Cold Wave Means More Clients and More Grant Needs for Nonprofits in Wintry States and the Sunbelt

I woke early this morning, as I’m wrestling with an NIH proposal with a very short deadline. A peek at Facebook revealed a post by a friend making fun of the hysterical news stories about cold in the Midwest and Great Plains in January. They’re just more man-does-not-bite-dog story. But news outlets always like to say, a la Rod Stewart in Mandolin Wind, it’s “the coldest winter in almost 14 years” or whatever.

My pal Barry is my age and, like me, grew up in Minneapolis and went to the University of Minnesota; he got sick of the awful winters and decamped to So Cal. In my case, and as recounted in “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal,” I left Minneapolis almost exactly 40 years ago, during another deepfreeze event in which the temperature had not gotten above zero for about two weeks. As Bob Dylan rapped in “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” I knew it was blowing me southwest to LA.

Between 1974 and 2014 the 24-hour Internet news cycle began, and now the media is ceaselessly screaming about the cold weather. At this moment, tens of thousands of residents of cold weather states are saying to themselves, and as B. Dylan also sang in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “I do believe I’ve had enough.” They’ll be hitching up the wagons and heading south soon, another episode in the population shift over recent decades to the Sunbelt. While there are many reasons why Americans relocate, including selected jobs, like tech in Seattle and Silicon Valley and lower cost housing in much of Texas, it’s hard to argue against the appeal of warmth and sun when shoveling snow out of your driveway yet again.*

This winter- and housing-cost inspired migration has serious implications for nonprofits at both ends.

For nonprofits in wintry states, and particularly for those in rural areas or depressed urban centers, long-underway trends mean that their target populations will get even older, sicker and poorer than they already are, as the young, more affluent and healthier residents move. (There are some exceptions, like New York City and Boston in the last two decades or so.)

For example, we are currently working on a project for a large nonprofit in a rural Midwestern state. In their service area, which has already been devastated by years of outmigration, the median age in 40,compared the national median of 37.2. The median household income is only about 75% of the national median. Nothing is going to get better in this vast, sparsely populated region, as the only real sources of jobs are working for government agencies, hospitals, schools, and nonprofits. The area was originally settled for reasons related to agriculture and railroads. As those sectors have become less important to the economy in the last century, our client’s service area has suffered.

For the nonprofit and public service providers, demographic and economic reality means ever-increasing service demands amid a failing tax base. In other words, more economic misery and fewer resources. Outside of attempting to develop new businesses and attempting to attract highly innovative people from places like New York and Seattle—which is at best a multi-decade process—the only answer for these strapped agencies is more grant writing, trying to secure federal, state and foundation grants because there are few businesses or wealthy individuals to seek donations from.

For nonprofits in Sunbelt states, the in-migration means tens of thousands of new residents, many of whom have little if any social or family connections. While some, like retirees with somewhat secure pensions and savings, will be relatively okay financially, many others, including younger people and middle agers with low skill sets, will be initially strapped and almost all will be adrift in a new community.

Local nonprofits and public agencies will see service demands rise, particularly for job training, family disfunction, substance abuse, domestic violence, and homelessness. It’s a lot easier to be homeless in Santa Monica than Duluth in January. Most Sunbelt cities, like Phoenix and Miami, are still recovering from the housing collapse of the Great Recession, which limits property and other tax revenues for services. Thus, service providers in these ares will also need to ramp-up grant writing to meet new needs.

For myself, it’ll be about 75 degrees in Sunny Santa Monica today, and as I walk my faithful Golden Retriever Boogie to the beach later, I’ll reflect on the half-frozen 22-year old long-haired, bearded kid, leaving Minneapolis in a rusty and unreliable ’65 Bug on a bitterly cold afternoon four decades ago. As Buckaroo Banzai put it, “no matter where you go, there you are.”


* For purposes of dramatic license, I’m leaving out the North Dakota fracking boom, which is drawing thousands of workers to the Great Frozen North. But, many will end up in California, after they gain experience and savings and California eventually permits fracking.

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