Charity officials optimistic despite economy

By Eric Butler: Freedom New Mexico

United Way of Eastern New Mexico executive director Erinn Burch might understandably be concerned about how much could be gathered during the current fundraising campaign, given the nationwide economic downturn since the end of the last drive.

But Burch, along with others in the world of non-profit organizations and churches, is now fairly optimistic about the ability to continue providing services to those in need.

“The people I’m visiting aren’t waving me off,” said Burch of the current United Way campaign. “That’s what we’re looking for. If people were really hit hard, they would be telling us to come back later.”

In Portales, Gary Piepkorn is the pastor of Faith In Christ Lutheran Church, and he serves as president for the ministerial alliance for, on average, between seven and nine local churches who meet every month.

At the beginning of the year, Piepkorn said, some members were wary about a potential decrease in offerings. But the concern has waned in recent months.

“In our congregations, the offerings have been about the same. There was some talk about what to do in case there was a downturn,” Piepkorn said. “But nobody’s really remarked that there was much of a difference.”

“We have not seen any real decrease in giving since the economy turned downward,” said Steve Smith, pastor at University Baptist Church in Portales. “People have continued to give.”

Some charities, however, have noted a local impact during economic troubles in the past year.

Sue Williamson, who operates the Thrift Shop for the Salvation Army, said usual times of giving were not at their normal levels.

“I noticed a difference when income tax returns came around. I’ve been here for four years and, at that time, that’s when people would say, ‘Okay, now’s the time for a new fridge or a new couch or a new TV — so we’ll donate the used one,’” Williamson said. “But I did not see that this year.

“Instead of buying the new fridge, people said they were going to make do,” she added.

Williamson said the period after Christmas, when new products replace old and the old ones often are given to groups like the Salvation Army, was another telling period of economic concern.

Things may have changed, though.

“Of course, here we’ve had an influx of people, and these are the people who will donate. They might get here and say, ‘Okay, we don’t need this much stuff,’” said Williamson, who noted the back of the Thrift Store is bulging with donated items.

At the United Way, which coordinates funding for 17 local agencies, Burch said last year’s campaign netted about $50,000 less than the year before. This year, she’s hoping to get back to the level of $580,000 that was raised at the end of 2007.

“If you remember January, it was back when nobody knew what was going to happen. Words like depression were being thrown around, and that was every day in the news,” Burch said. “We took a pretty good hit.”