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updated: 11/28/2017 1:08 PM

How local charities are affected when major disasters strike

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  • Video: NIFB helping hurricane relief

Editor's note: This story has been updated to say the FISH Food Pantry saw a 27 percent increase in the number of people it helped in the first six months of 2017.

The Northern Illinois Food Bank started seeing a rapid growth in donations when the country was forced into the throes of an economic downturn several years ago.

Philanthropists were investing in local charities that provided basic needs to their communities, and the Geneva-based organization was receiving more support than ever, spokeswoman Jen Nau said.

It was only in 2012, after Hurricane Sandy barreled through the Caribbean and hit the East Coast, that the food bank saw its donations falter.

In the months after the superstorm, donor mailings brought in $100,000 less than projected and were 5 percent lower than the previous year, Nau said. The result: The organization's first year-over-year drop in direct mail donations.

"We had been growing so quickly that it was almost a shock to our system when we saw that decline," Nau said. "The impact that year wasn't severe enough to keep us from reaching our goal, but that's a pretty big dip to see in relation to a natural disaster."

In the wake of national and global devastation, it's common for local non-relief charities to see a short-term decline in financial contributions, said Rick Cohen, spokesman for the National Council of Nonprofits. Many of those groups, including the food bank, are now feeling the effects of donor fatigue after an unusual onslaught of recent disasters: multiple hurricanes, an earthquake in Mexico, wildfires out west, the Las Vegas shooting massacre.

Natural disasters and other catastrophes that get significant media coverage trigger an outpouring of financial support, most of which is funneled to disaster response agencies such as the American Red Cross, Cohen said. In many cases, donors who give regularly to local causes will temporarily redirect their contributions toward larger-scale relief efforts.

"Does it divert some money from some nonprofits? Absolutely. And with so many nonprofits very reliant on every donation they can get, it can make a really big difference," Cohen said. "But at the end of the day, when there are disasters, people try to dig a little bit deeper, and they'll continue supporting the groups they've always supported."

Giving patterns

It's too early to tell how the recent disasters will affect the Northern Illinois Food Bank's fundraising year, Nau said. The organization has already noticed a more than 30 percent decline in the number of lapsed donors -- those who haven't given in more than a year -- because they're renewing their contributions instead, she said.

Giving patterns typically return to normal within a couple of months, experts say, and many local groups recover fairly quickly without any long-term effects, as was the case with the Northern Illinois Food Bank after Hurricane Sandy. Others, such as Shelter Inc. in Arlington Heights and Lutheran Social Services of Illinois in Des Plaines, don't notice any disruption to local funding.

Data collected by Network for Good, a national online platform for distributing donations, shows giving for many Illinois non-relief charities in its system stays steady or even increases in the weeks surrounding a disaster. That usually happens when an organization jumps on board to support relief efforts, even if that's not their mission, said Lisa Bonanno, vice president for digital marketing.

"I think your nonprofits are always looking at ways to get in the conversation and be relevant," she said.


But for some non-relief nonprofits, the financial impact could have a lasting effect and cause leaders to revamp year-end fundraising strategies.

In the first six months of 2017, the FISH Food Pantry in Carpentersville saw a 27 percent increase in the number of people it helped, President Mary Graziano said. But in the July-to-October time frame has been an entirely different story, the pantry saw a 21.7 percent decline in financial gifts compared to 2016, she said.

The dip couldn't come at a worse time for the group, which is in the midst of a major construction project and plans to relocate soon to a larger space, Graziano said. With the holidays coming, the food pantry is nearing its busiest and most critical time of year.

"Everyone is aware of the devastation from the hurricanes and the fires and all the awful things going on," she said. "But what people don't realize is that hunger is an everyday devastation for the families who don't have enough to eat, and these people are right here in our villages."

Naperville-based Literacy DuPage, which provides tutoring for non-English speakers, plans to apply for grants and use its holiday giving campaign to recover from its recent financial hit, Executive Director Therese McMahon said. It has received roughly $8,600 in donations this year, compared to $14,500 a year ago.

"It is significant, and I think much of it is because there's so much need out there," McMahon said. "Now more than ever, our services are necessary. ... We'll ride this out."

Finding a balance

After a tragedy, philanthropic corporations like suburban-based Abbott have figured out how to balance widespread versus local giving.

With planning, the health care and research company has been able to provide resources to victims of the recent disasters, said Jenna Daugherty, divisional vice president of global social responsibility. Those efforts have not interrupted Abbott's normal giving cycle to area schools and nonprofits, she said.

"Regardless of what's happening in other parts of the world, local needs don't go away," Daugherty said. "That's why we keep our local giving consistent, even when disasters strike elsewhere."

Even the Red Cross has to find equilibrium, said Heidi Mucha, chief development officer for the Chicago and Northern Illinois region.

When a tragedy hits, donations to that specific cause spike drastically, she said, noting the nonprofit always honors donor intent. While ample dollars and resources are extended to each major tragedy, local Red Cross chapters still have to respond daily to house fires, floods, storm damage and other smaller-scale disasters.

Despite usually focusing its efforts close to home, the Northern Illinois Food Bank also is trying to balance its philanthropic duties, Nau said. Because of its involvement in the national Feeding America program, the organization has been allotting resources to sorting through donations and sending water, food and cleaning products to devastated areas.

She sees areas affected by major tragedies that face a longer recovery process and much greater need than most local communities can imagine.

"It's difficult to tell what our financial impact is going to be, but that doesn't mean we're not jumping right in and helping in whatever way possible," Nau said. "We definitely want to help in this region, but being part of Feeding America, we get to be part of something bigger."