Local Nonprofits Hustle in New Political Climate

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Following the November election and inauguration of President Donald Trump, national nonprofit organizations, like the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, Sierra Club and Anti-Defamation League, reportedly experienced a dramatic boost in donations in response to potential threats to civil rights, healthcare access and the environment from the new Administration. According to BBC News, the surge in giving has been so great that the ACLU recently partnered with Silicon Valley venture funding company, Y Combinator, to plan a strategy for the best use of the donations.

As the ACLU fights for civil rights with an annual budget exceeding $100 million, many small and locally-based nonprofits struggle with financial uncertainty. The political shift on the national level is still fresh, and the first fiscal quarter isn’t generally a telltale in terms of charitable giving.  Still, some groups are preparing for possible leaner times.

“I do think people are probably starting to reach out to larger organizations that address housing, healthcare and women’s issues,” said Genevieve Leighton-Armah, administrative assistant, BAYCAT. “The arts are often seen as secondary to those other issues. People may start to prioritize these other issues over the arts in terms of giving.”

BAYCAT, located near Third and 20th streets, works with youth to create digital media projects.  According to Leighton-Armah, the nonprofit typically spends the beginning of the year refining its community outreach efforts, to offer its studio and arts services to more youth. So far there hasn’t been a noticeable change in the flow of donations compared to last year.

Alexandra Morgan, chief executive officer of Family House, at 540 Mission Bay Boulevard, attributes the steady influx of donations to her organization to San Francisco’s wealth, and having strong relationships with longstanding patrons. However, since the organization moved from the Sunset to Mission Bay last May, its annual budget increased from $2.8 million to $3.8 million so as to serve more families, creating a need for more contributions. Family House provides temporary housing to families with children receiving care for serious conditions at University of California, San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital.

“Our need is great,” Morgan expressed. “We used to only serve 34 families, and now we can serve 80 families and are full every night. We’re in the process of asking our current and prospective donors for more funds. It’s going to have to be a more consistent and ongoing effort. We’re really in the position of needing to ask for more.”

A concern for some nonprofit leaders is that the Trump Administration’s promised tax code overhaul could include stricter limits on the amount of donations people are able to deduct on their tax returns. According to a February 24 article in wealthmanagement.com, more than 80 percent of Americans donate to charities every year. In 2013, 36.4 million taxpayers reported contributions totaling $194 billion.

Norman Gershenz, director of Savenature.org, a national wildlife advocacy group based at 699 Mississippi Street, believes that if someone wants to give to a certain cause, they’ll do so no matter the tax situation.  However, he said potential new restrictions could have broad negative impacts. “Those tax code changes wouldn’t be good,” Gershenz said. “But when people are giving from the heart, especially for smaller amount donations, it’s not as relevant from a tax standpoint. People give because they want to give. It may have an impact for some donors but not for everyone.”

Gershenz views the recent stream of donations to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood as a sign that people are concerned about politics and understand that certain organizations may be impacted by policy changes more than others. He said that there’s no way to determine whether funds are being shifted from one place to another; donations to Savenature.org haven’t noticeably changed. “Smaller organizations always have to hustle no matter what; whether Democrats or Republicans are in office,” he added. “We have to be vigilant, resilient and energetic to create new avenues for funding.”

Jeff Thomas, executive director of San Francisco Center for the Book, had heard reports of nonprofits being concerned about diminished donations due to diversion to groups like ACLU, but his organization actually did better following a fall fundraising drive than the prior year.

The Wildlife Conservation Network, with headquarters at 209 Mississippi Street, does most of its work internationally, and may not be as directly affected by domestic changes. However, the nonprofit’s executive director, Jean-Gaël Collomb, said that a few donors announced that they’d be contributing elsewhere following the election, without offering specific reasons. “We’ve been bracing for the worst but don’t know yet,” he commented. “So far, the stock market and economy are doing well, which usually fairs well for us in terms of donations. I try to be optimistic and hope that people will give more across the board.”

If people are giving more across the board, it hasn’t yet filled the coffers at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House. The nearly 100-year-old organization geared towards youth-oriented programming and education has been struggling over the past five years, according to Edward Hatter, executive director.

“I wish I could blame it on Trump this time,” Hatter remarked in jest. “Individual grants have been pretty level compared to this time last year, meaning that giving has been low. The community changes so much, and it takes time to do outreach and get people invested in the work that we do. There has been a trend in San Francisco in terms of the City funneling corporate money to larger organizations, like the YMCA, and a lot of smaller organizations have suffered. The City is only now starting to look at strengthening some of the smaller, older, organizations against this competitive market.”