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Hey, What About the Little Guys?


A few years ago, during what seemed to be the dog days of California's economic recession, I received three very similar telephone calls within the space of a week. All were from people who ran nonprofit health organizations offering free services.

The callers made the same, sad plea: "We're out of money. We may have to close our doors. Can you help us?"

I hate calls like that because I know what the caller is saying is true. I know small nonprofits desperately need money to stay afloat and do their good deeds. I also know there is very little a newspaper can do to help. We can't write about them all; there are just too many with this dilemma. In the end, two out of those three organizations did close.

That's why when I hear that someone like entertainment executive Michael Ovitz has given some place like the UCLA Medical Center $25 million, I feel sorry for the little guys. Groups such as the Blind Children's Center, the Venice Family Clinic, the Valley Community Clinic, the various Boys & Girls Clubs. My files are full of the names of these and many other nonprofits that devote each day to helping others.

Can you imagine what the directors of these organizations would do if they received $25 million from Ovitz? Probably go into cardiac arrest. These are groups that struggle to meet a yearly budget of $150,000.

Now, let's be clear. This is not to say that Ovitz is misguided and UCLA is undeserving. Ovitz and his family are generous and deserve our heartfelt appreciation. UCLA is a monstrous institution that needs tons of money to meet its many worthwhile goals regarding medical research and patient care.

But, here is what one board member from a small nonprofit told me the other day: "When I hear about a single event raising $1 million, my heart sinks. You think, how can I get that kind of money for my organization?"

The reality is, says Francie Murphy of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Los Angeles chapter: "We struggle. All the luncheons, all the letters, the gala dinners, calling corporations, restaurants, hotels and friends, and asking for a donation.

"The hardest part is, if you're not big, with an identity, people are not quite sure who they are giving to. We need to point out that asthma is the No. 1 reason children visit emergency rooms and the No. 1 reason they miss school, and that asthma costs millions of dollars in lost work time because parents can't be at their jobs."

Dale Eazell from the nonprofit Casa Colina Centers for Rehabilitation in Pomona puts it this way:

"If no one knows about your good work, then no one will give you money for that good work. We have to identify our purpose so people can get excited about it. Then we have to have the courage to go to someone and look them in the eye and hear all their messages that they can't give you money and say, 'I do understand, but we need your help.' It's hard."

Casa Colina looks to outside funding for many of its "extra" programs, such as an outdoor adventure program for the disabled and wheelchair athletics.

And, Eazell says, "We have found that if there are people who really have a fire about a program we offer, things seem to develop wherein funds come forward."


Still, big givers will probably continue to give to the big institutions: the universities, the symphonies, the art galleries, the most prestigious research institutes.

Among the few saviors for the small nonprofits is the California Foundation, an endowment established last year by Blue Cross of California. The foundation recently awarded its first grants under its Community Health Investment Program, ranging from $16,500 to $876,553.

The idea behind the program, says the foundation's Jo Cazenave, is to support projects and programs that target the uninsured and medically underserved populations. And--this is the best part--the foundation has offices in 12 regions covering the entire state in order for its staff to really get acquainted with the small nonprofits and deal with that "identity" problem Murphy mentioned.

"This provides an opportunity for small organizations to get to know a major foundation in the state," Cazenave says. "We are not just about giving money. We are about getting to know the small, community-based organizations. There are so many organizations providing excellent services that people just don't know about. They are the unsung heroes."

And it's really nice when someone sings your praises to the tune of, say, $591,678.

That's what happened to the Los Angeles chapter of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. After scraping together $300,000 to buy a Breathmobile--a clinic-on-wheels that regularly visits schools to treat kids with asthma--the AAFA chapter applied for a grant from the California Foundation to expand the program. The foundation said, in essence: "Great idea! Go buy a couple more Breathmobiles."

Many of these small, nonprofit health organizations have terrific ideas. If only there were more fairy godmothers around.

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