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A happy holidays for area charities

MANATEE -- Want good news about the Manatee County economy?

You could sift through data on home sales, unemployment and consumer consumption and likely come up with conflicting conclusions.

Or consider: This past holiday season, residents both wealthy and poor had more money to give local charitable groups than they did in 2009.

Traditional holiday fundraising saw an increase in donations during the 2010 holiday season, and new efforts met or exceeded expectations, an informal survey of nonprofits found.

The area’s most recognizable campaign, the Salvation Army’s Christmas kettle effort, collected more than $270,000 during the holiday season, up 22.7 percent from $220,000 in 2009 and well past the annual goal of $250,000, spokeswoman Julie Showers said.

“The only thing we can think of is the economy is better and people are able to give more,” Showers said. “After about two weeks, we could tell it was going to be better this year. It was a little bit more each week.”

The Salvation Army uses the funds to augment its Angel Tree Christmas gift program and cover operational expenses for the men’s lodge, family shelter and other programs throughout the year.

Another type of donation comes in the form of volunteer labor. The Salvation Army logged 8,782 hours from 1,217 volunteers during the holiday season, Showers said. She was unsure how the volunteer hours compared with previous years.

“We could never pay people to do what our volunteers do,” she said. “The more we raise with their help, the more we can help the community.”

The Southwest Florida chapter of the American Red Cross also met its goal for a new holiday fundraising push. The Holiday Challenge campaign sought to raise $100,000 for disaster readiness and response in Manatee, Sarasota, Hardee and DeSoto counties.

The campaign got a boost when its champions, Manatee chapter board member Jeannie Slater and husband Chuck Slater, along with developers Schroeder-Manatee Ranch and Neal Communities, agreed to match each contribution up to $100,000.

Nicole Risser, the chapter’s director of development and community affairs, said organization leadership got a late start promoting the campaign but still collected $100,000 with room to spare.

The final numbers will be released Feb. 3, she said.

“We were a little nervous, but our community didn’t let us down. ... What we have been amazed about is how many new donors we had,” Risser said. “The power of people realizing their donation was doubled was great for us. It was a huge motivation for donors.”

Risser said both large and small givers turned out for the Holiday Challenge. Funds will be used to maintain an on-call disaster action team and help the victims of fires and disasters with hotel vouchers, new clothes and other expenses.

“It was an almost 50-50 split between small donations in the $25-to-$100 range and larger donations of between $1,000 and $3,000,” Risser said.

Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice sent out a direct-mail Christmas Appeal for the eighth straight year, and CEO Peter Routsis-Arroyo said the $400,000 goal is within reach as final donations trickle in.

Catholic Charities collected $340,000 last holiday season. The total stands at $360,000 this year with more donations expected.

“It was a stretch goal. So far, so good,” Routsis-Arroyo said. “It still remains to be seen. We have some people who give after the first of the year. But people have been generous.”

Routsis-Arroyo said the number of donors dwindled this year, but the average donation increased.

The Diocese of Venice covers 10 counties, including Manatee. The fundraiser accounts for about 6 percent of the diocese’s annual operating budget.

Jewish Family Service of Sarasota-Manatee Inc. noticed an increase in donations during its third Adopt-A-Family effort. Donors chose a needy family and bought gifts for that family.

About 100 families responded this past year, said Andria Bilan, the organization’s vice president of development.

“We had about double the people needing assistance and had triple the number of people stepping forward to help,” Bilan said.

JFCS added a holiday appeal to stock its food pantry. Donors responded with more than $27,000, enough to feed 430 people during the Hanukkah and Christmas seasons, Bilan said.

The local chapter of the United Way, Manatee County’s largest charitable fundraiser, doesn’t coordinate a special holiday push for donations. But Tara Donovan, the organization’s director of resource development, said contributions are on pace to meet the $2.75 million campaign goal, which is up from $2.6 million. It was the United Way’s first goal increase since 2007.

“Our top companies are up. We have a long way to go, but we’re doing well,” Donovan said.

Tim Wolfrum, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7015.

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