When the recession hit North Texas last year, local nonprofits were among the first to see its effects. One Dallas County charity watched demand for its services soar by 110 percent, while donations plummeted. Another girded for a $300,000 deficit and was forced to turn away people seeking help. Yet another group saw calls for assistance triple.

In response to the situation, The Dallas Foundation—the oldest community foundation in Texas—created the Safety Net Fund. Aimed at providing emergency aid to local nonprofits hit hard by the downturn, the fund was jump-started by a $1 million gift from philanthropist Lyda Hill.

Hill’s donation has since been augmented by nearly $585,000 from more than 75 others, including a $130,000 commitment from The Dallas Foundation’s Unrestricted Fund and $100,000 from The Meadows Foundation.

“Nonprofits are trying to stretch their dollars ... cutting back on staff, freezing salaries, tightening up their budgets,” says Mary Jalonick, president of The Dallas Foundation. “We know things are getting worse for them, so we’re trying to pick those [agencies most] focused on critical needs: food, clothing, shelter, safety, or health.”

At presstime, Jalonick says, the fund had given out grant awards totaling more than $500,000 to a dozen nonprofits. Among them: Mesquite Social Services ($25,000), Good Samaritans of Garland ($18,000), and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Council of Dallas ($25,000).

The biggest grant ($200,000) was awarded in March to a collaboration between Central Dallas Ministries and Crossroads Community Services. That program seeks to improve CDM/CCS food-delivery programs to low-income Dallas residents. According to CCS director Rev. Jay Cole and CDM’s Larry James, that goal will be accomplished by “getting more strategic” about serving people, including sharing trucks and warehouse space.

With U.S. Census Bureau figures showing that about 400,000 people in Dallas County live below the federal poverty line, the Safety Net Fund is likely to stay busy. “Dallas was a little behind the rest of the nation” in feeling the initial effects of the recession, Jalonick says. “But it is continuing to escalate here.”