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Economy, Election Strain Nonprofits

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2004; Page F01

The line begins to form outside the squat brick building with the bars on the windows before 8 a.m.

When the doors finally open more than half an hour later, in they come: the woman toting a bundle of blankets and a feverish baby; the man failed first by his kidneys, then by a lack of health insurance; the teenager seeking psychological counseling in Spanish; the grandmother learning to read English.

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Here in the crowded waiting room at Mary's Center in Adams Morgan, in the shadow of freshly rehabbed lofts with granite kitchen countertops and high-six-figure price tags, the needs of a community are on display. And they're growing.

The center, which was founded in 1988 primarily to provide Latino women with pre- and neonatal care, can hardly keep up with the soaring demand for what has become a sprawling menu of services, which include job training and gang prevention. In the past four years, the center has more than doubled the number of people it serves -- 7,850 from 3,255.

"We're bursting at the seams because there's just so much need," said center president and chief executive Maria Gomez.

But finding the funds to meet that need hasn't been easy. Despite a recovering economy and growing prosperity in the Washington region, local nonprofits have found themselves scrounging for every last nickel this year to meet the needs of the people they serve. As contributions fail to keep pace with increases in such key costs as rent and health care, and with the number of people in need climbing, many nonprofits struggled just to provide the same level of assistance they did last year.

"You add up the three factors -- flat funding, rising expenses and rising demand -- and a nonprofit is left with the really hard choice of thinning the soup or shortening the line," said Chuck Bean, executive director of the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington, which advocates for Washington area service organizations.

A report on Washington area nonprofits released by the Brookings Institution in August showed that 78 percent incurred increased costs between 2001 and 2003, and 60 percent served more people. Yet only about a third saw their federal or local government funding increase. Thirty-nine percent of organizations received more in donations from private donors.

Nonprofits thrived during the boom years of the late 1990s, but their situation has been far more tenuous ever since. While the Washington region weathered the 2001 recession much better than most metro areas, its residents and businesses still have had cause for anxiety. "People are more hesitant [to give] because of the economy. People have to worry about their jobs," said Kae Dakin, president of Washington Grantmakers, an association of individual, corporate and foundation donors. "So on the one hand you have 23,000 nonprofits in need. And on the other you have declining sources of revenue."

Although no final statistics are available, the situation does not seem to have improved markedly in 2004 as the economy has bumped its way through a recovery. Nonprofits' fortunes may have actually been hurt this year by the election, especially in politics-crazed Washington. With dollars and volunteer hours pouring into campaigns, there was less of both available for many of the same causes that the politicians vowed to promote, local nonprofit leaders say.

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