Agencies stretched too thin

It is the perfect storm. Central Alberta’s neediest citizens are threatened as the charities that serve them are increasingly starved for cash.

It is the perfect storm. Central Alberta’s neediest citizens are threatened as the charities that serve them are increasingly starved for cash.

These agencies serve citizens who are poor, sick or disabled. The crisis has been building for years as government reduced funding, while the recession increased demand for services at the same time funding was cut.

In the past, when government funding was not enough, agencies turned to public donations to fill the gap. Now they are doubly battered as more groups compete for both limited funding and public donations.

But the final crunch is that new large fundraising campaigns are claiming a bigger share of donations and some require large, ongoing funding.

This month, two funders of last resort reported that the agencies they fund are hurting and some may have to close. This would leave people without service and throw staff out of work.

The United Way of Central Alberta and Red Deer and District Community Foundation say they can’t keep pace. They face increased demand to support agencies. At the same time, they have more trouble raising cash as a growing number of large and small fundraising campaigns compete for donations.

For the second year in a row, the United Way public fund-raising campaign fell short of its $2-million goal, further strapping the charities that depend on those funds.

Is it just coincidence that during each of those two years another big fundraiser had begun clamouring for Central Alberta donations?

Ronald McDonald House in Red Deer is the newest fundraising kid on the block, taking in $10 million in its capital campaign before it broke ground last year. Its goal of providing shelter to sick children and their families has resonated with Central Albertans like none other. Dozens of fundraisers continue to make the local Ronald McDonald House their charity of choice.

More worrying to other charities is that Ronald McDonald House is one hungry kid, and it will take a further $1.2 million in public donations every year to keep the facility running.

No one wants to see sick children or their families go unsupported during medical emergencies. But some fear that one consequence will be other needy citizens will lose out.

United Way executive director Heather Gardiner says all of its agencies have cut staff and services. Community Foundation spokeswoman Janice Wing predicts several agencies will go under this year.

They are in awe of the success of Ronald McDonald House fundraising. They fear the future for other human services may be more grim, as this new and popular cause continues to solicit a large share of the donation pie.

Over the last few years, a growing number of fundraising campaigns across all sectors have erupted to fill gaps. We have home lotteries to support air ambulance service and hospitals; galas to raise funds to help operate the hospice, children’s services and dozens of other causes.

Red Deer College has a capital campaign that has successfully solicited millions of dollars in corporate donations to build facilities. It seeks millions more for future projects.

In recent years, both Red Deer public and Catholic school divisions have set up foundations to support learning initiatives not provided by the province.

Both Gardiner and Wing are grappling with the charity funding crisis and are preparing a public process in June to create a plan to respond.

This is a conversation that is going to need to have everyone at the table: government, business, charities and the giving public.

We have some pretty important questions to consider. How can we make sure our most vulnerable citizens get needed services? What services do we consider it a government responsibility to fund? What can each of us do to make sure that some of our neediest citizens are not left out in the cold?

Carolyn Martindale is the Advocate’s city editor.