The economics of volunteerism: Is coastal living in jeopardy? Part V

© 2018-Siuslaw News

Volunteers discuss the ins, outs, pros and challenges of philanthropy in Siuslaw

Dec. 13, 2017 — There are a number of things that catch a person’s eye when walking into the Florence Food Share garden.

There are the 50 raised garden beds that dot the landscape, each at 4 by 20 feet. Those are dwarfed by the two 40-foot wide greenhouses next to them. There’s also the three huge rainwater tubs that store 12,500 gallons of water for irrigation.

While the beds are bare for the winter, the spring and fall months bring a plethora of vegetables from green beans, carrots, spinach, tomatoes and squashes. All told, the garden normally generates 10,000 pounds of food every year.

This is what volunteerism can create.

Philanthropy, in relation to the housing and employment crisis the region is currently facing, is an important factor in alleviating many of those concerns. Volunteerism, as much as any employer or industry in the region, makes Siuslaw run.

According to the Florence Area Community Coalition, 1,400 volunteers donated their time in 2016 for 20 organizations within the area, working a total of 109,000 hours in the community, equal to more than $1.5 million in donated hours. And that’s just for the 20 organizations they tracked.

Between 2012 and 2015, 58 nonprofit organizations in Florence filed a tax return, according to ProPublica. That’s not including the scores of churches, clubs and other organizations that give up their time to the community, nor does it include those organizations outside Florence city limits.

These numbers don’t include the millions of dollars that are funneled through these organizations through grants, endowments and individual donations on a yearly basis.

While the sheer volume of community involvement is overwhelming, there are problems when it comes to nonprofits. Organizations rarely communicate with each other. Finding new, diverse board members can be a challenge. Fundraising is always difficult, and at times, the work these organizations do and how they operate can be misconstrued.

For the past 11 years, Bart Mealer has been volunteering at the food share garden, an instrumental voice in building it from meager beginnings to the grand operation it is today.

“Years ago, they told me I was the garden coordinator,” Mealer said. The title really isn’t important to him — he’s basically just a guy that keeps showing up to grow stuff.

Mealer has had a whole host of titles in Florence. He’s the current vice president for Siuslaw Outreach Services (SOS), the current driver supervisor for the Friends of Florence cancer bus service and former board member for Food Share. He volunteers at the Florence Area Chamber of Commerce from time to time, helps out with the Siuslaw Public Library and helps hang the Christmas garlands in Historic Old Town.

Along the way, he has learned the good sides of volunteerism, the downsides and has gained a keen understanding of what philanthropy in the Siuslaw region is, and what it can become.

When Mealer first arrived in Florence, he was faced with something that almost all retirees are faced with after the initial thrill of throwing away the shackles of the daily grind: boredom.

“I had been busy all my life, so just sitting at home and watching Jeopardy isn’t going to happen,” he said. “I had been a gardener for a long time. Food share (was) looking for volunteers for gardening. So that started the ball.”

When he first arrived at Florence Food Share, the garden was small, just a tiny section on the north side of the property. Despite its stature, it would still take hours to maintain. One of the biggest challenges was watering.

“When I was first here, you had to hand water the plants three hours a day,” Mealer said.

To help alleviate the problem, Florence Food Share turned to one of the major components of all nonprofits: grants.

 

“You can’t make up a story”

Funding a nonprofit organization is a complicated process, using everything from grants to bake sales.

Grants are an often-misunderstood source of funding for nonprofit organizations, and sometimes that misunderstanding can be hugely detrimental.

Florence Food Share saw this first hand with the expansion of their building, which they were forced to do as a result of new requirements from Lane County. To pay for the expansion, the organization turned to grants, along with private donations specifically set aside for the project. The money couldn’t be used for anything else.

But when the expansion began in earnest, cash donations plummeted, which were vital to the day-to-day operations, like payroll and utilities.

Food share executives saw that the public’s perception of that expansion gave the impression it was “rolling in the dough.”

