Tough times also affect donors

SATURDAY, NOV. 26, 2011

Despite the economy, Christmas Fund boosts goal for 2011

There’s a Catch-22 inherent to raising money to help low-income people in a struggling economy: The joblessness, government cuts and financial uncertainty that drive up need for assistance hurt donors, too.

“People’s innate sense of helping those in need, that has never changed,” said Ann Marie Byrd, development director at Catholic Charities of Spokane, which organizes the Christmas Bureau with the Volunteers of America and The Spokesman-Review. “Whether they are able to give as much as they have in the past, that’s a whole different ballgame.”

Nevertheless, organizers have bumped up the fundraising goal for the Christmas Fund to $525,000 from $500,000 a year ago. They anticipate more Spokane-area residents will seek the bureau’s help this year.

And they’re hoping the bureau’s history of service to tens of thousands of people during the holidays – and of community teamwork and dollar-stretching prowess – will motivate donors to help meet the challenge.

“That amount is needed in order to serve the numbers of people who are coming to the bureau,” bureau coordinator Judy Lee said.

The Christmas Fund pays the bills at the Christmas Bureau, which is run almost entirely by volunteers and will distribute toys, books and grocery vouchers to families in need over 10 days starting Dec. 9.

The bureau’s administrative costs total around 4.5 percent. That’s an “unheard of” rate among social-service agencies, Byrd said. The low overhead means most of each dollar donated goes directly to purchasing gifts for families. In 2010, the bureau served 35,612 people, including about 17,300 children.

Nationally, charities are having a harder time raising money than before the recession.

In a U.S. survey of 813 charities in the first six months of this year, 44 percent reported an increase in contributions compared with the first six months of 2010. The Nonprofit Research Collaborative, a coalition of fundraising and philanthropic organizations, conducted the survey.

That’s compared with 65 percent reporting growth in the first six months of 2007, according to GuideStar, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that tracks data on nonprofits.

Early this month, Catholic Charities announced it was postponing its $10 million fundraising campaign, planned to coincide with its 100th year of operation in Eastern Washington. Besides the bureau, Catholic Charities runs 11 other social-service programs, including Childbirth and Parenting Assistance, the House of Charity, St. Margaret’s Shelter and counseling, housing and refugee services. 

The campaign would have raised endowment money to tap into later, when funds might fall short. A feasibility study found potential donors weren’t up for it, and the charity’s leaders decided to wait until the economy improves.

But the Christmas Bureau continues. Already this year, Lee said, she’s received inquiries from people who’d just lost their jobs and were worried about providing Christmas presents for their families.

For some donors to the Christmas Fund, giving is a tradition. For others, it’s a chance to give back to a charity that once served them or someone they know.

The Christmas Fund has other advantages as a charity, too, Byrd said. It represents a community goal with tangible, immediate results. And it’s a collaboration among donors as well as community agencies and businesses, many of which donate supplies and manpower to help keep the bureau running.

“We really believe this community can work to make this happen,” Byrd said.

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