anne mahlum, back on my feet, anne mahlum back on my feet
Matt Rourke/AP
Marathoner Anne Mahlum runs along with a group men from the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission
in Philadelphia, July 3, 2007.

Despite Odds, Some Grassroots Nonprofits Flourish During the Recession

July 21, 2009 02:30 PM
by James Sullivan
In an economy that has withered corporate and individual charitable donations, a few nonprofit organizations, such as Anne Mahlum’s Back on My Feet, are experiencing success.

Defying a Recession

On July 13, Jakob Rodgers of the Denver Post cited a Listening Post Project survey in which 83 percent of respondent nonprofits reported experiencing financial stress between September 2008 and March 2009. When it comes  to fundraising, 53 percent of the organizations surveyed noted a drop in individual charitable donations, 44 percent saw declining corporate donations and 42 percent experienced a drop in foundation giving.

Notably bucking this trend is a Philadelphia-based grassroots nonprofit offering aid to the city’s homeless population. Back on My Feet, founded and run by 28-year-old Anne Mahlum, is a classic story: a university graduate forgoes six-figure job offers to pursue her passion, and uses running to help the city’s homeless build self-esteem and learn to methodically set, and reach, their goals.

In the group’s own words, “Back on My Feet is a non-profit organization that promotes the self-sufficiency of the homeless population by engaging them in running as a means to build confidence, strength and self-esteem.”

But how, when so many other nonprofits are barely scraping by, did Mahlum raise $1.5 million in two years, spread to two more cities and develop a budget to serve 420 clients this year?

According to Christopher K. Hepp of the Philadelphia Enquirer, it seems that harnessing her “potent blend of innate gifts—drive, smarts, charm and pulchritude,” and achieving visibility through TV plaudits such as  ABC’s Person of the Week and CNN’s Heroes’ award, have aided her fundraising efforts, as have large private donations.

More Brotherly Love

Elsewhere in Philadelphia, the charity organization Dress for Success, which aims to “promote the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional attire, a network of support and the career development tools to help women thrive in work and in life,” had an uncharacteristically successful first year of operation.

That its inaugural year coincided with the onset of the recession is unfortunate timing, but the program managed to outfit nearly 3,000 clients during this period—an improbable achievement.

To operate, DFS relies on financial contributions from individuals, corporations, foundations and other organizations. Yet unlike Back on My Feet, there is also a component of merchandise donation, and as findingDulcinea reported last year, such giving can be recession-proof.

Giving Without Money

CNN reported during last Christmas season that there are various ways for Americans to give charitably without donating money. The network discussed holiday giving with leaders of charitable organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, and the United Way. Each organization provides opportunities for families to volunteer their time meaningfully without reaching into their pockets.

The Listening Post Project survey conducted at Johns Hopkins found that despite the financial challenges facing nonprofit organizations, they continue to find ways to provide their services to the ever-growing population of people in need of help. Though raising money is essential to the operation of many nonprofits, a strong human element can go a long way. And as evinced by the determination of Anne Mahlum, people are willing to give up a lot to help others.

Reference: Running; philanthropy

Running, as the foundation of Back on My Feet’s phased program toward self-sufficiency, offers lessons in goal setting, discipline, hard work and perseverance. Learn more about running, including how to tailor a training plan to your specific needs, using findingDulcinea’s Running Web Guide.

If you’re inspired by Mahlum’s story of selflessness and focus, and wish to follow in her footsteps, consult the findingDulcinea Guide to Philanthropy and Nonprofits. It contains resources for understanding nonprofits, volunteering, assessing the credibility of a nonprofit, running a nonprofit and more.

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