Scottsdale Councilwoman Solange Whitehead

Scottsdale Councilwoman Solange Whitehead volunteers with the Brown Bag senior food program at Granite Reef Senior Center.

Every month, thousands of Scottsdale residents pay an extra dollar on their utility bills to support area nonprofits that provide critical services to community members in need.

The program, called Scottsdale Cares, has raised in excess of $3 million since its inception in 1995.

But over the past decade, donations have waned.

The program hit a peak in 2007, distributing $245,000 to 18 nonprofits – including Area Agency on Aging, Boys and Girls Club of Greater Scottsdale and Teen Lifeline.

The city maintained that level over the next four years, contributing $240,000 annually through 2011 to nonprofits that provide services to at-risk youth, the elderly and families in need of housing, food and other assistance.

But then donations began to fall off, hitting their lowest point in 2017, when the city contributed $100,000 to nine organizations.

The city has seen a bounce back in recent years, hitting $160,000 in donations in 2019-2020, but donations are still well below the 2007 peak.

Councilwoman Solange Whitehead is worried the ongoing economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic will cause donations to lag again at a time when the community could most use funds – which have historically gone to organizations providing rental assistance, shelter for the homeless and food programs for seniors.

According to city data, Scottsdale Cares has raised $83,794 through the end of July, putting it on pace to raise about $143,646 in 2020.

It appears the pandemic impacted donations, at least momentarily.

In May, Scottsdale Cares generated just $1,029 in donations after averaging nearly $13,000 each month from January through April.

But donations ticked back up in June and July, when residents donated $12,000 and $19,000, respectively.

“The City received an additional ($5,000) in donations for the month of June over and above last years donations for the same reporting period,” said Greg Bestgen, Scottsdale’s Human Services director.

Still, Whitehead said the pandemic will continue to stress the community and put an even greater burden on local social services.

“We all have to be more comfortable asking for help and giving help and make it regular, because this is going to be an ultra marathon,” Whitehead said.

Bestgen said the city has seen an increase in requests for rent assistance during the pandemic.

“The city’s Housing Authority has seen an increase in requests for emergency rent and utility assistance from Housing Choice Voucher Program recipients,” Bestgen said. “Additionally, Scottsdale Cares dollars will assist landlords participating in the Housing Choice Voucher Program to recover delinquent payments from HCV tenants.”

In an effort to encourage even greater giving, Whitehead is putting her money where her mouth is by donating a lion’s share of her city salary to Scottsdale Cares.

She told the Progress she is donating $1,000 per month – about 67 percent of her City Council salary – to Scottsdale Cares in hopes that it will inspire others to give $1 each month on their utility bill.

In 2020, the Scottsdale City Council allocated $160,000 to eight organizations, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona, Community Bridges, Cortney’s Place, Family Promise Greater Phoenix, Foothills Caring Corps., Save the Family, Scottsdale Community Partners, and Teen Lifeline.

Scottsdale Cares is a 100-percent donation-funded program that supplements other city programs. 

In 2020, the City of Scottsdale also allocated $200,000 from the general fund and $258,000 in Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community tribal gaming grant funds to area non profits.

But even with those sources in place, there is a need for Scottsdale Cares funds, according to the city.

In 2020 alone, Scottsdale Cares donations helped fund programs for a wide variety of Scottsdale residents, including mentorship programs at Pueblo and Navajo elementary schools, education for adults with developmental disabilities, rental assistance and shelter for homeless families, and mobile meals for Scottsdale seniors.

The program also provided $24,000 to Teen Lifeline for crisis services for area youth – a cause important to Whitehead, a mother of recent high school students.

She said while her children were in school, she saw students struggle with food insecurity and an increase in teen suicides.

“I always say the veneer of wealth in Scottsdale can be pretty thin, so people are trying to look a certain way, but there’s a lot of struggles,” Whitehead said.

According to the city, request for grants outpace funding every year.

Between 2011 and 2019, annual requests for Scottsdale Cares funds ranged from around $375,000 to over $400,000 but the donations never exceeded $240,000 in a given year.

Over the past three fiscal years, Bestgen said requests have outpaced available funds by an average of $193,626 each year.

In 2018-2019, Scottsdale Cares raised $150,000 compared to $370,000 in requests received by the city.

Organizations submit applications to the city for funding and Scottsdale Cares money is then doled out by the City Council on recommendations from the Human Services Department, which vets applications.

According to the city, all funds donated to Scottsdale Cares are given to social service programs and none are used for administrative costs.

Whitehead actually took an interest in Scottsdale Cares before the pandemic in January after receiving numerous emails from constituents asking why the city could not do more to support various social services.

Since being elected to the Council in 2018, Whitehead has supported social services provided by the city and nonprofit partners.

She is a regular volunteer with the Brown Bag food program for local seniors at Granite Reef and Via Linda senior centers, and also successfully argued to protect funding for social service programs like rental assistance in the latest round of city budget cuts caused by Covid-19 pandemic.

“And so I think the best way we can help Scottsdale is if we all make a commitment that we’re going to put our community first in some way, shape or form,” Whitehead said.