In recession, non-profit agencies see volunteers increase as funding shrinks

When Barbara Planker was laid off from her job last year she headed for the nearest soup kitchen – not to be fed, but to volunteer.

“I used to have the money to donate, but now all I have is time,” said the Milford resident, who was laid off from her job as an event coordinator at a publishing company in Stamford 14 months ago.

Planker’s situation is not unique.

Nonprofit organizations across the state are reporting a surge in volunteers since the recession began, some of them victims of the recession themselves.

volunteers 6-21-10

Volunteer John Nori checks the oven at the Beth-El Center in Milford (Jacqueline Rabe)

“It’s not that they don’t want to give [money], it’s that they can’t anymore. So, they volunteer,” said Toni Dolan, the executive director of the Beth-El Center, the homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Milford where Planker helps out.

A national report released last week confirmed that volunteer participation is skyrocketing, with more than  900,000 volunteers in Connecticut last year — a 10 percent increase since the recession officially began. There was a 4 percent increase nationwide since 2007, reports the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency.

“There is a certain level of awareness that there are a lot of people in need right now. People tend to be very generous when they know there is help needed,” said Nancy Carrington, executive director of The Connecticut Food Bank, which has experienced a 10 percent spike in volunteers during the first 6 months of this year.

“That’s a lot of volunteers,” she said. “And we haven’t even hit the busy season yet.”

One of those volunteers is Albert McFadden, 18 of New Haven, who decided to volunteer during his summer vacation from Howard University in Washington D.C. at the Food Bank in East Haven.

“It was an easy choice for me to volunteer here. This is a good cause,” he said last week while sifting through donated carrots and bagging them to be shipped to area shelters.

Connecticut ranks 17th among the states in volunteerism, with 31.7 percent of its population participating, the report says.

There are several causes for the high number of volunteers.

Certain scholarships require community service, as was the case for an $8,000 a year scholarship McFadden receives.

Volunteer service is also required to graduate from many public and private high schools. About 40 public high schools require volunteering to graduate, said Department of Education Spokesman Thomas Murphy.

volunteeers 2 6-21-10

From left, Derek Spambanato of East Haven, John Curran of West Haven, Amy Peterson of Clinton and Albert McFadden of New Haven volunteer at the Connecticut Food Bank in East Haven (Jacqueline Rabe)

And then there are those who volunteer because they want to help, even if they can’t donate money.

Marilyn Firmender, another volunteer at Beth-El, said when the real estate market crashed so did her salary as an agent.

So, she switched the way she gives back to the community, from donating money to helping cook at the soup kitchen.

“I have to do something. … This is close, convenient and I love to cook. It was perfect for me,” said Firmender, 60 of Milford.

Then you have the “lifers,” as colleagues refer to John Nori, a long-time volunteer at Beth-El.

“I wasn’t going to let the food go uncooked,” said Nori, 78 of Milford, a retired dentist. “If I am not doing anything and they tell me they need me, I am here.”

The boost in volunteerism comes at a time when non-profits in the state are feeling a sharp budget pinch, according a January report from the Connecticut Association of Nonprofits.

“Our nonprofits are continuing to fall behind as funding dries up and demand goes through the roof,” said Liza Andrews, the public policy director for CAN. “It’s getting increasingly difficult to do so much more with less.”

CAN reports funding is down at least 10 percent across the board from 2008 to 2009. All funding sources are affected, from  state grants to donations from corporations and private individuals.

The Connecticut Food Bank is one of the hundreds of nonprofits in the state reporting that the demand is far outstripping their ability to provide services.

“No way are we meeting all the need out there,” said Nancy Carrington, the chief executive officer of Connecticut Food Bank, which supplies food to 650 soup kitchens, pantries, shelters and other programs around the state.

From 2008 to 2009 the food bank saw a 7.4 percent decrease in food donations and the numbers have continued to fall this year, she said. Last year, a one-time $593,000 cash infusion of federal stimulus dollars helped temporarily buoy food supplies for the 30 percent increase in demand.

But that federal stimulus money is not available this year, and nonprofits are preparing themselves for even greater cuts in state grants than they have seen in the past two years as Connecticut grapples with multi-billion-dollar deficits.

“There is a dangerous tipping point on the horizon,” CAN’s report says, calculating that one-fifth of the budget for the 100 nonprofits surveyed comes from government grants.

To cope with the fiscal climate, the report says nonprofits – which employed 11 percent of the state’s workforce in 2008 – have chosen to either reduce salaries of employees, cut staff or reduce employee benefits.

Other solutions have been to ration the services provided, as has been the case at the Connecticut Food Bank.

“They will get something, just maybe not as much,” Carrington said. “There is less in the bag than there was in the past.”

Connecticut is not unique in it’s fundraising struggles: A nationwide survey of 75 million households and a million companies released last week reports that charitable giving dropped 3.6 percent, to $304 billion, from 2008 to 2009.

The report, compiled by Giving USA Foundation and the Center of Philanthropy at Indiana University, said this is the steepest decline in current dollar terms since the annual reports began in 1956.

In some cases, the ones who were donating are now on the receiving end of the services.

“A lot of the families that were helping out are now the family that needs help. I see that all the time,” Patricia Tarasovic, the coordinator of volunteer programs for Naugatuck Valley United Way, said.