“Grantors don’t like to fund operations,” Mealer said. “Grantors like to fund projects — capital improvements and things. For those things, grants are the lifeblood. But most likely these are going to be restricted funds. You have to be specific on what you use the money for and what it’s going to do. You have to tell a compelling story. And you can’t make up a story.”

For the garden, the beginning of the story was the watering problems the volunteers were having in the garden.

Food Share turned to the Cow Creek Umpqua Indian Foundation in Canyonville for a grant to help with this. The tribes awarded the nonprofit a grant that would build up the garden’s irrigation system, taking rainwater and running it through drip systems that were set to timers.

The story ended with no more hand watering, and the grantors loved the ending.

“(The tribe) actually came down here a couple years later to check it out, and they were impressed,” Mealer said.

But an organization can’t rely solely on grants for a number of reasons. First, they can be really hard to get.

The process can be time consuming, with some grants taking up to a year to write. And often, there are multiple entities competing for the same grant.

Being awarded a grant is never guaranteed. If the food share’s refrigerator breaks down and the program waits for a grant to fix it, there’s a real possibility the refrigerator will remain broken for years.

Even if an organization is awarded a grant, the paperwork can be overwhelming. Every step of the project has to be documented; plans have to be followed to a T, receipts have to be collected, reports have to be filed. Countless hours can be spent just to justify the grant, let alone the work that goes into implementing it.

And then sometimes, long-term grants just disappear.

Mealer spoke of a grant that helped fund the garden twice a year for two years, but then the funding stopped.

“They said, ‘Okay, we gave you money for two years, and now you have to go somewhere else,’” Mealer said.

The donor organization wanted to spread the money around to different organizations to help as diverse a population as possible.

“You can’t rely on grants because you can’t always have capital projects. You can’t just say, ‘We’re going to build this, this and this.’ You build all this capital improvement, then who’s going to run it? You got to have the backstream,” he said.

That backstream leads to what can be a real financial backbone of a nonprofit: endowments.

 

“That’s where the bacon is”

Almost every organization has operational costs that include paid staff, benefits and monthly expenses like utility bills or standard maintenance. A healthy endowment can fund operational costs for years.

“That’s where the bacon is,” Mealer said.

For instance, an individual can will their property to an organization’s endowment fund after they pass away. The organization sells the property and puts the cash in the fund.

“But you don’t want to draw the principle, you just want to take off the interest,” Mealer explained. “If it’s four percent of half a million dollars, that’s fairly good money that you can use in your operations.”

But it’s not just big donations like a home that can fund endowments. Small donations can be given too, and it’s done for various reasons. One of the biggest is tax write-offs.

But some organizations don’t have endowments to build interest on, especially ones in their infancy.

That leads to the final way nonprofits get money: cold calling and bake sales.

“You have to be able to cold call,” Mealer said. “Board members that are salesmen or car dealers, they’re the best. You have to convince (those who donate) that you do a feel-good thing for them to donate to, or to put in their will to fund their operation. You have to be a salesman.”

Those who run nonprofits spend a large portion of their time calling individuals for donations, or holding fundraisers to fill their operational costs.

“Money doesn’t come from on high with this big bucket of cash. You have to pound the pavement,” Mealer said.

When someone does donate to an organization, their name goes on a donor list.

“Every organization has a donor list,” Mealer said. “It’s a prized, private list. These are our donors. They don’t share that. That’s just your list. That’s people you ask for funds. But that’s the key for any of these organizations, is getting donations. That’s what helps this thing run.”

But sometimes those donor lists can run dry.

“You gotta be careful that you don’t overwhelm your donor base,” Mealer said. “What they’ll say is, ‘I’m tapped out, I can’t give anymore.’ Especially if you’re cold calling, they might say, ‘Not this year. I’ve already donated to this.’”

The donor lists can also lead to competition between organizations, which don’t share their lists. This contributes to a lack of cooperation, which Mealer thinks is the biggest problem facing the region’s nonprofits today.

“SOS does its little thing and they support these programs,” Mealer said. “Helping Hands is doing a lot of the same things, as is Catholic Community Services. We don’t talk. A lot of times there’s reluctance because we have our donors. This is our money and grants and we don’t want to let people compete. It’s crazy…. We need to play nice.

“If you have three different organizations that apply for a big honker grant, (grantors) like that. They like community collaboration to fund something. That’s my banner that I’m flagging. I want to get everybody together. How can we collaborate and work smarter, and be able to share resources and collaborate to help the community?”

Organizing can also help the clients these nonprofits serve feel more human, Mealer believes. Clients can feel ashamed to get the services they desperately need.

“There is a stigma,” Mealer said. “There are a lot of people in this town who qualify to come (to food share), but they won’t.”

Mealer brought up clothing donations. There are multiple organizations in town that donate clothing, from churches to SOS to sporadic fundraisers throughout the year, but accepting these donations can be uncomfortable, or even dehumanizing. Instead, Mealer prefers vouchers.

“Personally, I’m really a big fan of using Saint Vincent DePaul because everybody uses it,” he said. “People that have income and jobs go shopping there. And so, instead of going to SOS to get free clothes, give them a voucher to go shopping. It gives somebody the self-respect that they’re going to the same place that everybody else goes to get discount clothes, and they’re not going to SOS to get handouts. … That’s one of the things, for a client, to feel like you’re not downtrodden.”

Not only would this help alleviate some possible shame for those who accept the donations, he believes, but possibly help change the mind of those who condemn them. Whenever programs like SOS are brought up in conversation, negative comments toward clients can be prevalent — “they’re just a bunch of transients.”

“That’s the misconception,” Mealer said. “We live on Highway 101. In the summertime, you’re going to get transients. That’s just the nature of the beast. Most of the people who go to food share aren’t transients. These are people who live here and have three jobs and they’re trying to survive. It’s like fake news. It’s people telling someone, ‘Yeah, it’s just a bunch of old bums and transients who are taking away food from my baby.’ I don’t think it’s really widespread, but it’s out there.”

To overcome that misconception, Mealer advocates inviting people into these organizations to see what work they actually do, which leads to the most important part of volunteerism: people.

 

“Are you just a bunch of old white guys?”

As a volunteer coordinator for the Friends of Florence cancer bus service, Mealer has seen a whole host of reasons people volunteer. The program provides transportation to Eugene for local residents with cancer. Driving the bus can make palms sweat.

“There’s a lot of risk there, especially if you drive Highway 126,” Mealer said. “You’re in a big honking bus that goes 55 miles per hour. Everybody hates you because you’re going 55. And you have the lives of cancer patients behind you.”

Why in the world would someone go through that?

“I’ve gotten every answer you can think of,” Mealer said. “It’s cancer survivors. ‘I rode that bus, I want to do it.’ I also get people who say, ‘I’m bored. I don’t have anything to do.’ It runs the gamut. Everybody has different reasons why they do things. A lot of it is companionship. Community. Basically, you have a core group of people that work together. You don’t work anymore and you want to be part of society. A lot of people here who run the pantry, it’s the same crew that works. And they get along together.”

And the people who do volunteer are dependable. Over the seven years Mealer has supervised the driving program, not one volunteer forgot about their commitment.

“It’s kind of amazing to me,” he said. “When I worked for the power company, people would not show up for work. I don’t see that with volunteers. They’re there,” he said.

And with thousands of volunteers in the community giving up their time, it’s become the most dependable workforce in the Siuslaw region.

But Mealer sees problems when it comes to volunteering, particularly when it comes to the boards who run these organizations.

The size of the boards can vary. SOS has a board of 10 members, while other organizations can have as few as three.

“It’s a commitment,” Mealer said. “These boards are working boards. You’re on different committees to fundraise and work on your bylaws. It’s not just showing up to have coffee and cake and go home. You have to get somebody to commit the time to do that.

