Three years into a wobbly economy, many charitable organizations have seen contributions slow to a trickle. Tax credits and a collective sense of gratitude often fuel holiday charitable giving, but even so, people are suffering.
"In an economy that is tough, like we're in, after a while, it starts to settle in," said Patti Hanks, executive director of Clothes to Kids, which supplies apparel for low-income, school-age children throughout Pinellas County. The agency has stores in St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
"Families struggle to put food on the table and pay the rent," she said. "Clothing becomes an extra.
"Overall, it's been a tougher year. We're mining another level of people who are in great need. The big picture in a really tough economy is that the need is growing, and the people who can support the need is shrinking."
The nation's 400 biggest charities experienced an 11 percent falloff in giving last year, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported. Local, state and federal grants have dried up.
"This year, we are seeing a steady stream of families who are asking for assistance with holiday meals," said Jane Egbert, executive director of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, "about 30 families per day. The majority of these families have not asked for assistance before. However, this is different from what we saw a few years ago when there was a sense of anxiety on behalf of families who were concerned we would run out of food."
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Not all of the news is dire: A year ago, doomsayers had the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg on the financial ropes. After several revisions of its original plans, its Chihuly Collection opened in July, adding 30 people to the staff. Further, the new venue has been generating revenue for the nonprofit, as have a new glass studio and hot shop.
"It's nice to be ahead of the train instead of right in front of it or running behind," executive director Katee Tully said. "We've been in some of those really, really dark places.
"For us, the partnership with the Chihuly studio is not only doing what we had hoped that it would do, it gives us the opportunity to look at programming expansion."
Establishing the Chihuly Collection and the hot shop, she said, "was about anchoring our own future in St. Petersburg."
Visitors to the collection and to programs at the Morean not only are purchasing art; they also are patronizing neighboring businesses. And Tully said the Morean has expanded its clay program, begun an art leasing program and expects soon to open a cafe in its former gift shop space.
"For such a hard, hard year, I feel like we've been able to exhale at this point, after crossing the finish line," she said.
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At the Free Clinic and other similar organizations, numerous community food drives help stabilize supplies this time of year. For the holidays, Egbert said, the wish list includes turkeys, canned vegetables, stuffing mix, shelf-stable milk, gravy and sweet potatoes or yams. Ongoing needs include peanut butter, cereal, granola bars, canned meat and an array of personal hygiene items.
The Free Clinic offers shelters for 20 women at the Women's Residence and 20 men at Beacon House, plus health care for persons who have no other access. The clinic accommodates between 30 and 35 patients per day.
"Shelter and health needs do not vary much by the calendar," Egbert said.
Tampa Bay area events lists include dozens of charity fundraisers, but attendance at many has declined.
This month, organizers of a joint benefit for R'Club, which provides affordable child care throughout the Tampa Bay area, and the Outdoor Arts Foundation, which creates art projects in public places, substantially lowered admission prices two weeks before the event. To help boost attendance, the gala committee dropped the entry fee from $120 listed on printed invitations to $35 at the door.
"This is the first time we've ever had to do that," said Lenne Nicklaus-Ball, an organizer of the event.
"When something goes on, and it's sustained, and people stop having confidence, it's up to nonprofits to be very clear about their mission and to really work with each other," Hanks said. "All of us need to be really clear about what we're doing, and do it in the most efficient way we can."
At Clothes to Kids, families can give away outgrown garments that are in good shape.
"Everybody doesn't have to write a check when they don't have the money," Hanks said. "There's other places where you could go all through your neighborhood and make a collection of jackets, little-boy pants, whatever, and drop them off at a Clothes to Kids store."
Even small contributions make a difference.
Blogger Steve Proffitt, a one-time National Public Radio producer, estimates that if each NPR listener were to make a donation of $10, the total would exceed the bequest of more than $200 million that came to the network from Joan Kroc in 2003.
"That's the bread and butter of nonprofits," Hanks said. "In a bad economy, that's what people need to understand. If all you can do is $10, do it. Ten of those is $100. Give to the places that matter to you, and give what you can.
"Don't not give it. Don't not give the $25 because last year you could give $100."
Mary Jane Park can be reached at (727) 893-8267 or firstname.lastname@example.org.