The call for help from America's swelling ranks of jobless is being heard by the nation's corporate and charitable foundations. And many are swiftly shifting their priorities to meet the need.
''We felt it was time to bolster some of the sprouting organizations that seemed to be doing a good job'' in helping those out of work, explains Holly Hudson, a researcher with Michigan's Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. ''I wouldn't say it was a major departure from the kind of thing we were already doing, but there's been a greater awareness of the emergency and a bigger push.''
A number of economists now expect the US jobless rate to rise to 11 percent or more before it drops. The industrial Midwest, beset by tough import competition in autos and steel and an unusually high number of plant closings, has been particularly hard hit. Congress's latest extension of unemployment benefits is due to expire March 31. For many middle-class workers affected by such cutoffs, the ability to keep up their mortgage, utility, and car payments may make the crucial difference between keeping their assets and going on welfare.
''There's another wave of people out there who haven't turned to private charity groups yet,'' says United Way of America spokesman Steve Delfin.
Many philanthropic organizations are acting to take the new situation into account. And several with a strong tradition of human-service giving are making a fresh effort to find new ways to get help more quickly and effectively to those in need.
Michigan's Mott Foundation, for instance, has been giving emergency food, clothing, and medical help for some years to groups serving the needy in its Flint headquarters area. This year, for the first time, the foundation surveyed social-service providers and decided to channel Mott aid through a relatively new Protestant church network (Love Inc.) and a home counseling service of the public schools rather than through more traditional channels.
With a similar eye to providing more direct help more quickly, the Gannett Foundation in Rochester, N.Y., launched a Community Priorities Program two years ago. Rather than wait for applications to come in, foundation officials ask executives of Gannett media offices in the more than 100 cities the foundation serves to sit down with community leaders and decide what the most pressing local needs are.
The foundation then tries to attack the problem in what its vice-president, Calvin Mayne, calls an ''innovative visible way.'' In Camden, N.J., for instance , where minority youth unemployment and park vandalism were rated the two largest problems, Gannett came up with $40,000 to put out-of-work youths into park ranger jobs.
Many businesses and corporate donors are also responding to the current crisis with far more direct help than they have in the past. Several major grocery chains in Chicago, for instance, are cooperating with gifts and bins in the city's $4 million food collection drive now under way. And in Michigan, which has had double-digit unemployment for the last 37 months, such diverse groups as the Automobile Club of Michigan, Michigan Bell Telephone, and Ford and General Motors employees have contributed everything from dollars to canned goods in varied food-drive campaigns in that state.
Charitable organizations, long active in supplementing welfare help for the needy, say they have been delighted by the extra help from such groups as business and local governments and by more-generous-than-usual contributions. When all tallies are in, the United Way of America expects its 1982 donations to top those of the year before by $100 million.
Many of those ''new dollars,'' United Way's Mr. Delfin says, are going into emergency food and shelter (for abused women as well as the homeless) programs and to help organizations that provide job training and family budget counseling. But problems directed to United Way field offices that used to be solvable with one or two phone calls now often take five or six. ''Demand is up and the availability of food and shelter is being taxed,'' he explains.
Delfin says that charitable organizations such as his are going through a major transition - not so much in the kind of funding they do as in trying to make available dollars stretch to meet the new demand.
Lois Duguay, director of community relations at the Salvation Army's Eastern Michigan Division, has seen some of that increased demand at close range. Two new Salvation Army soup kitchens have recently opened in Detroit's middle-class suburbs. When twice as many showed up for the latest weekly meal in Wyandotte as were expected, cooks had to stretch the chili with water and every available can of tomato soup.
''Some of the new poor aren't very streetwise about how to get help,'' director Duguay says. ''Some are very proud. They will call in to say they have a friend who has a problem. But others admit straight-out, 'We just don't have any food.' ''
In some cases limited social-service programs have been expanded to meet the new needs. Operation Match, for instance, which was started five years ago in Montgomery County, Md., to team up elderly homeowners and renters for greater economy and companionship, was recently extended to the District of Columbia and seven other suburban areas. Many of the new clients are middle-income families having trouble meeting mortgage payments.
''We're seeing quite a change - especially in the number of families with one or two children in which one person has lost a job and the family is rapidly using up its savings,'' explains Vernel Watts of the Montgomery County Operation Match office.
Neighborhood groups, too, have been under stronger pressure these days to respond to the unemployment crisis. Partly because of such pressure but more particularly because of sharp cutbacks in government funds, many such groups have had to move longstanding issues such as housing rehabilitation and neighborhood cleanup to the back burner. Although issue-oriented groups are not necessarily becoming providers of direct services, many low-income minority groups in particular have been forced to change issues to get needed funds from the private sector.
''Some have been looking toward economic development for survival - it's viewed as palatable and relatively safe by private funding sources,'' explains Pablo Eisenberg of the Washington-based Center for Community Change.
Many neighborhood organizations are also finding more strength in numbers these days by banding together in coalitions to try to get more jobs, facilities , or services for their regions. Chicago's recently organized Coalition for the Homeless, for instance, has been pushing the city to set up more emergency shelters. Lester Brown, the coalition's acting president, who notes that the city recently set aside $200,000 in aid, estimates Chicago's homeless at between 12,000 and 15,000. He says the city has only 500 to 700 strictly emergency beds.
''We know without a doubt that the problem is worsening,'' he says. ''The existing shelters were filled to capacity [last] summer - usually that doesn't happen till fall.''
Still, in general, the response to the pressing human need has been widespread and it continues to grow. And even those such as Mr. Brown, who turn a spotlight on the gap between supply and need, concede they have been impressed. ''I think there's been a lot more public support since the problems have become more visible - once people are aware the need is there, they will respond.''