This isn't the easiest of times to be a non-profit totally dependent on donations for survival. Agencies that struggle from day to day even in boom times are finding the nation's continued economic downturn perhaps their biggest challenge ever.

It is also, however, no time for non-profits to be less than fanatical about how they spend every dollar and efforts to raise money. While hope is one of the traits that helps make agencies like the Red Cross go, being "hopeful" on the financial side can invite disaster.

The Northwest Michigan chapter of the Red Cross, which serves Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie and Kalkaska counties, is feeling not only the pain of reduced donations but of unfulfilled hope. The chapter has had to eliminate its remaining two full-time paid staff positions and make other cuts in an effort to shrink a $90,000 budget deficit brought on, in part, by overly optimistic revenue estimates.

About $300,000 was budgeted for this year (the fiscal year ends in June), but only about $210,000 in donations was received, a Red Cross spokesman said. The agency brought in an unpaid interim director until there's enough income to bring back the executive director and the emergency services director.

To its credit, the Red Cross has continued its emergency spending. Of the $210,000 brought in through donations, $89,000 went to emergency services; salaries totaled just over $80,000.

Money and organizational troubles are not new. The agency has had a habit of setting budgets based more on what it hoped to spend than on what was actually received and has paid the price.

Three full-time, paid staff members were let go in the last six months; its full-time health and safety director was laid off and a computer specialist who left over the summer was not replaced. A former employee said there was no permanent fundraiser on staff and it often was unclear who was supposed to be seeking donations. The chapter's inability to raise money over the Internet or online hurt, officials said; some would-be donations appear to have never arrived.

That's inexcusable for a non-profit totally dependent on donors. People who give money have to be confident their donations are making a difference and are being well spent. There is no shortage of worthy causes to give to; not having someone to handle those duties or a way to take in funds is a strategy for disaster.

The Red Cross provides crucial services to those most in need, and there are people who want to help the agency do just that. But there must be a reliable structure to make that happen.

Those interested in donating can call (231) 947-7286. Donations should be marked for the Northwest Michigan chapter and also can be sent to: Red Cross, 735 S. Garfield Ave. Suite B100 Traverse City, MI 49686.

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