very concerning to me," Gebhardt said. "Partnered with the big picture of the decline is there's been substantial cuts in government funding. It is a very grim picture."

Gebhardt said there are numerous reasons people are not giving as much to charities, ranging from a downturn in the local economy to a drop in giving after the surge that accompanied the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"Last year was an anomaly because a lot of the giving came post-Sept. 11," she said.

Gebhardt said the last few years have seen donations to the United Way grow, and people simply may not have as much incentive to give as much this year. However, she also cited economic factors as contributing to the drop.

"The climate of the economy here is very uncertain. I think people are saying, 'If our No. 1 business can close its doors, who's to say others can't do the same?'" Gebhardt said, referring to the recent announcement that the Big Kmart store plans to close its doors next month.

In addition to less donations from private individuals, local businesses also have had to cut back on how much they're giving. Instead, Gebhardt said businesses are choosing to find other ways to encourage their employees to shoulder more of the burden.

"What you're going to see is a substantial decline in the amount of money companies have to give to charities," she said. "They'll do more in-kind things, encourage employees to donate time to charities."

The bottom line is that area charities will have less to offer those in need -- at a time when more people are facing an uncertain economic future. According to Kenai Peninsula Food Bank Director Peggy Moore, that means more people are coming through her doors at a time when funding is short.

"Funding is really tight," Moore said. "And all of our programs are up by 11 to 27 percent."

Moore said many people don't understand just how close many of their neighbors are to needing some form of assistance.

"So many people in our community don't realize that there are individuals who are doing everything right. You can have both a mom and a dad working minimum wage and it's still not enough," she said.

And when economic times get tight, the first place people often turn -- often reluctantly -- is the food bank.

"Especially with the layoffs we've had recently, in no time at all we see them," she said. "And it's not that they want to come in here. I've seen people sitting in the parking lot for 15 to 20 minutes, waiting."

The ongoing need for food means the food bank is constantly looking for new donations. And anyone wishing to get into the giving mood has a couple options coming up in the near future. Moore said the food bank's "CANstruction" project will take place next month at the Peninsula Center Mall. Additionally, any donations made in March and April can be applied by the food bank to the Feinstein program, a national hunger program that splits a $1 million donation from philanthropist Alan Shawn Feinstein between food banks across the country.

If community members do decide to increase the amount they're giving, Gebhardt said she hopes they'll look at it as a way of brightening people's hopes for the future.

"I understand that we all have needs, but I like to see this as an investment in the community," she said "There's a lot of people who are hard off in our neck of the woods."

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