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She characterizes her mental and emotional state on public assistance as unstable. “I don’t wish this on anybody. I’m an educated person. But it seems that when a person is under so much stress, you lose focus with what you have to do and how you have to get there.” The stress overwhelmed her, and she could barely function. Bexaida worked for nine years for the San Diego Housing Commission, making $22 an hour, then, in 2004, was laid off. She had nothing saved. The bills mounted. Her marriage dissolved. Over time, she has found work, at $8 an hour. “Trying to adjust to three times less money is a drastic change. I’m very resourceful. But I couldn’t, for the life of me, think of how to do it.”

It was a drastic change for the kids too. What have they lost? “Vacations, holidays, birthdays, school needs, extracurricular activities.” This fall, Bexaida received backpacks of school supplies from SAY. “School used to be for free.” In addition, her eldest daughter, studying for college, “somehow got it in her mind that if she didn’t eat, she wouldn’t be a burden.” She became anorexic and was hospitalized. She’s come out of it, though the problem persists. It makes Bexaida sad to think of her kids not asking for things they want “because they know they can’t have them. We’re closer now. But, in another way, we’re not, because everybody [in the family] isolates themselves to deal with their emotions so it doesn’t affect others.”

Bexaida currently works three part-time jobs: at a deli, an evening job, and as her mother’s nurse. “I do her insulin, her test strip, and her monitor.” Some days she’s gone 7:30 a.m.–7:00 p.m. Her youngest daughter is in after-school care, while the other children are in the “six to six” program. They also watch each other until Mom gets home. Without the internet, her kids wait in line at the library for computer time. Bexaida is still behind on credit card and car payments. She wants to go back to school but can’t until she can qualify for loans. Recently, the deli cut her back from four hours to two every day. Business has slowed.

Bexaida, who is covered by Medi-Cal, tells me that she has a tumor. She’s waited 11 months for approval for treatment. Programs to help poor people pay for medications and transportation to appointments have been cut. Moving into subsidized housing in San Diego would help, but the waiting list is 15 years.

SAY, a clearinghouse for other nonprofits, has helped Bexaida with financial education, a credit report, and computer literacy. In 2008, for Thanksgiving and Christmas, she and her kids received food and presents from SAY. She and her children’s lives have been saved by the modest amount SAY has given. Realizing there’s a time limit for such help, Bexaida says, “I’m out of the wheelchair, I let go of the walker, and I’m still walking with the cane. Please don’t take my cane away.”

An Overview of San Diego Nonprofits

When I ask Doug Perkins, executive director of the San Diego Association of Nonprofits, why a person would start a nonprofit, the affable former businessman says, “It’s as much a decision of the heart as it is of the mind.” People have “a vision or a dream of doing good. It’s a different motivation than the for-profit world.”

Perkins warns those taking the plunge that their piggy banks better be full. “It will take a year or two to make any kind of money that sustains a director, an office, let alone a staff. Be prepared to continue your volunteer life. Hang on to your ‘other’ day job. You can’t open the door one day and expect all this money to flow in.” The uninitiated should stay focused on their heart’s calling — be it counseling, or staging cultural events, or helping stranded animals. “You’re motivated to serve.” Pleas to donors should never overshadow service.

A San Diegan since 1978, Perkins has held his job for two years. (He takes home $45K of the roughly $60K in membership fees and employs one assistant.) The organization began in the late 1990s when a group of social-service nonprofits began to network ideas and contacts. Membership-based and virtual, sandan.org offers conferences and workshops. Perkins attends meetings, authors white papers, writes “capacity-building” grants, and helps start-up nonprofits name themselves and get donations flowing.

Part of the difficulty of navigating the San Diego nonprofit world is its size and variety. “An amorphous world,” Perkins calls it. Thousands of organizations, some housed in living rooms or church basements, make up the loose aggregate, including Little League baseball, the symphony, the San Diego County Breast-Feeding Coalition, the zoo, Ronald McDonald House, Surfrider Foundation, United Way, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Rod & Reel club, Friends of Chabad Lubavitch. At the Golden State Gay Rodeo Association of San Diego, five unpaid staff collected and spent $82,418 on rodeo expenses in 2007; during the same year, Scripps Research Institute, a medical nonprofit with assets of $524 million, paid its CEO Richard A. Lerner $995,240.

By common definition a nonprofit is organized not for commercial activities but seeks to raise money to serve its social, educational, artistic, religious, or environmental goals. Typically this includes a modest budget to pay directors, to have an office and a website, and to organize activities and tap volunteers for its cause.

Nonprofits are classified under the 501(c) provision of the Internal Revenue Service code. The code lists 26 types of nonprofit entities exempt from some or all federal income tax. (Most states allow similar tax-exempt status.) Contributions to nonprofit organizations are tax deductible. Nonprofits must file a yearly 990 tax form, a document that reports donations, expenses, salaries, and more. By far, the largest nonprofit pool is the 501(c)(3) organizations. These are described as “Religious, Educational, Charitable, Scientific, Literary, Testing for Public Safety, to Foster National or International Amateur Sports Competition, or Prevention of Cruelty to Children or Animals Organizations.”

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