“You want to have somebody who can bring resources to the board. If you have an attorney on a board, that’s a good thing. They can’t represent the board, but they have knowledge of law. If you have somebody who works at a bank with financial background, that’s always a good asset. You kind of look at your board and where they can benefit the organization.”

But the number of people who actually volunteer to be on these boards is finite.

“Someone on one of my boards made the comment of, ‘Yeah, if you see someone on a board, they’re probably on a different board,’” Mealer said. “If they know you’re on this board, then they want you on another board. It’s the same people just moving around the town on different boards.”

This creates a number of problems for nonprofits. First, a person can get overwhelmed.

“If you’re on four boards, you can get burned out. I’m retired. Do I want to work 60 hours on all of these different boards? It can be a passion to help community, but at what expense? We’ve asked people to get onto the SOS board, and they said, ‘I’m off of boards now, I need to take a break.’ You can’t be Mother Teresa doing one thing 80 hours a week.”

Another problem is diversity.

“Grantors ask, ‘What’s your board makeup?’” Mealer said. “You need to have different ages, sexes and races. They want to see what you look like. Are you just a bunch of old white guys?

“We were at a board meeting and we were trying to get some younger people on our board. I said, ‘I’m looking around the room here, and every one of us is either on social security, or is eligible for social security. We have to diversify.’”

The general notion is, Florence is a retirement community, therefore retirees will be on the boards. Mealer takes umbrage with that. In fact, he believes the “best place to retire” is a bunch of hooey.

“I disagree with the concept that Florence is a Del Webb retirement community,” he said. “It’s not. Yeah, there are a lot of people who moved here and retired because they sold their house in California. That’s all well and good, but then who’s going to pump your gas? If this is going to be only a retirement community, then there’s just going to be a bunch of old people living here. That’s silly. It’s not reality. There are a lot of people in this town that volunteer, of all ages. That’s the lifeblood of any community from anywhere you go. It’s all people that volunteer. That’s what makes things run.”

Enter Kim Erickson.

 

“You have to give people a chance”

“I am 39 years old,” Erickson said. “I have two children, a 13-year-old and a 6-year-old. I’m married, divorced, remarried. I’m an open book. I was born and raised here, everybody knows me. That’s who I am.”

She currently sits on the Rotary Club of Florence Board for Public Image, the advisory committee for Lane Community College Florence Center (LCC), she sat on the Siuslaw School District Advisory Committee, and was also the treasurer for Quality Childcare of Florence.

“And I help with a lot of things that my kids are involved in. My daughter was just in a CROW production, so I helped with that.”

She spent another five minutes listing other organizations she’s worked with.

Education, both for herself and her children, was the primary factor in getting Erickson into the philanthropic fold. Her first volunteer job was with LCC at the age of 29.

Just out of high school, Erickson left Florence to attend college in another town. She didn’t like it.

“It was nothing like I expected,” she said. “I wish I wouldn’t have left, but it was a good experience. If I hadn’t left, I would have always wondered, ‘What if?’”

Within a year she was back at Florence, attending LCC. She literally took every class the college offered. In fact, the college brought in extra courses just so she could graduate from the center.

It’s that commitment to her education that made Erickson feel she had to give back. She had a unique perspective on what the college needed, being able to honestly describe both the good and bad experiences of the center. She could make a difference.

At the same time, she got involved with Rotary International Club of Florence. She had seen the work Rotary had done before by attending the yearly auction and being a Rotary “Student of the Quarter.” She was impressed with the organization, but didn’t know if she wanted to join.

“If you’re not passionate about it, you don’t feel like you should be there, because you don’t feel like you have as much energy and you’re just there doing the footsteps,” she said. “There’s so many different facets with Rotary that you don’t have to be passionate about everything. Even if your passions change within the club, you can still do that at Rotary. That’s why I felt like it was something I could do.”

But to join, she had to be a part of a committee.

“I knew that a huge part of the auction was providing scholarships back to the youth, and that’s what I wanted to be a part of,” she said. “This is where my passion was, and this was a perfect fit. So, I jumped in with both feet and haven’t left.”

