News and analysis
December 19, 2011

Half of Charities Say Holiday Giving Season Has Been Happy

Matthew J. Lee/Boston Globe/Getty Images

With less than two weeks left before the holiday giving seasons ends, many charities have already raised more compared with 2010—and some are even expecting a windfall, a new Chronicle poll finds.

Fifty-four percent told The Chronicle that they raised more money in November and the first part of December than they had at this point last year. One out of five of the 152 organizations in the survey said contributions are outpacing last year’s donations by 20 percent or more.

That is one reason so many groups expect 2011 to end well. Nearly six out of 10 charities predicted they would close out the year with an overall gain in donations, while 28 percent said donations would drop this year. But even though results are stronger than a year ago, not all nonprofits are celebrating. Many groups say demand for aid is rising faster than giving, and 41 percent said contributions are not as robust as they were before the recession started in 2007.

Part of a Trend

Groups that reported increases attributed them not just to the recovering economy but also to creative twists in online appeals and efforts to show their impact more vividly to donors.

The positive results in The Chronicle’s poll are in line with what many in the nonprofit world are reporting.

• Network for Good, a giving portal that allows donors to contribute to any charity in the country, says donations in November grew by 16 percent over the same month in 2010. So far, giving this month has risen 12 percent from the same point in December 2010.

• Convio, the fund-raising software company, says its nonprofit clients received $65.3-million in online donations in November, up 14 percent from $57.3-million in November 2010.

• Atlas of Giving, a monthly analytic and forecasting service on charitable giving, says November 2011 giving increased 6.3 percent to $29.19-billion over the same month in 2010, which brought in $27.47-billion. It also projects a 4.8-percent increase, to $29.25-billion, in December over the same month last year.

Strong Gains

As fund raisers tally the results for this crucial year-end season, many say they are seeing impressive gains.

“Things are looking very strong,” says Traci Coker, director of the World Vision Gift Catalog. “We’re slightly ahead of last year right now.”

World Vision, the international relief group in Federal Way, Wash., says overall year-end giving has risen 2 percent so far this year, but donations made through the online gift catalog jumped by 10 percent during the first week of December compared with the same week last year, a good sign. “We’re hoping and expecting to see that number increase as the key giving time kicks in,” Ms. Coker says.

Through the online gift catalog, which World Vision has offered for 11 years, donors can make a gift in someone’s name to pay for items such as a business loan for a struggling female entrepreneur in the developing world or a share of a deep-water well that aids poor people. The charity sends gift cards that can be shared just like holiday presents.

World Vision says it hopes to lift giving by offering donors an inside look at how the charity puts to work money contributed through the gift catalog and other means. World Vision staff members are uploading videos and stories to the charity’s Facebook page detailing their “Spirit of Christmas” tour in Cambodia, Ethiopia, Zambia, and other countries.

Over the next few weeks, the charity’s employees will meet the farmers and families who have received a cow or chickens paid for by the organization’s supporters. Donors can even ask questions on Facebook. “We’re really trying to engage our donors at a deep, meaningful level and show the impact that they can make in a person’s life,” Ms. Coker says.

Telling Stories

Some social-service charities that have worked to do a better job telling their stories are also seeing success.

Meals on Wheels Association of America for the first time sent an appeal from a donor who explains why he volunteers and why he gives.

“We sent out the letter on his behalf, all in his letterhead, and we’ve gotten tremendous results,” says Enid Borden, president of the Alexandria, Va., charity.

Some donors who receive the letter have increased their giving by at least 10 percent, she says. Over all, donations to the charity have grown 5 percent over this time last year, a pace it expects to maintain through the end of 2011.

“When donors tell other potential donors why it’s important to give and where the money goes, it makes a lot of difference,” Ms. Borden says.

DC Central Kitchen, a Washington group that feeds the hungry and runs a culinary job-training program, credits its “12 Days of Jobs” campaign for a 15-percent jump in donations this holiday season. Since December 5, the charity has featured a video on Twitter and Facebook—and in e-mail appeals to donors—about a graduate from its culinary program, urging donors to give needy people the gift of job training.

“Every year, we graduate 80 to 100 men and women who suffer from addiction and incarceration, and 95 percent of our students leave with a job,” says Brian MacNair, the charity’s chief development officer.

The charity is using a range of approaches—direct mail, e-mail, and social networks—at its disposal to reach supporters and potential donors. “The reason we’re doing well is that we’re telling the story better,” Mr. MacNair says. “It’s about empowerment and social enterprise.”

Making Commitments

Other social-service organizations aren’t seeing such huge gains this year, though.

“Our donations are keeping pace with past year-end giving, but unfortunately the need is greater than ever and growing,” Kathleen King, senior vice president for external relations at Catholic Charities USA, wrote in an e-mail to The Chronicle.

Another charity that faces greater demand for its services, the Salvation Army Greater New York Division, expects giving to remain flat but is banking on a couple of assets: a new sponsor for its red-kettle campaign, Citibank, which is promoting the drive on ATM screens throughout the city, and its energetic bell ringers, who sometimes make more noise than simply ringing a bell.

“We recruit people who have special singing talents,” says Denver Frederick, the division’s director of development, since they attract two to four times more donations when live music is part of an appeal.  

 Focus on Young Donors

Some nonprofits hope that bolder and brasher campaigns will make a difference.

This fall, Heifer International, in Little Rock, Ark., which donates livestock to poor people in the United States and abroad, started a campaign to attract young people, up to age 35. The message: Instead of buying clothes or gifts that don’t matter, try “giving a crap,” as the charity’s appeal puts it, underscoring the way in which livestock waste can become fertilizer and allow poor farmers to grow more food.

The tone of the campaign is “hipper” than the charity’s usual style, says Pierre Ferrari, chief executive of Heifer International, who says he urged his staff to be “innovative and aggressive” and not “worry too much about the conventional wisdom.”

He says the group wanted to approach young supporters “in a way that engages them” and at the same time, talks about hunger and poverty in a serious way. He adds, “We’re not in the funny business, but we can have fun doing it.”

People like the message so much they are sharing it via social networks, he says. Though his organization anticipates its overall fund raising will be flat or up only slightly this year, he believes the appeal has helped stimulate giving.

Gift Cards

Meanwhile, small organizations are also looking to be creative online.

For example, the United Way of Lake County, in Gurnee, Ill., has started a holiday promotion called the “12 Days of Gift’mas.”

It encourages its 3,000-plus online supporters to follow and support the promotion on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. There they’ll get a chance to win several gift cards that range from $25 to $250 and are awarded each day. They can then use those cards to buy gifts in the United Way’s online catalog. A catch: The gifts aren’t for the buyers but allow the card winners to steer money to people in need, such as a reading-tutor kit for $10 or emergency food for $25.

United Way Lake County expects to raise $16,000 in online donations this December, up slightly from $14,375 in December 2010.

While winners of the gift cards don’t have to give a cent, organizers hope that as they browse through the online catalog, they will decide to make a donation. “We’re hoping this will become a viral marketing tool,” says Valerie Petersen, a spokeswoman for United Way of Lake County. “We hope whoever wins the gift cards will share the message and spread awareness.”