updated 1/16/2009 5:57:11 PM ET 2009-01-16T22:57:11

Georgia nonprofits face shrinking resources just as demand for things like heating and rent assistance grows — but pressing cash-strapped donors for a lifeline isn't the answer, a panel of experts told more than 250 nonprofits and faith-based groups Friday.

Instead, organizations must tailor their message to donors who remain sympathetic regardless of finances, while giving strained private and corporate gift givers a chance to regroup, panelists told the group at the event organized by United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta.

A survey of organizations across 13 counties in metropolitan Atlanta last month found that while 80 percent of groups have seen increasing demand, only 24 percent felt able to meet the need.

United Way Atlanta president Milton Little Jr. said Friday that needs will grow further as the area is flooded with unemployed former white collar workers and entrepreneurs who don't qualify for unemployment.

"We're going to see a lot more poverty coming out of this one than ones in the past," he said of the recession.

'Come back to us in a month'
Friday, groups heard ways to improve their outlook, including a surprising call for less pressure on donors.

It's one strategy the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta is adopting, according to panelist Ronette Throne. She's acting director of community planning and partnerships for the group, which offers career counseling.

"We are being understanding and empathetic with our donors who are not ready to make a commitment today," she said, adding well-timed compassion can result in a donation farther down the road.

"They want to help and they understand what we do in the community," she said. "But when they're saying to us just come back to us in a month, or come back to me in two months, we are listening."

Cuts in private gift giving are rippling across nonprofits nationwide.

An October study by GuideStar.org, which tracks nonprofit organizations across the nation, found that among 2,927 individuals representing at least 2,730 charitable organizations, 35 percent reported a decrease in gifts during the first nine months of 2008.

That's nearly twice as many as for the same period in 2007.

Feeding the family
Organizations like the Atlanta area chapter of Boat People SOS Inc., are struggling to balance a tighter budget with a steady demand, said program coordinator Man Cao. The group aides 30,000 Vietnamese refugees.

Lately, leaders have to charge a fee for access to the support groups, financial education and other programs they offer.

"If we don't do that, the whole branch over here (will) collapse," said Cao, who's had trouble explaining to immigrants why the organization is suddenly charging for things that were free.

Friday's meeting also offered a chance for panelists — comprised of grant-giving groups — to hear the needs of nonprofits and share their own plans to respond.

The Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta, has a proposal to issue wider-reaching grants instead of the traditional program grants, panelist Kathy Palumbo said.

The highly competitive grants will be processed more quickly than in the past, and can be directed to any part of an agency, she said. In the past, she said grants were geared to specific programs, sometimes ignoring other needy areas in a nonprofit.

"Rather than picking a child you want to feed," Palumbo said of the proposed grants, "let's feed the family as a whole."

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