Giving USA Foundation, a consulting group headquartered in Chicago, reported this summer that after years of significant decline charitable giving rose nationally by almost 4 percent in 2010, a sure sign that charity "remains a central part of the American fabric."
But the news wasn’t all good. In inflation-adjusted dollars, donations to individuals and human service foundations fell slightly on a national level.
The latter point is one that some local nonprofits, particularly The Bridge Teen Center in Orland Park, better understand.
“It seems like everyone is just kind of tightening their belt,” said Rob Steinmetz, the organization’s marketing director and co-founder. “Whether it (is) an individual or foundations or companies, they're either giving less or their giving is not increasing.”
In the case of foundations, many give donations based on a percentage of their invested earnings, Steinmetz explained. When returns in the market are low, there’s simply less profit to spare.
However, the “bridge” in Bridge Teen Center is no accident. Steinmetz and his wife Priscilla opened the teen hangout in June 2010 with the intent of forming partnerships not just with foundations but with local schools, churches, families and companies.
“A lot of them support us financially, but then we try to get them involved programmatically,” Steinmetz said.
On Aug. 10, representatives from Hershey’s taught high schoolers about interviewing for different types of jobs. Several weeks ago an employee from Best Buy taught a 90-minute course on break dancing.
Still, the Teen Center is in “desperate need of another full-time person focused only on programs,” Steinmetz said, “but we're not in a position to make a hire … at this point.”
All of this, of course, at a time when human services are needed most.
“We have many, many students whose one or more parents might be out of work. We've overheard conversations with students about being afraid of losing their homes,” Steinmetz said. “But that just makes it all the more important for them to have a positive and encouraging place to hang out.”
Marianne Hill, coordinator for Orland Township Food Pantry, said she’s seen a rise in new families coming for food. As part of federal law, Orland Park purchased the salvageable food from Randy’s Market after it closed last month, and then donated it to the township pantry.
While the Teen Center opened in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, this isn’t everyone’s first downturn.
Since 2008, Goodwill Industries of Southwest Wisconsin and Metropolitan Chicago, which has a branch in Orland Park, has opened six new job-training centers—a free service—and increased its own workforce to 4,000 people, according to Cheryl Lightholder, the company's manager of communications.
As Giving USA's research suggests, the size and type of nonprofit may hold the key to its stability. In the case of Goodwill, the recession likely entices people who wouldn't normally shop there.
"Our hope is that even after the turnaround ... people will see the value of shopping at Goodwill and continue to do so, whether they're on a better economic footing or not," Lightholder said.
Still others rely on nothing but the comfort of others. In 1996, with the help of a large corporate donation, Colleen Kisel officially launched The Pediatric Oncology Treasure Chest Foundation. From a distribution center in Orland Park, Kisel and a skeleton staff of three “less than full-time” employees now provide toys and gift cards for approximately 7,700 young chemotherapy patients across 13 states.
“People are definitely holding back or scaling back,” Kisel said. “For example, our annual dance brought in $6,000 less than the year before. Normally, that goes up with each passing year.”
In total, POTCF is only $300 shy of what it took in one year ago, Kisel said. It’s a point of pride for her, even while the number of new patients the foundation serves climbs by nearly 400 each year. It’s also proof, she said, that the economy might soon turn a corner.
“I try not to project what's going to happen down the line,” Kisel said. “I actually have faith and trust—because our mission is good and what we're doing is good—that it will all work out.”
Want to help make sure it all works out? Contact The Pediatric Oncology Treasure Chest Foundation, The Bridge Teen Center and Orland Township Food Pantry for more information. The Food Pantry is giving away school supplies this month.