Charities bank on last-minute gifts to make up for hard year

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 31, 2009

Charities and nonprofit agencies are hoping for an end-of-year surge in giving to mirror the recent increase in consumer spending and help compensate for a difficult 2009, according to charity officials.

"This is basically the most critical giving season since the Great Depression," said Glen O'Gilvie of the Center for Nonprofit Advancement. "This will be the litmus test, to see whether the nonprofit sector is coming out of this, remaining stable or getting worse. Every trickle, every sign of growth is helpful in that."

Officials at some groups report that they are doing better than expected; others said they have not seen the increase they hoped for. Final numbers will not be available until next month.

Some charities are holding out hope that the year's final moments will bring a blizzard of gifts.

The poor economy forced cuts in funding to nonprofit groups from all sides in 2009; at the same time, it left more families in need of help. Demand for emergency aid, such as food and shelter, surged. Northern Virginia Family Service, for example, had a 30 percent increase in requests for help with housing and a more than 50 percent increase in requests for health care in the past 18 months.

Many nonprofit groups are counting on individual donors to help make up what they lost in contributions from businesses, governments and foundations this year.

"This year we have been nervous, of course, like all arts nonprofits," said Dana Tai Soon Burgess, the founding artistic director of a contemporary dance company in Washington. "We'll be nervous in 2010 as well.

"We put an extra effort on the individual donations this year," said Burgess, whose organization has a $300,000 budget.

A big chunk of individual giving -- in some cases, almost all of it -- arrives during the holiday season. The final days and hours of December can bring a flurry of contributions as people seek to meet the deadline for a tax write-off. The American Red Cross can get as much as half of its December donations in the final three days, said Roger K. Lowe, senior vice president for communications.

"Our donations are less than last year," down perhaps 10 percent from individuals and 20 percent overall, said Patricia Hvidston, senior vice president of development and communications at Catholic Charities USA. "But it's significantly more than it was just 15 days ago."

Of all dollars donated in 2009, more than one in five had come in since Dec. 11, she said, and almost 90 percent of the money given in December arrived since then. That's more -- and more last minute -- than usual, she said.

O'Gilvie, whose organization has more than 800 members in the area, said nonprofits have had an average decline of about 20 percent in individual donations compared to last year.

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