Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"We have to start somewhere"

An impressive crowd came out on a holiday-week evening to show its concern - and share its ideas - about Charlotte's needs crisis, the Observer's Mark Price reports.

Writes Mark:

Organizers of a public hearing on Charlotte's charity money crunch were expecting a modest crowd Tuesday night, given the fact that it was hastily arranged and fell during one of the biggest vacation weeks of the year.

But that expectation was proved wrong when a standing-room only crowd of 225 people showed up at Little Rock AME Zion Church on North McDowell Street.

Not a quiet crowd, mind you, but a talkative one - filled with ideas and ready to engage panelists who included former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, Mecklenburg County General Manager John McGillicuddy, Crisis Assistance Ministry director Carol Hardison, Latin America Coalition executive director Angeles Ortega-Moore and Charlotte Observer editor Rick Thames.

The topic was both simple and complex: How can Charlotteans work together to meet basic human needs in a difficult economy?

Solutions offered were equally simple and complex, including a suggestion by Gantt that Charlotte should be willing to consider higher taxes.

The observation that drew the most applause came from Hardison, who noted that Charlotte has had more than one strategic plan for arts and cultural programs, but not one for human services.

"When Carol said that, it really changed the whole dynamic of the meeting," said Maria Hanlin of the Mecklenburg Ministries, which co-sponsored the meeting with the Community Building Initiative and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee.

"What I heard tonight was a call to action for such a plan to be created, and I think many of the people who can make it happen were in the room."

In the crowd were three members of the county commission, along with some city officials and many county employees. A raise of hands showed at least half of the crowd was made up of staffers or volunteers from the city's charities.

The meeting was purposely scheduled June 30, because that's the last night of the fiscal year. Starting today, nearly 100 local charities are faced with tens of thousands of dollars in budget cuts from local government, foundations and United Way. Programs for critical needs were largely spared from deep cuts, but at the expense of those that mentor the young, assist the elderly and teach job skills to the unemployed.

Among the first to arrive at the meeting was Deborah Ivey of Charlotte, who says it was a job skills program that got her back on her feet 20 years ago. She came to the meeting looking for ways to help.

"I'm here because I'm part of the solution," she said. "I believe we have to start somewhere, and I'm ready to do whatever I can to make it happen."

That thought was repeated often through the evening, and even later, out in the parking lot of the church, where people continued to talk after the doors were locked.

"I kept hearing one thing, over and over tonight," said Willie Ratchford of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee. "It was a message that no one of us is as good as all of us working together."

Innovative ideas - a success story

Last week, we told you about Kelley Wheeler, who offered the kind of idea Charlotte will need to begin compensating for the money shortfall afflicting nonprofits here.

Wheeler is co-chair of CMG Children's Consignment Sale at St. Gabriel's Church, which last year gave more than $12,000 in unsold children's clothing, sports equipment, maternity clothing, baby gear and toys to organizations such as the WISH Foundation, Room At The Inn and the Alexander Youth Network.

Wheeler, however, lamented that there was far too much more clothing that didn't land in the hands of the needy. She wanted that to change.

"This year, we would like to partner with more organizations in our community to make sure that all of our unsold merchandise gets distributed within our community," she said.

By the end of the week, she received calls from eight nonprofits - including Carolina Family Connections and HIAS NC, a refugee resettlement agency - that wanted to partner with CMG. She also received emails from individuals wanting to donate to agencies through CMG. "I am extremely excited to work with the foster care agencies and the refugee resettlement agency," she said in an email.

It's the type of small, grassroots effort that will help ease the fallout from United Way cuts and a harsh economy. Have an idea of your own? Let us know.

How can you trust your nonprofit?

Got a call this week from a man who had money to give to Charlotte charities - perhaps $2,000 - but no confidence in whom to give it to. The places he knew best were now places that made the wrong kind of headlines. How, he asked, do you know whom to trust with your money?

Part of the shame of United Way's and DSS's management and spending issues is that they've removed the comfort many have had with giving. Before, people believed they could count on United Way, especially, to navigate Charlotte's needs and vet the agencies that served those needs.

Some find that same comfort still when they give to their churches, although nonprofit ministries also have been tainted by questions about spending. Some givers are left to investigate on their own, like our caller.

There are places to go for help. Web sites such as GuideStar and Charity Navigator provide profiles and data on the country's larger charities. The Better Business Bureau offers details on national and local agencies, including a report on the percentages of money used for overhead, program costs and fundraising.

Nonprofit observers say a good guideline for evaluating agencies is that they should spend at least three-quarters of their money on programs, with about 15 percent on salaries and other costs, plus about 10 percent on fundraising.

But, others argue, there are two problems with that rule of thumb: 1) sometimes, it takes good money to hire fine executives and personnel; and 2) agencies move money around to lessen the appearance of administrative costs.

