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Since 1992, Habitat for Humanity has completed construction of 29 homes in the Helena area, providing shelter for many families that otherwise would struggle to stay warm and dry.

But this year, for the first time since the local chapter opened, it appears the organization may not be able to add to that total. The ongoing recession has been challenging for many nonprofits, but Habitat for Humanity appears particularly hard-hit.

“We’re about two-thirds complete on the home this year,” said executive director Melony Bruhn. “It’s a four-plex. We’re done with three units and we’re stuck on the fourth. It’s for a family of eight. We were hoping to have them in by Christmas, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Bruhn said Habitat has habitually relied on foundation grants for much of its funding, and when the economy tanked in late 2008, so did its usual sources of money.

“I’d say 90 percent of our foudation grants dried up,” she said, with foundations indicating their grantmaking would be curtailed until the economy rebounds. “It used to be that I’d spend a week writing proposals for grants for anywhere from $5,000 to $125,000. Now I’ll spend a week writing a proposal for $500.”

As a result, grant money, which used to make up 65 percent of Habitat’s budget, now accounts for just 12 percent, Bruhn said.

In response, the organization has slashed expenses everywhere, including payroll. Bruhn laid off her volunteer coordinator and another employee this summer. Her construction supervisor works just two days a week. And Bruhn herself is working just three-quarters time.

“We’ve cut our budget by two-thirds,” she said. “A few years ago we were building three units a year. Now we can’t even complete one. It’s just been a huge hit.”

Brian Magee, executive director of the Montana Nonprofit Association, said Habitat for Humanity isn’t alone in struggling with a shortfall in grant funding. According to the MNA’s most recent member survey earlier this year, 24 percent of groups that rely to some extent on foundation grants reported “considerably less” funding in 2009 than the previous year, while another 21 percent reported “slightly less.”

And the problem, Magee said, is that there’s nowhere else to turn.

“I would love to be in a position to say that the good news is that there’s some shifting going on and you can look to corporate or individual donations, but the picture is equally bleak for all of them,” he said. “There’s nowhere to go, unfortunately, and that is a sign of the times. That’s what’s happening here now, to a large degree.”

One local donor has maintained its commitment in challenging times. The Wells Fargo Housing Foundation chipped in $20,000,

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“Supporting affordable housing initiatives such as this one through monetary donations, volunteerism and in-kind services has been an important part of or community activities for many years,” said Kym Black, local Wells Fargo president.

Another bright spot for Habitat has been its ReStore, the six-year-old thrift store of used and recycled building supplies. Marginally profitable since it opened in 2004, Bruhn said that business has picked up over the past two years. It doesn’t come close to covering the grant shortfall, but it helps.

“It turned a profit literally from the day we opened the door, and the last two years it has actually done better,” Bruhn said. “You can come here some days and it looks like Wal-Mart. I believe that’s because people aren’t buying new. They’re repairing what they have, or they’re renovating with new materials.”

Until the climate improves, Bruhn said the organization will cut as many corners as possible.

“You have to be dedicated that your organization is going to survive, and we will,” she said. “I don’t care if we have to turn off the heat and I’m working out of my car. We’re going to make it.”

John Harrington: 447-4080 or john.harrington@

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