Rough road for Dot nonprofits, but most press on

With the national economy hovering between recession and recovery, the outlook at the Codman Square Health Center is still gloomy.

For the health center’s CEO, Bill Walczak, the main concern is the possible loss of $5 million in state money channeled through Boston Medical Center to community health centers, including the Codman Square and Dorchester House Health Centers.

“I understand the need to cut back, but for us it would be more than a 20 percent cut in our budget,” said Walczak, who is also the president of the Mass. Nonprofits Network. “It’s a pretty bleak situation in Dorchester for non-profits, which, as we all know, are a pretty big source of employment,” he said. “Overall, it’s looking bleak—and it’s getting worse.”

With varying strategies and degrees of success, Dorchester’s non-profits are struggling to get through the economic downturn. Sometimes they cut back on goals and services, but they also find ways to save money and even capitalize on economic distress.

Growing in size and number over the last four decades, the organizations provide everything from health care to park maintenance, housing development, violence prevention, arts instruction, and tennis lessons. The organizations depend on a variety of funding sources, such as government money, charitable donations, and user fees. Though non-profits set out to fill gaps left by the for-profit and public sectors, their administrators readily explain how they benefit the local economy, whether in a business district or the housing market.

At the Codman Square Health Center, Walczak says he has already eliminated a business training program and an after-school program that served more than 50 elementary school students. He says more cutbacks could be required with a loss of state money expected at the beginning of this month.

The cutback in state funding—stemming from the drop in revenue caused by the recession—is also being felt in youth jobs and violence prevention programs. According to the Safe Teens/Safe Communities Coalition, state money for youth jobs was cut this year by more than 36 percent. That was offset by level funding from the city and federal stimulus money, but coalition members fear the stimulus money will not be renewed next year.

The coalition says there have also been cuts of more than 40 percent in other state youth programs. These affect agencies such as Project Right in Grove Hall, the Boys & Girls Club, the Dorchester Safe City Collaborative, the Black Ministerial Alliance, the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, and the Teen Center at St. Peter’s.

The director of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative (DYC), Emmett Folgert, says state spending on youth programs throughout Massachusetts has fallen from $30 million to $15 million. “There’s no talk of a dollar more,” he said. “So, it’s all defense, and there’s possibility of being wiped out next year.”

Last December, a leading supporter of community non-profits, The Boston Foundation, joined with Mayor Thomas Menino and the Boston Police in a violence prevention strategy with a commitment of $26 million over five years. The aim was to provide young people at risk more contact with street workers and to expand programs at social service agencies.

Folgert hails the commitment as “the largest amount that’s ever been focused” on youth violence prevention, but he says funding for young people at risk is still decreasing overall. “There’s a lot less people working with kids,” he said, “and a lot less kids being worked with.”

Among the community agencies rising to the challenge of prevention was the Sportsmen’s Tennis Club, located on the edge of Harambee Park. The club offers young people from Boston tennis lessons at reduced prices. For young people in programs offered by other community organizations, the lessons are free. The club also depends on revenue from member fees.

The club’s executive director, Tony Wiley, says it cut the price for its summer camp program this year by 12½ percent and doubled enrollment—at a time when fee for service revenue was down.

“With the economy the way it was,” said Wiley, “we wanted to make sure there was something safe and fun for the kids to do over the summer.”

Wiley said the club, with its full-time staff of three people, also sent out more funding proposals and managed to raise about $12,000 in summer camp scholarship money. She said the club even hired a dozen former youth offenders to work over the summer as counselors while being “extremely well supervised.”

Earlier this year, The Boston Foundation was reportedly among the funders reducing grants due to a fall-off in investment income and contributions. The foundation later announced discretionary grants would increase slightly, with more money going to non-profits for general operating expenses.

With the slump in housing throughout most of the country, non-profit community development groups have sharply decreased work on larger projects, which usually depend on development partners and private investors encouraged by tax incentives.

