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Wednesday, April 30, 2008 12:31 am

Friend-in-Deed in need

The popular Springfield charity loses its best friend. Who will step in now that the State Journal-Register is stepping back?

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Doug Finke, today a SJ-R Statehouse reporter, and two helpers make Friend-In-Deed deliveries to the John Hay Homes in 1979.
Photos courtesy of the Sangamon Valley Collection.

For 10 years, Barry Locher was responsible for establishing and maintaining relationships with key Springfield businesses, double-checking hundreds of pages of information, ordering corrections, working within a limited budget, and meeting deadlines — and when he wasn’t doing all that he was running the newsroom of Springfield’s daily newspaper, the State Journal-Register. In addition to his paid gig with the SJ-R, Locher was in charge of the procurement of all the jump ropes, teddy bears, and Hot Wheels cars for Friend-in-Deed, the SJ-R’s holiday charity program.  “It might seem like a weird thing for the editor of a newspaper to be doing that, but I liked it. I was proud of what it became and I liked the toys that I picked out,” Locher says. But picking out the toys wasn’t always fun and games, he says: “It got to be stressful sometimes. It didn’t necessarily have to be, but I was worried about toys: When are they going to get here? Are they going to be the right ones? Are they going to be enough?”
Much of the time he and other SJ-R employees who volunteered for FID put into the effort was on the clock. For example, reporters and photographers were at one time dispatched to the homes of prospective recipients to conduct interviews and determine whether a legitimate need for assistance existed. Fleet vehicles were then used to deliver donated food, clothing, and toys to families. Locher says the program’s success hinged on the paper’s absorption of all the administrative costs. As editor, he never bothered to calculate the precise costs of that overheard, he says. Up until recently, nobody cared. On April 10, the SJ-R reported that from now on FID would be “a true volunteer organization, not supported by newspaper employees on staff time.”
The announcement understandably raised eyebrows around Springfield, coming about one year after the Copley family sold the SJ-R to the stockholders of New York-based GateHouse Media Inc. [Image-3]
Scott Bowers, who was named publisher of the SJ-R by GateHouse late last year, says the change in owners had nothing to do with the decision to reevaluate the organization’s role with the charity. “The Friend-in-Deed program has always been a separate 501(c)(3) corporation, and whether the State Journal-Register was owned by Copley or Gatehouse doesn’t really matter,” Bowers says. “The change in publishers [and] the change in ownership had nothing to do with whether Friend-in-Deed was going to continue under its current structure. The question became ‘Is it really a true volunteer organization, and what can we do to keep it going at its current clip?’ ”
Locher, who resigned from the paper in December but remains on the FID board of directors, isn’t so sure that it can. “You have a gazillion years of institutional knowledge that’s gone from the program. That institutional knowledge is so deep that I don’t know if all of that can be fully recovered,” he says. “The only way the program is going to work is for the newspaper to stay involved as it was — and I just don’t know that that’s possible.”