One common accounting maneuver is to apply part of the director's salary to administrative costs and part to program management. Some might call that fudging the numbers. Some might say it's a precise representation of how work is done at an agency. The result, however, is that givers don't get a clear picture of where their dollars are going.

That puts a burden on you, the giver. Want to find out more about an agency? Go to the BBB for research and complaints. Talk to friends, colleagues, church members who might have had experience with the charity. Best yet, go to the agency, ask officials about their mission and how they get achieve it. Ask to see the nonprofit paperwork they turn in to the IRS. Their willingness to be transparent might be a clue.

With some legwork, you should get a good sense of what use will be made of your dollars, but yes, you ultimately will have to trust at least a little. Sadly these days, it's a lot more difficult to do.

Monday, June 29, 2009

A lemonade veteran offers tips

We've had some early questions today about Mission Possible's Lemonade Brigade - our invitation to Charlotte kids to raise money for charities that help other kids.

People want to know: What's the best way to set up a lemonade stand? How much should you charge per cup? Does the lemonade have to be squeezed?

Our advice: Keep it fun.

To better explain, we bring you The Cliff's lemonade stand veteran, 6-year-old Finn Rissanen. "It's easy," says Finn, who has operated a stand several days this year in his Southeast Charlotte neighborhood.

Finn has a simple setup: a black table with a plastic cash register, some cups, and a pitcher of Country Time expertly made by his mom, Tammy. Finn's spaniel, KC, keeps him company.

Finn charges 25 cents per cup. (He would charge $1 if he had lemonade in cans, but he's run out.) He notes that the best day to run a stand is Monday, because "the recycle man comes and fills up a gallon." Also, Wednesday is good. "Because it's hot," he says.

If you're thirsty, Finn will be back at it this Wednesday at 5 p.m. - a good time to catch workers on their way home. The stand will be in his front yard at 9109 Kalanchoe Dr in the Sardis Pointe subdivision off Sardis Road, a half-mile north of Hwy 51. (A tip from other veterans: If your neighborhood has a common area, a stand there might snag more traffic.)

If your family would like to have a stand for charity - you pick which agency - we'd love to let readers know where they can find it. If you want to let us know after business is over, we'll report to folks how it went. Email us at localnews@charlotteobserver.com and put "Lemonade Brigade" in the subject header. Don't hesitate to send pictures.

If lemonade isn't your cup of tea, let us know about any other kind of money-raising effort your child is making, and we'll tell folks about that, too.

Finn says his stand's proceeds will go toward the Ronald McDonald House of Charlotte. When his dad, John, asked him why, he said that sometimes people are sad and hurt, and he wanted to help them feel better.

And, he says: "I know how to sell lemonade."

Want to help kids? Make some lemonade

We wanted lemonade, and we got something sweeter.

Last week, the Observer asked you to tell us about lemonade stands your children were operating for charity. You sent enough of those to make us very thirsty, but also stories of neighborhood carnivals, bake sales, yard sales – all held by kids, and often for kids’ charities.

Now, the Observer and our media partners at Charlotte Mission Possible have an idea: With children’s agencies and programs among the hardest hit by United Way cuts, let’s invite our area’s kids to raise money for those charities.

We’re calling it the Lemonade Brigade.

Here’s how it works: Tell us about a lemonade stand you’re planning, and we’ll give parched readers a nudge your way by publicizing your stand’s location in the Observer and on CharlotteObserver.com.

When you’re through, send us pictures (or, if you’re ambitious, a YouTube video link), and we’ll publish them, too, along with how much money your children raised and which agency they’ll be giving it to. A few suggestions, if you need one: Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Greater Charlotte, A Child’s Place, Salvation Army’s Boys and Girls Clubs of Charlotte.

Here's a Charlotte Mission Possible logo to attach to your child’s stand.

If a lemonade stand is not your thing, tell us about whatever money-raising effort you might want to try. Perhaps it’s a bake sale/yard sale, which is what 5-year-old AnneLeigh Twer included with her South Charlotte lemonade stand for the Make-A-Wish foundation. Maybe it’s collecting money for birdies, which is what Huntersville’s Garrett Ray decided he’d try. He’s a junior golfer, and he’s signing people up to donate money for each birdie he makes in June and July tournaments, with the money going toward breast cancer research, in honor of a cousin who was diagnosed with the disease last year.

At the St. Onge house in the University area, our 8- and 5-year-old sons will be operating a lemonade stand next week. Nothing fancy – just a table, some cups, and good lessons about giving. They’re being learned across Charlotte each week.

On Saturday, the Montana family – including 10-year-old Katie, 8-year-old Max and 2-year-old Rose – ran a lemonade stand in Myers Park. They raised $25 for Loaves & Fishes, which they visited earlier in the week. That total will buy groceries for 33 meals for families in crisis.

“I think they know they’re very lucky,” said Karen Montana of her three children. “They learned that helping isn’t hard, but that it’s very important.”

