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With economy on upswing, nonprofits optimistic

Even though the economic downturn hit Mississippi later than more commercialized states, recovery has been slower. Yet Mississippi remains the most philanthropic state in the nation, especially when it comes to supporting nonprofit organizations.

“That’s an absolutely remarkable fact since Mississippi has the lowest per capita income,” said John Alford, executive director of the Mississippi Food Network. “Mississippi is a very caring, loving and generous state. For our organization, I appreciate the thousands of volunteers who donate their time and the contributions people have made, no matter how small.”

This year, the Mississippi Food Network, which will kick off its annual Food for Families Football Challenge next month, will provide about 17 million pounds of food valued at $20 million to about 365 churches and charities in Mississippi for distribution to needy people. Of the 76,000 people served each month, 48% are children and 33% are seniors. Unemployed or underemployed working-age adults comprise the balance.

“We’re probably serving about one-third more people now than two years ago,” said Alford. “Job opportunities for low-income families are disappearing, and more working-age adults are coming to our charities for food. I received calls recently from Union and Tippah counties, where there were plant closings, and we take these changes into consideration and distribute food accordingly where possible.”

‘Feeling the pinch’

Despite Mississippians’ generosity, nonprofits are “still feeling the pinch” from the recent economic downturn, said Don Paxton, executive director of the central Mississippi chapter of the American Red Cross.

“We’re always looking at ways we can best utilize donated dollars in the most efficient way,” said Paxton. “We’re looking at consolidating traditional back-room services, such as accounting or database management. As new resources become available, we’re taking a strong look at them.”

Last year, The United Way of the Capital Area reported a 1% loss, “not bad, considering the economy, mergers and acquisitions, and the downsizing of some of our major contributor companies,” said Carol Burger, president and CEO, who is kicking off the Pacesetter fundraising campaign today (Aug. 2).

“We’ve been pretty fortunate to hold our own,” she said. “We’ve been able to maintain services when other United Way chapters around the country have had to reduce theirs. Fortunately, we’ve picked up contributors like Nissan to help offset that loss.

“We’re looking forward to a better year. We’ve gotten some new companies involved, and hopefully we’re doing some things that will make people want to support their community through the United Way.”

Even though the Mississippi Animal Rescue League (MARL) received a windfall of about $75,000 last fall from a fundraising “wrap party” given in honor of the cast of the “Benji” movie, Mississippi Business Journal publisher and MARL chairman Joe Jones, CPA, was “having trouble buying dog food and paying the electric bill.”

“There we were awash with money earmarked for our building fund while we were having trouble keeping the lights on,” he said with a chuckle.

In March, the League split proceeds with the Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital — around $30,000 each — from fundraising events surrounding the “Benji” movie premiere at Tinseltown Theater in Pearl and reception at the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Museum in Jackson. That money was designated to the League’s operating fund.

“We ended last year with $65,000 more in expenses than revenue, which is a huge loss for an operation like ours, remembering that the ‘Benji’ money was designated for the building fund,” said Jones. “However, we covered those expenses with a surplus from the year before and fortunately didn’t have to cut back services. This year, with the ‘Benji’ money, we’re on the positive side.”

Several years ago, the League acquired 53 acres of farmland in West Jackson for about $3,000 per acre to house a new animal shelter. Donors contributed a cyclone fence around the property perimeter. In September, the League plans to break ground on a $2.5 million, 17,000-square- foot facility.

“We have high hopes on the new deal,” said Jones. “When we open the shelter, we’ll be able to have all our animals together in a safer area.”

Because the annual operating budget will jump from $450,000 to $750,000 when the new shelter opens, the League will solicit business members.

“We’ve added some people to the board who have a business background and we want the business community to buy into the value the Humane Society provides to the community,” said Jones.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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