Utah nonprofits, Sorenson Unity Center roll with recession

Story and photo by DEREK SIDDOWAY

In the midst of numerous stock market plummets, layoffs and home foreclosures, many people have come to rely on soup kitchens, housing services, welfare entities and charities such as the Salvation Army and Deseret Industries for basic necessities.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Salt Lake City’s unemployment rate was at 7.4 percent in August 2011. Online real-estate marketing company RealtyTrac reported 560 housing foreclosures in the city throughout September 2011.

With no economic relief in sight, nonprofit organizations in Utah are working tirelessly to meet an increased demand for their service. A 2011 report prepared by the Community Foundation of Utah and Wells Fargo paints a vivid picture.

According to the report, “The New Normal, Changes to Utah’s Nonprofit Economy in the Great Recession”: “Utah nonprofits are, like the families they serve, stretched to the limit,” In addition, “As many as 14 percent have no cash on hand, and are living paycheck to paycheck, much like many of the people who come to them for assistance.”

The report, presented to the Utah State Legislature in February 2011, indicates demand is continuing to increase. In 2009 and 2010, nearly 80 percent of Utah nonprofits saw an increased need for service. These findings hint that up to one-third of Utah nonprofits could be out of business if there is no relief in the immediate future. When the report was published, 70 percent relied on deficit spending or were operating on less than three months of reserve funding.

“There is basically no reserve fund left in the state of Utah for nonprofits,” said Nancy Basinger, assistant director and service-learning manager of the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center. She studied nonprofit interactions with the government for her doctorate research at the University of Georgia in 2003 and is a member of the advisory board at the Nonprofit Academy for Excellence in Professional Education at the University of Utah.

Basinger, who has published various reports and research projects concerning the nonprofit sector in Utah, said nonprofits suffer more in a down economy when demand rises and funding bottoms out. She is concerned over how nonprofits will continue to meet their obligations and serve the community if they are unable to make payroll.

“This is the rainy day and now we’ve got to really figure out what to do,” Basinger said. “The pot is smaller and the (number of) people donating is smaller.”

The pot may be shrinking while demand has done anything but. In addition to providing for the physical needs of their patrons, nonprofits have experienced an increased need for social and mental programs as well.

“Behaviors supported by social services are more in need because of job loss, at-home abuse, substance abuse and no health insurance,” Basinger said.

The Sorenson Unity Center houses a variety of nonprofit organizations selected through its Programming Partnership.

Some nonprofits have responded to these diverse needs by joining forces. For example, the Sorenson Unity Center has found that this strategy benefits patrons in addition to decreasing operational costs. The operation came about in 2008 when the Sorenson Multicultural Center and Salt Lake County approached the city government with a plan to run the center for a reduced cost. Located at 900 W. 1383 South, the Sorenson Unity Center provides services for the Glendale and Poplar Grove neighborhoods.

“Sorenson Unity Center is a way to bring organizations under one roof so that it’s not so difficult to have a million nonprofit organizations competing for the same dollars,” Basinger said. “(Salt Lake City) has decided that it is in its interest as a supporter of society to support the work of those nonprofit organizations. They are working together and accomplishing twice and much with the same dollars.”

Angela Romero, Sorenson Unity Center’s program director, is responsible for the selection of nonprofit organizations through its Programming Partnership. She describes her job supervising the partnership as a way to provide opportunities for the community that would be otherwise unavailable. Nonprofits seeking to use the Sorenson Unity Center’s resources must show Romero the services they will provide to the community before they are approved.

“We want to be a resource through the programs we provide,” Romero said. “We hope individuals can take away something that will help them in dealing with the current economic environment.”

According to its annual report, the Sorenson Unity Center had a total of 8,334 participants in programming activities for the 2010-2011 fiscal year. Overall, the center and its affiliates served more than 18,000 patrons during the past fiscal year. These affiliates — Unity Computer Center, Computer Clubhouse, Donated Dental, Fitness Center, Child Care and general events and meetings — saw a total of 74,283 visitors during the same period.

However, the Sorenson Center and its affiliates receive financing through city funding. This steady source of revenue allows the center to maintain its facilities for the community’s use without wondering where the next check is coming from.

“I think what the recession has done is (create) a greater need for us to provide quality services for individuals that are in our community,” Romero said. “Hopefully more people are able to access the programs we have here.”