We’ll lift a plastic cup to that. Won’t you? It’s a hot, holiday week. People are thirsty. Start squeezing.


To let us know about an upcoming lemonade stand, email pstonge@charlotteobserver.com or call 704-358-5029.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Your very own Mission Possible logo

News coming soon on a fun way you and your children can help Charlotte's struggling nonprofits.

A hint: We asked you this week to tell us about lemonade stands for charity.

A second hint: Here's a PDF of the Charlotte Mission Possible logo, should you ever decide to raise money, perhaps with a future lemonade stand...

Friday, June 26, 2009

After 17 years, a nonprofit casualty?

The crowd had grown large before the food truck was unloaded. Dozens of men and women, children on their hips and boxes in their hands, ready to be filled. A standard Friday morning.

Rosa Marion choreographed the chaos, as she does each week at Harvest Center, as she hopes to keep doing if money allows. She's not sure how much longer that will be.

“You get in line right there,” she instructed one woman, then surveyed the scene. “We'll have 300 here today,” she said, then said it again – “three hundred” - and shook her head.

After 17 years of feeding the poor and homeless in Charlotte's Genesis Park neighborhood, Harvest Center may have to close down. It's one of many nonprofits – unaffiliated with United Way – that face their own struggles for money.

Pastor Barbara Brewton Cameron founded Harvest Center in 1992 and helped run it until her death last year. Now in the hands of Marion, Cameron's sister, Harvest Center feeds more than 1,800 families a month with pantry items from Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina, plus more than 5,000 hot meals a month to the poor and homeless.

The number of needy here has risen more than 30 percent in the past year. Donations have dried up. “People just stopped giving,” said Marion. “They don't have anything.”

Harvest Center gets its food from Second Harvest, and volunteers help staff breakfast and lunch on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, plus Sunday breakfast. But there are staffing expenses, building expenses, youth programs, drug-addiction programs. Executive Director Blease Turner says the bills average $41,000 a month.

While most nonprofits operate with up to six months of operating costs in reserve, Harvest Center is down to less than a month's. Already, officials have laid off three part-time staffers and eliminated a program that drove seniors to and from the center for food. Other staffers have been asked to take unpaid time off. “We're in dire straits,” Turner said. “We've been there before, but not like this.”

At the least, the center will close next week – temporarily, officials hope – to regroup.
Outside, Marion handed out a half-gallon of milk. She dodged a volunteer. She placed a hand on a passing shoulder.

“If I have to, I'll stand out on the street and hand out this food,” she said. ‘If we close these doors, where are these people going to go?”

For more information on Harvest Center, call 704-333-4280.

One shortfall - no longer short

This week, members of Covenant Presbyterian Church read about millions in United Way cuts to Charlotte's nonprofits. Among the programs hurt were four at Uptown Shelter of Charlotte, including the emergency shelter, which lost $28,597.

The shelter offers 268 beds a night to Charlotte's homeless men, and Executive Director Carson Dean says his agency committed to not reducing that number despite the cuts.

But, he says: "We were making that commitment a little on faith."

Yesterday afternoon, Carson received a call from Covenant. The church's grants committee and Division of Mission wanted to donate $29,000 to cover the United Way shortfall.

(Full disclosure: I'm a member of Covenant but wasn't involved in the decision to donate the money to Uptown Shelter.)

"This is fantastic," Dean says. "It's a huge relief."

Says Covenant member Janet Delery, who is chair of Covenant's Division of Mission: "We are grateful to have an opportunity to make an impactful contribution to meet the needs of the poor in our community. By acting quickly, perhaps we can further our impact on the city by being a catalyst for others and setting a standard of leadership."

NBC's Al Roker - Lending a Hand in Charlotte

NBC television personality Al Roker is in Charlotte this morning to give away a truckload of goods.

The gift will be part of Roker's "Lend a Hand" campaign, in its eighth year traveling across America. Roker will make his presentation to the Community School of the Arts at Uptown's Spirit Square, where the school is based.

The Observer's Lindsay Ruebens is with Roker and will be giving us updates this morning. She writes:

10:35 a.m. - "A transformative event for us": The Penske trucks were finally opened to cheers from onlookers after 8:30 a.m., revealing $369,000 worth of basketballs, guitars, keyboards, Crayola products and other musical and artistic equipment.

With charities all over the city hurting, Community School of the Arts Board of Directors Chairman David Page said this donation will have an effect on the community.

"It's a transformative event for us," he said.

By the end of the event, Al was upstaged by another star -- singer Colbie Caillat. She was a surprise performer with children from the First Baptist Church West after-school program choir. The group performed her hit song, "Bubbly."

8:32 a.m. - Sprinkle thrilled: WCNC's Larry Sprinkle, between breaks, says he's been having a ball this morning.

