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Uh-oh, ECOSLO 

Local nonprofit struggles to make ends meet

The Central Coast's longest-running environmental activist organization is in the middle of a financial crisis that is threatening to close its doors for good. The Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo, or ECOSLO, is running on a budget that's less than half of what it was six years ago. The nonprofit agency can barely afford to pay its partial staff, relying more than ever on student interns and volunteers to help run the organization. Retired Cal Poly professor Bob Wolf is sitting in as the center's third executive director since Pam Heatherington stepped down last spring. He's agreed to donate his time "until we straighten this out." A vacant office space in their downtown building further drains dwindling resources. If things don't turn around soon, SLO County could lose its biggest voice on environmental issues and a legacy all at once.

ECOSLO got its start in 1971 as one of the state's first recycling centers - collecting, sorting, and selling glass, tin, aluminum, and cardboard. Early members were pioneers in the Environmental Movement, making a case for responsible waste management and making a profit doing it. That money was the center's largest source of income for 25 years and it helped to fund outreach and education programs that exist to this day, promoting community awareness about the area's natural environment.

But by 1996, recycling had, in Wolf's words, "gone the way of big business," and rising insurance costs, along with city politics and inventory issues, prevented ECOSLO from competing with more sophisticated processing techniques.

"Closing the [recycling] center was disappointing," said ECOSLO co-founder Dick Krejsa, "but through it we created a wonderful networking group, a repository of environmental information. We'd done our job."

The recycling business was sold and board members looked even more to the community and federal and state grants to supplement their budget, leading them into a situation not unlike the one they're in today. The difference, according to Wolf, is that back then the economy was strong and the government was incredibly generous toward nonprofit organizations, so the programs survived.

These days nonprofits in all sectors are feeling the crunch, as federal funding continues to shift and shrink, and donation-fatigued community members are increasingly unwilling - or unable - to pick up the slack.

For an example of just how drastic those cuts have been, consider the Central Coast Environmental Health Project, one of ECOSLO's biggest programs. Among other things, CCEHP educates agricultural workers, parents, teachers, and healthcare professionals on the risks of farm pesticides and chemicals. Because most of the clients in this program are in Santa Maria and speak only Spanish, program facilitators have to have cars, and they need to be bilingual. According to Wolf, in 1998 the center received a $60,000 contract to run this service. Today that contract is $10,000 - not nearly enough to cover the costs of running the program, let alone pay people a decent wage for their time and expertise.

Erica Greely, director of strategic policy planning for the National Council of Nonprofit Associations, said for the third or fourth year in a row entitlement spending for nonprofits has continued to decline.

A big problem now, according to Greely, is the heavy dependence nonprofits have on their communities, the very people they're supposed to be serving. Fundraising can help get an organization out of a hole, but it's a quick fix that fails to solve the bigger picture of securing a steady cash flow. Though many nonprofits are getting entrepreneurial, charging fees for some of their services and working with existing for-profit businesses to meet their mission statements and build revenue, she said this trend threatens to obstruct the very purpose of a nonprofit agency, which is to provide services not available in the private sector.

Miranda Leonard, the center's only full-time employee, said it's impossible for her to squeeze all of her responsibilities into a 40-hour workweek. Half the time she's functioning as an administrative assistant, the other half she's focusing on education and outreach.

"But there's a lot to do," she said. "If I'm over my 40 hours and I don't volunteer my time, then lots of things won't get done."

"I guess you could say there's a chance we won't survive," said Wolf, though he also said they're "not about to fold." He insists there's enough money in the bank to operate for the next couple of months, and he's hopeful that the next year will bring in additional funds. But will it be soon enough? Wolf said he needs to be able to pay three full-time employees to cover all the center's needs, and that doesn't include his salary, which he admits he won't be able to waive for much longer. "It's great to do the things you love and care about," he said, "but a person can only work for free for so long."

What would happen to SLO County if ECOSLO ceased to exist? Pam Heatherington said just looking out at the coastline, free of offshore oil drills, should be enough for people to recognize all that the organization has done. The beaches, rivers, open spaces, wildlife, and the community have reaped the benefits of the organization's vigilance to protect them. Knowing this, she said, helps members to keep looking toward the future while they search for new and different ways to make it through the present financial struggle.

"It's such a vital part of the community," said Krejsa. "We have to right ourselves, we will. It would be a shame for it all to end because of a lack of money."

 

New Times contributor Alice Moss learned early on in life to give a hoot. E-mail her at amoss@newtimesslo.com.

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