Literacy Volunteers of Greater Portland seeks long-term sponsors to stay afloat

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PORTLAND — Since 1973, Literacy Volunteers of Greater Portland has been providing free tutoring to residents who need help reading, writing and speaking English.

But financial difficulties could doom the organization by the end of the year. 

Like some other nonprofits, the future of Literacy Volunteers, whose operating budget is entirely funded by foundations and donations, is in jeopardy because prospective donors are tightening their belts. 

“We’re on the brink,” Executive Director Phyllis de Fano said. “There’s no question about it.” 

De Fano, who is the only paid full-time staffer in the office at 142 High St., said the nonprofit has been dipping into its reserve account to meet the demands of its annual budget of $65,000. There is currently enough money to continue operating until December, she said.  

De Fano said Literacy Volunteers is also considering merging with another organization in an effort to reduce costs, but would not identify the organization.  

The economic downturn is forcing many donors and foundations to reduce the what they give to groups like Literacy Volunteers, which is accredited by Proliteracy America. De Fano said the group has survived in recent years by soliciting funding from a wider base of foundations, but the nonprofit is running out of options. 

“We can only go back to some of these foundations every two years,” she said. 

Meanwhile, demand for tutoring is on the rise, driven largely by the resettlement of more than 200 Iraqi refugees in greater Portland. There are currently about 30 people waiting to receive free tutoring from the group and more are being turned away, de Fano said. 

Approximately 130 volunteers work one-on-one with students for two hours a week in free spaces, including churches, coffee shops and libraries. Since the volunteer tutors are not professional educators, de Fano said there is a considerable amount of training required. Often, volunteers are asked to pay for their own training materials.  

The situation is compelling Literacy Volunteers to develop a more sustainable funding base through corporate sponsorships, which are more difficult to secure in a flagging economy. Nevertheless, de Fano hopes to secure sponsorships for $10,000 to $15,000 a year for a three- to five-year period. 

Literacy Volunteers is also continuing its efforts to form a permanent financial partnership with the United Way, which sponsors other literacy groups throughout the state. 

Meanwhile, the group is essentially living hand-to-mouth, largely through benefit fundraising events organized by volunteers.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or