Filling the gap Featured

11:20am EDT November 20, 2003
Making a difference is what it's all about for the people who volunteer for a charitable agency.

Nonprofit organizations are filled with people trying to make Northeast Ohio a better place to live for everyone. These organizations thrive on the energy of volunteers and board members who keep the organization focused, raise money and lend a helping hand to those in need. The Greater Cleveland area is fortunate to have more than 1,000 charitable foundations, each with its own unique mission -- and its own unique demand for future leaders.

But with an aging population, nonprofits are looking to the next generation for help. There are fewer young people to fill positions, but demands for time and help are increasing for the foundations and the charitable organizations that serve our communities.

In the early 1990s, many nonprofit organization executive directors looked at their boards and saw they were aging. Few had mechanisms in place to replenish their boards with younger professionals, who would bring with them fresh concepts and a different outlook.

"In the last nine to 10 years, we've actually seen a number of nonprofits creating associate boards," says Alice Korngold, president of Business Volunteers Unlimited, an organization that helps place young executives on nonprofit boards. "It's a vehicle to engage the next generation of volunteers."

The younger volunteers act as manpower first, but have a larger goal. Says Korngold, "Many of these people in their 30s are moving into leadership roles on the boards."

BVU provides an outlet for young professionals who want to get involved with nonprofits but don't know how to break through the old who-you-know-method of board placement or what nonprofits exist. Cleveland Bridgebuilders, founded by David Akers, tackles the problem from the other side, engaging young professionals whom it taps as the next group of leaders and helps spur their development. These groups have brought a greater sense of open-mindedness to the boards, says Korngold, including a more diverse membership.

"Before, being on a board was more who you know," she says. "Today, boards are very purposeful."

New solutions

Tapping every available source for volunteers , donations and leadership is vital because the nonprofit sector has weathered several years of public and private funding cuts.

In 2002, individual donors in the United States contributed more than $183 billion, excluding donations to to churches, a nearly 1 percent decrease over 2001, adjusted for inflation. Foundation giving, however, decreased by 2.7 percent, adjusted for inflation, according to a Giving USA survey.

Unfortunately, the real squeeze lies ahead. State budget deficits are projected to reach a cumulative $80 billion to $90 billion in fiscal year 2004, and that threatens funding for health care and other services. Ohio alone has a projected $2 billion deficit that has to be made up through budget cuts or tax increases. Budget cuts will likely affect funding levels and increase the strain on nonprofits as state services are replaced by private ones; tax hikes take money away from people, leaving them less to donate to charity.

But not all the news is bad.

Volunteerism is at an all-time high, with many of the increases coming from minority and youth group participation. In 2001, a study conducted by Independent Sector found that 44 percent of U.S adults volunteer time to at least one nonprofit organization.

That number is even higher in the corporate world -- a Smart Business/BrownFlynn Communications Community Relations Survey found that 62 percent of Northeast Ohio companies allow employees to volunteer during work hours.

Despite the positive numbers, they could still be higher, says Margie Flynn, co-principal of BrownFlynn Communications.

"I was surprised to see that 65 percent of companies that participated in the survey do not have (company-directed) employee volunteerism programs," says Flynn. "With the high percentage of management that allows their employees to volunteer during company time, you have to wonder whether there's a disconnect and whether the efforts can become part of a bigger corporate strategy."

But taken as part of a larger picture, there are encouraging signs. Volunteering by high school students recently reached its highest level in the past 50 years -- about 55 percent offer their time, according to a report from America's Children -- and studies show that people who get involved as youths continue that involvement into adulthood.

So it's no wonder that many organizations now see young adults as an effective long-term solution to one facet of the nonprofit crisis.

The responsible generation

"I'm out of town so much ... this is the only board I sit on," says Mark Shapiro, general manager of Cleveland Indians, of his involvement with the Center for Families and Children. "I wanted to be involved in one thing so I could focus. I didn't just want to lend my name to something."