Friend-in-Deed’s fate now lies in the hands of two of its veterans: Karen and Bill Becker, whose involvement with the agency spans 25 years. In a letter mailed to 800 homes — the SJ-R paid for the postage — the Beckers asked volunteers to “step up to the plate as a coordinator and become a part of either organizing, running, and/or staffing the FID program” from start to finish. The letter reads: “We describe the FID program as being like an Octopus with many tentacles. And we are asking a few key volunteer coordinators to grab hold of a tentacle and be responsible for it beyond delivery day year after year or until they find their replacement volunteer (which is how this process must operate to stay alive).”
Those who have been closely associated with the charity characterize FID as an undertaking so immense that a salaried full-time director and staff are needed to run it — but of course that would mean less money available for recipient families. A check of the organization’s most recent 990 form, filed in October 2006, shows that none of the 12 board members receives compensation. Locher describes the arrangement under Copley’s ownership as a win for everyone because volunteers, led by the Beckers, did most of the legwork and the newspaper picked up the tab. “Everybody liked the fact that if they gave a dollar, 100 percent of that dollar went to stuff. There was no overhead,” he says. The SJ-R started the charity in 1960, helping just under 100 families. By 1977 the program had grown fivefold, handing out donations to 560 families. Last year the charity helped nearly 3,000 local families with $342,800 in donations. Patrick Coburn, who served as the SJ-R’s publisher until 2006 and spent 40 years at the paper, says that when FID began there were far fewer charities than there are today. “It’s grown immensely over the years. It’s been a very good thing, but it’s evolved, and I think it will continue to evolve because you have a need,” says Coburn, a FID board member. As other organizations have sprung up, FID has remained a vital piece of city’s fragile safety net of social-services agencies. In 1998, when FID started taking in more donations than it could give away during the holiday season, Coburn suggested that the program set up a year-round disaster-relief fund. Dave MacDonna, capital-campaign coordinator for the Salvation Army, says that FID’s efforts are invaluable, particularly during the holidays, when every service organization in town is under pressure and stretched thin. When FID takes in more donated food than it can give away, the excess goes to local food pantries. Forty boxes of food from FID went to the Salvation Army last year, MacDonna says.  “It’ll be a rough year to try to pick up the slack,” says the Army’s Maj. Paul Logan, who worries that the worsening economy and higher food and fuel costs will put a damper on this year’s holiday giving and affect every agency’s ability to meet the needs of local families that need assistance. Top managers at the SJ-R say it’s much too early for hand-wringing. “We haven’t determined what the role [of FID] is going to be, so we don’t know what the State Journal-Register’s role is going to be,” says audience-development manager and current FID board president Edie Weaver. Bowers, who last week joined the FID board, says that meetings are ongoing and that the board intends to have a plan in place by the end of May. “The question is not whether Friend-in-Deed will survive. It’s ‘What is it going to look like when it goes forward?’ Is it going to stay exactly the same? It could. Is it going to change slightly? It could,” Bowers says.
Barry Locher, then a State Journal-Register photographer, snapped this shot of volunteers loading up donations at a local market in 1979.
Photos courtesy of the Sangamon Valley Collection.

“If our outside corporate governance didn’t want us to proceed with this program, we would have killed it last June — and that did not occur,” he says. Bowers notes that charities associated with two other GateHouse properties in Illinois — the Peoria Journal Star and his former employer, the Rockford Register Star — have recently undergone streamlining but have remained intact. “My desire, as I’ve said in my own pages of my newspaper, is to keep Friend-in-Deed going as it has gone in the past,” Bowers says, “so if you’re asking, ‘Was there any outside direction given as to what we should be doing with Friend-in-Deed?’ the answer is no.”

In the meantime, the Beckers are looking for their replacements, indicating that the need for volunteers will be greater this year should the SJ-R alter its level of commitment. “The important thing to stress is that they are at a crossroads. The reminder that we have here is that it is a separate organization,” Bowers says of FID. “We’ve had some significant management changes, and some of those folks serve on the board of Friend-in-Deed as past employees of this newspaper, and the thing is that some of them are deeply involved, some of them are questioning their involvement — but I think if you want to keep this going there’s going to have to be some torch-passing here.”
To carry that torch forward, Springfield residents will have to take on a number of responsibilities. In addition to 1,300 volunteers, volunteer coordinators are being sought to perform database maintenance; process paperwork; purchase clothing, toys, and food; and organize “bagging days,” when items are packaged for delivery. Coordinators are also needed for FID’s disaster-relief program and for its annual golf outing, which takes place in September and raises close to $100,000. The Beckers, who were unavailable for comment this week, have agreed to train each new coordinator. “It’s an emotional issue for the community because it started from nothing and grew into a gigantic program,” Locher says. “It grew so big and it’s touched so many people — not only recipients but generations of people who were involved as young people now have their children involved. “The community — and I know this — believes Friend-in-Deed is the heart of Springfield.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.
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