The Check May Not Be In the Mail
Economy Threatens Holiday Fundraising

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 27, 2008

'Tis the season of Salvation Army bell ringers, canned food, warm clothing and toy drives and the mail campaigns pleading for donations. December is to nonprofit organizations that help the neediest what it also is to retailers: the big month when the money either rolls in to keep them going through the year or falls short of what's needed to keep the doors open.

And this year, with the global financial crisis in full tilt and the value of stock portfolios way down, nonprofit groups in Arlington County and Alexandria are holding their breath.

"One-third to one-half of all receipts tend to come in from individuals in December," said Fred Jones, president of the Arlington Interfaith Council, who also sits on the board of the Arlington Food Assistance Center. "At the Food Assistance Center, it's more like 40 to 50 percent in December. So we're all just biting our nails."

Organizations are struggling just as the demand for their services is higher than ever, with layoffs, foreclosures and stretched budgets. The Food Assistance Center is providing groceries to 1,000 needy families, up from about 650 last year. "We never want to turn anyone away," Jones said. But if the money doesn't come through, "does that mean we give everyone a little less food? A half-dozen eggs instead of a dozen? These are people who are already on the edge. Depending on what happens in December, we may be facing some very tough decisions. It's nerve-racking."

Some of the biggest foundations have put their donations on hold, such as Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Network Preschool Centers, which operates in Alexandria and Arlington, has yet to hear whether its $250,000 Freddie Mac grant will come through or whether the school will have to close early. And big corporate sponsors, themselves in financial turmoil, have pulled the plug on pledging their funds. Doorways, which runs shelters for the homeless and victims of domestic violence in Arlington, lost $50,000 in corporate pledges from such troubled financial giants as Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch.

Doorways Executive Director Linda Dunphy said the group is about ready to send out its big December request for individual donations, an appeal that has typically netted about $60,000 every year.

"We're going to be holding our breath until the end of December to see what materializes," she said. "We're fortunate that we live in a generous and compassionate community that's fairly recession-proof. But there's still the perception that people should be cutting back and retrenching. And people's portfolios have been affected as much here as in any other community. People have lost a lot of wealth."

Like Jones, Dunphy is seeing increasing need at the same time as the financial underpinnings of the organization are shaky. Doorways serves 150 families every year, she said, but demand has increased 25 percent in recent months. Last week, seven families that requested help at the Doorways homeless shelter had to be turned away, she said. Thirty families are on the Doorways waiting list.

"Foundation heads I've spoken with said there will be a little less this year because of shrinking returns," Dunphy said. "I can only hope that there'll be individual donors in the community, as well as a reshaping of priorities on the part of Arlington County government, to make sure the basic needs of these charities are ensured so the safety net is not eroded.

"Now would not be a good time to defund a homeless shelter."

There are some bright spots in the giving picture. Arlington reports that its United Way campaign is doing much better than expected. The county's goal for its year-end campaign is $100,000 for United Way-funded nonprofit groups and charities, slightly less than the $105,000 raised last year. At the halfway point, the county said it had raised more than $50,000.

"We were really concerned that the economy would put a damper on people's ability to participate," said Kurt Larrick, who coordinates the program for the county. "People see there's more need, and despite whatever problems they may be having, they know it's important to lend a hand."

Larrick said people also have begun donating gift cards from Wal-Mart, Kmart, Giant, Safeway and other stores to give to the needy through the county's Secret Santa program. Last year, the county collected $60,000 worth of gift cards to distribute to needy families. "Already, I've got a huge drawerful," Larrick said. "It's really heartening."

John Catlett, director of Alexandria's office of building and fire code administration, is coordinating the United Way campaign for the city. The appeal for donations will begin Monday, and he's nervous.

"We're hopeful that everyone will still want to help their neighbor," Catlett said. Last year, he said, the city raised $70,000 for United Way. This year, because of the economy, there is no monetary goal, but rather a participatory one. Last year, 12.5 percent of the city's employees donated. This year, Catlett said, the goal is 20 percent.

"We were a little behind the eight ball getting going, and the economic news is just getting worse," he said. "So we're fighting an uphill battle. But we have faith in our employees. They're all good people."

Across the street from City Hall, Everette Williams, wearing a Santa hat and a bright red Salvation Army apron, has been out ringing his bell for 10 hours a day. He sways as Duke Ellington plays from a boom box as his feet. People, in a steady stream, flit by and stuff dollar bills into his bright red kettle.

The Salvation Army, too, is experiencing an increase in demand, with more than 700 families this year applying for assistance in its Angel Tree toy drive. The number was less than 600 last year. And competition for the bell-ringer slots is intense this year; more than half live in shelters.

"People are still giving," Williams said. "They know people need help. Just like I'm out here doing this to help others who need it. Because it could be me."

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