Passion is what drives Erickson in all of her decisions about volunteering. At first it was her college, then it was scholarships. Later on, it was her children.

“If my kids are doing things and they’re in a program, and if I want to be involved with them, then I need to be involved with the things that they’re doing,” she said.

But as a working mother of two, she had to set some boundaries for herself. She learned to parse which one would be too much work, and built up the ability to say no to organizations.

“I have to know when my cup is full and that I’m not neglecting my family and my kids,” she said. “If I’m not still on the board, I’m still a member,” she said. “I can still give my insight.”

Plus, she feels that it’s important for organizations to get a constant flow of new ideas. If the same people are on the same boards year after year, it becomes an echo chamber and ideas become stale. This is why it’s important for organizations to keep looking for new members, both old and young.

“I feel that sometimes people in their younger ages get overlooked,” she said. “(Organizations) have to ask. To be honest, when I was a new Rotarian, I wouldn’t have just said, ‘Where do I sign up, I’ll be there.’ The co-chair came to me and said, ‘Hey, will you do this for us?’ And I said, ‘Sure, why not.’ That gave me the buy-in and made me want to be more involved.

“Just because somebody’s new to the community or younger in the community, doesn’t mean they can’t be great for the community.”

When people are working several jobs just to feed their family, it can be hard to volunteer, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to, Erickson believes. While they might not be able to put the full-time commitment in for a board, they can still help out. And in time, they could perhaps grow into larger positions, like on a board.

“I’m always looking to see who would be a good fit,” she said. “As a service club, you should be looking for people to join, because in turn those people are going to look for more, who in turn are going to look for more.”

Getting people who traditionally aren’t considered for these types of positions involved can create a better community.

“Volunteering is very important because you’re giving back to your community. I see all those organizations in Florence and what they’ve done, and how many people they help. To me, that’s amazing. And nobody knows when they’re going to need that help. I can always say I gave back to my community. And if I need help from an organization, I can say, ‘I know there were people that I helped at that point, and now it’s time for me. Maybe I need that help.’”

 

“Hey, lookie”

Volunteering is the foundation for a community, Mealer and Erickson believe. It’s a bedrock that holds the foundation of everything that makes people feel connected. And it’s not just working for an organization.

What gets Mealer excited about solving the problems the region is facing?

He pointed to the Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation (NEDCO), a program he found out about in October.

Based in Springfield, the organization helps with a wide variety of issues that the Siuslaw region is facing. It trains people how to save money, matching their savings by a 2:1 ratio. It helps people get into affordable housing.

Mealer discovered about the program at a seminar and became elated.

“Nobody in this area has been a part of this program. It shocked me,” he said. “I didn’t know about this either. Now that I know about this, I can go to the SOS board and say, ‘Hey, lookie.’”

Programs like that can make Florence a better place, he believes. And if programs are implemented, organizations like SOS and Florence Food Share would no longer be needed.

“If our client list was going down every month and the job market was going well, that’s the best of both worlds,” Mealer said. “If we were out of business, that would be great.”

According to Mealer and Erickson, volunteerism isn’t just an organization like Rotary or Kiwanis or the Elks. It’s not just special programs like Siuslaw Vision 2025.

It’s small groups of people taking the initiative to help, organized or not. It’s the person looking for different ideas and bringing them to the community. It’s the people who can set aside differences and notions and work together. It’s the person who can find their passion and make it a reality. It’s the person who shares their experiences of the good work that they’ve done, and it’s the person who asks if they can help, too. It’s all of these things, and so much more.

“To help your community doesn’t mean you have to have money,” Erickson said. “Help means time. It means your energy. Your thoughts. Your ideas.

“It can mean so many things.”

Those things, they believe, can make the region a better place. Not just for the problems it faces now, but for the betterment of generations to come.

Note: This is part 5 of a 9 part series. Find additional installments in the Special Series Archive, located here.