After the fires, Sonoma County nonprofits see greater needs, fewer dollars

Most leaders remain wary of how the October wildfires will affect local charities. Many are seeing increased demands for help that in some cases have outpaced revenue.|

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.

In the south county, the Petaluma Education Foundation did postpone its annual appeal last year. But Executive Director Maureen Highland said a number of donors sent in funds anyway, and she expressed confidence in raising the final $50,000 for a $250,000 school grant program.

More common was the experience of Social Advocates for Youth. The group had to evacuate its offices and Dream Center campus on Summerfield Road during the fires. It next canceled a key fall fundraiser.

Year-end giving declined about 15 percent and total fundraising is $250,000 below what was expected to start the new year, said CEO Katrina Thurman. The decline is partly the result of the impact on the agency’s supporters.

“A lot of the donors in the community were the ones who lost their homes,” Thurman said.

The fires’ impact on business was cited as another challenge for nonprofits.

After the disaster, West County Health Centers paused its local fundraising campaign to gather $4.2 million for the rebuilding of its Russian River Health Center in Guerneville. A drop in tourism since the fires has had an impact on the west county economy, and “most of our donors are small businesses,” said Jennifer Neeley, the associate director of development.

As a result, the agency has started “to cast a wider net” by seeking more donations from outside the county. She suggested more agencies may make similar efforts.

In the county, Neeley said, “there is expected to be donor fatigue and limited resources.”

Already this winter, the Sonoma County Council on Aging has canceled two small fundraisers.

“The word out there is, if it’s not for fire relief, people are not going to go,” council President and CEO Marrianne McBride said.

McBride is hoping that supporters will be ready to attend the council’s May 5 Derby Day, a key fundraiser that is projected to bring in up to $200,000 for the agency’s Meals on Wheels program.

Longterm supporters continue to contribute since the fire, she said. But for the wider community, “I don’t think any of us will know how long it will take for things to go back to normal.”

Millions of dollars have been given for the region’s fire relief efforts. The biggest funds include:

- North Bay Fire Relief Fund, a project of Redwood Credit Union, state Sen. Mike McGuire and The Press Democrat, which has raised nearly $32 million;

- Tipping Point Emergency Relief Fund, by San Francisco anti-poverty nonprofit Tipping Point Community, which also has raised $32 million;

- Sonoma County Resilience Fund, by Community Foundation Sonoma County, which has raised $10 million.

The three funds each have a somewhat different focus. North Bay Fire Relief seeks to provide immediate relief and has already distributed nearly $31 million.

Tipping Point’s fund, $20 million of which was collected from two massive Bay Area concerts, is focusing on the neediest residents, with a deadline for distributing all funds by the end of this year. It still has roughly $20 million to allocate and plans to hold back some money for later in 2018 as new needs arise.

“We just want to reserve a little bit of capital to be flexible and nimble,” said Karina Moreno, the agency’s chief of staff.

Community Foundation is planning to use nearly all of its funds for a mid-term relief effort of up to five years. The agency is working with a counterpart group in Napa to interview 700 community leaders in the coming weeks. The aim is to better learn what the most pressing community needs are and to invite nonprofits to apply for grants that likely will be distributed this fall.

The funds will be available to agencies serving those who lost their homes. But the foundation also will consider requests from nonprofits whose budgets have suffered indirectly from the natural disaster.

As time passes, those impacted comprise “a much larger circle than the original fire survivors,” said Elizabeth Brown, the foundation’s president and CEO.

Child care and housing are just two areas that had shortages before the fires and have gotten worse in the months since, leaders said. For housing, low-income families find the pickings especially slim.

“They need a place to stay now,” said Anita Maldonado, CEO of California Human Development Corporation. “And unfortunately they may to leave Sonoma County because of it.”

The nonprofit already has distributed more than $700,000 for help with rents, utility bills and other needs.

Looking ahead, the county has some reasons for hope.

Over the years nonprofit leaders, government staff and elected officials have built “a very sophisticated system” of partnerships, said Melanie Dodson, executive director of the Community Child Care Council.

“We have friends we can reach out to in many different areas,” she said.

Also donors and volunteers from the Bay Area and beyond have shown a willingness to lend a hand. Tipping Point recalled that some of the region’s biggest companies quickly rallied to help gather roughly $12 million for its relief fund. And Jane Hamilton, executive director of Rebuilding Together Petaluma, said about 10 Bay Area companies have said their staffs want to participate in “volunteer days” that would help add new homes in the fire zones.

Agency leaders said the community needs to keep supporting not only the fire survivors but also other key work undertaken by its nonprofit agencies.

Said Brown of the Community Foundation, “This is a dig-deep time.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or On Twitter @rdigit.

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