Sprinkle said he first met Roker in 1997, and Roker still remembered him this morning.

"He's a great guy, as great a person you'll ever meet. He's very accommodating," Sprinkle said.

Sprinkle said it was a nice surprise that Charlotte was in the lineup of names among other big cities in the country that are in this week's tour. He thinks it's great that small organizations are getting big name recognition and help through the series.

The most exciting part, Sprinkle said, was when Roker was right behind him saying, "And here's what's happening in your neck of the woods."

"And there he was, right here in our neck of the woods right behind me!" Sprinkle said. "It was great. It's just been very special having him here."

7:52 a.m. - Star deaths likely will delay Charlotte broadcast: Roker said the mood is a bit more somber this morning with the deaths of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. "This is a much more subdued version," he said.

Something similar happened on the Lend A Hand tour two years ago when the donation giveaway coincided with the Virginia Tech shootings. Roker said they taped the celebration and ran the tape a day later. The same will probably happen for this taping.

"It wouldn't do justice to the tone of the show, or to the Community School of the Arts," he said.
He said it hasn't felt like a long week of traveling, but he'll probably feel it this weekend when he gets home.

"At least there's Bojangle's chicken and such," he said.

Roker, known for being food lover, said he ate at Mert's last night - rice and beans with turkey sausage. He also sampled the cornbread and chicken wings. Excellent, he said.

So far in Charlotte, Roker has seen the airport, SouthPark Mall and Uptown. "It's been spectacular, he said. "I'm a big fan of the light rail."

7:12 a.m. - He's here: Al Roker is in our neck of the woods this Friday morning - and he said this is his first visit to the Queen City.

He is in Charlotte as a part of his annual "Lend a Hand Today" tour across the country and is expected to make a donation to Community School of the Arts.

At 6:45 a.m., he and WCNC weatherman Larry Sprinkle had the cameras rolling and and the small media coverage crowd laughing.

Roker told Sprinkle he's got the best name a weather man could dream of. "That's the best name for either an ice cream man, a weather man, or a urologist," he said.

Three Penske trucks were in sight, as well as a Gibson guitar bus.

A delegation from Charlotte Emergency Housing in navy t-shirts was one of the first groups to wait, but others came solo to watch.

Linda Jackson, 56, made a sign when she got to Spirit Square, where the show is taping, that read, "Hi Frederick, I love you, but Today is Big Al's Day on Today's Show!"

"I love Big Al; I always watch him on the Today Show," she said.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Filling in the gaps, a need at a time

Charlotte's nonprofit leaders know that our needs crisis won't be solved by large donors riding in with rescuing cash, but with an accumulation of smaller efforts - people responding to funding shortfalls with their wallets and time. Much of that support will begin in a place already well-attuned to needs here - the faith community.

Here's a fresh example:

Earlier this month, representatives from two Charlotte churches met with officials from A Child's Place and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. On the agenda of this emergency meeting: What to do about Charlotte kids going hungry in the summer?

"The concern was that with a lot of kids getting most of their nutrition through the school system, what's going to happen when school isn't in session?" said Bob Breed, associate pastor of outreach at Myers Park Presbyterian Church.

Breed, along with Bill Jeffries of Providence United Methodist, decided to hold a food drive with other churches in the community. Those include: Myers Park United Methodist, Christ Episcopal, Little Church on the Lane, Covenant Presbyterian, Myers Park Baptist and St. Mark’s Lutheran.

People can donate non-perishables from June 22-July 27 at any of these churches on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The group is working out how best to distribute the donated food. Providence United Methodist will use it for free dinners it's hosting on Wednesday and Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. at St. John's Methodist on Monroe Road. Breed also is working with other churches and community centers (call him at 704-376-3695 if your church is interested.)

"We're just getting started with this," he says.

It is, he says, an effort prompted by need - and there's more of that in our city than agencies can address, especially with a shortfall in public and private support. Breed says churches are aware of the role they can play now - and the gaps they can fill - and he is hearing more from people who want to help, too.

"It tends to be contagious," he says. "Our hope is it will kind of get beyond the church, so that people will take up collections in their neighborhoods and at their neighborhood pools."

Let us know if you're doing just that.

Lauren's story: "Are they going to be shunned to the basement?"

Lauren Mullis had prepared for this week to arrive. As executive director of The Arc of Mecklenburg County - a United Way agency - she had begun cutting costs long ago to prepare for the cuts that would come her way. She snipped at the budget, moved her staff into a smaller office, changed from a color printer to black and white.

And then, Tuesday.

The Arc, which helps families dealing with developmental disabilities navigate the phalanx of social services and government red tape, lost $111,792 - 44 percent of its United Way money. The agency gets 75 percent of its budget annually from United Way support. "It's devastating," Mullis says.

Yesterday, she sat down to tell her agency's story - which is also her story - and how Mecklenburg families with disabilities are threatened by more than Tuesday's United Way announcement.

