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Surviving the Recession

How St. Louis nonprofits have weathered the downturn

Photograph by Whitney Curtis

Even the behemoths are feeling the heat. The nation’s 400 largest charities, those like the United Way and Salvation Army, saw the largest drop in donations in two decades: 11 percent last year, according to a mid-October report from The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Here in St. Louis, “It’s not been easy,” says Amy Rome, founder and principal of The Rome Group, a local consulting firm that conducts an annual survey of 300-plus nonprofits, foundations, and donors. In July, she revealed the most recent results: half of respondents didn’t reach their fundraising goals; nearly half saw a drop in giving from corporate sources and private foundations. “Those that have relied on corporate and foundation dollars have found those dollars more difficult to come by,” says Rome. The one area that’s held relatively stable, she says, has been individual giving, with only a 19 percent decrease. “It’s been difficult,” she reasserts.

As a result, nonprofits are examining how they can be more efficient—from large-scale moves like mergers to small-scale things like office supplies. “The smart organizations are looking at every line item in the budget, from toilet paper to pens and paper,” says Rome.

Some have made more drastic cuts, laying off employees and eliminating programs. “They’ve cut into staff and services so much that it’s difficult to sustain,” says Mary McMurtrey, president of the Gateway Center for Giving, an association of grantmakers serving the region. “There’s a phrase that one of my members uses: ‘Nonprofits don’t close their doors; they starve themselves.’”

She speaks from experience. The Gateway Center for Giving, once located in a much larger space, recently moved to a 500-square-foot office with common meeting rooms and a shared coffeepot and copier—forging partnerships along the way, an approach the center’s preached to nonprofits. Whereas members once visited the center for seminars, “we became a traveling road show,” says McMurtrey.

The Center for Hearing & Speech’s executive director, Rita Tintera, has been with the organization for nearly half of its 90-year history. “We’re looking at 2011, and I don’t think we can get much leaner,” she says. Nonetheless, the center’s managed not to cut services or programs—largely relying on volunteers and in-kind services. And while foundation giving is down, she says, “Our donors who contribute have been pretty stable.”

At Stray Rescue of St. Louis, the economic downturn’s meant three times the number of strays as before the recession. “It’s been a roller coaster,” says director Randy Grim. Yet the nonprofit’s managed to grow. In mid-July, Stray Rescue took in 20 dogs from the closed city pound on Gasconade Street at its new, $1.2 million shelter on Pine Street—and on the same day received a $550,000 donation from Nestlé Purina.

A lot of support, however, has come from more creative methods. “There’s not a think tank or round-table meeting,” explains Grim. Stray Rescue hosts happy hours for volunteers on Friday afternoons, and gets beer donated. A recent exhibit at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, “Urban Wanderers,” helped raise around $25,000. And a fundraising challenge on Facebook—asking the organization’s 7,700-plus fans for $1 each—has led to an extra influx of funds.

“Don’t just focus on corporations or foundations,” advises Grim. “You’d be surprised how much adds up from the everyday person bored in their cubicle.”

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