“We’ve slowed down our housing, but we are getting fees,” says Jeanne Dubois, the executive director of the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation, which recently finished building its Dudley Village project, with 50 units of rental housing and commercial space. The project is one of several developments by non-profits taking place along the Fairmount commuter rail line. Plans call for additional stations and more development in what the EDC calls a “smart growth corridor.”

In the interim, the EDC and another non-profit, VietAID, lowered the price of 18 housing units developed in the Bowdoin-Geneva area. The EDC has also begun fixing up properties that were taken by foreclosure, including four buildings on Hendry street.

“Because of the funds coming in from the city and the state, we were able to buy some of these houses at very low prices,” said Dubois. “Those are opportunities we had because of the crisis,” she added.

Dubois says the EDC and other non-profits are making plans to weatherize older buildings, with money from utility companies. And she says the project would provide “a lot of job opportunities for local people.”

For now, Dubois can point to the success of the Brothers Market food store in a building owned by the EDC on Dudley street and continued long-term support for projects along the Fairmount line.

“We all recognize this is a chance in a lifetime,” she said, “and we’re not going to get it again—to stabilize neighborhoods, keep people in, and make sure they’re not pushed out.”

Another non-profit concerned with quality of life, the Dorchester Park Association, held a fund-raiser in September to get money for its endowment. The association mainly takes care of passive recreation areas in the 26-acre park near Dorchester Lower Mills and Cedar Grove Cemetery.

“This was a good year, all things considered,” said the association’s executive director, Richard O’Mara, who’s also the owner of Cedar Grove Gardens. O’Mara said the fundraiser fell short of its goal for attendance, but finished with a net profit, even though some past donors this time “were not as forthcoming. There’s no doubt the economy played a role in this,” he added.

O’Meara said organizers cut expenses for the event by moving to an indoor location at UMass-Boston. “We needed to reach out to new businesses to get corporate donations,” he said, “and were able to get some new donations that way.”

Also doing more outreach is the Dorchester Community Center for the Visual Arts or Dot Art. The executive director of Dot Art, Leslie MacWeeney, said the goal for this year’s fundraiser was 100 people. With a lower price for this year’s tickets, she said, the event drew 99 people—double the count from the year before—and brought in “a good increase” over the previous year’s fundraising.

MacWeeney credits the result to outreach and support from the community, including businesses such as local restaurants, a food service, and an event coordinator. “I think the neighborhood, the constituents, and our donors felt we better support this organization or it’s not going to survive the economy,” she said.

MacWeeney says DotArt has also been cutting costs by relocating to free space offered by Federated Dorchester Neighborhood Houses (in exchange for some arts instruction) and using studio spaces in the Carruth, the housing and commercial development near Ashmont Station. Another way to save money was by hiring a bookkeeper to cut back on more costly hours needed from an accountant.

Though MacWeeney says Dot Art’s free program for teenagers is “just as packed as ever,” there has been a drop in enrollment for classes requiring fees. “It seems to be across the board,” she observed, “that people are saying ‘I can’t do anything extra.’”

MacWeeney says one other reason Dot Art has support from the community is the belief that it gives Dorchester a more appealing identity—even reflected in a promotional calendar for a local real estate firm.

“It makes a difference to Dorchester to have an organization like this,” she said. “Somebody said to me that they bought their house in Dorchester because they found out about it. It sort of gave a different feel to the neighborhood.”

As Walczak notes, the non-profit or public sector can also help the economy by drawing traffic to a commercial center. He estimates the health center brings 16,000 people a month to Codman Square, which is, he says “essentially a mall with two anchor stores—one of which is the Codman Square Health Center and the other of which is the court.”

O’Meara admits that getting financial support for passive recreation “wasn’t an easy sell,” but he credits improvements at Dorchester Park with getting more people to use the open space and making the neighborhood safer.

“A healthy park is a healthy neighborhood,” he said, “and a healthy neighborhood and a healthy business district works in everybody’s favor.”

According to MacWeeney, non-profits and for-profits facing hard times also need the same survival skills, such as the need to reinvent themselves. “There’s a difference of opinion about whether or not non-profits are a business,” she said. “But they are a business. If they’re not a business, they’re going to fold.”