Says Lauren:

The Arc has been around for 56 years this year, and it means an awful lot to me and my family. Forty-seven years ago, my aunt was born with autism and mental retardation, and back then the doctor's answer was to put them into an institution and forget about them. My grandparents did nothing of the sort. They brought her home to raise her just like they did the rest of their children. They looked for local resources in the community, and they found the Arc, 47 years ago, here in Charlotte.

They immediately got involved, so much so that my grandfather, Don Austin, became the board president of this chapter in the 1970s and board president of Arc of North Carolina in the early 80s. I did my internship here and fell in love and thought, how can I make a career out of this. I have an instant connection with people who are different. It's probably because I grew up around my Aunt Becky; it's no big deal to me.

We serve over 3,000 clients a year. We serve people from birth to death. Developmental disabilities don't just go away - there's no cure. So often times we're the ones who continuously get larger and larger client loads because we're not losing clients. We're gaining clients because of how many people are moving here. We'll tell them what to expect, and they depend on that.

This United Way situation has been like a train off in the distance I've been hearing for a very long time. It's been somewhat aggravating that this has been plaguing us for as long as it has. As the leader of an organization that's always been dependent on United Way dollars, but feels that we're doing everything right, we've had the rug pulled out from under us. It's devastating.

We prove every year that what we do every year is valuable and needed. We steer our clients to the right people to talk to, go with them to hearings, sit by them and help them fill out appeal paperwork. Take them though all of the appropriate channels so if they're being denied a service, they can appropriately appeal that denial. You need someone like that in the community who are going to try and stand up for people who are the most vulnerable.

Look at what's going on with the state budget with Health & Human services. It's a shambles, and so many of clients rely on that money. Many of our clients are recipients of something called CAP - Community Alternative Programs - and it's a Medicaid waiver designed to keep people out of institutions. A lot of that funding is being completely cut. There are at least 400 people waiting in Mecklenburg County for CAP slots, and these people will be getting no CAP services anytime soon. Other services like day support people, who go with developmentally disabled out to a job program or to do crafts, or vocational rehab, are also being cut. So what's going to happen? These people are just going to sit at home, and Mom and Dad aren't going to get any respite because those dollars are drying up.

There are even problems with funding of group homes that serve people with mental health issues and developmental disabilities. If the group homes go away, where are these folks going to go? The last thing I want to see is someone who is at their wits end because they have no support, they have no services, and we can't provide them anything because everyone that we would suggest that they go to doesn't have any dollars. Are they going to be shunned away in the basement again like so many years ago?

The budget proposals for Health and Human Services take us back to the 1960s in terms of what's available. That is the real scary thing. While I can understand the United Way wanted to put money toward homelessness and food banks and crisis assistance - and that is very needed - there are a lot of underlying factors going on with many agencies that they may not recognize as critical needs as well.

Our folks, who have developmental disabilities, who are not going to get better, who did nothing to deserve their plight in life, are getting the short end of the stick. The state cuts are going to come down, and it's going to create panic. It's going to create chaos, and these families are going to turn to the only places they know to turn to, which are the advocacy organizations like the Arc.

I've been working on a budget and everything, from the events we're able to do like our educational workshops, to programs such as our fetal alcohol awareness program, to our K-Kids Club, which is a club for children with and without disabilities to teach them the value of one another - all of that is threatened. We used to have a little money to help clients - if we have an adult with a disability living on their own who needs help with a power bill, and help to teach them at the same time how not to do this again. But we have no money to do that anymore.

If you're not personally touched by it, then you don't get it. I am concerned that there are people at the United Way - while we have been a United Way agency for over 30 years - still don't get it, because they're not personally touched. That's a barrier that's tough to get over. One way we're getting past it is by telling our stories. We all have a reason why we're here, why we're touched by this organization, and when you tell stories you can see people with a look on their face. It's "Ohhh, I never thought of it." But then they understand.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Looking for a lemonade stand...

Our community has long been graced with kids taking initiative to raise money for important causes. With Mecklenburg's nonprofits facing a budget crisis, we want to highlight children who have started a lemonade stand - or any kind of fundraising effort - to help charities in need.

Tell us about it by email or at 704-358-5029.

Agencies can appeal cuts, but ...

There will be appeals.

They likely will fail.

United Way officials acknowledged the former and hinted at the latter while answering Observer questions before this week's agency cuts were made public.

"Yes, there will be many agencies who will appeal," said Michael Smith, head of Center City Partners and a United Way of Central Carolinas volunteer. That's to be expected given that the United Way cut money to agencies by an average of 35 percent - with one-fifth of agencies seeing program dollars cut by 50 percent or more.

But, warns United Way official Chris Jackson, the bar for a successful appeal will be high: "It's really got to be a fundamentally poor decision from the council, or they were using some incorrect data."

