by Jessica Carreras
Outside the office of Leslie Thompson, CEO of Affirmations LGBT community center in Ferndale, a poster on the wall marks the income from donations, fundraisers and other sources. The outlook for this month: bleak.
As one of the toughest economic times the United States has faced in years rages on, LGBT non-profits – locally and nationally – are heavily impacted. According to the Washington Blade, several cuts have already been made nationally. Lambda Legal cut 10 positions last month, while the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation announced lay-offs on Nov. 21. The National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association has reduced their staff from seven to two.
From the financial crisis of the Big 3 to personal job losses and federal funding cuts, LGBT non-profits in Michigan are facing huge drops in financial support. The losses could result in similar programming and job cuts, plus mergers and shortened hours come 2009.
At Affirmations, the goal for December fundraising was set at $62,000. As of a week ago, the amount was at $4,028 in a month when year-end contributions and holiday spirit usually make for high donation levels. “We have 18 days left this month to raise another $58,000,” Thompson said. “We just approved our 2009 budget on Dec. 3 and we’re already looking at a Plan B on how we will deal with us not reaching our goals this month and starting out the year not in as stable of a position as we would like to be.”
Currently, Affirmations is open six days a week and serves over 1,000 visitors a week with youth programs, group meetings, art showings, workshops and more in their new facility, which opened officially in the spring of 2007, They offer a safe space for youth on weekends, a place for support groups to meet and even have free Internet and a cafe.
Affirmations, like most non-profits, sent out over 6,000 year-end mailings stressing the need for donations to upkeep their current programs, staff and hours. Normally, said Thompson, such a mailing would yield at least 100 responses with checks within the first week. “We’ve gotten like, eight,” she said.
Similarly, invitations were sent for a fundraising event held last Sunday at Affirmations featuring Sen. Gary Peters. Thompson said they received not a single RSVP.
However, as support is going down, demand for the services Affirmations provides is going up. “The more stressed out people get, or they lose their jobs, and we’re getting more calls to our helpline and more visitors,” Thompson explained. “In the middle of the day, we’re starting to see more people coming in.”
Though Affirmations had planned to keep programs as is without adding any new projects in 2009, next month might see programs actually being cut. “We don’t want to cancel programs or close earlier. We don’t want to have to do that,” Thompson stressed. “We get 120 kids here on Friday and Saturday night. Do we want to close at 8? God, that would be awful.”
But after cutting the staff’s conference budget, restructuring health care plans and getting rid of pension plans entirely, said Thompson, if the goals are not met, programs will be cut.
At HIV/AIDS organizations, the situation is similar. Decreased funds are being met with increasing needs as HIV positive people lose their jobs and, along with it, their health care. “We’re seeing a lot of clients who didn’t need to access our programs before who need to access them now,” said Christina Fluker, director of clinical services at the Community Health Awareness Group. “They were able to work, but now they’re laid off so that’s hard. There definitely is a lot more need for resources than there is availability.”
For some, the cuts have already begun – in huge ways.
Last week, LGBT political action group Michigan Equality announced the exit of executive director Derek Smiertka and a major restructuring project – a plan the board said directly relates to economic issues.
Recently, Michigan Equality received a grant from the Arcus Foundation to begin a strategic planning process that will adjust their focus in the upcoming years. “It comes down to dollars and cents, plain and simple,” Smiertka said of his departure and the strategic planning. “I think it’s important and lasting that the community takes a good look at itself and its political and legislative movement – and this is the time to do it. Do it now. Everybody should be involved in this process in one way or another. It’s desperately needed. There’s so much work to be done and we need to be organized.”
“The strategic planning is just a reorganization as to where we want to move forward and to make sure that we’re not overlapping with other organizations in the state,” added Michigan Equality Board President Doug Meeks. “A part of that is to ensure that all the organizations are being fiscally responsible as to the money that’s coming in and we’re not duplicating similar projects.”
Other LGBT organizations have held off on programming and found innovative ways to save money on events.
The CHAG Client Christmas Party was held at the restaurant owned by Executive Director Cindy Calhoun’s brother, while a recent workshop was attended by several Affirmations staffers for free with the help of vouchers provided by members of the community.
At CHAG, they made the decision to make the party open to all of their clients, despite a decrease in funding to do so. “Times are so tough and things are so tight,” explained Fluker. “We felt it was really important for everyone to get to enjoy one fun, really nice night.”
Already dire financial outlooks became frightening for some organizations this week with the announcement of the Big 3 bailout plan failure in the Senate. “We get a lot of support from the Big 3, the companies themselves, the foundations with the companies, the employees,” Thompson said. “It’s really scary.”
Each of the Big 3 has a foundation that receives funds from the corporation and distributes them to non-profits like Goodwill Industries – and Affirmations. “If they don’t have any money to give to the foundations, the foundations don’t have any money to give out,” Thompson added.
In addition, said Thompson, many donors who directly contribute to LGBT non-profits work for General Motors, Ford or Chrysler. With layoffs looming in January, holiday donations have been put on hold.
“When I saw that headline, I just felt this cement block on my chest,” Thompson said of the bailout drop. “We can’t even begin to imagine what the consequences would be if Washington doesn’t do something. It’s going to be far more reaching than we can even conjure up in our own minds.”
At the beginning of this month, the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project and the Michigan AIDS Fund announced a merger that will attempt to offset decreases in funding without sacrificing programs. The announcement set off a buzz about which non-profit organizations would be next.
Although no discussions have been made public yet, most leaders say that in 2009, anything is possible.
Merger talks at Affirmations began years ago, but were quickly kiboshed. “We had talked about merging with…the resource center in Kalamazoo a couple years ago, but because of the enormous work and pressure about working on the capital campaign, it wasn’t a good time to throw another project in the works,” Thompson said of Affirmations. “There were talks when I first started working here about (Affirmations and the Triangle Foundation), but it was decided after a lot of intense discussion that they would stay two separate organizations.”
Similarly, Meeks of Michigan Equality said no talks have begun about mergers. However, he added, anything is possible. “You can never say never,” said Meeks. “It might one day benefit the community to have some kind of merger.”
“I don’t think there’s going to be anything off the table though in 2009 to try to figure out how we don’t have this impact programs,” Thompson agreed.
Smiertka added that any moves should be a community effort to figure out what is best for Michigan’s LGBTs. “The community really needs to be involved and take an active role in the process,” he stressed. “That’s extremely important. Everybody needs to be involved to tell the people where to go and what to do.”
Community effort is also hoped to materialize in the form of donations – no matter how small.
“Somebody just donated $50 and said that he’s unemployed right now, but Affirmations was there for him and so he just really feels like he needs to be there for Affirmations,” Thompson said. “I was just really incredibly touched by the note he sent me… . We really need people to stop a moment and think about if they can do it. What’s your best gift?”
“It’s been hard for everyone,” added CHAG’s Fluker. “I don’t think anybody has not felt the impact of the economy.”
Community leaders have high hopes, however, that everyone will band together to help all of Michigan’s LGBT organizations make it through tough economic times. “It’s going to take all of us – and not just for (Affirmations),” Thompson said. “There are several LGBT organizations in southeast Michigan that need a helping hand.”
At Affirmations, said Thompson, it’s all about keeping the doors open. “We have this great building and it’s really providing a service,” she said. “Over 1,000 people a week are coming here. We don’t want to be turning them away.”