Charities: Gap wider between needs, gifts

For three years, Adam Peet collected toys for Catholic Charities Wichita to give to needy children at Christmas.

He collected more than 1,000 last year as a 9-year-old. But then his father was laid off and the family moved to New Hampshire this summer to find work.

The toy collecting will continue in Wichita, though. Before Adam left, he passed the torch to three moms he knew from school and church. They didn't want their names used because they wanted to defer the credit. So mostly they're known as Adam's friends.

"We weren't sure how to do this," one of the moms said. "We just knew there was a need."

You probably know that needs are up and giving is down, as the ominous cloud of a sour economy lingers.

Donations to the nation's largest charities dropped 11 percent last year, the worst decline in two decades, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Many Wichita-area nonprofits say they saw similar drops in contributions.

At the same time, needs are growing as people struggle with layoffs and reduced salaries. The Kansas Food Bank, which distributes to 300 organizations around the state, saw its need jump 30 percent this past year.

Those are the obvious answers to why there is a widening gap between giving and needs. But researchers think our highly mobile society also contributes.

"People feel less connected with their community," said Omri Gillath, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Kansas. "Today, we live in a very individualistic society, sharing most of our time with people who are strangers in a way."

But here's another example of what can happen when someone does feel connected to those around him:

Anthony Shelton, 35, is one of only two people out of nine in his office at UMB Bank who were born and raised in Wichita.

"I know this community," he said.

That means he knows his community is hurting, that the Wichita metro area has an 8.2 percent unemployment rate.

So this year, he stepped up and increased his giving to the United Way of the Plains.

"Really, it was kind of a no-brainer," Shelton said. "With the layoffs and downsizing, I'm really fortunate. I have a job."

Shelton had already volunteered his time to help paint and vacuum United Way's Laid-Off Workers Center.

"It doesn't have to be about money," he said. "Give your time. Give something."

Worst feeling in years

That sort of connection resonates with area nonprofits as they struggle to meet needs. And it's the sort of connection that the organizations increasingly stress as they meet with the public.

"When we're out there talking to groups," said Pat Hanrahan, president of United Way of the Plains, "it's really critical to show people how the money is going to be spent... to show why it's still important to support a community need."

United Way of the Plains was able to reach its goal of $15 million during its recent annual fundraising campaign. Although the organization's business giving was off, Hanrahan said those giving $25 or $50 was up 17 percent this year.

"Those are mostly retired people," he said. "That doesn't surprise me. If we're late getting a letter out to them, I get notes saying, 'Did you forget me?' It's heartwarming to see that."

At the same time, Hanrahan said the overall feeling as he talks to people is the worst he's seen in his 37 years with the organization.

"I thought 9/11 was the worst I would ever see," he said. "This is different. People just don't see the light at the end of the tunnel. There's a lot of generosity going on, but people are circling the wagons.

"Those are the feelings you get when you're out there talking to people. People are down, people are worried."

Maj. Douglas Rowland, Wichita commander for the Salvation Army, has seen similar reactions, particularly from those seeking help.

"They're despondent, even angry," he said.

Giving what they can

Although unemployment shrinks the pool of givers, people are still giving.

"I don't find the spirit of giving has diminished," Rowland said. "What they can give has diminished, but they give what they can."

He saw that recently when his organization was able to meet a 21 percent increase this year in requests for back-to-school supplies.

"When people of Wichita see there is a need," Rowland said, "they really come forward. It's a matter of getting the word out."

To be sure, the economy can still drive down giving even when the connection is strong.

Inter-Faith Ministries primarily serves Wichita's homeless. That means Sue Castile, who heads the group, doesn't have to do a lot of explaining about the need when she's asking people for help.

"People know what we do," she said. "People are more likely to give when they know what they give is making a difference. That's very powerful."

Still, donations to the group have dropped. Castile understands.

"We're all trying to do the best we can," she said. "People are trying to serve each other."

Cutting costs

To help bridge the gap between donations and needs, agencies are paying even closer attention to cutting costs and using more volunteers for staffing.

Catholic Charities Wichita uses two of its 600 volunteers in its marketing office to fill positions previously filled by paid staff. The organization is trying to find a way to meet needs that saw a 25 percent increase in demand in August.

"It's really been a challenge for us," said Brenda Keeler, senior director of development for the organization. "If we can cut expenses without jeopardizing what we do for clients, we will."

Make-A-Wish Foundation of Kansas has cut its fundraising events this year to four from seven.

"A lot of times special events will take six months of planning and the return on it isn't that great," said Lori Stone, who oversees marketing for the foundation.

Instead, the group is now emphasizing asking companies to adopt a wish and cover the costs. The foundation grants an average of 66 wishes yearly with an average cost of $5,000 for each wish.

"It makes more sense using my time to do it that way," Stone said.

And when special events are scheduled, she said it's important to be creative.

"Everyone does a golf tournament," Stone said.

In February, Make-A-Wish plans to hold a "Loaf Off," a meat loaf contest along the lines of a chili cook-off, as a fundraiser.

Volunteering up

Although giving has been down, volunteering appears to be increasing.

United Way of the Plains has seen a 22 percent increase in volunteers this year over 2009. It reached 9,887 volunteers through Nov. 15.

"Even if you're laid off, it's a good way to get out of the house and have a good feeling about yourself," Hanrahan said.

And if you have children, it's a good way to teach the lesson of giving. That's what those three moms who knew Adam are doing.

The moms have enlisted their children's help — and energy — to deliver fliers around the neighborhood soliciting toy donations.

"We don't want the kids just thinking about what they're getting for Christmas," one of the moms said. "We want them to think about what they can give."