LEWISTON — While thousands gathered to run, walk, cycle and Patrick-gaze last month — raising $1.1 million for the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing — some area nonprofits quietly say they’ve felt the pinch of the Dempsey Challenge‘s phenomenal success the past six years.
It’s an awkward situation. They’re all out to do good, but there’s only so much donor money to go around.
“The Lewiston-Auburn area is very, very saturated,” said one local organizer with a national nonprofit who asked not to be named. In reaching out for sponsorship for their last event, the organizer heard several times, “‘We’re supporting the Dempsey Center.’ Kudos to them, because they do an excellent job at what they do. (But) our area is so small, the resources are so tapped.”
At least one other nonprofit head was familiar with that sentiment but also declined to be named.
The issue is not new. Scott Schnapp, executive director of the Maine Association of Nonprofits, said he’s familiar with the broader big-versus-little dynamic.
“You can look at it from this standpoint: Because of (Patrick Dempsey’s) stature and the way that they’ve caught fire with this event, it’s bringing new dollars to the community,” Schnapp said. “It’s probably also true that some resources from the community are shifting to some degree.”
The big picture, he said: Maine has thousands of nonprofits and, of late, less money to go around.
Corporate giving has been hurt by the recession, government money to nonprofits is down and personal giving is flat or declining, he said. “So you’ve got a lot of pie-eaters (having) to eat the smaller pie.”
Joleen Bedard, executive director of the United Way of Androscoggin County, kicked off her nonprofit’s $1.5 million fund drive last month.
“The last few years our campaign has shrunk about $200,000,” she said. “I would not pinpoint that on one area of focus; I would say it’s the perfect storm.”
The economy has been lousy. Some companies have new corporate owners who give less locally. Some companies are teetering.
“The employees are like, ‘I don’t know if I want to give to the United Way because I’m not sure if I’m going to have a job,'” Bedard said. “I wouldn’t say it’s one thing. I think that Dempsey has brought a definite value to this community. I think they do a fabulous job fundraising. I think for any nonprofit there’s always competition.”
Before the Dempsey Challenge, it was a hospital’s capital campaign, before that St. Dominic Academy holding a fundraiser.
“There’s always competition,” she said. “Is it competition? Absolutely. I (also) think most people have more than one charity of choice.”
In some ways, it’s not unlike being a small business and having a big-box store move to town, said professor James McConnon in the University of Maine School of Economics.
“My own advice is to focus on what you have control over and what you do well, and be open to change,” he said. “Be flexible and nimble.”
Between 2001 and 2011, the number of nonprofits increased 25 percent across the country, McConnon said.
“But during this time, real incomes have been relatively stagnant, business growth has been slow. We had a significant recession,” he said. “It doesn’t surprise me, where you have increasing numbers of nonprofits, that some of them, anyway, will run into situations where they’re challenged in terms of their donations or getting grants.”
According to the Maine Association of Nonprofits’ last report in January 2013, Maine had 6,500 registered nonprofits. They contribute $9.3 billion a year to the economy and employ one in every seven workers here.
Maine has a “significant nonprofit presence, for good and for bad,” Schnapp said. “In our communities, when we see an issue, we organize and we try to address the issue and make our communities better places. That’s the good side of it.”
He said nonprofits feeling squeezed can develop or update a business plan — should money come from membership? events? selling something? a mix? — look for opportunities, get creative and work together.
“Create the case for support to the people who care about what it is we do, and own that, and don’t blame scarcity on new players,” Schnapp said.
Wendy Tardif, executive director of the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing, said she’s heard the gripes, too.
“It probably is the biggest athletic fundraiser in the state,” Tardif said. “We’re mindful of a couple things in relation to the Dempsey Challenge — we do raise a lot of money.”
Just under 18 percent of Dempsey Challenge donations come from within Androscoggin County; she thinks people assume it’s more.
Organizers also plan ahead so the challenge doesn’t fall on Bates College’s Parents Weekend, “so there are two really good weekends for the businesses,” Tardif said.
And the center doesn’t do an annual local appeal outside of the challenge, she said. “We purposely don’t do that. We love these nonprofits in this community; we’re huge supporters. Our staff support many of the nonprofits. We’re really mindful of the capacity of the community and keep that in mind as we plan our development strategies for the year.”
They work with cancer charities in South Portland and Ellsworth, and are open to working with other nonprofits, she said.
A statewide issue
Jennifer Gaylord, branch manager of the United Valley chapter of the American Red Cross, said the American Red Cross has experienced fundraising challenges statewide, not just in Lewiston-Auburn.
“We can’t really pin it on one organization,” she said. “We all need more money, and there’s more of us.”
The local chapter tried something new last May, adding an “ask” at its annual heroes breakfast, pitching attendees for donations with good results, she said. The idea came from the national office.
Bedard, at the United Way, said its new Run Like Hell event on Oct. 24 — a fun run/costume party/evening out fundraiser — incorporates something she believes works for Dempsey: getting supporters moving.
“When people have the opportunity to actively participate, that’s key for them,” she said. “Running, walking, biking. It’s not just writing a check; it’s how can they physically be involved. Run Like Hell is a way to add some fun, some excitement. We’re going to see how it does.”