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A double standard in charity

Giving to the poor lags this year despite a rise in donations to hospitals and religious groups.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

December 14, 2005

By Toni Callas
Inquirer Staff Writer

The clang of the tiny, gold bell drew Maple Shade's Marlene Currier to the Salvation Army's familiar red kettle outside Strawbridge's at the Cherry Hill Mall.

She put in a few dollars and was on her way. It didn't matter that she had already given to a New Orleans family devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

"My husband and I live by the saying, 'To whom much is given, much is expected,' " Currier said. "We are very blessed and want to give when we can."

Apparently many Americans feel the same. Despite reports that donor fatigue is affecting Christmas giving, those who keep track say agencies and groups will see an overall increase from the $250 billion raised for charity last year.

But while donations to education, hospitals and religious groups are on the rise, giving to the poor - the traditional focus around Christmas - lags, said Trent Stamp, executive director of Charity Navigator, a New Jersey group that evaluates 5,000 charities for donors.

"It's the only group seeing declines in the amount of money being given," said Stamp, who bases his findings on his own work, the climate of the economy, and a survey by the Giving USA Foundation, a Chicago group that tracks contributions to nonprofits.

Food banks, youth services and homeless shelters, for example, are feeling the pinch, he said.

According to Giving USA, donations to agencies that deal directly with the poor rose only 1.5 percent in 2004. After factoring in inflation, contributions decreased 1.1 percent.

Stamp and others attribute the increase in donations for some charities to a relatively strong economy and generous tax write-offs approved by Congress in September. But even with a good economy, organizations that deal directly with the poor have historically been at the "bottom of the list," said Stacey Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a national newspaper that covers nonprofit organizations.

In fact, a national survey in October of 3,900 organizations by GuideStar.org, which pairs donors with nonprofits, found that human-services groups, including those that deal with abuse, legal assistance and food distribution, anticipated fewer donations in 2005.

Philabundance, which feeds more than 100,000 people in the region with surplus food, and the Food Bank of South Jersey, which serves 220 agencies in Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Salem Counties, have seen donations drop.

Philabundance's supply is down 25 percent from a year ago, said Martha Buccino, vice president for strategic development.

By the end of last December, the Food Bank of South Jersey had collected about 109,000 pounds of food, spokeswoman Suzanne Burke said. As of last week, about 95,000 pounds had been collected.

"We don't expect to get much more," she said, "so we are definitely down."

Parkside United Methodist Church in Camden, which relies solely on the food bank, doesn't feel shorted - yet. Pat Bates, a volunteer who turns food from the bank into hot meals for 40 clients every Wednesday at noon, said the program still needed turkeys for Christmas but generally had enough food.

Come January, however, things could change.

"Not all food goes out immediately," Bates said. "It's warehoused, so they may not feel it yet... . But this is the high giving time. It's January through May when we are most in need."

For some groups, especially the large ones, the Gulf Coast hurricanes were a mixed blessing for donations, said Chaz Watson, director of development for the Salvation Army's Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware Division. The organization, which helps the poor and displaced, received $4.9 million in hurricane aid, but donors were specific about where it went, Watson said.

"That is more than half of what we receive normally in a year, but it's not money we can use for other efforts," he said. "We hope that people will understand that there is still need out there."

Kettle donations are down by 15 percent and direct-mail results by 11 percent this year, Watson said, adding that the higher gas prices hurt the organization when donors who normally give $50 can give only half or nothing because of household heating demands.

The hurricanes have caused some companies to pull their support for the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, which is halfway through its annual fund-raising campaign to raise $50 million, chief executive officer Alba Martinez said.

"That's unfortunate," she said. "But there are those that did [give to] both, so we did not suffer necessarily with too few donations."

Some who deliver items to the poor were hurt - but not by the hurricanes or energy costs.

The Marines' Toys for Tots is suffering locally because it lost 400 drop-off sites when Commerce Bank left the program, but nationally the toy drive is doing well, said Bill Grien, vice president for marketing and development for the group's foundation.

Even so, there is an eternal need for more, Grien said, adding: "We always run out of toys before we run out of children."

How to Give   

Food Bank of South Jersey
1501 John Tipton Blvd.
Pennsauken, N.J. 08110

United Methodist Church
1420 Kaighns Ave.
Camden, N.J. 08103

3616 S. Galloway St.
Box 37555
Philadelphia 19148

Salvation Army's Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware Division
701 N. Broad St.
Philadelphia 19123
1-877-RED-KETTLE (1-877-733-5388)

United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania
7 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Philadelphia 19103
215-665-GIVE (215-665-4483)

Marines' Toys for Tots
For a drop-off near you,
go to toysfortots.org.

Inquirer staff writer Toni Callas at 856-779-3912 or tcallas@phillynews.com.

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