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Nonprofit leaders have a few aces up their sleeves

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By Janine Rojas

Open a retail shop. Sell ad space on your delivery vans. Send donors on exotic trips. Share offices. Get a dog to Tweet about you.
These and other creative tactics have been the ticket for local nonprofits to survive during rickety economic times, in which community needs are up, while funding is down.
Such practices are essential, according to a recent study. Published by  University of San Diego’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences, the report is titled “A Spotlight on San Diego’s Third Sector.” It assessed the economic outlook of local nonprofits, which are facing an increased demand for services despite shrinking sources of revenue. The report’s authors conclude by saying that these challenges have “sparked innovation and introduced a new vitality” into the sector.
Leaders of area nonprofits embrace creative approaches, along with tried and true basics such as volunteerism, collaboration, and accountability.

Boosting aid for seniors
Among nonprofits struggling the most are those serving the area’s most vulnerable — and fastest growing — population: the elderly.
Debbie Case, president and CEO of  Meals-on-Wheels of Greater San Diego, has been able to keep core programs running by advertising space on her seven delivery vans. Each travels about 30,000 miles each year to transport volunteers delivering meals to seniors. The wrap-around ads are $1,000 for 12 months with a net cost of $50 each placement. Five local companies have already signed on.
Another group experiencing a swell in demand for basics such as food and shelter is Senior Community Centers of San Diego. To meet need, the agency plans to expand its transitional and affordable housing programs. President and CEO Paul Downey has had to switch gears in order to do so. Gone are the expensive, corporate-funded galas of fatter days. Instead, Downey invites donors to tour his programs, letting them see first-hand the value of putting dollars directly into service.
“People don’t want to see their money paying for nice dinners, fancy tablecloths or center pieces. So we’ve really focused on an ROI approach, showing them how people are fed, housed and receive mental health services,” said Downey.

More ideas in store…and beyond
Why throw in the kitchen sink when you can sell it, figures Brad Bates, executive director of Habitat for Humanity. He operates Restore, a discount home improvement outlet in Mission Valley offering new and like-new building materials at 30 to 70 percent below retail. Merchandise and supplies — including designer culinary sinks — are donated by retailers such as Lowes or Home Depot, along with individuals or contractors. Proceeds support efforts to build simple, decent and affordable homes for ownership by local families in need. Another store is planned for San Marcos.
“The store has made a big difference in our ability to meet costs,” says Bates, citing the importance of seeking diverse revenue sources.

Other innovative ideas abound
The San Diego chapter of AIGA, the professional association for design, has literally let the dogs out — through “Bowhaus,” an art installation that will showcase dog houses commissioned by local artists and sponsored by local businesses. AIGA is actively seeking a pooch-and-college-student pair to generate buzz through Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites.
For United Way of San Diego County, now in its 90th year of service, getting creative is a long-standing tradition. Examples include teaming up with star Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers for United Way’s Payless/Chargers Shoe Giveaway for needy youth.
Nonprofits with international missions use travel as a draw to recruit donors. Want to go snorkeling in Fiji? You can save lives, one water filter at a time while you’re there, says Give Clean Water’s president and executive director Amanda Mineer, who is working to bring life-saving clean water to the poorest villages of the Fiji Islands. If you’d rather venture out to South Africa, Mexico, or an Arizona Indian reservation, Amor Ministries’ Ryan Perkio can sign you up to help people who need housing and services.

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