Says Andy Elliott, head of the committee of volunteers who decided how the money would be spent: "It's not as if we put aside money for appeals."

Agencies have two weeks to make a formal protest.

After the bad news - a challenge

When the United Way email finally arrived yesterday morning, Carson Dean seemed relieved. It wasn't that his Uptown Shelter for men was spared by funding cuts - in fact, three of his programs lost half their money. "We were bracing for the worst," he says. "What we ended up getting was kind of what we were expecting."

The cuts to Uptown Men's Shelter reflected United Way's larger philosophy this year: critical needs, such as Dean's emergency shelter, were largely spared. Other programs, such as the Uptown Shelter's substance abuse, mental health and transitional housing program, suffered.

"At the end of the day," says Dean, "that's probably fair."

But while few are questioning the United Way's funding priorities - yet - yesterday's announcement was a reminder of its limitations. Less than a third of United Way funded agencies tackle emergency needs such as homelessness, and even those get much of their money elsewhere.

At Uptown Shelter, United Way money and county support account for only a third of the budget. The rest comes from private donors, including churches, and those givers are struggling in this harsh economy.

Meanwhile, the shelter is filled to its 268-bed capacity each night, as is its sibling year-round shelter, the Salvation Army's Center of Hope for women and children. About 5,000 others are on the streets.

There's a need not only for beds, but for programs that will get people off the street and out of the shelter. Yesterday's cuts made a difficult task a little harder.

So why relief? Because Dean now knows what he's working with. He says he'll redouble his efforts for private donations. And now, oddly, the United Way cuts have created a crisis that's focused the community on need, perhaps more than ever.

"We have to figure out how to overcome it," Dean says. "That's our next challenge."

From our media partners:

WFAE-FM 90.7 looks at some of the impact of the United Way cuts on emergency needs. Mike Collins will talk at 9 a.m. today about slashes in the state budget with the Observer's Mark Johnson and Dr. Gary Rassel, Assoc. Professor of Political Science at UNC Charlotte.

Davidsonnews.net offers the Mooresville-Lake Norman perspective on the cuts.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Who took the hardest United Way hits (and who didn't)

In a harsh economic climate, Mecklenburg agencies serving the county's most urgent needs were largely spared significant United Way cuts today. Programs serving less-critical needs took most of the hardest hits.

"We are underinvesting on things that are long-term solutions to the problem in exchange for dealing with the problem," United Way chairman Carlos Evans said yesterday in advance of releasing the cuts. "Unfortunately, we're in crisis mode."

The hardest-hit programs/agencies, in dollars:

-$358,299: Boy Scouts of America, Mecklenburg Council, outreach/special initiatives (-60.1%)
-$327,428: YMCA Strong Kids (-50%)
-$310,829: Salvation Army Boys and Girls Clubs (-45%)
-$299,463: YWCA Mecklenburg Neighborhood Youth Programs (-45%)
-$254,892: Metrolina Association for the Blind (-57.1%)

Hardest-hit programs/agencies, by percentage lost:

-100%: Substance Abuse Prevention Services, Adult prevention program, (-$83,198)
-79.4%: Sandra & Leon Levine Jewish Center, leisure, (-$83,174)
-77.8%: Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, legal services for elderly (-$7,000)
-70%: YMCA, Strong Communities Latino outreach, (-$23,254)
-60.1%: Boy Scouts of America, Mecklenburg Council, outreach/special initiatives (-$358,299)

Programs/agencies with an increase or no cuts:

+4.9%: Salvation Army Center of Hope shelter for women and children (received $824,000)
0.0%: MedAssist of Mecklenburg (received $233,996)
0.0%: Charlotte Community Health Clinic, chronic disease management (received $129,308)
0.0%: Crisis Assistance Ministry Free Store (received $82,600)

(Here's a PDF of all the funding allocations for the United Way of Central Carolinas, including agencies in Anson, Cabarrus, Mecklenburg and Union counties - and the Mooresville-Lake Norman area. Here's a searchable database.)

A couple of caveats: United Way listed its 2009 allocations by larger agencies' programs or smaller agencies as a whole. Although the Boy Scouts of Mecklenburg outreach initiatives program took the largest single program cut of $358,299, other agencies received more total cuts. The largest: YMCA of Mecklenburg lost a total of $531,329.

Also, not included above are agencies which lost 100 percent of their money because they are no longer United Way members.

United Way officials tell us a number of factors went into decisions made by the Citizen Review Process, the volunteers who analyzed the programs asking for money.

The CRP took into consideration whether an agency had other financial support (which would include larger agencies, such as the Boy Scouts, YMCA and YWCA, that received some of the biggest cuts).

Another factor: Officials didn't want to cripple smaller agencies, because needs remained and the startup costs to address those needs are significant.

The biggest apparent factor: "We said this year it's critical needs and it's more short-term oriented," said Andy Elliott, Regional Community Investment Committee Chair.

