Football players are kissing pigs to raise money for charity. Drag queens are hosting bingo games.
Charities such as Whitman-Walker Clinic, Food & Friends and WAMU are staging pet walk-a-thons, essay contests, brown-bag-it weeks and Web appeals. And for busy donors drained by the demands of active giving, there are un-teas, un-coffees, un-balls: Tickets are sold, but no event is held, so no one has to dress up and drive downtown.
The actual events--and the phantom "un" events--are creative responses to growing competition and growing need. Consider the competition: In just five years, the number of charities offering direct services jumped 32 percent, according to the Urban Institute's National Center for Charitable Statistics.
In a nation that now has more than a million nonprofits, it's just not enough to hold out a tin cup and wait.
In the Washington area alone, there are as many as 12,000 charities, according to estimates by the Washington Council on Agencies. Nonprofits, including think tanks and advocacy groups, are the District's third-largest industry, after government and tourism.
" 'Leaps and bounds' is a minimalist's definition of the growth of nonprofits," said Carol Weisman, author of the soon-to-be-released book "Secrets of Successful Fundraising."
"What happened is that in the 1980s, United Ways and foundations were pursuing a Johnny Appleseed philosophy and handing out small amounts to help groups get started," Weisman said. The groups survived, and "now they are struggling and returning with their hands out for cash. That's been a big shock to some people--I don't know why."
The competition for attention is complicated by dwindling resources on two traditional fronts. According to Patricia Workman, of Independent Sector, a District-based research and advocacy group, charities are being asked to do more just as the rate of government spending has decreased and corporate giving as a percentage of profits has fallen.
The pressures lead directly to places such as the crowded ballroom of the Washington Plaza Hotel, where drag performer Gladys Kravitz could be seen recently calling out "B-10" and "G-53."
The monthly Gay Bingo games are so popular that reservations are required well in advance for the 500 available seats. People come dressed in costume to reflect that month's theme: drag queen last time, country western the time before. Proceeds from the games support Gay and Lesbian Health Services of Whitman-Walker Clinic.
The clinic also will be a prime beneficiary of the competition for a mini-mansion in Virginia hunt country. Donors with $99 and time on their hands can enter their essays about why they would like to own the house, which is appraised at $505,000. A winner will be chosen by a panel of English teachers after the deadline in February.
Food & Friends, which delivers home-cooked meals to people with HIV and AIDS, is pushing its "Brown Bag It" campaign. Donors are asked to rummage in their cupboards for food to take to work and to pass on the savings from not buying lunch to the charity.
"Everyone is trying to outwit one another in cleverness," said Dave Nelson, a fund-raising consultant who is president of Special Events Forum. In Minneapolis, he noted, celebrities participated in a baby-diapering contest to raise money for women and children in a homeless shelter.
In St. Louis, according to Weisman, more than 500 artists are making bowls to be auctioned off for hunger programs. And in Los Angeles, the Simon Wiesenthal Center is offering to inscribe your name into a book that will be given to Wiesenthal, the famed Nazi-hunter, on his 90th birthday.
Cleverness can have its costs, though, Nelson said.
"Groups can spend all their time dealing with the wrong people: gamblers, goofballs and bargain hunters," he said. He advises charities to focus on building relationships with donors. That is hard to do, he said, when donors are jumping in pogo stick marathons.
Some charities are turning to the Internet for help. Last week, officials at public radio station WAMU-FM put part of pledge week online. They were "shellshocked" by the results, said General Manager Kim Hodgson.
Younger people on the staff had convinced him the Web would work and help the District station decrease the amount of air time devoted to an appeal. Hodgson agreed to give it a one-day trial.
"I thought it would be wonderful if we made our usual $70,000 for the first day of pledge week," Hodgson said. Instead, donors pledged $227,000 online.
Disaster-related charities have so far made the best use of the Web, said Buzz Schmidt, of Guidestar.com, which offers donors instant information about charities. Where that trend will go, Schmidt said, remains to be seen. This week at their annual meeting, state charity regulators from across the country will focus on how to regulate online solicitations.
If regulators were to require charities soliciting on the Web to conform to each state's laws and reporting requirements, the Web as a medium for fund-raising could crash. On the other hand, an absence of regulation could create a free-for-all for charlatans.
The Web is already adding to the proliferation of charities. People with rare diseases, for example, are finding fellow sufferers around the world, organizing and raising funds.
"There are diseases affecting as few as 250 people in the world," Weisman said. "One person will set up a Web site, get hits from Venezuela, Madagascar, London and Sandusky, Ohio, and soon they have an international organization."
The fastest-growing fund-raising method involves companies using donations to charity as a marketing tool. A charity may get payments or even royalties by endorsing a product.
"Competition is driving nonprofits to look at alternatives," said Paulette Maehara, president and chief executive officer of the National Society of Fund Raising Executives. "Many have found that the so-called cause-related marketing schemes can raise big money."
The growth has been phenomenal in the last five years, Maehara said. Currently, such partnerships raise $9 billion a year--an amount equal to what corporations donate directly.
All good ideas are copied "in a New York minute," Weisman said.
Well, maybe not all of them. Regional differences must be respected, said Sylvia Benatti. She is now training director of the District-based Support Center, which offers help to nonprofits. But until recently, Benatti did fund-raising in Georgia.
"The Kiss the Pig thing is popular there," she said, explaining that rival football teams compete to raise money for charity. The losers must kiss a real, live pig brought to the stadium for that purpose.
Another regional hoot that Benatti said might not work in the Washington area: womenless weddings.
"Men dress up to be in and to watch these weddings," Benatti explained. "They're the bridesmaids and everything, and often they are prominent men, like the mayor and sheriff."
It's like a show, she said, and much enjoyed in rural Georgia.
"I don't know that it would be of any interest or funny here," Benatti said. "But in Georgia, it's hilarious."
CAPTION: Paul Wanka, left, and drag queen Gladys Kravitz call the numbers at Whitman-Walker's Gay Bingo night.