The other shoe drops: many Minnesotans are cold AND hungry

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For most of the past year, people of faith and community service providers have reminded us that needs for food assistance keeps growing while the Minnesota and national economies continue to weaken.

Now comes the Blandin Foundation to remind us that home heating costs are out of reach for many Minnesota households even as families struggle to find help keeping food on their tables. It awarded a $250,000 grant to Kootasca Community Action in northern Minnesota to help families in poverty and the working poor with heating assistance.

That grant was part of $380,000 in grants made by the foundation in September. All was geared to help its immediate area in meeting basic human needs.

“We’ve got families still behind on last winter’s heating bills,” said Wade Fauth, grants director for the Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. We’re looking at a very cold winter for a lot of people.”

That is the challenge facing all Minnesotans and the foundations and nonprofit organizations that specialize in meeting basic human needs.

We know the state of Minnesota is expecting at least a $1 billion budget shortfall by year’s end, and it could grow worse moving into 2009. The state is about to release September unemployment data that will likely show Minnesota continuing to exceed the nation’s dismal unemployment rate for a fourth straight month. There is little evidence that our state economy will be coming out of the economic slump anytime soon.

So while many of us wait out the data gathering exercises for when Minnesota can be technically declared to be in recession, foundations and nonprofit organizations are applying street smarts to form their own definition. It’s a recession if your neighbor loses his or her job. It’s a depression if you lose yours.

Either way, Minnesota is in for a long, cold winter given current economic problems at home, throughout the nation and now reaching abroad. This is a warning to nonprofits that’s been issued by Judy Alnes, executive director of MAP for Nonprofits (Management Assistance Program) and president of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.

Alnes said she’s cautioning nonprofit organizations to budget for a 10 to 15 percent reduction in grants and donations this year, given the current financial crisis. “If the stock market does turn around and we do see a recovery, it will be easy to adjust budgets upwards later,” she said. “But right now, it would be best to be very conservative with budgets.”

The real test of support for nonprofit, service organizations will come in January, after the holiday season, said Helen Ng, marketing and communications director for the Charities Review Council of Minnesota.

A disproportionately large amount of personal donations to service groups are made during the holidays. “We know people are planning to cut back on purchases this year,” she said. “We’ll have to see if it means a cutback in donations as well.”

People who want to make their donations count will get some guidance by checking out the council’s web site, smartgivers.org.

“All signs indicate that nonprofits serving human needs are in for economically challenging times,” Alnes writes in a message on the www.mapfornonprofits.org web site. “Nonprofits face the likelihood of decreased support from public and private sources, as well as from individual donors. This translates into a potential gap in services for those who are most in need.”

This warning is bearing out although Stephanie Haddad at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits said her umbrella organization hasn’t as yet polled member nonprofits to quantify the amount. Second Harvest, the large food bank based in Maplewood, and affiliated food shelf programs around the Twin Cities metro area are talking about increased demand for food assistance and difficulties in raising food supplies and dollar donations to service the food assistance supply chain.

Acknowledging these increased demands, the September grant awards from the Blandin Foundation also provided $40,000 to the Second Harvest Food Bank that services the Itasca County area, $40,000 for the Grand Rapids Area Community Foundation for its Sharing Fund, and provided $50,000 for architectural and financial planning assistance for Hope House of Itasca County.

Looking ahead, all Minnesotans will need to assess their own economic positions and determine how they might help if they have capacity to do so. State officials and lawmakers will need to determine a public response, and nonprofit organizations and foundations will need to determine what they can do within the mission constraints of their charters.

Not all foundations have the flexibility of the Blandin Foundation. Some have narrowly defined areas of expertise and service. Nonprofit organizations, meanwhile, respond to various defined human needs. They will need financial and personal volunteer contributions to carry out their work.

This support must come increasingly from us, as individuals and as members of faith-based and morally sensitive groups. That’s because the Foundation Center, a national umbrella organization based in New York, found that corporate giving to foundations increased by 6.6 percent in 2007, to $4.4 billion, but that corporate foundation giving slipped to10 percent of all foundation giving last year, down from 17 percent in 1990.

This has not been a good year for corporations in most American business sectors, as stockholders surely know. Most disturbing of all, the Foundation Center reports that the banking and finance sector provided the largest amount – 23.3 percent – of 2007 corporate foundation giving.

We, as taxpayers, just stepped forward to bail out this important sector of American commerce. Now, we as Minnesotans must step forward again to support those organizations delivering on basic human needs.