With Colorado Springs charities, it seems to be feast or famine these days.
In the aftermath of the Waldo Canyon fire, several fortunate charities have donations of food and clothing overflowing their shelves and hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank. Others, however, are struggling now to meet their missions.
Many people donated money, food and clothing to groups like Care and Share, American Red Cross and Catholic Charities specifically for fire victims. But there seems to be little left for other nonprofits — the ones taking care of the homeless, the elderly and the poor.
Those nonprofits, groups like Silver Key and Springs Rescue Mission, are dealing with emergencies as well. Their emergencies aren’t broadcast on television, with smoke, flame and ashes rising from homes. Instead, they’re the quiet foreclosures, the abandoned children, the lost jobs that mean people need a helping hand.
“We deal with significant crisis every day,” said Lorri Orwig, resource development director at Silver Key. “But now, we’re struggling.”
Donations to Silver Key, which provides care management, nutrition, transportation and financial help to area senior citizens, are far below average. But Orwig has high hopes for the group’s annual fundraiser Sept. 27.
“It’s our annual breakfast, Silver Linings,” she said. “And we’ve had a talk with our table captains about what’s needed. We have to raise a significant amount of money, more than we did last year, to meet costs.”
Silver Key is dealing with a significant financial shortfall.
“At this point, if something doesn’t change, we’ll be about $75,000 short at year’s end,” Orwig said. “That’s a significant amount when you consider our budget is $2.6 million. We’re going to have to get creative — there’s a desperate need for money.”
Unlike Silver Key, Springs Rescue Mission needs both food and hygiene products. The charity, which serves local homeless and at-risk populations by providing food and education, sent out an urgent call this month: Its cupboards were bare.
Things are better now, said Steve Wamberg, the rescue mission’s director of communications. But they still need some canned goods and things like soap, toothpaste and shaving cream.
“People responded when we told them that we didn’t have any food, that we were turning families away,” he said. “But we still need items that are high in protein, canned tuna, beef stews. We can also use pasta and pasta sauce — things that really stretch out the meal.”
The situation had looked really dire, he said. People had given so much to charities involved with the fire, making it harder to ask for more.
“Donations were down, and now we have to be a little more aggressive when we talk about what we need and what we do,” Wamberg said. “Summer is a slow time for us, and the fire was definitely an issue.”
Care and Share Food Bank of Southern Colorado has the opposite problem. Its shelves are full, bursting with 600,000 pounds of food and water still destined for fire victims. Already, the food pantry has given away 1 million pounds of food and water to fire victims.
“And we have to use those donations specifically for fire victims,” said CEO Lynne Telford. “So we’re planning five more farmers markets to give away items. It’s important for people to know if they need food, they can get it here. It can be difficult for people to admit they need it when they’re used to buying their own groceries.”
Care and Share is one of 20 nonprofits also working on a long-term recovery committee, which means they aren’t sure how much money and food are needed.
“Sometimes it takes a few months to really know what your needs are,” Telford said. “It’s hard to get your arms around what you actually do need. So, we’re prepared to meet needs for the long term.”
Care and Share hasn’t really seen a drop in donations to its other projects, she said. But the organization did call six major donors to the fire effort to see if their donations could be used elsewhere.
“Some of them said yes,” Telford said. “And others, they said no. We’re in a position of trust with those donors, so we’re making sure fire victims receive the donations.”
Local nonprofits aren’t seeing anything different from other cities that have dealt with a natural disaster, said David Somers, executive director of the Center for Nonprofit Excellence.
“It happens every time,” he said. “People see the fire; they see the water from floods; they hear about hurricanes — they want to help. Unfortunately, that sometimes means they give money that would normally go elsewhere. And those charities suffer.”
But it isn’t donor fatigue, he said.
“That’s when a charity asks for more and more money, over and over,” he said. “People get tired of hearing the pleas, and they block it out. That’s donor fatigue. This is different altogether.”
And it probably will be short-lived, said Carrie Cramm, vice president of community impact at Pikes Peak United Way.
“What we’ve heard from other United Ways across the nation, is that this usually only lasts for a season,” she said. “It’s a short-term problem, caused by the natural disasters. Nonprofits will struggle for a while, and then they’ll see donations go back up to regular levels.”
That’s why it’s important to follow the gold standard for nonprofits, she said.
“That means having six to nine months in reserves,” Cramm said. “And then they can weather this kind of downturn. However, with the economy the way it is, some charities were already dipping into those reserves. This only makes the problem worse.”
It’s not that Colorado Springs residents aren’t generous. It’s that there’s just so much money — and so many nonprofits — to go around. Colorado Springs is home to 739 nonprofits, and once religious groups and certification organizations are added, that number is nearly 2,000.
All have specific needs. And all normally have a myriad of fundraisers and requests during the year to keep coffers full. But the fire interrupted that — sending plans for summer parties and outdoor barbecue fundraisers up in smoke.
“It’s something we’re hearing about,” Cramm said. “Nonprofits had to cancel events this summer, and even this fall, because people just don’t have the money to give. They gave it already. It leaves groups in a bad position.”
Now that post-fire rebuilding has started, some nonprofits are stepping up their marketing plans.
Silver Key has added a December fundraiser in hopes of bolstering the bottom line, and Springs Rescue Mission is issuing additional fundraising letters.
Catholic Charities plans to be more assertive because it has traditional missions, like Marian House Soup Kitchen, and plays a role in long-term recovery efforts.
“We haven’t yet seen a downturn in donations,” said Mark Rohlena, president and CEO. “But our major donations always come at the end of the year. It may be that we’ll see a downturn yet, but we haven’t so far. So we’ll have to start soliciting for money early.”
In the meantime, charities are banding together to help not only their target populations, but each other.
“We are all working together, to make sure needs are met,” Cramm said. “It’s important that all the nonprofits get through this tough time, and that they’re able to help people. It’s important to remember that while it goes unnoticed, there are people in the community who have emergencies every day — and they need help too.”