Last month, the Sonoma Valley Fund released its groundbreaking report describing Sonoma Valley’s nonprofit sector and the charitable dollars that fuel it, called “Hidden in Plain Sight: Sonoma Valley and the Charitable Sector that Serves Us.” One finding in particular really caught my attention: Despite the fact that Sonoma Valley’s population is significantly older than many other communities across the US, only one percent of all Sonoma Valley philanthropic dollars support programs for seniors.
The report revealed that almost one in four Valley residents is aged 65 and older. If you include people aged 60 and older, the age that Sonoma County’s Area Agency on Aging (AAA) uses to define senior adults, 32 percent of Sonoma Valley residents are aged 60 and older. The County’s population of people over 60 has grown by 25 percent since 2008 and now comprises a larger proportion of the population of the county, state, and country than ever before in history. Yet, only one percent of Sonoma Valley’s $113 million in revenue to nonprofits is directed toward senior services.
Vintage House is the only local nonprofit organization in Sonoma Valley that exclusively focuses on serving this growing population’s needs. Founded over 40 years ago, Vintage House offers over 60 programs and services on a weekly basis throughout the year, with special seasonal services including fall flu shot clinics in partnership with Sonoma Valley Community Health Center, and holiday dinners.
According to Executive Director Cynthia Scarborough, its array of classes and services are typical of those provided by senior centers in Sonoma County and generally fall into broad categories of health and wellness, social and fun, growing and learning, and services and support. Many services are free and most are low cost, supplemented by a scholarship fund to underwrite program costs for seniors with financial hardship.
In response to the report, Scarborough said, “As both the long-time executive director of Vintage House and an engaged Valley resident and donor, I’m as concerned about 60 percent of local students qualifying for free/reduced priced lunches and 35 percent of Latino residents lacking health insurance, as I am that only one percent of charitable donations are made in support of senior programs.” She added, “I’m concerned about the growing needs across various segments of our community alongside the increasing stresses to our nonprofits’ infrastructure. And I’m as concerned about the cumulative impact over time of asking staff to juggle more balls than can sustainably be kept in the air as I am about playing in a zero sum game in which needed gains in our share of the philanthropic pie may mean losses to other nonprofits.”
In preparing our community to meet the needs of a growing senior population, it’s important that we know the services that seniors will need in the future. Scarborough predicts that the areas in greatest demand will be: (1) having information about and referrals to resources and services to support seniors and their families/caregivers as more of us live longer, often with increasing challenges; (2) providing safe, affordable, accessible housing, especially for seniors struggling on reduced income that doesn’t match the reality of housing costs today in Sonoma Valley; and (3) providing transportation alternatives so non-driving seniors can access activities for a healthy, engaged life.
Scarborough said, “It’s important to realize that infrastructure support is key to offering new or expanded services.” She added that while resources do exist to provide these needed services, the resources are “insufficient” to meet current demand, let alone increased demand “in our rapidly aging community.”
Sonoma County’s four-year plan also predicted what seniors’ future needs will be, based on the results of a survey conducted among 1,576 seniors living in the county, key informant interviews, and focus groups of seniors and senior service providers. The top three concerns reported by survey respondents were learning about/receiving services; staying independent at home; and access to affordable health care. The top three concerns identified by the key informants included finances, access to affordable healthcare, and isolation. Themes that emerged from the discussions in the focus groups regarding seniors’ needs included health and healthcare; housing; transportation; services that support seniors and people with disabilities; social programs and activities; and information about services.
When asked what Vintage House can do to meet the growing needs of seniors, Scarborough provided this insight: (1) identify immediate, short-term and long-range policies and program priorities, both internally and with collaborators and funders; (2) strengthen infrastructure so staff isn’t always trying to do more with less and so energy spent on continual fundraising can be reallocated to needs assessment and collaboration for better informed service delivery; (3) identify the funding strategy needed to address priorities over a realistic time frame, including identifying likely funding partners and securing commitments; and (4) educate funders regarding the fallacy of the well-established myth that low overhead is a sign of efficiency.
Diane Kaljian, Sonoma County Human Services Assistant Director and former Adult & Aging Services Division Director, summarized seniors’ needs by stating, “Resources for older adults to live independently are vital. Unfortunately, there are not enough resources to support the need. Just a small amount of funding will make a big difference to support vulnerable older people have meals and transportation.”
Age Friendly Sonoma County was started last year as an effort to help cities throughout the county become more age-friendly by fostering health, well-being, inclusion and participation across the lifespan. Laurie Gallian, Sonoma County Democratic Central Committee Chair and former Sonoma mayor, represents Sonoma on the county’s Age Friendly Steering Committee. Gallian stated, “In the next 14 years, one area we need to address is how do we create opportunities for seniors to age in place.” The city’s 2016-17 strategic goals include making affordable and alternative senior and rental housing a priority; providing reliable, safe and effective infrastructure with expanded transportation options; and identifying the needs of the community’s seniors.
Scarborough reflected, “I look forward to taking part in deeper conversations about our unique and collective needs, strengths and challenges. Sonoma Valley Fund is challenging us all to work better and smarter to strengthen our community, and this report outlines opportunities for diving deeper to forge a more robust future.” Thanks to the Sonoma Valley Fund, we now know that such a small percentage of our charitable giving is going toward vital senior services. It’s time for the community to place a greater focus on addressing seniors’ needs and consider investing in programs and services that will serve the one-third of Sonoma Valley’s residents who are aged 60 and above.
B.J. Bischoff is the owner of Bischoff Performance Improvement Consulting, a Sonoma firm specializing in building the capacity of nonprofit organizations and public sector agencies. She assists her clients with strategic planning, board and staff training, fund development, grant writing, and community relations. She is Past President of Impact100 Sonoma and serves as a Sonoma County Board of Supervisors’ appointee to the Sonoma County Portfolio of Model Upstream Programs Review Committee. [email protected]