‘We must be there for people who count on us’
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‘We must be there for people who count on us’

The hits taken by the financial sector are expected to affect local social service agencies, which depend on donations.

“There’s no question that donors in the financial industry will be watching cautiously,” said Lisa Fedder, executive director of Jewish Family Service of Bergen County. In fact, she noted, several board members who work in that industry were unable to attend the group’s Monday night board meeting. That was the day Wall Street imploded.

“I’m sure they had other priorities,” she said.

Fedder said that “right now, we’re doing all right. I think we’re OK.”

But, she added, she fully expects that, as a result of the current economic situation, “people will be slower to commit. I’m concerned that will happen. It’s hard for people to commit when they don’t know where they will be.”

Fedder said that while she is concerned about the donor base, the major challenge is “the steep increase in the request for services.” People need help “with the basics,” she said, “to pay for gas and electricity and rent.” She pointed out that the funds she receives from FEMA, “which usually last a year, were spent in three months.”

“There’s been a 55 percent increase in requests for case management and vocational assistance,” she said. “People are taking second and third jobs to meet their expenses.”

She noted also that the previously small JFS monthly distribution of food and other supplies to about two families has now expanded to provide for nine families, “a big increase for a small agency.”

The financial downturn is affecting all agencies, said Fedder, including UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, from which it gets significant funding.

“If they’re struggling, we’re struggling,” she said, noting that the two agencies enjoy “a great relationship.”

Another problem, she said, is even where prior commitments exist, “the cash flow is tightening up. Payments are slower in coming.”

“The need for a regular cash flow is an ongoing issue,” she said.

“We’re doing fine today,” she said. “We’ll have to figure it out and make the donor part work. But right now the problem is increased needs.”

Leah Kaufman, executive director of Jewish Family & Children’s Services of North Jersey in Wayne, has definitely seen a decrease in fund-raising as a result of the economic downturn.

“I’m not sure it’s directly related to Wall Street, but I’ve seen a different kind of trend,” she said, adding that she does not expect an upcoming fund-raiser to attract the kind of turnout seen in the past.

Kaufman has also seen an increase in the number of clients who are experiencing financial distress. “There’s always a core group who have difficulty finding employment,” she said, but the numbers have “increased dramatically.”

She noted that her agency – with limited funds available for emergency assistance – tries to “link [clients] up with resources” such as the Hebrew Free Loan Society. That group, too, has seen a sizable increase in requests for assistance, said the JF&CS director, who is actively involved in that organization as well.

“I’m easily seeing a 10 to 12 percent increase [in requests],” she said, pointing out that while “there is a great increase in the demand for counseling,” the economic downturn has caused a decrease in JF&CS revenues from its counseling services.

Still, she said, “we can’t turn anyone away.” In the current economic climate, she noted, “children are feeling the stress of parents out of work and [we see] more marital discord. It affects the whole family.

“We’re getting more calls from people who are depressed, discouraged, and in despair,” she said. “They need jobs to make ends meet.”

Kaufman said the agency is also dealing with decreased allocations from the federation, while foundation grants are becoming “more competitive and harder to get. All nonprofits are feeling it,” she said. “It’s across the board.”

Esther East, director of Jewish Family Services of Greater Clifton-Passaic, said the economic crisis “will definitely have an impact” on the agency, whose major donors are connected to the financial industry.

She explained that, in the past, many contributions have come in December from donors’ year-end bonuses. She doesn’t expect this practice to continue, she said, noting that one such donor has already been informed that his company will not give bonuses this year.

“People are panicky and depressed,” she said, adding that even those who previously were successful in their careers are now coming in for vocational counseling.

East said that the economic climate is making it “worse for people. It’s more expensive for food, gas…. Everyone’s feeling the pinch.”

She estimated that there has been an increase of some 20 percent in the number of people asking for direct financial assistance. Some, she said, lack “the basics of survival,” including health insurance. In those cases, the agency connects them to entitlement programs.

Often, she said, JFS offers financial counseling together with some cash assistance to help people deal with an immediate emergency.

“We’re a faith-based agency,” she said, noting that when she starts to despair about the agency’s financial future, “something turns up.”

“It’s not much of a strategic plan,” she joked. “We do what we have to do. We must be there for the people who count on us.”

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