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Charity Fundraisers Feeling The Pinch

ECONOMIC DOWNTURN

KATHLEEN MEGAN

December 10, 2008

They were weeks away from a major fundraising gala when Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters faced a nightmarish decision: Should they postpone?

Their October newsletter had trumpeted the event: "The Big TaDa! Night of Magic!" It was scheduled for early November and included an illusionist, dinner, dancing and an auction.

But soon after the newsletter's publication, with the economy diving, the nonprofit was finding the response not so magical.

"It was very unprecedented," said Darlene Roberts, director of development. "We've been running a gala for over 10 years. ... We were very low on sponsorship and individual attendees."

They had to decide: Should they go forward as planned, or postpone in hopes that the economy would improve in the spring?

"There were a lot of things to consider," Roberts said. "We're known to have the gala in the fall. This would place that special event out of cycle. In addition, there was cash flow."

But when their venue, the Connecticut Convention Center, and the illusionist said they could reschedule, the nonprofit decided to go for it. The new date for the gala is April 29.

With the economy in decline, the charity gala in general that mainstay of the fall season and of nonprofit budgets has had, in some cases, rough-going.

While many charity events have gone off without a hitch this fall, Mike Smith, chief operating officer for Charity Navigator, a group that assesses the performance of nonprofits at www.charitynavigator.org, said he isn't surprised to hear that the economy has affected the gala scene.

"For most groups, if you're talking about a gala or a dinner event, you are talking about corporate participation," he said. "So many corporations are talking about cutting back, if they are not going out of business. ... I can definitely see where it would impact on [charity fund-raising events]."

Covenant to Care for Children is a Bloomfield-based agency that helps families in the region stay together and provides children with basics like clothing, beds and school supplies. Director Caryl Hallberg says that tickets for the organization's Nov. 7 gala were going so slowly, the price was chopped from $100 to $50.

"We weren't getting corporate sponsorships the way we used to," said Hallberg. And even when the price was reduced, she said, "We were having trouble filling seats."

However, after the Nov. 4 election, ticket sales suddenly took off. "It was like there was a collective sigh of relief," and people were ready to buy tickets.

In the end, the event was sold out, but the total earnings were 25 percent lower than hoped, Hallberg said. And, during the event, Hallberg said, "people just didn't spend money," as usual with auction items going for minimum bids.

"The good news," Hallberg said, "is that the people were there to support us. It isn't that there is a drop in the number of people who want to support our cause and our programs. It's a drop in the money."

The problem is, she said, that while giving is down, the need has increased 15-fold in recent months.

"We have over 200 children on a waiting list for a bed," Hallberg said. "Children are sleeping in their clothes on the floors. Babies are sleeping in drawers or boxes. These are children who don't have a teddy bear."

"The adults: We can wait for an upturn of the economy. ... The children can't wait," said Hallberg.

Diana Goode at Gifts of Love in Avon, which provides a variety of help to needy people, said the group's fashion show wasn't as well-attended as last year, with 300 in attendance compared to 400 the previous year. The result was the event made $40,000 instead of $50,000.

Goode said the group is having another fundraiser in February a rocking chair auction which they hope will make up the difference.

Not all nonprofits have reported problems, however, HARC a Hartford nonprofit that provides services to people with intellectual disabilities grossed more than $245,000 at its 20th annual auction on Nov. 15, a bit more than last year.

"We are feeling really good," said Jennifer Meligonis DeJohn, director of development. "It's a critical event for us."

Barry Simon, executive director of Gilead Community Services, a Middletown agency that provides services to people with mental illness, said the organization's dinner-auction on Nov. 9 brought in $40,000, twice what it did last year.

"We were very worried," said Simon. "It was a great, great thing. We really had a lot of community support."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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