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Interest in Homegrown Charities on the Rise: Many Organizers Find that a Big Heart Isn't Enough

Interest in Homegrown Charities on the Rise: Many Organizers Find that a Big Heart Isn't Enough

Tad and Kari Schmitz of Celebration hold some of the bears they will donate from their charity Bears Who Care. (Jacob Langston, Orlando Sentinel)

By Kate Santich, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.

January 04, 2010

Starting your own charity has been a popular idea in these recessionary times, spurred both by downsized workers re-evaluating their career choice and what some have called the Compassion Boom.

“There’s a high interest right now, tied to fact that the economy has people thinking about what they want to do,” said Margaret Linnane, executive director of the decade-old Philanthropy & Nonprofit Leadership Center at Rollins College. “They figure, ‘Since I’m out of work, maybe I’ll be fortunate enough to find something in an area where I can serve the community.’”

But starting your own charity is another matter. The process takes much more than a noble idea or sincere heart.

“Anyone who thought it was going to be simple … learns quickly that it’s not so easy,” Linnane said. “And a lot of people mistakenly think if they have a great cause, there will be no problem having their idea funded.”

There’s a lot of bureaucracy involved, a fair amount in fees and a whole lot of homework. And that’s only to launch it. Of Florida’s nearly 50,000 public charities in 2008, fewer than half made $25,000 or more in gross receipts — meaning the majority never raised enough money to pay anyone a decent salary.

At the Rollins philanthropy center, which teaches a class on starting a nonprofit, Linnane said many students discover that running a charity is much more administrative work than they imagined — when what they really want is the face-to-face human interaction.

Ultimately, “nonprofit” is only a tax status. You’re still essentially starting a business.

In the past decade, there has been a “pretty dramatic” increase in the number of public charities, said Steve Delfin, president and CEO of America’s Charities, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that helps employers run workplace-giving campaigns. The number of public charities registered with the Internal Revenue Service, for instance, increased 60 percent nationally from 1998 to 2008, and the number in Florida nearly doubled. It is still too early to say what happened in 2009.

But not everyone thinks growth is a good thing. “There is a lot of redundancy and duplication,” Delfin said. “And as in any industry where you get a lot of growth, now I think we are going to see this whittling down.”

There is some evidence that’s already happening. For the first time in decades, individual charitable donations dropped in 2008, compared with the year before. With less money being split among more charities, some nonprofits found themselves laying off employees, cutting programs or closing altogether.

Daunting? Maybe. But for the bold, visionary and determined, the experts contend, success is still possible. It just may take longer.

Counseling young fathers

Haki Nkrumah is a 49-year-old Army veteran with a long history of social work. In 2006, while working as an administrator for Valencia Community College, he launched a nonprofit called Young Fathers of Central Florida to fill what he saw as an enormous void.

“At the school, I came into contact with so many young dads who didn’t have any type of support, who didn’t have any parenting classes, who needed help finding jobs and supporting their families, that I felt I had to do this,” he said. “I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any contacts.”

Within 18 months — just as the economy began to decline — he resigned his paying job and decided to run the charitable organization full time. “Everybody thought I was out of my mind.”

A father of three, ages 13 to 25, Nkrumah had worked with a similar project in his native New York, so he knew the mission was sound. Yet he calls the leap the biggest sacrifice of his life. His family income dropped by more than half, and he has yet to make a salary as the charity’s CEO.

Worse, he said, he has spent much of his time “begging” for funding and volunteers, despite that many of society’s ills can be traced to broken homes and a lack of father figures.

The situation exasperates him, yet there’s little question he’s having an impact. In 2009, he worked with 150 fathers younger than 21 — young men and teens not married to the mother of their children. Sometimes, he helped them fill out job applications. Other times he led workshops on subjects from shaken-baby syndrome to nutrition to how to dress for a job interview.

Nkrumah is hopeful that 2010 will be a turning point. He recently won a small donation from Disney, and the Children’s Home Society of Florida — a 108-year-old nonprofit prominent in child welfare and advocacy — has offered him office space and other support.

“I have no regrets,” he said. “There are too many children out there who need their fathers.”

Helping the homeless

Running a nonprofit is certainly easier when you’re not trying to make your living from it.

When Rhonda and Mark Santolin of Longwood began Bags of Hope last spring as a one-time Easter project for their faith-based group One Bread One Body, they had no idea what they were facing. Rhonda, a 43-year-old aesthetician, had only recently learned homeless people lived in the woods of Seminole County.

“At first I didn’t even believe it,” she said. “I had only seen the typical panhandlers by the side of the road downtown. I had no clue there were families living in camps.”

She and husband Mark, 51, a Realtor and part-time caterer, decided to educate themselves by attending an event where the homeless come for food, showers, haircuts, job applications and help getting birth certificates and other documents. The experience changed their lives.

Their project — bringing bags of food, clothing, water and personal-hygiene supplies to people living in the woods — became a monthly mission. Their garage became the headquarters. Friends, fellow church members and later, strangers, became their volunteers — now a force of 100.

In December, The Nation Law Firm in Longwood adopted Bags of Hope as one of its causes, offering to handle the paperwork to incorporate it as a nonprofit.

“I am not a good paperwork person,” Rhonda said. “I’d much rather go out and serve people and do the outreach and get my hands dirty.”

She and Mark have no plans to draw a salary for their work, although Rhonda has cut back to part time at her day job and the couple have two children at home. < P> “The material world still goes on,” she said, “but I can’t justify money coming to me when it could be buying food for someone. Nor do I want an overhead for a storage facility … Now, I’d love to have a van donated.”

Comforting children

Most people who start charities do so because of a particular passion, such as a love for animals, or because their lives have been touched by tragedy or illness. They want to save others some of the grief they endured themselves.

Tad and Kari Schmitz of Celebration started with the urge to simply make a difference. Then they set about figuring out how.

Kari’s parents had been teachers with a passion for reading. Tad’s father ran his own charity in a small town in Illinois. Both Kari, 43, and Tad, 41, had spent time volunteering for the nonprofit Give Kids The World, which gives all-expenses-paid vacations in Orlando to critically ill children and their families.

After a lot of research on existing charities and long talks with some of the people who started them, they settled on giving teddy bears and books to children ages 1 to 12 who are sick, poor or otherwise in need. The books would spread literacy; the bears would offer comfort.

They call it Bears Who Care. Their first effort was a donation of 50 bears and books to young patients at Florida Hospital for Children on June 15, International Children’s Day.

“We started on a very small scale,” using their own money and contributions from friends, Kari said. “But it turned out to be everything we imagined it would. It just gives the children an escape from all the needles and the discomfort.”

Because both of them work demanding jobs in marketing — he for a large hotel company, she for a theme park — they can devote only three to six hours a week to the charity. In recent months, their focus has been on incorporating and getting the all-important IRS designation that allows donations to be tax-deductible.

They considered doing the paperwork on their own, but in the end hired a faith-based accounting firm that specializes in the process. The fee was about $500, Kari said.

“We never assumed it would be easy,” she said, “but still I don’t think we realized how involved it really was.”

Kate Santich can be reached at 407-420-5503 or ksantich@orlandosentinel.com.

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Copyright © 2010, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.

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