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Hard times start at top 

Many of the people reading this article are reeling from the blow dealt their savings, thanks to October's sudden and steep drop in the stock market, a plunge that followed a year's decline.

But there are those who don't have retirement funds to feel panicky about. They're worried instead about finding or keeping a job and keeping a roof over their heads. They need help getting back on steady ground. They're turning to shelters and food pantries for help, organizations that rely on the generosity of individuals and foundations to offer it.

And there's the catch: As asset values tank, so will philanthropic dollars, but the need for them will grow greater.

It's too soon to know exactly how severe the impact will be on private giving or foundations — indeed, many Arkansas foundations are heavily invested in Wal-Mart stock, shares of which are selling higher today than they were at the first of the year — but the struggling market bodes ill for grant-seekers in the year to come. And a recent survey by Guidestar, a non-profit that tracks charitable giving, found that 39 percent of U.S. charities in the Southeast (including Arkansas) report a drop in gifts so far this year, compared to 2007.

“Times are hard for everyone,” observed Heather Eason, president and CEO of the Arkansas Community Foundation, a public foundation that oversees more than 1,000 donor funds. Foundations whose investments took a hit may struggle to meet multi-year commitments, Eason noted, while the demand on them “to support non-profits is up … like [support for] direct-service non-profits, food pantries, women's shelters, those doing the hard work out there. Their expenses are going up, and any who have endowments, their savings are going down.”

Our House, a shelter for the working homeless on the grounds of the old Veterans Hospital on Roosevelt Road, is one of those non-profits who are caught.

“It's a double whammy for us,” said Georgia Mjartan, executive director of Our House, which raises its $550,000 yearly budget from gifts and grants. She expects grants from foundations to decline, and says the agency is already beginning to feel the crisis' effect on individual givers: Our House's annual Tie One On fund-raiser, to be held in December, is having trouble getting the sponsor support it's had in the past.

“One thing I want to make clear: We're not seeing people being less generous,” Martjan said. They're giving their time, if not their money; volunteer numbers are up. Our House has long been able to serve dinner to its residents daily with the help of churches and other service groups; now, Mjartan said, “there's so much interest, we have different groups providing lunch, too.” Volunteers know that if they themselves are hurting, “the poor among us must be feeling it even more.”

Our House serves about 1,000 homeless individuals, including hundreds of children, a year. Its clients include men and women who've lost their jobs because they couldn't afford gasoline, people who are finding they have to compete with better-educated former middle-management employees for their low-paying jobs. They are people having a hard time finding affordable housing. “Try finding a two-bedroom you can rent for $400 a month,” Mjartan said. “They're not a whole lot of units.”

As luck would have it, Our House is in the midst of a $400,000 capital campaign to renovate space on its campus to house families. Raising money now means “we have to get creative,” Mjartan said. “We're asking for less from more people.” In-kind contributions are important: Redstone Construction Group, for example, donated $40,000 worth of asphalt and labor toward the renovation. Important contributions of food come from Potluck and the Arkansas Foodbank Network.

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