Jan. 11, 2018 11:09 am

After federal cuts, Philly funders are stepping up for this refugee service nonprofit

2017 was rough for Nationalities Service Center. Here's how it's rallying in 2018, thanks to support from local donors and foundations.

Kiddos at Nationalities Service Center.

(Photo via

Update: Nationalities Service Center announced on Wednesday afternoon it has exceeded its "Keep Philadelphia Welcoming Challenge" goal of $150,000. (1/11, 3:45 p.m.)
For immigrant and refugee service agency Nationalities Service Center (NSC), 2017 was an immensely challenging year.

The Trump administration’s executive decision last January to bar the entry of refugees from seven primarily Muslim countries was only the beginning. Although the Federal Appeals Court has since limited the extent of the ban, the administration has gone forward with an attempt to eliminate the country’s DACA program, and just recently, the removal of the Temporary Protected Status of almost 200,000 Salvadoran refugees.

Resettlement and assistance programs have begun to feel the pressure. NSC, which says it serves about 5,000 immigrants and refugees per year, has been open and vocal with the public about its recent struggles.

At the end of last year, Executive Director Margaret O’Sullivan and Board Chair Alicia Karr issued a statement addressing the 96-year-old organization’s forced cuts to programming and reallocation of resources as well as introducing NSC supporters to the “Keep Philadelphia Welcoming Challenge,” in which each dollar donation made would be matched by other donors.

NSC’s year-end appeal of 2016 had generated more than any other year: Supporters who felt the weight of the incoming administration’s climate-shifting priorities responded with fervor. A challenge, then, was to sustain the momentum through the following year, O’Sullivan said.

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“Keep Philadelphia Welcoming” began at the end of 2017 when one donor stepped up with a $5,000 match to encourage other donors, another doubled it to $10,000, and soon, a collective of donors had pledged a total of $150,000.

“That was amazing,” O’Sullivan said. “Dollar for dollar, anybody that would give to our campaign, they would match. Of that $150,000 that was the challenge, through the end of December we raised about 100,000 of it.”

The largest donor agreed to extend the appeal through the first two weeks of 2018 to aim for the $150,000 goal.

Because refugee arrival numbers have been spasmodic, and federal funding of resettlement programs is based on a per capita model, NSC has found its greatest struggle lies in securing general operating funds.

“When you resettle four refugees,” O’Sullivan said, “and you’re expected to sustain a capacity of X number of staff to get them houses, to get their kids into school, to get them healthcare, to get them jobs, that’s just not sustainable. Having general operating funds allows us to be malleable in how we apply and how we use the funds that we’re raising, and put it where the need is greatest.” 

However, the continued support and outreach of the funding community, including from Samuel S. Fels Fund, First Hospital Foundation and Bennett Family Foundationhas helped to provide relief.

“I’ll be frank: It’s not just individuals,” O’Sullivan said. “The foundation and philanthropic community has really organized themselves around topic areas that they know are vulnerable because of what’s happening in Washington. We’ve had foundations that have stepped up and provided us with emergency operating grants for the first time. They are asking for meetings so they can really understand the issues that we’re facing. They’re responding to our need.”

The disproportionately high number of ICE raids in Philadelphia has contributed to the 300 percent increase in demand of immigrants seeking NSC’s legal support. Although staffing has suffered in other departments, NSC made the decision this past fiscal year to add two paralegals to the legal staff, rounding out the seven full-time attorneys already in place.

“I will say that we made that decision without those positions fully funded,” O’Sullivan said. “The intention is to continue to raise support, to use some of this general offloading money to offset the deficit we’ll run in that cost center. We basically had to put the cart before the horses.”

NSC’s plans for 2018 include a renewed commitment to its “Campaign for Resilience” initiative, which allows a limited continuation of programs in the event of a federal shutdown or other dramatic cuts in funding.

However, the agency’s main motivation for the future lies in its initial mission: to remain client-driven, and maintain the capability to service the refugees and immigrants who come through the door.

“I believe it’s just a moment,” O’Sullivan said. “You can’t run from this. You have to stand up to it. We’re going to continue to resettle refugees, in whatever form, in whatever numbers they come. Over time, things will change, as they always have.”


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