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Seasonal bombardment still paying off for charity groups

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Holiday giving
Southwest Junior High School choir teacher Kelly Larson, center, sings Christmas carols with 16 student volunteers, including seventh-grader Emily Bramley, left, to try raise money for The Salvation Army on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011 outside Rainbow Foods in Forest Lake, Minn. Larson and her students volunteered as bell ringers for two afternoons.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

It's one day closer to Christmas and your mailbox and inbox are stuffed with charity solicitations. Bells ring in your ears as you run errands. So how are you responding? 

'Tis the season for being bombarded by groups asking for money, and many of us aren't fond of the tradition. Indeed, well over half of the few dozen members of MPR's Public Insight Network who responded to an inquiry about holiday giving say the solicitations have gotten to be too much. 

But here's the truth: For most of us, December is THE time to give, and charities know it. In fact, about a quarter of annual charitable giving happens between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, according to a recent report by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.  

For the Salvation Army, that means sending out throngs of volunteer and paid bell-ringers to collect money in kettles, a tradition that started more than a century ago. The holidays are a great time for fundraising both because people are trying to donate before the end of the year for tax purposes and because they're in a giving mood, said Annette Bauer, spokeswoman for the organization's Minnesota-North Dakota chapter.

"It is really part of the Christmas tradition, and we want to keep it that way," she said. 

The Salvation Army limits its use of the kettles. Besides holiday fundraising, the kettles only come out during major crises, like after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "We don't want to do this so often that people get tired of it, that it's not special," Bauer said. 

Even if it's just once a year, she said there's always a risk that people will turn their attention away from bell-ringers. But for now, receipts are continuing to grow, she said. The chapter took in $11 million during the holidays last year, including $3.4 million from bell-ringing. This year's goal is $11.4 million, with $3.5 million coming from bell ringing — though the organization reported it was less than halfway there as of this week. Holiday fundraising accounts for more than 40 percent of the organization's annual budget.

The charity can thank people like Michael Martin for the growing support over the years. Martin, who lives in Chatfield in southeastern Minnesota, said he's always supported the Salvation Army and gives more to the group than in the past. Nowadays, that means putting $5 in the red kettle whenever he sees one.

"I like to see the effort rewarded," he said of the volunteer bell-ringers. "They're putting in their time to be out there, and that's worth a lot."

Several others who responded to MPR's inquiry said they also give to Salvation Army bell-ringers, but giving online or responding to mail solicitations were much more common. Phone solicitations appeared to be the most-hated tactic.

"Nobody is going to convince me to give them $100 by calling me on a Tuesday evening," said Paul Johnson, of Excelsior. "I think deeply about my gifts before I give, and by the time someone receives our gift we have usually thoroughly researched them and are committed to them for several years of giving."

Phone solicitations are an invasion of privacy, said Jennifer Rogers, who noted the calls often come on evenings and weekends when she's trying to spend time with family.

"Most people understand that for tax purposes, they have to donate before Dec. 31, so charities don't need to remind us," said Rogers, of Vadnais Heights. 

She and her husband "sat down a few years ago in self-defense" to decide on up to 12 charities that would receive their money each year. 

"They are a mix of arts, social service and health organizations that mean something to us personally," she said. "Each is given a month when they get some of our money."

Jane Starr, of Minneapolis, agreed that the number of solicitations has gotten out of hand. Last year, she said, she counted all the solicitations she received from groups that she doesn't support financially. There were 250.

This year she narrowed her giving a bit, deciding to drop support for faith-based groups, and she has a new rule for politicians: "I no longer support any political candidates who ask for money more than a year before the election they are trying to win," Starr said.

People are also concerned about groups using their donations efficiently. 

"I have to know that the organization uses the funds I give effectively, and, if possible, leverages my donations," said Robert Pomroy, of Minneapolis. 

Give to the Max Day, which takes place in November and uses matching funds and other incentives to get individuals to give, has become popular. This year more than 47,000 people donated to nearly 4,000 groups. 

Most nonprofits are conscious about the number and type of solicitations they put out there, said Michael Ferber, a fundraising consultant who helps smaller nonprofits. And very few organizations are able to raise money without asking for it, he said.

"They might worry about donor fatigue, but it's surprising how many times people are OK with it, especially if it's an organization they care about," said Ferber, whose Fundraising Solutions business is based in Eagan. "For a lot of groups, this is their season; this is when they raise their money."