For Charities, a Season of Need

By William Wan and Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 23, 2008

In the world of philanthropy, December is everything. It's the one month when people are at their most generous, when procrastinators rush to beat the year-end tax cutoff for donations, and when charities count on collecting as much as a third of their annual contributions.

This year, with rising unemployment and a tanking economy, donors have already informed at least one-quarter of nonprofits in the Washington that they will be giving less, according to the Center for Nonprofit Advancement. As a result, more than 40 percent of nonprofits plan to reduce programs or cut staff, and most are reevaluating the way they do business to weather the year ahead.

But before the calendar turns, they are also scrambling to use the final days of December to squeeze out every possible donation.

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"I'm calling to thank you for your gift," said Linda Dunphy, executive director of Doorways, which offers shelter to homeless or battered women and their families in Arlington. All night, she had been leaving messages, calling a long list of pledge donors to make sure they followed through with a check.

Her voice did not betray the anxiety she was feeling. In past years, December has been key for Doorways, which usually raises at least $60,000 in individual donations toward its $2.5 million annual budget in that month.

But by the middle of December, Doorways was way behind. Corporate sponsors including Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch had pulled out of Doorways' annual Walk-A-Thon, erasing $50,000 in expected funding. Another $20,000 was lost when a local investment banking firm decided to suspend all of its giving. Fewer people showed up for a major fundraiser, so another $12,000 was lost.

And most ominously, a $300,000 grant from the Freddie Mac Foundation was still in limbo.

Doorways serves 150 families every year, homeless parents, children and abused women with nowhere to go. Even as funding has declined, demand for services has shot up by one-fourth. Seven families have been turned away recently. . Thirty are on the waiting list. If funding for next year falls, the worst-case scenario would be closing some programs and leaving people on the street.

Still, Dunphy's voice remained calm. "We really appreciate your donation," she said, leaving the message on the donor's machine.

She was joined by four volunteers one evening last week. The calls had brought their own share of sad news: a loyal donor who had just lost a job and could no longer meet a pledge. Quick no's from people stretched too thin. But there was also a little hope.

"Charity begins in the home," answered one woman when volunteer Judith Stearns called. She doubled her pledge, saying she was cutting back on other causes to fill immediate needs such as food and shelter.

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