That means shelters such as the Salvation Army's Center of Hope shelter for women and children and the Uptown Shelter emergency facility (12.9 percent cut) received far less than the average 35 percent cut. Also spared were some agencies and programs that provide urgent medical needs, such as MedAssist and the chronic disease management program at Charlotte Community Health Clinic.

United Way defined critical programs as those meeting needs for "basic services to sustain life." The next tier - "pressing" - were programs meeting needs that, if not met, could become critical within six months. "Important" programs provided indirect services or met underlying needs not expected to quickly become critical.

Critical programs received an average of 20.3% in cuts today. Pressing programs were cut 32.8%, and Important programs 43.3 percent.

Are you involved in a program that was cut? Let us know what it means for your agency - or you personally.

United Way of Carolinas 2009 funding distributions

From the United Way of Central Carolinas, a PDF of 2009 funding distribution to member agencies and programs in Anson, Cabarrus, Mecklenburg and Union counties, plus the Lake Norman-Mooresville area.

The 56-page documents includes money requested by each agency/program, money allocated by the United Way, and how much each agency gained or lost (percentage and in dollars) from 2008.

Read the full document (.pdf)

United Way - what's happening now and later

(Updated, 9:11 a.m.) At first, there was anger - non-profits upset at local United Way mismanagement, knowing that charities would likely feel the brunt of inevitable giver outrage.

Now there's anxiety - e-mails and phones calls between agencies in the past week, speculating about the bad news that's finally here, as the United Way of Central Carolinas announces it funding cuts today. (The announcement is expected at 1 p.m.)

"I think now it's kind of 'Let's just kind of know for sure, and that way we can take some action,' " says Carson Dean, executive director of Uptown Men's Shelter.

The United Way's regional board of directors is meeting Uptown this morning to discuss and vote on funding recommendations made by 234 volunteer members of the Citizens Review Process, who evaluated agency requests for a budget year that begins next week.

Agencies have known for months that the United Way would cut funding to its 91 agencies by around 40 percent. The United Way's 2008 campaign, hurt by controversy over former CEO Gloria Pace King's pay, fell $15 million short of the previous year.

"There are some people who are worried they might have to close their doors," Dean says.

United Way officials will contact agencies today to let them know if funding was cut - and how pain much those non-profits will feel. We'll bring you those decisions in detail, with explanations from United Way officials and reactions from the non-profit leaders as they get a clearer of view of their, and Charlotte's, needs.

UPDATE, 9:11 A.M.: the Observer's Mark Price reports from the United Way meeting that the Board has approved a policy tightening executive travel and reimbursement guidelines, part of the firestorm surrounding the former CEO.

Also, Susan Faulkner, co-chair of the CEO search committee, told the board that 275 candidates expressed interest in the job. The committee will narrow that to about 50 this week, then down to a top two or four on July 16 and 17. Those candidates will be presented to the board.

Faulkner also said two type of candidates are emerging - national candidates with a non-profit background and local candidates with both non-profit and for-profit backgrounds.

Which type of candidate do you think United Way needs? Is a Charlotte connection critical, given the turmoil that the local United Way has endured?

From our media partners:

David Boraks of Davidsonnews.net writes that North Mecklenburg got mixed news with Arts & Science Council funding. Some groups lost more than expected, while others were pleasantly surprised to get any money at all.

WCNC is reporting that senior centers need funding help.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Youth Homes Inc. - death greatly exaggerated

The Observer's Eric Frazier, who has been covering Mecklenburg's non-profits crisis, writes that tension is escalating among local agencies today as the United Way board of directors prepares to break the bad budget news tomorrow to scores of local charities that depend on them for financial support.

Writes Eric:

The impending decision has stoked such anxiety among nonprofits that Youth Homes Inc., which provides support services for fragile families, found itself fending off budget rumors that didn't even involve the United Way. The misunderstanding came after an Observer story on Sunday mentioned that state budget cuts have claimed one of the agency's many family preservation programs.

Frank Crawford, director of Youth Homes Inc., stressed that just one of those programs failed to get state money for next budget year. He fielded calls over the weekend from anxious staffers and other supporters who mistakenly thought that all of the agency's family preservation programs had been eliminated.

"We are losing one program within a broader array of programs," he wrote in an e-mail. "Some 50 other families will be served next year in the other family preservation programs that Youth Homes offers."

What's needed: Not only money, but ideas

How can Charlotte begin to compensate for a non-profit shortfall of $20 million?

The number is too big - and the economy too harsh - for charities to expect that a handful of big donors will come bearing big money. Difficult decisions are ahead, including some agencies closing their doors.

Others will reinvent themselves, and that's where the help begins. Charlotte's philanthropic community is talking about a building a survival fund to help charities help themselves. If, for example, charities want to combine staffs to save money, the fund could pay for consultants.

