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The Washburn Center for Children recently received an unexpected $3 million donation from an anonymous donor — a surprising gift that comes at a critical time for the Minneapolis nonprofit that provides mental health services.

The organization is responding to a growing number of calls while also facing an unprecedented workforce shortage of mental health professionals.

"A gift like this is definitely unusual. … We're so grateful to whoever this donor is," said Craig Warren, Washburn's acting CEO.

The donation is among the largest gifts the nonprofit has received from an individual in its history and exceeds the amount the nonprofit typically raises in donations each year. Warren said the donation will help Washburn offset the cost of care for clients who can't afford to pay for mental health as well as fund efforts to recruit and retain employees.

The donation is an "unrestricted" gift, which means the nonprofit isn't required to use the money for a specific program.

About 500 children and families are on Washburn's waitlist for mental health services, with the waitlist expanding 50% to 75% from 2019, Warren said. He added that cases are lasting longer due to the increased complexity or severity of children's mental health issues. Children of color are also disproportionately impacted by mental health challenges; they make up more than 50% of Washburn's clients.

"We're in the midst of a children's mental health crisis," Warren said.

Washburn's more than 140 therapists serve nearly 4,000 children and their families each year in homes, schools and clinics. But fewer college graduates are entering the mental health field and more people are leaving for private practices or other fields that can offer better pay and hours.

The secondhand trauma is causing some therapists to leave the mental health field altogether, Warren said. As a result, Washburn has seen rapid turnover, at 25% last year from about 15% turnover each year pre-pandemic, he said, mirroring the rapid turnover other nonprofits are facing in what's been dubbed more broadly the "Great Resignation."

"It's a very challenging talent landscape for mental health professionals," he said. "That's the thing that keeps me up at night."

Warren said Washburn is investing in more training and professional development and hiring more clinicians to bolster and diversify its staffing. About 23% of employees are people of color.

Washburn, which has an annual budget of about $24 million, relies on philanthropy for about 20% of its revenue, while the rest comes from fees and other earned revenue. Donations to Washburn peaked in 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, part of a wave of generosity in response to organizations on the frontlines of the pandemic.

But that spike in giving has subsided — until this latest surprise donation, Warren said, giving him and his colleagues hope for a resurgence in the community's support.

"These are significant challenges that kids are navigating," he said. "The demand isn't going to end anytime soon."