LACONIA — It’s a mainstay for the city’s most financially vulnerable. For the first time in its nearly-40 year history, the Laconia Salvation Army's soup kitchen has put the brakes on its indoor hot lunch, which serves around 50 people every Tuesday through Saturday.  Like other dine-out options that remain open, “soup to go” is now packaged as take-out to eliminate group gatherings during the coronavirus.

“It works a lot easier. There’s less contact, but still friendly faces,” said Courtney Thomas, who has been coming daily for two weeks to pick up hot lunch, since she’s been at home watching out-of-school children. Meals are set on a table outside the back door as families line up to collect them.  Social distancing prevails.

 “If we’re out sick, nobody gets food,” said Capt. Scott McNeil, local head of the Christian charity that also operates a thrift store and homeless shelter.

During these precarious times, when layoffs are climbing and precautions for the coronavirus are shifting daily, demand for meals served by charities is rising, according to organizations that address food insecurity.

For the Salvation Army and others, the mechanism of delivery has changed – but not the mission.  Ironically, social distancing, sheltering at home, job losses and belt tightening are also squeezing a lifeline for charities and nonprofits: donations in kind and cash.

At Isaiah 61 Cafe on Salem Street, financial donations dropped by 42 percent between January and February, and March, said co-owner Dawn Longval. Two church groups that have prepared and served lunches are now making and packing them offsite, then delivering to the cafe for pickup. The cafe hopes to use renovated space upstairs for Bible studies when the ban on social gathering is lifted.

“Since people have been staying in their homes, we’re not receiving any donations at all,” at the Salvation Army soup kitchen, said McNeil. The charity closed its thrift store on Salem Street to stall virus spreading; sales from the used and new clothes, books, furniture and toys donated to the store – which typically receives 300 to 400 visitors daily – account for about a third of the yearly financial support for Carey House, its local homeless shelter.

Right now, the soup kitchen, is stretched for cereal and meat, and needs non-perishables including supermarket gift cards, McNeil said. "We’re just trying to do the best we can with what we have.”

Like many charities, the local Salvation Army can go three months on its financial reserves, but its ability to operate fully in the future will depend on the crisis length. “If we’re out of it in a month, we’ll be fine," McNeil said. "Who knows what tomorrow brings. We have a great community that has always risen to meet our needs.  I don’t expect anything different.”

As the coronavirus pandemic wears on without slowing here or in the U.S., thousands of organizations around the country with an essential human services role are being functionally and financially challenged. Potential and past donors are hunkering down at home, including many whose incomes have shrunk or vanished. Many who haven’t had to worry about money before are parsing their resources. It’s a cycle that can become a cyclone for nonprofit service providers that depend on the generosity of average citizens: as paychecks and savings and investment values tumble, so inevitably does charitable giving.

It’s still too early to estimate the potential aftershock, leaders of local charities and nonprofits say. For now, some have seen an uptick in support from individual givers, including the New Hampshire Food Bank, said Karen Moynihan, senior director of development at Catholic Charities NH.

President Patrick Tufts, president and CEO of Granite United Way, said it has not seen a disruption in traditional fundraising yet and it can meet all its current charity and nonprofit funding commitments, but it's too early to tell how the next grant cycle that begins in June will be affected. Bi-weekly paycheck contributions from employees account for 50 percent of the New Hampshire organization's treasure chest.

Overall, donations to the New Hampshire Humane Society have slowed, but some dedicated donors have been "remarkably generous," said director Charles Stanton.  Volunteer activities have halted, and staff will work fewer hours starting in April, as pet adoption applications and interviews continue online. "The organization cannot sustain the staff without adoption fees coming in and without fundraising activities continuing,” Stanton said. “For now, we are stable and optimistic, but we certainly remain in need of community support so we can continue this important work.”

Belknap House, a shelter for homeless families, canceled its May fundraiser. Fundraising accounts for about 25 percent of its revenue, said board president Colleen Garrity.  The nonprofit is planning to roll out a donation pathway directly from paychecks or bank accounts of individual donors, she said. "Many people have a loss of income right now. We don't know what effect that will have."

Shelley Carita, executive director of the Winnepesaukee Region of the Partnership for Public Health, said most affected by COVID-19 are agencies that help people with food, clothing and shelter, but any that rely on fundraising events and large meetings are being hamstrung.  When events are canceled, nonprofits lose sponsorships, said Carita said. “When you hear about all the money (potentially) coming in to help businesses (through federal emergency efforts), you don’t hear about relief for non-profits,”she said. “Some are going to be hanging on by a thread. It’s going to be hard to recoup after this and maintain the donor base.”

 “There’s such a variety of nonprofits, their impact is kind of getting lost in the crisis,” said Rebecca Bryant, CEO of Lakes Region Community Services, which serves close to 2,000 people in Belknap and Grafton counties, many of whom are disabled, elderly, or are families with infants and toddlers.  Less than 20 percent of its revenue comes from donations, but a long interruption will have consequences, Bryant said. “Our job is to keep our population out of the (over-burdened)healthcare system, even though they’re vulnerable individuals.”

According to a survey last week of nearly300 New Hampshire nonprofit agencies by the New Hampshire Center for Non-Profits: 85 percent are already experiencing or anticipating hardships; 89 percent have had to cancel programs and events; 64 percent have canceled major fundraisers, some of which account for 25 percent of their income; 67 percent have had to cancel or reduce client services; 50 percent are experiencing an increase in volunteer or staff absences.  And 60 percent have less than three months cash on hand.

“The entire country is being affected by this,” said Kathleen Reardon, the center’s executive director. “There’s no one funding model for nonprofit organizations. Because of this unique public health crisis, almost all revenue streams have been impacted. The hit has been immediate.  The people who are vulnerable are becoming more vulnerable,” she said.

•••

The Sunshine Project is underwritten by grants from the Endowment for Health, New Hampshire’s largest health foundation, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

Roberta Baker can be reached by email at Roberta@laconiadailysun.com

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