Angelina Sanchez, 4, of Atlantic City, left, and other children eat a free lunch last week at Sister Jean's Kitchen in Atlantic City. Like several other nonprofits, they've seen donations plummet since last fall.

Michael Ein

On any given day, hundreds file into Sister Jean’s Kitchen for a warm meal in its air-conditioned cafeteria.

They represent a broad spectrum of Atlantic City’s poor: from residents at the poverty line to gambling addicts who’ve used their last comps and, more recently, families still displaced by Hurricane Sandy.

But while October’s disaster brought a tremendous amount of aid to the area, some nonprofit groups have struggled in its wake. Sister Jean’s, a nonprofit operation that has fed the poor for decades, is one of them.

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“We’re pretty close to the edge,” said the Rev. John Scotland, who runs the kitchen started by Jean Webster in 1986. “The electric company called threatening, and we’re behind on payments.”

Scotland said Sister Jean’s Kitchen, which operates out of Victory First Presbyterian Church on Pacific Avenue, had budgeted $143,000 in donations from churches, individuals and other organizations. Actual donations fell short by nearly a third, he said.

As Hurricane Sandy drew greater attention from donors this year, he said, Sister Jean’s resources have grown increasingly sparse. In a matter of months, a $30,000 surplus evaporated and the nonprofit group started having trouble paying its bills.

“There are only so many charitable dollars to go around,” he said. “When it flows in that direction, it doesn’t flow to us.”

John Emge, executive director of the United Way of Atlantic and Cape May Counties, said the problem of donor fatigue has affected many nonprofit organizations. That compounded an already difficult time for fundraising due to the economy and some donors’ personal losses due to Sandy.

His own organization has experienced the phenomenon, he said. According to its 2012 IRS Form 990, the nonprofit group operated with a $145,000 deficit after taking in $1.7 million in contributions and awarding $1.3 million in grants to other organizations. Emge’s salary was nearly $107,000.

The United Way has set up separate funds for Sandy relief and for its ordinary activities, Emge said. So far, it has raised $1.5 million for long-term Sandy recovery, which it in turn distributes to other charities. Its other fundraising fell $400,000 short of its $2 million goal last year.

“In that regard, with the money going to help rebuilding efforts, I think giving is clearly up,” he said. “But when normal-needs charities come knocking, folks in a troubled economy are tapped out already.”

Charities big and small have experienced the problem.

The Wildwood-based Love of Linda, a charity that helps cancer patients pay their bills during treatment, has fallen about 25 percent short of its annual $100,000 fundraising goals. That compares with $220,000 in contributions in 2011, according to its IRS Form 990.

President Amy Mahon said part of that was a result of having to cancel a January spaghetti dinner because the venue, the North Wildwood Elks Lodge, was still undergoing repairs. But part of that is also due to increased competition for a smaller donor pool.

Love of Linda’s annual beef-and-beer fundraiser in February was poorly attended when compared with previous years.

“Normally, February was a quiet time of year when nothing really went on,” Mahon said. “That night, probably four or five other fundraisers went on the same night.”

To boost flagging donations, Love of Linda revamped its website with a PayPal feature and held an unusual summer fundraiser this weekend at Wildwood Crest’s The Club at Diamond Beach.

Of course, not all nonprofit organizations have seen declines since Sandy. The American Red Cross, for example, collected more than $302 million in donations for Sandy. As of April, the Robin Hood Foundation had raised $70.5 million for storm relief, 44 percent of which was distributed in New Jersey.

That surfeit of aid helped some groups that didn’t directly respond to the storm.

Laurie Johnson, director of the homeless charity Family Promise of Cape May County, said her organization got several calls from fire stations and other collection sites that were running out of Sandy victims to help.

“Trucks showed up with five pallets of diapers,” she said. “We could’ve stood on the street corner and given them away, so we started calling our local resources, asking how many and what size diapers you need.”

In terms of monetary donations, Johnson said it has been an average year, although it is hard to tell because the group primarily receives in-kind donations of supplies and time.

Last year, Family Promise of Cape May County received $159,000 in donations, according to its IRS Form 990. Johnson was paid $39,000.

Scotland said he hopes people remember the charities that respond to everyday needs. If Sister Jean’s were to close, he said the poor of Atlantic City would have limited options.

Because of how small the operation is, he said, it wouldn’t take much to get back in the black. According to its 2012 IRS Form 990, The Friends of Sister Jean had revenue of $286,000 compared with expenses of $255,000, nine employees and no paid executives.

“There are people dealing with their own disasters every day, even before Sandy,” he said.

Contact Wallace McKelvey:


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More than 30 years’ experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey and 1985 winner of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s John Murphy Award for copy editing.

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