Some help - perhaps more than ever - will come from smaller groups, such as WPEG-FM "Power 98" and Montreat College in Charlotte, which are raising money for specific agencies. One group of a dozen women have opened the Common Grounds Farm Stand at Providence and Queens roads. They'll sell fresh fruits, vegetables and baked goods to help the Urban Ministry's homelessness programs.

More innovative ideas will be needed to compensate for the funding shortfall. Kelley Wheeler, co-chair of CMG Children's Consignment Sale, e-mails us with one:

Kelley writes:

The committee organizing the CMG Children's Consignment Sale at St. Gabriel Church is searching for charitable organizations to receive in-kind contributions of children's and maternity items that will be left unsold at the end of our sale in October.

Last year, we gave just over $12,000 (a figure that's a small fraction of the retail value) in children's clothing, sports equipment, maternity clothing, baby gear and toys to 7 different organizations including the WISH Foundation, Room At The Inn, the Alexander Youth Network, the CSS Refugee Office and to Thomasboro Elementary School.

Sadly, the rest of our unsold merchandise was loaded onto a truck and shipped off to the Kidney Foundation instead of getting into the hands of more of our neighbors in need. This year, we would like to partner with more organizations in our community to make sure that all of our unsold merchandise gets distributed within our community.

Interested in working with Kelley and CMG? Contact her at (704) 819-4986 or kelleywheeler@earthlink.net.

Says Kelley: "If every consignment sale partnered with our community organizations to distribute our unsold items locally, we just might help our community ride out the lack of funds donated."

Have an idea, too? Send it to pstonge@charlotteobserver.com

NBC's Roker to surprise Charlotte charity

QcityMetro editor Glenn Burkins writes this morning that one Charlotte charity will get a surprise visit this week from NBC television personality Al Roker.

(Yes, the visit will be a surprise. NBC isn't telling yet which charity Roker will visit.)

Glenn writes that Roker will visit the charity Friday during the "Today" broadcast. For more details, including what Roker will do once he gets to Charlotte, read the report.

(UPDATE, 11:48 a.m.: WCNC's Rachel Clapp tells us that Roker is expected to appear on Larry Sprinkle's live Friday morning show.)

Off Exit 10A - signs and a question

On Exit 10A, off Interstate 77, most every morning, someone holds a sign.

Some days, it's an older man in a ragged Panthers jersey, his arms and legs shaking. On others, a woman in jeans and a gray T-shirt, sitting on a curb, her arms on her knee, her sign in her hands.

"Help me" and "Homeless," the signs say. "Hungry" and "God Bless."

Some drivers hand a dollar out the window off Exit 10A. Far more fiddle with their radio, sip from their coffee, look away. Perhaps they worry how that dollar out the window might be misspent. Perhaps they prefer to help through church offerings or United Way.

Maybe they go right to the non-profit, trusting that others know how to administer the money properly, that they serve best as a bridge between people who help and people who need.

What do we do when that bridge begins to collapse?

Beginning today, in this space, we'll explore the funding crisis facing Mecklenburg County's non-profit community. People running those charities call it The Cliff - a dire budgetary future brought to bear by a global recession and deep troubles at our regional United Way chapter.

In Sunday's Observer, reporters Eric Frazier, Mark Price and April Bethea told you how collectively, non-profits supported by the Arts & Science Council and the United way are facing at least a $20 million drop in available aid.

Last week, ASC announced that grants to major beneficiaries were down 26 percent, year over year. Tomorrow, the United Way of Central Carolinas will tell more than 90 member agencies what funding cuts they'll endure in the next budget year. Some non-profits will lose 40 percent or more. Some will have funding cut altogether.

The crisis is not confined to non-profits. Last week, Mecklenburg County commissioners cut $10.8 million from the Department of Social Services, which fills basic needs of thousands in the county. State legislators will likely announce more significant cuts soon.

All this as the recession has created a greater need for services throughout the county, including an 85 percent increase in calls and referrals for homeless services. The people who come to Exit 10A.

We'll bring you the news of those United Way cuts, and we'll tell you how they will impact Charlotte's non-profits and the people they serve. We'll also tell you what some in the Charlotte community are doing to offset at least a little of the shortfall. Already, we're seeing movement from Charlotte's philanthropic community and smaller, grass roots efforts.

We'll bring it all to you with the help of our media partners - listed over to your right. It's an unprecedented collaboration of Charlotte media - called Charlotte Mission Possible - designed to let you know which critical needs are being unmet in Mecklenburg, and what you can do to help.

Here's one way: Tell us your stories, your needs, your ideas. What do you want us to report on? What needs do you have that might be threatened by cuts? What ideas do you have - short term and long - to help Mecklenburg navigate this crisis?

It's not as simple anymore as checking your United Way box at work - or not checking it in protest. It's about asking yourself what part you might want to play in our most critical charitable moment.