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Painful cuts for American Friends Service Committee

God's work is never easy. It gets more difficult when temporal considerations come into play, such as a worldwide economic recession that has wreaked havoc with many a budget.

God's work is never easy.

It gets more difficult when temporal considerations come into play, such as a worldwide economic recession that has wreaked havoc with many a budget.

Daniel Seeger knows this all too well.

As the interim general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker organization with headquarters in Philadelphia, Seeger is trying to stabilize an internationally renowned organization as it exits its most painful economic stretch in memory.

It has been a time of layoffs - 40 percent of its staff - and program cuts at the nonprofit agency, which prides itself on its work promoting economic justice, among other values, in some of the most hard-pressed corners of the world.

"This kind of thing is totally unheard of in the AFSC experience," Seeger said of the retrenching. ". . . This is more than a job for many of our people. They are here because they are deeply, spiritually committed to the work they are doing. We are trafficking in people's fundamental values and life commitments. Letting people go in these circumstances is really a bewildering dilemma."

The AFSC has had a rich and enviable history since its founding in 1917 as a vehicle to give conscientious objectors to World War I a way to serve the country without joining the military.

Its staff and volunteers have consistently gone to the most inflamed and overwhelmed parts of the United States and the globe to provide aid and to promote peace and justice.

Last year, for instance, it sponsored community gardens in Bosnia and Herzegovina to bridge ethnic groups. It also helped women in Zimbabwe start home businesses to help reduce poverty rates.

The committee was a co-recipient of the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize.

Today, it has staff in 35 American towns and cities, and 15 foreign countries, including Haiti, Somalia, China, and Cuba, and the Palestinian territories.

Its willingness to venture to the most treacherous regions has given the committee an international standing that exceeds its relatively modest budget.

Its 2008 worldwide revenue, for instance, was about $38 million, or $6 million less than the funds available to the Urban League of Philadelphia that year.

"I remember having the president of Save the Children or one of the big, billion-dollar-a-year agencies ask me once what our budget was," recalled Mary Ellen McNish, who retired this year as general secretary. "When I told him, he was shocked."

McNish was general secretary when the economic downturn undid the AFSC's financial planning. The toll has been dramatic: Revenue dropped 31 percent from 2007 ($42.5 million) to 2009 ($29.3 million). With an operating budget of $43.8 million, that left a gaping deficit last year of $14.5 million.

Unlike some organizations that saw steep drops in revenue because of the falling value of interest-bearing assets, AFSC has struggled largely because of falling donations, which are its main source of funds.

"The Quaker movement started in part as a rebellion against what I would call rich religion," Seeger said. "The AFSC has always been wary of stashing money. This can be a big headache for administrators like me who have to get from year to year getting by on current income."

The collapsing economy made it more difficult for some donors to contribute, Seeger said, while others reduced their contributions.

"People bequeath us their homes and stock portfolios," he said. "Of course, homes and stock portfolios have been hit pretty hard."

That led to last year's cutbacks.

"How do you cut when there are no frills in the first place?" Seeger asked.

Ultimately, the staff was cut to 208 employees from 347. Programming was cut 30 percent as well.

The cuts meant closing or consolidating offices in Afghanistan, Colombia, Congo, Jordan, and South Africa, among other places.

Seeger said he hoped the AFSC was set to finish the current year within budget. In the long run, he hopes to see some of what has been lost restored. If it isn't, he is OK with that as well.

"We are used to being small potatoes in some ways," he said. "We don't aspire to massiveness. Of course, we want to grow, the perpetuity of the AFSC is not what we consider a measure of our virtue. We have no doubt if the AFSC were to ever collapse and disappear, someone would pick up the work."