Relief Efforts And Economy A Concern For Local Charities

June 21, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Although it’s too early to know for sure, it doesn’t appear that all the generous local giving to the relief efforts stemming from the terrorist attacks will lessen donations to area charities. Yet, one fundraising effort has been cancelled.

But the tragic events of Sept. 11 may focus more attention on the urgent needs that some local residents have and the valuable work that area nonprofit organizations do. The hope is that during this time of heightened awareness local charities and fundraisers will be met with even more generosity, despite a slowed economy.

“I don’t think that enough time has passed for us to really gauge that yet,” said Diana Sieger, president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation.

Sieger said what the immediate future holds for charitable donations has been a hot topic for directors of the area’s nonprofit organizations, and that two schools of thought have emerged from those discussions. One is that all the gifts of time, money and blood in response to the attacks has revived an overwhelming and heartfelt desire to give, a craving that hasn’t been seen here in recent years.

“That just makes me feel real good,” she said.

The other is a fear that people may have given as much as they can give to the relief efforts, and their wallets will be empty when local charities come calling.

“There is that possibility, particularly with the declining economy,” said Sieger. “But something else is happening that is interesting. The more and more I talk to people more solidly about this, they seem to want to go over and above with their giving.”

Sieger pointed out that the people she referred to weren’t only those who sit on boards of nonprofits or are known to be generous givers to the community. Rather, she was speaking of those who comprise what is typically called the general public.

“They are willing to give to help those who have been so severely affected in New York and in Washington. But they are also willing to go above and beyond that to make sure that people’s needs are being taken care of in the greater Grand Rapids area,” she said.

Two of the largest local fundraising efforts going on are the Heart of West Michigan United Way’s annual appeal and the drive by Saint Mary’s Mercy Medical Center to build the Richard J. Lacks Cancer Center. Both have close ties to the business community and rely on gifts from area firms and employees, as well as donations from the general public.

Micki Benz, vice president of community development for Saint Mary’s, said giving to the out-of-town relief efforts hasn’t hurt the hospital’s community-wide fundraising drive.

“No. I mean that. No,” she said. “It’s a generous community and while people seem to be giving, and not just money, contributions to our cancer center have not dropped off. I think the cause of good cancer care is still going to be there, and I think that people will still care about the things that they find important.”

Neither has the economic downturn, which has resulted in the layoffs of thousands of West Michigan workers, dented the hospital’s drive so far.

“No, it hasn’t. I think people are committed to improving the health care in our community. It’s very important to them,” said Benz. “We’re still on target. I feel confident we will hit our target.”

Saint Mary’s needs $42 million to build the cancer center: $37 million for the actual construction and $5 million for the facility’s endowment fund. The Lacks family has led the drive by pledging $10 million to the effort.

As for the United Way appeal, President Michael Brennan said the attacks have pushed back the effort to reach the $16.6 million goal for at least ten days. The campaign started on Sept. 7 and four days later it went into a holding pattern for a week or so.

“It’s going to take an extraordinary effort to reach $16.6 million,” said Brennan. “The Sept. 11th events, I would say, put a ten-day pause into the efforts. Everything came to a standstill and understandably so.”

Brennan said his organization went to work with some local corporations to help raise funds for attack victims, and that effort put the local appeal on hold. So the campaign will run later this year than usual. But the biggest concern for the success of this year’s drive isn’t the relief effort. Rather it’s the economic downturn, which has resulted in a goodly number of layoffs locally.

“I think the hard reality for us is eighty percent of our campaign comes from the workplace campaign effort. And our local economic environment within many of our employers isn’t as strong as it was a year ago,” said Brennan.

There has been one local casualty related to the terrorist attacks and relief efforts thus far. Catholic Human Development Outreach cancelled this year’s “Soup’s On For All,” an annual fundraiser held in January for God’s Kitchen. CHDO Executive Director Sue Cook said it’s likely the event will be back in 2003.

“In light of what our nation is now facing, we have decided to postpone this year’s event. While we still need to raise the $100,000 the event usually brings in, we will seek that assistance in other ways,” said Cook.

There is no doubt that terrorism has altered the way people live. But Benz noted that the tragedies have reminded them of what is truly important in life. And because of that change in perspective, she felt people will continue to give and some will even dig deeper.

“In the end, I think quite the opposite, that local philanthropy will not suffer. I think this has opened up people’s hearts in a way that we haven’t seen,” said Benz. “Even though this is a generous community, I think it’s going to become even more generous. I truly, truly believe that.”

So does Sieger.

“I think the events have kind of re-awakened, and could potentially re-awaken, a need and desire to give more money — above and beyond those disaster relief efforts,” she added. “Wouldn’t that be nice? I hope I’m not sounding too hopelessly optimistic and that it really will happen.”

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