After the fires, Sonoma County nonprofits see greater needs, fewer dollars
In the weeks after the October wildfires, the Redwood Empire Food Bank found itself deluged with new requests for help.
Survivors and others impacted by the flames parked cars in queues that stretched roughly a mile along Brickway and Airport boulevards north of Santa Rosa.
“They were lined up from the freeway to the food bank,” recalled CEO David Goodman. “You just saw people who had never been here before.”
Months later, the food bank still is spending an extra $200,000 a month to feed roughly 930 families who participate weekly in its Station 3990 program for those impacted by the fires.
“The sky isn’t falling, but we have work to do,” Goodman said, noting the effort required to provide food and raise funds to keep the program afloat.
Many nonprofit agencies around Sonoma County have been squeezed after the fire, seeing increased demands for help that in some cases have outpaced revenue.
Even nonprofits not normally associated with disaster relief suddenly found themselves responding to the most destructive wildfires in U.S. history. That includes child care agencies setting up temporary facilities and a group that supports at-risk teens evacuating staff members and young clients to emergency shelters.
Many agencies canceled fall fundraisers or postponed year-end appeals.
Three months later, most of a dozen agency leaders interviewed remain wary about how the fires will affect local charities. Some worry that repeated calls for extra dollars could lead to “donor fatigue.” Others warn the county will face a second wave of need, including an increased demand for mental health services resulting from the trauma experienced by fire survivors.
“Everybody is still concerned what the future is going to be for pretty much each and every nonprofit,” said Mike Kallhoff, president and CEO for United Way of the Wine Country.
The wildfires “changed the landscape” for the nonprofit sector, Kallhoff said. In trying to manage agency budgets, “the next couple of years are going to be the tricky ones.”
The county last fall experienced its worst natural disaster since at least the 1906 earthquake, a shaking that leveled Santa Rosa’s downtown. The October wildfires killed 24 people in the county and burned more than 5,100 homes. And the nonprofit sector took a hit, too.
The losses included the destruction of the Santa Rosa Community Health’s Vista Campus, a Fountaingrove clinic that served 24,000 patients a year. Not only is the agency dealing with rebuilding a flagship facility but also seeking to make up for the lack of money brought in from serving clients.
“We lost half of our revenue when we lost Vista,” said health center CEO Naomi Fuchs. The agency has received about $4 million in outside help but still is facing a revenue gap of $10 million to $15 million.
Beyond her own agency, Fuchs worried about “a secondary disaster” that could include increased rates of depression, domestic violence and suicide stemming from the trauma in the wake of the fire. She urged elected and community leaders to turn outside the county for extra funds to meet both physical and mental health needs.
“We have an emergency and we need to bring in some additional resources,” she said.
The fire’s impact on nonprofits has yet to be fully measured, but a number of agencies did take initial hits. Their leaders remain uneasy about the coming months.
The Volunteer Center of Sonoma County saw a 15 percent drop in its year-end fundraising appeal. The group now is watching to see how the community will respond to its April 28 Human Race, a significant fundraiser for 200 community nonprofits.
“Am I worried about it?” asked Cami Kahl, the center’s executive director. “Yes, I am concerned. … I do not want to see a 15 percent decrease on the Human Race.”
Like other leaders, Kahl suggested the natural disaster will have a lasting impact on the nonprofits who struggled through it. In the six weeks after the fires, the center registered 15,000 volunteers and deployed 10,000 of them to help at disaster shelters and other fire relief efforts.
“We have never had anything like this happen in our history,” said Kahl, “which is why I’m saying we are forever changed.”
Some leaders reported their agency budgets have yet to be affected by the fires.
Canine Companions for Independence actually saw its giving in the final quarter of 2017 rise 15 percent among North Bay donors. Interim CEO Kay Marquet explained the increase by noting the organization’s donors are passionate and many of them gave shares of company stocks that likely had appreciated as a result of the record times on Wall Street.