Making a difference is what it's all about for people like Shapiro, who are not content with just seeing their name on a board of directors list.

"Younger professionals might not have a lot to give, but they still want to be involved in a more personal hands-on way," says Sylvia Kertsey, president of Young Directors, the associate board of the Center for Families and Children.

Young Directors, founded in 1992, has 60 full-time members, more than 600 people on its mailing list and more on its e-mail list. Like other young professional arms, the group is not a huge source of monetary donations, but it organizes and puts on affordable fund-raising events for Adopt-a-Family and other CFC-related programs.

"We try to pick up some of the slack," Kertsey says.

She says the events benefit young professionals and nonprofit organizations in two ways.

"It's a good way to meet people and better the community," she says. "They may start with the socializing and then, if it interests them, they might venture into becoming more involved. Hopefully, they do both."

Korngold puts it another way.

"They only have time to do one thing, and they want a positive experience, which adds a new pressure to nonprofits," she says. "The days of lending your name to a board are over. This group wants something meaningful and productive ... and they are impatient."

Future philanthropists

While some organizations are courting younger members for the first time, others already rely on that population to drive the bulk of their initiatives.

"Throughout the night, we had 500 people," says Manda Gillespie of EcoCity Cleveland about the Green-tie Ball, an event hosted last spring by environmental groups including the Green Building Coalition as a fund-raiser for the Cleveland Environmental Center. "There were definitely some people there who had never been to a fund-raiser."

The Green-tie Ball was more of a coming out party than an event to raise money, Gillespie says.

"No one had any mic time, there were no speeches," she says. "It was all about having fun and being social together."

That's why Gillespie says the organization spent a considerable amount of time thinking about the $45 ticket price.

"We could have charged double and still sold out," she says. "But we wanted it to be accessible, including (to) the 80-year-old trustee and the 21-year-old Oberlin student."

Although the '90s had its share of 20- and 30-something dot-com millionaires, the average professional in that age range doesn't have the type of disposable income most nonprofits target for significant donations. The standard fund-raising approach has been to tap into large donors and depend on their largesse to sustain the organization.

It's a method that's been quite successful for Ohio nonprofits -- the area has one of the oldest and most generous groups of private givers in the nation and ranks in the top 10 states in charitable contributions.

However, significant drops in the stock market have had a profound effect on bequests and estate gifts. That where events like Cool Fridays, hosted by the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Theology On Tap, hosted by the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland Foundation, come in. These organizations have found that the large-scale events aimed at donors who pay hundreds of dollars per ticket engage only a small percentage of potential givers.

"We've tried to create events to attract (people) under (age) 35," says Karen Carr of Young Friends, the associate board of the Cleveland Museum of Art. "They don't have a lot of money, but it's a way to educate and introduce them to our older groups."

Young Friends events include movie screenings, happy hours and awareness education such as contemporary art appreciation lectures. Last year's Fast Forward event attracted more than 1,000 young professionals to the museum to meet, greet and learn about the museum.

The Diocese Foundation has long had a similar approach to its youth membership. Its annual Crooked Halo event is priced at $50 per person and attracted more than 800 attendees.

Awareness and involvement are key for these groups as nonprofits are quickly learning what corporations have known for quite some time -- brand loyalty, or in this case, cause loyalty -- is strong, and will often follow a person through his or her life.

The one thing that many of these groups that attract the younger philanthropist-volunteers have in common is the opportunity to be intimately involved in change. This, says Gillespie, makes members feel they are instantly making a difference.

"We give to the organization that we care about," she says, "where my $20 can make a difference instead of (being) forgotten at a big organization." How to reach: Center for Families and Children, (216) 696-6900; Cleveland Museum of Art, (216) 421-7340; Catholic Diocese of Cleveland Foundation, (216) 696-6525; EcoCity Cleveland, (216) 932-3007; Business Volunteers Unlimited, (216) 736-7711