When the Washtenaw County chapter of the American Red Cross issued a press release on Thursday stating that its volunteers had responded to a 2 a.m. house fire that morning in Saline, we took special note – just hours before, the chapter had feted volunteers at an annual meeting that The Chronicle attended, where they talked about just this kind of work.
About 150 people came to the event, which for the first time combined the nonprofit’s awards ceremony with its annual membership meeting – usually the two events are held separately. Though the evening focused on recognizing local Red Cross volunteers, leaders of the organization also spoke of the challenges they face to provide services in the current economy.
Board president Jim Cook told the crowd that the chapter saw a downturn in donations over the past year, but added “we have not reduced our services one iota.”
In a phone interview with The Chronicle the next day, Donna Duvin, the chapter’s executive director, gave more details about the nonprofit’s financial condition. She said the chapter is facing a $300,000 deficit on a $1.6 million budget for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. A large part of that – $170,000 – represented market losses on investments.
Donations are down too, Duvin said. A large fundraiser in May brought in $60,000 less than expected. In addition, they received $60,000 less from the Washtenaw United Way than they had been given the previous year, as the United Way shifted its priorities in allocating funds. Last year, the Red Cross chapter ran a deficit of $132,700, and has been tapping into its reserves to cover costs.
The current deficit occurred despite cost-cutting measures, which included eliminating four staff positions a year ago – the local Red Cross now employs 12 full-time staff and 16 part-time workers, including instructors who teach health & safety classes. They’ve tightened the budget in almost every area, Duvin said, looking at every line item. Print materials were reduced, for example. Two major events of the year – the membership meeting and the awards ceremony – were combined in part to cut costs. Volunteers worked more hours and staff worked to be more creative and flexible in delivering services.
Duvin said that one challenge for the Red Cross is that local donors assume the chapter is supported financially by the national organization – it’s not. So they’re trying to get that message across: It’s local dollars that support the local Red Cross.
But every nonprofit is making a plea for support. Duvin said that everyone has been hit by this economic tsunami, and ”it’s bigger than what any one of us can fix.” Because of that, she sees a willingness for nonprofits to come together in ways they haven’t done before, looking for opportunities to share resources. One example within the Red Cross is the way the Washtenaw chapter is working with a neighboring chapter in Lenawee County, loaning them staff and volunteers for various projects.
Ultimately, though, if the Washtenaw chapter can’t find the revenues to support its programs and service, they’ll have no choice but to cut back what they offer, Duvin said.
Volunteers Step Up
Wednesday night’s awards reflected the chapter’s range of services, from its signature blood drives and first-aid training to emergency response, like the reaction to Thursday’s early morning fire. (A family of six was displaced from their home, and four volunteers came out to provide food and clothing, according to Julie Dean, the chapter’s director of communications.).
Other projects are less well known. Sandra Andrade, Ashley Cielinski and Cassie Prior were honored with a Diversity & Inclusion award for starting a “language bank” this year – a database of bilingual speakers who can be called on as translators for classes or emergencies that involve people who don’t speak English. Brian Pille got an award for services to the Armed Forces – the local Red Cross is a liaison between service men and women and their families who live in this area, helping relay emergency messages, like a death in the family.
In addition to more than a dozen others who were recognized with honors during the evening, the final award went to Steve Luedders, who received the Dan Kivel Blackbird award. Given in honor of a former Red Cross worker who died in 2006, the award is presented to someone whose life has been transformed by Red Cross volunteerism.
Bill McGill, a board member who made the presentation, described Luedders as the kind of person who gets up in the middle of the night thinking of new ways to help the Red Cross. McGill recalled a powerful conversation he had with Luedders, who told McGill that he wanted to be part of the solution, not someone who is stopped by obstacles and challenges.
Like many of the volunteers, Luedders was self-effacing about his work. Lucy Ann Lance, who was emceeing the awards ceremony, tried to draw him out, asking him about the conversation that had such an impact on McGill.
“I was just being a smart-ass,” Luedders quipped.
“You’re very humble,” Lance said.
He replied, “I don’t like awards.”
Rebecca Friedman, an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle, contributed to this report.