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Charities get creative as giving gets harder

The Triangle's social service organizations are giving donors more options to help them meet increasing need



Charities depend on the month of December for much of their revenue, just as retailers do, and so as our mailboxes fill with catalogs, they also fill with end-of-year appeals from nonprofits.

Nationally, both need and donations went up in the first nine months of 2006, according to a study published recently by GuideStar, a national nonprofit that gathers financial information about nonprofits to allow donors to make better-informed decisions. But not all organizations saw increased donations to meet their growing needs, particularly among social service organizations that rely most on holiday giving for their annual budget.

To compensate, many are turning to creative appeals that draw donors who want to do more than just write a check.

"Giving to AIDS service organizations is not going very well," says John Paul Womble, director of development and public affairs for the Alliance for AIDS Services-Carolina ( Response to the group's year-end appeal was up only slightly in 2006—the organization had hoped to raise $20,000 but had collected less than $14,000 as of Jan.1.

Like many other nonprofits, AASC is seeing more need for its services. "We're seeing more new clients walk through our doors this year than we have in years past—about five to 10 new clients every week," he says. The group's impoverished HIV-positive clients depend on AASC for everything from its food pantry, mental health assistance, financial counseling, housing advocacy, medication assistance and hospice for those dying of AIDS. The organization also provides free HIV testing at its downtown Raleigh office on Thursday nights.

But there is good news: AASC's special events, such as Drag Bingo and Works of Heart, are going strong. "In a sense, we've set the bar so high with creative fundraising that the historical, old-fashioned 'we send you a letter and you send us a check' is not as successful as in years past." Womble suspects that while people's charity budgets might be stretched thin, the money for events like Drag Bingo tends to come from the household entertainment budget, which is more flexible month-to-month.

Creative fundraising is becoming an important trend among charities across the country, according to Todd Cohen, editor and publisher of Philanthropy Journal, a Raleigh-based publication that reports on the world of charities. "The challenge for nonprofits and charities, as always, is to be really clear about who they are and what they do," Cohen says, "to make their case and be as open as they can be about how the money is going to be spent. To not only thank their donors but actually engage them in their work."

Cohen says the "donor fatigue" that charities feared after Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami never materialized—in fact, charitable donations went up in 2006, and people dug a little deeper to help out. Major gifts from celebrities such as Warren Buffet helped raise the profile of charities and the needs they serve, Cohen says. "That kind of publicity brings a lot of attention to really urgent social needs."

Merchandising campaigns such as RED, which offers specially branded T-shirts, iPods and cell phones with proceeds going to fight AIDS in Africa, made a big splash—thanks in part to celebrity endorsements.

Creative volunteering also draws support, as a Raleigh-based nonprofit, Interact (, has found. Interact provides support to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault through counseling, crisis hotlines, court assistance and through their Wake County shelter. Christmas can be tough for families who have just fled a dangerous home. So Interact created a holiday bazaar, an event based loosely on "angel trees" that allow donors to purchase a gift requested by a specific child. The bazaar transformed Interact's office into a department store filled with donated gifts. Volunteers worked with the kids to pick out and wrap presents for their parents, while the grown-ups could shop for toys, clothes and other holiday treats.

About 80 families with 200 kids took part in the program—that's up from 70 families last year. But donor support was up, too, according to executive director Adam Hartzell, both from the businesses and individuals who contributed the gifts and from the more than 100 volunteers.

Hartzell says offering people a creative way to take part in the giving is one reason for the program's success. "We are constantly trying to be creative," he says. And it's paying off. Final numbers won't be available until the end of January, but Hartzell says the group expects to meet its 2006 fundraising goals.

The Triangle United Way reflects the national trend toward increased giving along with increased need. It recently announced that giving to its Community Care Fund in 2006 was up by almost 2 percent, or about $190,000, compared to 2005. The fund serves approximately 500,000 people, many of them children, through contributions to 177 different health and human services programs. The fund has raised $10.8 million, just shy of its $11 million goal.

"This is a very generous community," says Mary Williams-Stover, senior vice president at the Triangle United Way ( But need doesn't go away after Christmas. Williams-Stover urges people to remember that children's most fundamental needs are constant.

"The real way to change a life is with the kind of giving that's going to impact a child and their family year-round," she says. One of the United Way's donor agencies, the Child Care Services Association, offers scholarships for child-care that make it possible for parents to work. "For every family they've been able to give a child-care scholarship to, there's a family on the waiting list," she says.

Census figures from 2004-2005 show that 18.8 percent of North Carolinians under the age of 18 live in poverty.

So even though year-end giving is past, the need remains. And if you're broke, don't worry: Jan. 15 marks the national day of service in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Triangle United Way is looking to entice volunteers by posting the volunteer needs of more than 100 agencies on its Web site.

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