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It All Depends on Whom You Ask: How Nonprofits Did at the End of 2005 (January Question of the Month Results)

  • "United Way Donations on Track to Beat Goal" (Wisconsin State Journal, Jan. 1, 2006)
  • "Food Pantries Report Shortages" (Wisconsin State Journal, Jan. 3, 2006)
  • "Plea Issued for Donations for Poor, Needy, Homeless" (Herald-Sun, Jan. 5, 2006)
  • "Remarkable Generosity" (Press & Sun-Bulletin, Jan. 8, 2006)
  • "Butler Library Fund-Raising Falls Short in '05" (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan. 8, 2006)
  • "Despite Predictions, Charitable Donors Just Keep Giving" (Washington Post, Jan. 9, 2006)
  • "Surpassing UAC Fund Goal Makes Life a Little Brighter" (News & Record, Jan. 13, 2006)

Confusing, isn't it? Is it any wonder that we keep asking you (to quote Joey Tribbani from the NBC sitcoms Friends and Joey), "How ya doin'?" Or, as we phrased it in the January Question of the Month, "Did your organization experience the 'Katrina effect' during the last three months of 2005?"

A little over half of the respondents—52 percent—replied, "Yes." Another 42 percent said, "No," and 6 percent weren't sure. Of the participants who reported an impact, the greatest proportion said that contributions to their organizations had decreased:

Contributions decreased compared to October-December 2004 69%
Demand increased compared to October-December 2004 22%
Contributions increased compared to October-December 2004 17%
Other 14%
Demand decreased compared to October-December 2004 3%

(Respondents could select more than one answer)

Participants' comments showed similar variety. "Contributions that were usually undesignated were ... tied up in disaster relief and we struggled to meet the needs for day-to-day social services," wrote Yvonne D. Warthen of the Salvation Army Pensacola Corps. Joy Nadel noted that Rescue Me Incorporated, an animal rescue nonprofit, "really suffered the effects in the form of lack of donations." Julie Dugan reported that company sponsorships for the Dugan Foundation decreased.

On the other hand, the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee "exceeded our fundraising goal for the year by 12%." Maggie Thompson explained, "We have very loyal donors. Only 4 or 5 donors told us they cut back on their gift to our organization because of Katrina."

Ron Clark speculated that legislation adopted after Hurricane Katrina accounted for some of the growth in contributions to Kemmerer Village: "Since our 6 month giving is now up 18% from 2004, after a two year pattern of declining giving, I have to attribute at least part of the 18% to the Katrina Recovery Act."

Opera Pacific also saw an upsurge at the end of 2005. Jerold D. Kappel suggested that the organization's location and mission may have helped produce that outcome: "The last three months of 2005 were the most successful fundraising effort ever by Opera Pacific. I don't think Southern California was as affected by Katrina as places east of the Rockies, especially in arts and/or education funding. Perhaps those that raise funds for social service organizations had missed goals, but this organization did not."

What can we make of these results? It seems obvious, but it's worth saying nonetheless: as is so often true of the nonprofit sector, there is no definitive answer. Last year's disaster-relief efforts affected the organizations that make up the sector to different degrees and in different ways. Many nonprofits suffered financially; a nearly equally number experienced little or no impact.

Maybe the news reports are right on the money—it just depends on whom they asked. And perhaps we've all been asking the wrong questions. As Keith Davidson of Seedline International observed, "Katrina is a tragedy. However, it has given non-profits a chance to perform our work at peak levels."

Maybe that is the true bottom line of the momentous events of 2005.

Suzanne E. Coffman, February 2006
© 2006, Philanthropic Research, Inc. (GuideStar)

Suzanne Coffman is GuideStar's director of communications and editor of the Newsletter.
Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice